There is no doubt that using modern technology to communicate with partners abroad opens up exciting opportunities. It brings people together, sets language in context and is highly motivating.
It will only succeed, however, if the groundwork is thoroughly prepared. David Farrell is vice-principal of Ballyclare Secondary School and consultant to the Education and Library Boards in Northern Ireland for Japanese studies. "You have to have an agenda, plan it very carefully and think ahead," he says. "Both teachers involved have to know exactly what they are working towards."
Even as beginners in the language, his sixth-form students benefit enormously from the relationships they establish with their Japanese partners through e-mail, video-conferencing and exploring each others' web pages.
"Initial video-conferences are conducted mostly in English," David Farrell says. "Our students find this embarrassing and it inspires them to learn as many new expressions as they can. The first time they communicate successfully, their faces light up. It's a joy to watch." He also exploits the potential of the Japanese students as teachers. They might drill the time by holding up a clock or introduce new vocabulary by displaying various artefacts and repeating the question "What is it?" This is only what any teacher does in the classroom, but it has much more impact. Video-conferencing is expensive and still fraught with technical pitfalls.
But even if your project is based on e-mail, the same principles of thorough preparation apply. Some teachers visit their colleagues abroad to thrash out common objectives. Can they agree on a scheme of work? What sort of activities will they incorporate? How will they balance the use of native and target languages? Can they establish a realistic timetable? If an enthusiastic class fires off e-mails which are met with a lengthy silence, it does little for motivation.
The beauty of having a real audience is the sense of purpose it gives to everyday activities. When pupils prepare a piece of writing to be read by their partners, their approach to the task is transformed. It is also a brilliant medium for encouraging the use of questions. Who is your favourite group? Do you have a pet? Did you watch the football last night?
Another way of communicating is to create your own web pages. Although the process is relatively straightforward, it can be time-consuming, which is where your pupils can prove invaluable. Some of your most reluctant linguists may be technical wizards and nly too willing to spend hours of their own time setting things up. The spin-off in terms of their attitude towards you and your subject can be very rewarding.
Tony Parker, head of languages at Ercall Wood School in Wellington, Shropshire, has taken this one step further by bringing web design into the classroom. He is particularly pleased with the impact on lower ability pupils, especially boys. "I train five or six 'team managers' and show them how to make a simple web page," he says. "They pick it up very quickly, and then the teams set to work on a given theme. In terms of content, it's no different from the work we normally do. But they get a tremendous sense of ownership. It looks good and they see their work published. I have to kick them out when the bell goes."
At present his classes' efforts are available only on the intranet (internal to the school). This is set to change next year when Ercall Wood embarks on a Comenius project with four schools abroad to create a multi-media website. He is always careful, however, when publishing pupils' work in the public domain. "You need to edit the content," he warns. "Details of their homes, for example, should be removed."
Four years ago, a Year 8 class from Sir Bernard Lovell School near Bristol also used web pages and e-mails in an ICT project with a German school. Now in Year 12, many pupils are still in regular contact with their partners. David Baker, curriculum director for International and Cultural Studies, is delighted but not complacent.
"It's great for those involved, but we want to get everyone on board," he says. "To achieve real communication, you have to set it in a wider context. We are tackling this in various ways, including cross-curricular projects with schools abroad. If you want to raise the profile of languages, they shouldn't be seen in isolation."
* For advice on organising e-mail, visit: www.europict.org
* Most internet service providers give free web space, instructions and software. Beginners might prefer to look at www.geocities.yahoo.com or www.tripod.lycos.com
* The versatility of e-mail is enhanced if you send attachments. Pictures and video-clips add interest and context, while pieces of writing can be amended or extended by the recipient, which opens up possibilities for collaborative work. Remember to check attachments with a virus scanner before opening.
* Finding a partner: Run by the Central Bureau, Windows on the World (www.wotw.org.uk) is a database for schools and colleges looking for partners to develop international projects.