The potential of information and communications technology in teaching modern languages is about to be put to the test in the remote regions of Scotland. In September, sixth forms and colleges throughout three Scottish authorities will become part of a virtual post-16 college for languages. In April, a consortium of East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire and Argyll and Bute councils won a bid from the Scottish Executive to launch the virtual college.
Students will use video conferencing, e-mail and the Internet to interact with each other and other European countries. The aim is to make language teaching more appealing to young people.
John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire and a prime mover behind the scheme, says: "In Scottish schools there has been a marked downturn in the number of young people moving from Standard grade to Scottish Higher.
"What we want to investigate is: does the higher profile for ICT in languages encourage more young people to continue studying languages? And does it raise their levels of achievement? Does ICT hold a motivating factor?" Mr Mulgrew is also chair of Scotland's Action Group for Languages, set up in October 1998 by the former Scottish education minister, Helen Liddell. In this capacity, he began exploring the potential of ICT for boosting post-16 languages teaching, looking at examples of good practice in England.
Influential on Scotland's virtual college has been Monkseaton Community High school in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, where multimedia and electronics projects have boosted languages and forged links with Europe.
The Scottish project involves BT and the computer giant IBM. BT has already worked with Argyll and Bute council to link small local schools. IBM has an interest in helping to improve modern languages among post-16 students because of a skills shortage in languages in the west of Scotland.
So far, the project involves 23 school sixth forms and one FE college - Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire - but Mr Mulgrew says other colleges are showing an interest. "I regard it as a very exciting development," he says.
The virtual college isonly one of many strands currently being drawn together in Scotland in an attempt to arrest the decline of modern languages.
In April, the Scottish National Party published a report showing a continuing fall in numbers of students sitting Highers in modern European languages during the past 20 years. Numbers of Higher French students fell by more than 50 per cent between 1976 and 1996. Students of Russian had all but disappeared.
Frank Pignatelli, president of the Scottish Association of Language Teachers and chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry, says Scotland faces the same issues as England and Wales. "Essentially, English isn't enough and we need to get a situation where languages will be seen as a key skill beyond 16.
"We need to make sure that we start to encourage people back into languages, because there's a crisis at post-16. University language departments are closing down. The sector is in crisis."
In the past decade, several initiatives have tried to address the decline at school level in Scotland. One has been to introduce modern languages into primary schools, another to encourage local authorities and schools to offer languages for all up to the age of 16.
Richard Johnstone, director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, says that despite these measures, students are still being turned off by the way they are taught. Research has shown a gap between students gaining good marks in examinations and their proficiency in using a language in real life, he says.
"We think one of the key reasons behind this is that during their first four years of secondary school they're not getting out of languages what they were hoping for.
"They're not blaming their teachers particularly. The problem tends to be the curriculum. Languages have a rather dusty image.
"We certainly think the new technology has to assume a central place in languages because it puts people in touch with other people. It enables you to get this morning's news, and video conferencing enables you to talk live with somebody in France," he says.