Thanks to the Net, a remote school in west Wales is no longer cut off from the mainstream. Carolyn O'Grady explains the impact of technology on the curriculum.
From the windows of Llanilar primary school near Aberystwyth is a wonderful view of rolling fields and hills. It is a small school - 60 pupils - in a small village in a part of rural west Wales which, as my five-and-a-half-hour journey from London testified, is not well served by rail or road. Such a school could be very cut off from the world, but the headteacher, Maldwyn Pryse, is determined that it won't be.
Through the use of a wide range of communications technology, particularly the Internet and video-conferencing, the school has made sure that its pupils are in touch daily with information sources, other schools and projects all over the UK and abroad. It has become, as Maldwyn Pryse says, "as much in the hub of worldwide communication as a large school in any city in the world".
Technology brings Llanilar closer to the rest of the world and it also furthers an undertaking close to its heart. Llanilar is a Welsh-speaking school and, though the majority of the children come from homes where English is most commonly spoken, at the school no English is taught for the first few years. The aim is that the children are bilingual by the time they leave.
Recently the school has established a link with a Gaelic-speaking school on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, to explore cultural affinities and bilingualism and to work on day-to-day educationalprojects.
Maldwyn Pryse became convinced of the potential of e-mail when he was working at the nearby Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn primary school for 38 pupils. "It is difficult to explain the transformation in attitude that receiving projects via e-mail had on my class of 7- to 11-year-olds. Never before had I seen them voluntarily searching through dictionaries and thesauruses with such zeal and purpose. Had I prepared the same tasks at home as usual and photocopied them the response would not have been so dramatic," he said.
Llanilar also regularly accesses CampusWorld sites on one of the many computers they possess. Among the links is a weather exchange project with an Australian school. The school advertised through the Interculturale-mail Classroom Connection (IECC) based at St Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, and received 12 replies. For a fortnight, the two schools compared data and measured and compared shadows. Llanilar did another project with two schools, one in the USA and another in Hampshire, England, comparing how they celebrated Christmas.
At present a big excitement is the Tic Toc Project, a link with the International Challenge-Tropic of Cancer expedition which next winter will circumnavigate the globe following the Tropic while raising awareness of and funds for Cancer research charities. All UK schools are being invited to follow the progress of the team and materials are being prepared. Llanilar primary school is one of the pilot schools, and has been involved in the preparation of materials on whale-watching in the Caribbean. These are now on the CampusWorld site.
Using a PC fitted with BT's VC8000 communications card, a tiny video camera and special software the children are regularly in contact with Sarah Ewing, the expedition leader. Gathering round the computer to watch Sarah at whatever venue she happens to be, they can see her talking and she can see them; they talk to her as they would a friend in the same room. When the expedition sets off, the schools will be in communication with her by e-mail and perhaps via video-conferencing equipment.
The educational potential of the VC8000 technology is enormous, says Maldwyn Pryse, and will be particularly useful in the school's latest project, the link with Sleat school on the Isle of Skye. With 50 pupils, Sleat is even smaller than Llanilar and is equally, if not more, isolated. It is also bilingual.
Janet MacLeod, the headteacher of Sleat, is as convinced of the advantages of the Internet, e-mail and other communications for rural schools as Maldwyn Pryse. "They are a wonderful way to enhance the curriculum," she says. "For example, instead of taking the children down south to the museums, we bring museums here."
Scottish authorities have made faster progress in installing this equipment than their counterparts in the south. Recently BT, with Olivetti and Strathclyde Regional Council, announced plans to link 40 isolated schools, some of which have only one or two teachers, in Argyll and Bute. Using video-conferencing equipment, pupils will be able to participate in lessons specifically designed for their own age group and be given the opportunity to take part in a full curriculum. Sleat school isn't part of this scheme yet. But the school will probably be able to gain access to video-conferencing equipment at a nearby college.
Pupils at the two schools are "chatting" via e-mail, and are already showing an interest in each others' languages, comparing words and expressions (Scottish Gaelic is different from Welsh), as well as discussing the daily lives of their "key pals".
With video-conferencing equipment and associated software in both schools they would be able to communicate in a wide variety of ways. Maldwyn Pryse explains how, for example, they could show the school logo on the screen and discuss it either verbally or through text on the same screen. They could also video the surrounding area and discuss geographical and historical features, show the school play, do a geography study or arrange a debate between classes at the two schools.
The link will also enable the two teachers to discuss the advantages and problems of bilingual education, an issue on which the Welsh school has more experience.
In the long run, Maldwyn Pryse hopes to establish a Celtic triangle by bringing in another school, in Northern Ireland, and is even considering a link-up with a school in Patagonia, South America, where there is a community of Welsh extraction.
Plans are being made to build links with two other Welsh-speaking schools. "I want pupils to communicate on the Internet in Welsh," says Maldwyn Pryse, "so that they can see that Welsh can be used as part of this modern culture. " He says that teaching communication skills to children in remote areas may be more important than teaching them to city children. Already there are a lot of home workers around Aberystwyth using sophisticated communications facilities to work with companies and individuals elsewhere in the UK or abroad. Working from home using advanced communications technology may be the way of the future, and if so could stop the draining of talent from the area.
Janet MacLeod makes a similar point: "These projects make rural living even more attractive because people see that we are getting access to all this equipment in the school and they can see their children won't be out of touch, and that their education will be modern."
* BETT CONNECTION
Campus World stand 251
* Llanilar school's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org