An Internet connection with Germany brought a UK school's restaurant drama to life. Alison Thomas digests the results
The trouble with technology is that it sometimes lets you down. "The teacher should make sure the Internet is working," was the reaction of one Year 8 pupil from Shireland High School, in Sandwell, West Midlands, when his German partner school's network crashed on the day he and his classmates e-mailed their work.
But such hiccups have been more than offset by the benefits of the two-way electronic communication, part of a research project organised by head of languages Lesley Hagger-Vaughan, helped by linguist and IT specialist Sally-Ann Nicholson. With Department for Education and Employment funding, channelled through the National Council for Educational Technology, they set out to evaluate the Internet's impact on the quality of learning.
"The pupils had to write a restaurant role-play," explains Ms Hagger-Vaughan. "After one lead lesson, they were left to their own devices, working in teams of four or five. They had plenty of resources to fall back on, but how they used them was their affair. And the work was corrected by their peers in Koln-Holweide Gesamtschule, using e-mail."
Shireland's links with Holweide go back 10 years, and Ms Hagger-Vaughan is used to devising projects with her German colleague, Heinz Lehmbruck. But this was the first exploration of the Internet's potential.
"E-mail set the project in a real context - it brought the language alive and made it meaningful," says Ms Hagger-Vaughan.
The impact on motivation was forcibly brought home by the reaction of the accidental control group - the unfortunate quintet whose efforts were lost when the system crashed.
"When the scripts came back, the pupils rehearsed them and we made a video. The 'control group's' dialogue was as good as anybody's, but their work hadn't been lent credibility and they considered it inferior."
An unforeseen outcomewas the project's impact on independent learning. Most students said they had learned to "grow out of asking for help" and to "work as a team".
The project also evaluated the Internet's impact on acquisition of colloquial language and cultural awareness. Here results were a little disappointing. Specific cultural input was confined to information on a few regional food and drink specialities, and little teenage slang appeared in the feedback.
Ms Hagger-Vaughan says using a topic more relevant to teenagers, such as clothes, might have provided more idiomatic expressions. But most of all, she is convinced thorough preparation is the key.
"Heinz and I could have done more to brief his pupils. They tended to correct grammar and spelling without adding that extra dimension," she says.
The Germans deemed the correction process worthwhile, as did Shireland pupils when they returned the favour the following term.
For her part, Ms Hagger-Vaughan is now an enthusiastic believer in the value of small, action-based research projects linked to the curriculum.
Encouraged by her first venture into technology, she is planning a longer-term project and has already introduced in-service training sessions to extend the IT competence of her department. Facilities, too, are set to expand, as the school recently won its bid for language college status. She believes the project's success was instrumental in persuading senior managers to pursue this aim.
"At the moment we have a singel Internet connection, which made life difficult for the project. Soon we'll have a room full of equipment, which will also be open to primary schools and local businesses. When we started out we had no idea it would lead to this."
NCET is now known as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. For details: http: www.becta.org.ukl For more information on foreign languages and IT: http:vtc.ngfl.gov. ukresourcecitsmfl