Speaking the language with digital back up

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Eleanor Caldwell looks at how learning to speak French, German, Spanish and even Urdu is being embraced by computer technology both in and outside the classroom

Suite dreams

As a student using the language lab, the technological frontrunner in language learning technolgy in the Seventies, you were all too aware of the familiar click signalling the tutor's presence as he listened to pronunciation and responses which could be less than perfect. In later years, as a teacher, the facility to listen in was the ideal format for monitoring and correcting mistakes. However, pupils were still self-conscious about the intrusion. Now that computers for interactive language learning are here to stay, the language lab has moved on and it's the goal of most modern language departments to have access to a fully equipped computer suite. The World Languages Centre or, as it is better known in school, the Tandberg Room at Shireland Language College in Smethwick in the West Midlands, would be the envy of many.

Tandberg's 20-position Divace Duo system fitted at a cost of pound;80,000 was sponsored jointly by Tandberg (pound;12,000) and Vektor (pound;17,000). In a school which remarkably offers Punjabi, Urdu, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese in addition to the more usual languages French, German and Spanish, all of the 800 pupils studying a language have access to the system for approximately 25 hours during the school year.

Connected to a front-of-class teacher console, pupils work independently and are monitored by the teacher. The group of 20 pupils working at different levels on French, German and Urdu at Shireland Language College had been brought together for my benefit - demonstrating in itself the flexibility of the system. From her console, second in charge of languages with IT remit Sally-Ann Tomkins tunes into work ranging from A-level German railway station role play and Encarta-based project work on German towns, to a written exercise in Urdu.

"Hi, what are you doing this morning?" she says, announcing her presence to one pupil. "I'm just going to take control of your screen for a moment." She underlines words for correction on the pupil's screen and tells her to reconsider the spelling. Clicking on another deskcomputer number, she brings up the pupil's screen on her monitor and watches his cursor move around dragging words and phrases as part of a written exercise. Again, she chats to the pupil offering advice and suggestions for correction. Attention then moves to the work of two boys at the back of the horseshoe-shaped room. "It's a good way of checking that pupils are on task," Tomkins explains. "These two are easily distracted in class but virtually never in here. They produce excellent work."

Normally taught by an instructor, the two pupils working on Urdu explain they are transcribing their own written exercises into Udu script. The key benefit of this is to learn Urdu keyboard skills, they say. Pupils engaged in the German project work comment that in addition to Encarta, they can also use the college's intranet during the lesson to access and download additional information. An internal printing credit system encourages pupils to carefully prepare and redraft all copy before printing.

In terms of assessment, senior teacher Lesley Hagger-Vaughan explains that the system can be used to record teachers' questions with in-built response gaps in assessment format which can be saved as sound files. For Southern Examining Group oral preparation, pupils' responses can either be assessed simultaneously at the time of recording or be saved on to floppy disc for later marking.

On software, Hagger-Vaughan comments: "We have not had to spend a massive amount." Students work principally with the Vektor Expressions series.

Another key aspect of the Divace system is that through digital recorders in their PCs, pupils can also work interactively on analogue audio and video tapes transferred from the teacher's console. Pupils can access sections of recordings to offer playback of particular segments. PowerPoint provides an ideal medium for presentations and three pupils at Shireland had recently produced work in this way in Punjabi on a weather topic. Redrafting work on written tasks can be guided remotely by the teacher in class using Microsoft Office and Word.

As part of the Good Practice Pilot Project, a local Year 6 class is next into the Tandberg room for their weekly German lesson. After a teacher-led half hour on the alphabet, pupils turn to their screens and, using the Vektor Essentials series, enjoy trying out the different sounds of German letters.

Despite enthusiastic chat into his microphone, one boy is keen to point out that he would enjoy German "even without the computer". In this lesson, while the teacher listens from her console, she also walks round the room talking to children in person. "I don't think computers should remove the personal touch completely," she says.

While acknowledging the privilege of having such state-of-the-art technology in her department, Hagger-Vaughan is keen to point out that use of the Tandberg Room is integral to, and not leading, the language teaching at Shireland. "We were doing projects using simultaneous email to Germany on stand-alone computers before Tandberg," she says. ICT is nevertheless now being integrated into the departmental development plan and Tandberg-based learning targets will form part of pupils' individual learning target profiles.

Divace Duo Multimedia Learning Centre from Tandberg Educational, tel: 0113 279 9116 www.tandberg.co.uk

Vektor Multimedia

Tel: 01257 232222

www.vektor.com Shireland Language College

Tel: 0121 558 8086

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