Virtual space odyssey

30th June 2006 at 01:00
An online community for learning is giving language teaching a boost, says Wendy Adeniji

Electronic portfolios of pupils' work, virtual communication through text messaging and peer assessment: all these are features of a new virtual reality environment (VRE) which is currently being piloted at Aldersley High School in Wolverhampton by the modern languages department.

It allows a group of learners, wherever they are, to be linked in a virtual space. As the learners use their PDAs (personal digital assistants - handheld computers) or PCs to enter the VRE, a screen image comes up. This virtual portfolio facility is a very visually appealing 3-D space in which they can wander around and meet each other (their persona is identified by a photo, name, and brief information). Students who are used to the exciting graphics of computer games appreciate the visual aspect of this "space" and want to explore the various "plinths" in which they can read, listen to and watch other students' work.

Matthew Hailey, a Year 10 French language student, says: "I don't like speaking in front of the whole class, but I don't mind recording my voice into the microphone and letting others come into the virtual space and listen to what I've said."

One of the most useful aspects of this environment in class is the opportunity for peer assessment, according to MFL teacher, Sam Fenton: "The VRE has brought out more reticent students to create work and take part in role play, and because everyone is in the same boat they are not afraid to show it to others in the VR context."

Georgina Osagie, 15, likes listening to and watching her fellow pupils speak. "It helps my listening skills," she says, "because you can listen to other people and find out what they're saying."

Pupils can also send messages to each other, controlled and supported by a teacher, exchange their work and log it. A particularly useful application of this is with a partner school in another country. St Julie's Language College in Liverpool has been doing this effectively using a free website, (recently bought by Google), with its partner school in France. The English class creates web pages which are password protected and, by inviting its partner French class to access it, can collaborate and share pictures and text.

According to John Hopwood, an ex-MFL teacher who supports both the Aldersley High School and St Julie's projects: "Writely enhances the e-twinning experience because the shared page looks more exciting with its ability to bring in pictures, logos and to add links, and can be added to from home as well as at school. Also, it's great for teachers in both schools to be in as more or less invisible moderators as well as having the ability to remedy inadvertent editing and deleting."

Another free website used by schools across the world is

where pupils can also share audio and video files. Pupils particularly appreciate the opportunity of a real audience, according to Sam Fenton:

"Students have created language for purpose because they have a real audience and this has motivated and invigorated their approach to learning a language."

Head of department Sarah Pitchford-Jones is convinced of the benefits in assessing language learning: "By using this to practise role play, which can be videoed and peer-assessed later by the pupils, they are much less worried by the oral exam. Because the CBLC (Certificate in Business Language Competence) that they take is assessed 100 per cent by oral examinations, this is a big issue."

Students can use these electronic portfolios to create virtual records of their learning and work collaboratively, even if they are not at the same school. The project, which has been funded by the Midlands Curriculum Centre for Languages, has other applications. Part of the rationale is the fact that there are few viable groups post-16 in languages, and this will be a way of linking groups of A-level students. According to Dr Henriette Harnisch, director of the centre, "We are so pleased with the VRE's success at Aldersley that we are going to trial it with three schools in the North East as a way of keeping pupils doing an AS-level in the same cohort."

Pupils will use the VLE to upload their work, meet and chat virtually, and be in contact with their teacher. Take-up of languages has become a big issue at KS4 since it was made optional and schools are struggling to run viable groups, but Henriette believes that this is a way forward: "This is a tool for managing dispersed groups. It is a safe, controlled environment because it is password protected. It is a way of guiding autonomous learning and it helps keep the students on track."

Back in the classroom at Aldersley High, Matthew has just been navigating the virtual space to find what his classmates did on holiday. He has seen the photos with captions, watched the videos with voice-overs (all in French) and read the reports. "It's much better than reading someone's exercise book," he says. "You get the full experience and really feel like you are there."


* Free websites to create virtual reality environments: and

created the VRE

* The Midlands Curriculum Centre for Languages, formally known as the Black Country Pathfinder. www.bcsip.orgpathfinder Email: Dr Henriette Harnisch, for information about the VR.

* a CILTALL collaboration, funded by the DfES.

See the 'Partners in Progress' section for case studies on the use of ICT in MFL.

* The software used to create videos of trips is free from Microsoft * Joe Dale's blog at has more information about ICT use in the MFL classroom.

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