Roger Lock is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Birmingham University and a member of the ASE School Science Review Editorial Board.
NoRELANGSUBBED_TXT (Needs more subbing) The following typical comments from language teachers make me wonder how they are able to benifit from modern technology at all.
"I keep meaning to use the computers more, but there never seems the time to fit everything in ... " "I tried to reserve our computer room, but it was booked solidly by geography and history for six weeks while their pupils carry outcoursework ...."
"In our computer room, only ten machines are working. With a class of thirty eight I can't see the point ..."
These are the comments of language teachers in so-called 'bog-standard comprehensives'.
In this so-called 'European Year of Languages' where are the opportunities for language teachers who want to make an impact with the new technologies? Where is the investment needed to turn the hype into reality?
A growing number are turning to websites which provide teaching resources and ideas. Among the best are www.modlangs.co.uk which offers imaginative materials in a range of languages, and www.turpsoft.co.uk, maintained by the University of Leeds and containing a variety of tried and tested material. Stephen Glover's 'Really Useful French Teaching Site' has all sorts of lively ideas, including the chance for pupils to work through GCSE papers online, and anyone who has ever laboured over the creation of word-search puzzles or crosswords will be grateful for www.puzzlemaker.co.uk or www.quia.com which do the hard work for you.
But what of the sites which aim to forge links between pupils of different nationalities? Several exhibitors at the Education Show are promoting this kind of facility. The potential to bring foreign cultures into the classroom is huge, but where are the schools who are using these to benefit language learning? What is happening at grass roots level? One web site, www.epals.com, has great potential for global citizenship.
It offers to find penfriends worldide, and employs four different languages - but it also offers online translation.
A quick click of the mouse and all opportunities for language learning are sidestepped. (I tried the English to French which was quite good, but the French to German produced: "We Are Year Sechs classO") No-one denies the benefits in terms of pupils' self-development, but what about using the web for language learning? The Central Bureau, with www.montageplus.co.uk, offers the opportunity to link up with a range of schools worldwide, and provides lots of practical advice. Another site, www.schoolmaster.net allows users to choose from an impressive list of participating schools, as well as selecting the language in which they read information about the site. Both sites are easy to navigate, and quick to download, but the benefits they offer lie in areas other than languages. Moreover, many teachers say that wouldn't risk exposing their pupils to links found on the net.
The internet is full of people pretending to be something they are not, and the risk of their pupils contacting someone of dubious credentials in this way is not one they are prepared to take.
Dudley Council in the West Midlands has invested heavily in their 'Challenge 2000' project, (www.edu.dudley.gov.ukc2000), and the opportunities for international cooperation and creative problem solving by children from different countries working collaboratively are awesome. Pupils work on various challenges and maintain contact with one another, and the project itself, via email. The benefits for 'citizenship' are obvious, but the team responsible is currently negotiating with Brussels to have the project translated into every European language and wants to encourage multilingual email links between pupils working on the challenges. They have even had an enquiry from China, where the vision of the web as a language learning vehicle is much more clearly defined than here. One school which breaks the mould is St Joseph's RC High in Slough. Here teacher Sonya Douglas regularly uses videoconferencing to communicate with a French partner school and speaks in glowing terms of the linguistic benefits to her pupils.
Year 10s give oral presentations in the foreign language and teachers from the two schools have addressed classes in both schools simultaneously, using video. It has a great motivational effect, and classes eagerly await their once-a-term link which takes place during normal lesson time.
This department also uses a digital camera to allow pupils to import images into Word documents. These are then used in writing tasks or as a starting point for grammar lessons. "The world at our fingertips", "The barriers are falling" - the cliches abound, It is sad to see the potential of the internet going to waste and to find pupils using computers in language lessons for little more than presentation purposes- to see them stabbing away for hours on end for no greater end than to make their work look pretty.
It is even worse when they spend the large part of a lesson sitting with their hand up because they are 'stuck', or because the under-funded equipment doesn't work.