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Worldwide chatter

Opportunities to chat with foreign counterparts have been vastly extended by new technology. Sabine Glasmann looks at the options.

A class full of Year 9s chatting happily with their Spanish counterparts, showing pictures of their past holidays, asking questions about school and each other's family, yet each sitting in their respective classrooms, connected via nothing but a bunch of wires and a few screens. A picture from the future? Perhaps. But with technology catching up fast, getting that "real" communication into the classroom is becoming a viable option for more and more schools, even those which, for whatever reason, are not able to provide trips and exchange opportunities.

What began with email pen pal schemes, effectively imitating the good old pen and paper, has matured into a range of exchange opportunities that allow pupils to use all four skills, enhancing ICT skills, autonomous learning and collaboration in the process. The first choice a school or teacher will have to consider is whether to explore asynchronous (notice boards and email) or synchronous (chat and video-conferencing) communication. Each of these options has its own strengths.

Email remains closest to the traditional pen pal schemes. Pupils could be supplied with a school email address or work from home, making this option very flexible. By sending attachments (pictures, documents, and even sound-files) the exchange can be livened up, and pupils can work at their own pace to complete their exchange, making differentiation easier.

Noticeboards offer pupils a chance to have a discussion, yet allow them to take their time over reading a contribution and composing their response.

There are both commercial and free noticeboard providers, and all offer an option to upload files for sharing with the group.

Chat rooms may support both the spoken and the written word. In either case, they demand a high level of spontaneity from the pupils, unless the exchange is highly structured. Most exchanges in a chat room will possibly focus on language use rather than accuracy, allowing pupils to practise their conversation skills. Because communication takes place in real time, time difference needs to be taken into account, making planning more difficult.

Video-conferencing is currently the highest level of exchange, adding the visual picture of the exchange partner to the conversation. As with chat rooms, real time issues need to be taken into account and as of yet not many schools have the equipment to allow video-conferencing for a complete class, often making it necessary to integrate this type of communication into other options.

As with all new methods and gadgets, online communication is only as successful as the way in which it is introduced, calling for a number of strategies.

These will need to take into account:

* the length of the exchange - a one-off, six weeks, a term, a yearI?

* the equipment available - from a single connected computer at the back of the classroom to a fully equipped multi-media suite

* the intended outcome - for example, speaking practice for Year 11 role-plays, a magazine introducing the partner town.

These considerations will often impose certain ways of working, requiring pupils to work in teams on computers, or to prepare some of the work in their own time - either at home or at school. If pupils do work together, they not only share the workload, they also learn about collaborating, contributing to a team, checking each other's work, accepting responsibility, and maintaining communication if one member of the team is absent, making this option not simply a "technological necessity", but a highly valuable learning tool. The teacher, in many cases, ceases to be the all-powerful tutor, instead guiding the pupils in how to gain the best experience and information from the exchange.

Wherever possible, arrangements should be made by participating teachers to ensure an even approach - although it is also possible to encourage online communication where there is no partner class at the other end of the internet connection.

Sabine Glasmann is lecturer in the School of Education at Sheffield University. She has recently published Communicating On-line in the Info-Tech series from CILT, The National Centre for Languages pound;7.

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At Sheffield High School for Girls, pupils have been involved in a tandem language learning exchange since 1999. The exchange is voluntary, and girls sign up individually each year, after which they receive an email address of a partner. The exchange itself is not monitored, but all participants are encouraged to keep a folder with all emails, and a databank of task suggestions is available from the intranet.

This tandem exchange has led to a more structured online exchange preparing an actual face-to-face exchange with a partner school in Bochum, Germany, and has also allowed for an intra-school project where girls from Year 8 to Year 11 have worked together to create reading materials for German beginners.

Security remains a current issue. Those new to online communication may want to begin with a partner school, or go through an official partnering agency. Many schools already have an "acceptable use policy", a contract between pupils, school and parents discussing suitable ways to use the internet and behave online.

There are also several good guidelines available online, either from the DfES (http:safety.ngfl. or SUSI - Safer Use of Services on the internet By learning about issues, guidelines and solutions, pupils will be able to learn in safety, making full use of the exchange opportunities the internet has to offer.

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