Explore the World without Leaving the School

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald May 1997

Teachers have always encouraged pupils to look beyond the school gates, to widen their horizons. Unfortunately education cuts may mean parochialism writ large. It is becoming increasingly difficult for pupils to see beyond the boundary signs of the new local authorities.

The Internet can be used to overcome some of the difficulties. It can help pupils experience other cultures and glimpse life elsewhere. The cost can be relatively cheap, with some access providers charging no more than £500 per year for all-day access - less than 50p per pupil for larger secondary schools.

Many of the thousands of schools are connected to the Internet enhance the curriculum by developing fast and effective links with schools in other countries, in other cultures. One school in England recently decided to offer Spanish courses for the first time and using the Internet it receives curriculum advise and materials from an American school. Schools in the United States have greatest access to the Internet and while most material is written in English, opportunities for reading and even communicating in other languages are increasing. It is estimated that by 2010 almost 25% of Americans will be Spanish speakers and there is, of course, material from lots of other countries. Teachers of modern languages can find a wealth of resources on the Web.

Regional, national and international Spanish newspapers can be accessed and an impression of Hispanic culture gained or the UK seen from a Spanish point of view. The English-language Tenerife News, for example, appears to be more concerned with the social chapter and the single currency than the stars and villains of the UK election campaign.

Newspapers published in other countries are not only valuable for modern languages but can also be useful for Modern Studies or Media Studies. It would be interesting to investigate how the European press represents British Eurosceptics.

A range of French newspapers can also be accessed. Online newspapers are regularly updated and, of course, sections can be saved or printed out.

While the Blair administration has already indicated a commitment to the future of the communications superhighway, the government in France is one step ahead, offering support to Francophone African countries anxious to develop Internet connections. Officials are determined that French will not be marginalised by the new medium and try to insist that Web sites published in France should be written in French. Even English-speaking schools such as the American School in Paris have been asked to publish in French.

Some sites, such as those aimed at tourists, are written in English and provide much to investigate. These pages often give details about places of interest, restaurants or hotels and are usually up-to-date.

Publishing on the Web is not limited to large newspapers, government bodies or tourist organisations and that's one of Web1s great strengths. Two Scottish schools - Clydebank and Boclair - which participate in Web for Schools, an initiative which has provided Internet training for 600 teachers from 150 schools, have also put sites online. Training sessions for staff with little or no experience were held in nine countries and the results can be seen at Web for Schools site.

Most of the school sites are available in English, some in two languages and each one gives a flavour of its country and culture.

The Web for Schools site provides links to schools in sixteen countries, more if you count the United Kingdom as four rather than one. In fact one of the few weaknesses of this Web site is that UK schools are listed in one group which makes it more difficult to identify, for example, Scottish schools. Nevertheless it is a useful place to start, especially for teachers of modern languages and for those new to the Internet. There is a Frequently Asked Questions page which helps to explain the jargon and there1s also a search facility. Type in a word such as "food" and the participating schools with relevant material are listed with direct links.

Frederiksvaerk Gymnasium, one of the few Danish schools, actually undertook a project on food and lifestyle and pupils from IES Altair in Madrid have published details of traditional and favourite Spanish dishes.

Beyond the virtual classroom Web for Schools has even led to some interesting visits. A group of senior pupils from Clydebank has just returned from a trip to the Gesamtschule in Germany. The Clydebank pupils had already formed Classy Catering, a mini-company which provided the fare at the school Burns Supper and Challenge of Europe event, and in Germany they demonstrated traditional Scottish cooking.

More links from the Web for Schools site can be found in an area entitled Use of the Internet in Education. Irabia School in Pamplona has designed interesting pages, written by the pupils, in English. Students are currently involved in a languages programme with Pontypridd College and other educational establishments in Portugal and Denmark. The boys also explain that to help their fellow pupils with research about Hemingway they had to identify a starting point on the Web for them. They have done very well by suggesting that students try McGill University in Canada where there are lots of details about the author - Spanish teenagers providing details about an American writer, gleaned from a Canadian Web site, to help other European schools!

I first discovered I was European while touring Australia in the 1980s with my best friend. In explaining our own culture and exploring another we came to really appreciate being Scottish. Even if they can1t actually visit other countries, the Internet now makes it possible for pupils to see the world from a different point of view and the boys in Pamplona say they have been enriched by the experience.