Brendan Barry, ICT Lecturer, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.
I have chosen to evaluate the project under a number of headings, all of which relate to the aims, objectives and projected outcomes as stated in its original presentation.
1. The Initial Proposal
1.1 The initial proposition was most timely in that it recognised that there was a perfect opportunity for linking two distinct initiatives of the Department of Education and Science – the Modern Foreign Languages Pilot Project and the Schools Integration Project (SIP) for Information and Communications Technology (ICT). If we want to know how best to introduce Modern Foreign Languages to our primary schools, here was opportunity to explore the possibilities of using ICT for that end.
1.2 The initial proposition also incorporated a unique feature, which gave it an extra dimension not included in the MFLP by proposing to study possible ICT applications for 1st Class, 2nd to 4th Classes as well as in senior classes (i.e. 5th and 6th ).
1.3 Choosing to study the introduction of 3 European languages - French, German and Italian – ensured that the outcomes of the project would be of broad interest and have general application.
2. Aims and Objectives of the Project
The main objectives of the project were stated as follows:
2.1 The project’s participants comprehensively achieved the first objective. A wide range of ICT applications was used throughout the project. This included an array of both hardware devices and software packages. The software used included not only most of the common generic software tools, such as word processors and databases but also a wide range of language-specific software. The sheer number of software packages that was used, has, in itself, yielded a trove of worthwhile data which would be of benefit to teachers, researchers and other interested parties .
2.2 The project members have also succeeded in forging robust links between the participating schools. While these links can be physically identified as e-mail links, the true manifestation of the potency of these bonds is in the strong personal relationships built up between the participating teachers from the various schools. This was achieved by the monthly cluster meetings between the project members and by their shared belief in the meaningfulness and worthiness of the project goals and objectives. These hardy links should prove to be a perfect platform for further collaborative activities and projects between the schools.
2.3 The third of the stated objectives was also achieved by most of the participating schools, i.e. Linking with schools in other European countries. Getting a European partner proved to be somewhat more difficult than originally envisaged, and this served to underline the importance of maintaining and carefully nurturing a European partnership once it has been established. It is essential that both schools in such a partnership feel that the contact is worthwhile and that they are both getting an educational yield from any communications, activities or projects that are undertaken. If we practice our French with a French school, their children must also be given a chance to practice their English. The vale of such links go far beyond the requirements of any individual project.
3. Other Projected Outcomes and Targets
Other stated outcomes and targets of the project included:
will gain an enhanced knowledge of ICT and in particular the use of e-mail
and the internet;
The pupils’ knowledge of foreign language and culture will be
materials and teaching strategies will be developed;
3.4 The European dimension of the pupils’ education will be developed; and
projects with foreign primary schools will be initiated and
software for language teaching will be identified and
4. Other outcomes
The project, from its conception, was particularly broad-based and it was inevitable that the outcomes and findings would not merely achieve the stated targets, but would yield a further set of interesting findings:
4.1 ICT software tools are at their most potent when they are offered together as a range of possible support tools, from which the teacher and the pupil can pick and choose to support a particular learning situation. Evidence from the ‘Patch Study’ module of this project supported such a scenario where the work of the previous modules was synthesised for maximum effect.
4.2 There is a particular dynamic invoked when teachers and pupils are learning and exploring together, whereby both cohorts are positively charged by each other’s enthusiasm. Barriers are blurred and the benefits go far beyond mere curricular advancement or ICT skill attainment, permeating into all areas of school life.
4.3 A lot of the work of particular modules involved pupils creating labels, flashcards, posters and other materials for classroom display. All of the participants noted that the fact that these materials were pupil-generated dramatically increased their effectiveness as learning aids. This is entirely consistent with constructivist learning theories.
4.4 When a group is learning how to use a suite of office tools it was found that it is entirely logical to start with word processing. For example, a student who gains a sound understanding of Microsoft Word will be able to make reasonable guesses at many of the features of other Microsoft programs, such as Access, Excel and Publisher.
4.5 Some of the participating teachers felt that it might not be wise to use ICT at the initial phase of language development. They felt that an initial period should be devoted to introducing the language orally, allowing pupils to gain plenty of practice in speaking the language, before commencing text-based ICT activities. However, as future word processors, databases and other tools incorporate speech and voice recognition as standard components, the dual goals of ICT integration and oral practice can be more readily merged.
4.6 The role of the local Education Centres and their respective ICT advisors can be important in maximising the success of a project such as this. Each school has different needs and a high degree of flexibility on the part of the training course providers is necessary to ensure that courses are tailored to the school’s individual requirements.
4.7 The project participants gave extensive consideration to the problems associated with making provision for children with learning difficulties and other special needs. Specialist advice was sought and incorporated in the various lesson plans that were produced. The underlying consideration was to achieve the maximum level of inclusion throughout a given class, allowing teachers to take cognisance of each child’s strengths and weaknesses.
4.8 The greatest problem faced by the project participants was the lack of sufficient time to conduct the full range of necessary tasks and activities. Most of the practical work had to be completed by the students, on a ‘rota’ basis, during classes that were unrelated to conduct of the project. This was only possible thanks to the good will of the various class teachers. Furthermore, those teachers who were involved in the Modern Foreign Language Pilot Project often felt aggrieved when their limited time was sometimes eroded by the work of the SIP ICT project. Considerable thought needs to be given by planners, not on how to find time for ICT classes but preferably on how to integrate ICT elements and applications more effectively into the existing curricular framework.
4.9 The time constraints outlined above are directly related to a general shortage of computers and other hardware devices. The ‘one at a time’ system, whereby 25 pupils queue to use one or two computers, is unsatisfactory and suggests that most of our schools are still far from achieving a reasonable pupil/computer ratio. Further grants for ICT equipment purchase should continue to be key elements of NCTE’s Technology Integration Initiative.
4.10 The National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) provided great support throughout the conduct of the project. Help was not only given with funding, but also in relation to facilitating cluster meetings and the provision of advice and information when required. There is ample evidence from other studies that this type of institutional support for research initiatives is a key element in generating satisfactory outcomes.
4.11 This project has proved the importance of engaging corporate sponsorship with educational initiatives. Indeed, Eircom's most generous sponsorship of this particular project was invaluable in developing such a major and successful curricular initiative in Irish education.
5. Benefits of this Research
5.1 The project was conducted using many of the principles of Action Research. The participants were active players rather than spectators in the unfolding of the project. When something was working well the teachers observed, noted and proceeded to change the course of the activities to increase the effect of any good practice. Similarly, when something was seen to be not producing the desired effect, the teachers did not hesitate to intervene and channel the children’s work along more productive lines. All of the participants kept an Action Research diary, which helped them to record and reflect on the myriad of outcomes of a particular strategy. Of particular benefit were the monthly sessions where entire project team held cluster meetings for an honest exchange of data and interpretation. This guaranteed a constant cycle of: Practice - reflection - improved practice - reflection - improved practice, etc.
5.2 As is typical of Action Research, the main beneficiaries of the research will be the participating teachers themselves and their pupils. The teachers have learned so much about themselves, about their pupils, about the teaching of languages, about the use of ICT and about the nature of learning itself. Some are bound to find themselves involved in further research initiatives in the future.`
5.2 The positive outcomes of the project will also be shared with other researchers and interested parties. Dissemination was a major element of the project and this report provides a treasure-trove of data and information for any investigators. It also includes detailed transcripts of the participants’ Action Research diaries, which are also published on the project web site at http://homepage.eircom.net/~sipmfl/
5.4 All of the participants reported a dramatic increase in the level of ICT skills, not only in themselves and their pupils, but throughout their respective schools. This is obviously related, not only to the training courses that were given to the teachers, but to the enormous enthusiasm emanating from the project and its participants. This is another example of how the positive effects of the project will continue to bring benefits to the participating schools. As well as achieving enhanced ICT skills amongst the pupils, the sheer range of different tools utilised will bring its own benefits. By providing children with such a wide range of possibilities, the teacher increases the chances of allowing children select from the widest possible options to match their respective talents and intelligences. This is not only beneficial for language acquisition but applies to all areas of the curriculum. All of the participants also reported a vastly improved platform for collaborative and co-operative learning.
6. Implications for Future Research
The pioneering work carried out in the course of this project suggests many avenues that might uncover rich seams for further investigation and research.
6.1 This project was unusual in that it involved schools in the introduction of 2 distinct areas – modern foreign languages and ICT skills. Much of the work in many of the modules involved the introduction of ICT tools in tandem with the introduction of a modern European language. It is to the credit of the participants that a workable, balanced combination of the two goals was achieved. Indeed some of the lesson plans include ICT acquisition strategies that are as thoughtful as those strategies specifically designed for language acquisition. An obvious follow-on from this research would involve the teaching of modern foreign languages in schools where a wide variety of ICT skills have been learned and consolidated. Could it be that there is a quantifiable level of ICT skill acquisition that is desirable before embarking on a programme of ICT integration in language teaching?
6.2 The participants were unanimous in their belief that pupil-generated learning materials were significantly more effective than many similar materials from other sources. Could there be implications for other curricular areas? Should children make their own English readers, table books and atlases? It certainly warrants further investigation.
6.3 Much effort was expended on twinning schools with European partners. Some schools were forced to resort to twinning with another Irish school when a European partner failed to materialise. An extensive examination of this latter type of school-to-school collaboration might identify a range of suitable opportunities for productive activities, not only in language development but also in other areas of the curriculum.
6.4 As newer technologies facilitate more widespread video conferencing and wide-band internet connectivity, a follow-up study will inevitably become necessary to help to further widen the range of ICT tools at the disposal of the language teacher.
The project has been an unqualified success. Its objectives were clearly identified, its conduct was meticulously planned, its plan and timetable were strictly adhered to and its outcomes were bountiful in terms of findings and product.
The participants displayed boundless energy throughout and were infused with a strong sense of professionalism in the pursuit of best practice. The leader of the team certainly contributed hugely to this team spirit. His capacity to maintain a clear overview of all of the project’s elements allowed him to ensure that a whole range of disconnected and disparate project strands came to fruition simultaneously, thus ensuring that the project was delivered on time. He sought and obtained maximum effort from his fellow project members, who were only too pleased to respond when they witnessed their leader’s own astounding feats of productivity. Finally, the team’s determination to share their findings and products with the wider community is spectacularly reflected in the production of an attractive and comprehensive web site, where the great work of the project team will continue to inform and inspire others.
I am pleased to declare that this project was an unqualified success and I greatly enjoyed my own involvement.