Pen pals for the 21st century

Four language teachers came up Linguaswap, the first online language swapping website for second-level students globally,

Leaving Certificate students use the Linguaswap programme at Colaiste Bhride , Carnew, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Leaving Certificate students use the Linguaswap programme at Colaiste Bhride , Carnew, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

What do kids like to do? Chat with friends and hang out on the internet. What do we like our kids to do? Study, learn and broaden their horizons. Well, thanks to a stroke of genius by four language teachers, students at Coláiste Bhríde in Carnew in Co Wicklow and elsewhere are combining both.

It’s a real ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ idea. Students all over Europe are trying to learn English and students all over Ireland are trying to learn European languages, and they’re all online. Anne Burke, Aisling Crowley, Rhoda Brookes and Siobhán Carley knew they could harness this mutual learning curve if they could just adapt the technology students were using already.

“We know that the best way for them to progress in a language is to use it in a real setting,” says Burke, a French teacher at Coláiste Bhríde. “There are sites based in the US where language-learning adults can talk to learners in other countries, but there was no real equivalent for young people because of security concerns.”

The teachers set about developing Linguaswap, the first online language swapping website for second-level students globally. The goal is to create a database of second-level language learners from countries in Europe to interact over a secure forum via a video link. The penpal is a staple of language learning in schools and the internet offers an obvious modern alternative. However, as any early user of websites like Chat Roulette will know, it doesn’t take long for open chat forums to attract unwelcome participants. Crowley, the school technophile, set about researching a safe way to create live language chat for students.

“It’s only really now that the technology has become available,” she says. “Our school is ready for it as we have widespread iPad use, especially in first and second year, and there’s a radical approach to teaching and learning at this school already. What we needed was the right software that we could embed in our own website to allow for live video chats between students in France, Germany, Spain and here in Ireland.”

Secure system
The staff identified a secure live chat system that allows them to monitor activity and ensure all exchanges on the site take place between student members of the site.

“We’re obviously very concerned with student safety. Every 10 seconds a snapshot is taken to ensure that the right people are online and there is a robust moderation and reporting system built in to the process. We have over 1,000 Irish members so far and we haven’t had a problem yet.”

The beauty of Linguaswap is that the exchange spreads beyond the initial conversation into all sorts of language learning realms. “The students make friends with other students online and then follow up with emails and even visits, through the school exchange system,” says Burke.

“They send work to each other by email to check for grammar and spelling mistakes and ask for each other’s help with assignments. When students are heading away for a summer exchange, they have a chance to develop a relationship with the exchange student before they go, and keep in touch regularly afterwards. It means they get much more out of their exchange than just three weeks in the summer.”

Burke and Crowley say the success of Linguaswap, which they started developing two years ago, is due in large part to the learning ecosystem in the school. Principal Linda Dunne says Linguaswap is a perfect fit within the overall direction that Coláiste Bhríde has taken in recent years.

“We are working to bring technology to the forefront of everything we do,” says Dunne, whose school is part of the 21-strong cluster of schools under the aegis of the newly formed Kildare Wicklow Education Training Board. “In the context of the new Junior Cert reforms, we see this kind of learning as a great working example of students taking responsibility for their own development. We are a positive school and we see lots of positives in the new Junior Cert curriculum. We are embracing it through initiatives like this.”

ICT has transformed teaching and learning at Coláiste Bhríde, says Dunne. “It’s really been a revolution here. The teachers are very inventive. We use Dropbox for homework so students get their homework online every night. They can access screen grabs of the page they need to reference so forgetting the book is no longer an excuse. In fact, if we had a snow day it would be business as usual because the teachers are well set up to keep the class going over the school website.”


Radical change
Burke, who has been teaching French since 1997, says she has never witnessed such radical change in teaching practice over such a short period. “In many ways it makes life easier for the teacher because everything is integrated and the students can take greater responsibility. Yet it’s happening in only a handful of schools around the country.”

Burke, Crowley and Dunne are hoping Linguaswap will spread to other schools and not just to those within their regional cluster, where most of the members come from at present.

“Most schools have an exchange programme with another school in France or Germany or Spain, and the more Irish students that come on board the more links we will have to different schools across Europe,” says Burke, who is sure other teachers will find Linguaswap just as useful as she has. The site has already been awarded a European Language Label Award, given to projects which have found creative ways to improve the quality of language teaching, motivate students and make the best of available resources.

The team recently added an online course which includes 40 videos of native speakers with 120 related exercises, and later this year it will be possible to practise oral exams and receive feedback from experts online. They are very ambitious for the site. “We want to establish a footprint in Europe which we believe is vital at this point. We want as many European students as possible to come onto our database so that students across Ireland can benefit,” says Burke. “At present, 75 per cent of the world’s population is bilingual. We are far behind this level.”

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