28 February 2007 at 10.30
eTwinning - using technology to bring schools closer together
MFL teacher Joe Dale visits the eTwinning conference and finds out how technology can help bring nations closer together.
When the British Council invited me to attend the eTwinning conference in Brussels in February, I felt a bit of a fraud to be honest. Admittedly, I had blogged quite a lot about eTwinning projects in the last year, but had not actually taken part in one myself. That said, my snail mail links with a school in Brittany and Chibougamau, Quebec have been coming on nicely and of course there is always the potential of using technology in the future to make them stronger and more established.
The three day celebration of informal European union was an inspiring prospect as was the luxury of being able to catch the Eurostar instead of having to plump for my usual Flybe option from Southampton. The two hour hop from Waterloo brought me conveniently into the centre of the Belgian capital meaning I was only a short taxi trip away from the lavish Crowne Plaza where the conference was taking place.
After a good night’s sleep and hearty breakfast, I was delighted to spy Ewan McIntosh exchanging some YouTube gems with Christelle Roubelat, an English teacher from Montélimar in the south of France. Then teaming up with John Mason, technician at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline, Fife, we sauntered off to a practical and inspiring session by Oscar Stringer about creating simple one stop animations using a webcam, a few static objects and a colourful backdrop.
Oscar’s opening message was "keep things simple and have fun" and showed us his own creation How to make a mummy by way of example. Taking us through a step by step guide, we learnt how easy it can be to bring everyday items such as a pair of shoes or a plasticene figure to life by shooting a sequence of frames and making small incremental adjustments to the subject to create the illusion of movement.
Here are Oscar's top tips to anyone wanting to get started with animation in the classroom:
- create simple characters with big features which can easily convey straightforward ideas
- get your pupils to think visually
- draw on film conventions such as a heart indicating a character is in love
- choose commercial software such as Stop Motion Pro (PC) I can animate (Mac) or free open source equivalents SM Animator or Monkey Jam
- make sure your webcam is plugged in before you launch your animation software
- keep to the '12 frames per second rule' and include half second pauses to slow down the action and emphasise what happens next
- use onion skinning to allow you to see two or more frames at once
- make your plasticene characters wink by removing their eyes for three shots and then put them back again and take another six shots
- put your students into groups of four or five so they can collaborate and learn from each other
- delete individual frames which contain handshots
- add title screens to anchor meaning
- use simple transitions like fade-in instead of more fancy ones which can be distracting
- add video effects such as lightening or rain
- add sound effects to create mood
- render your finished film in iMovie or MovieMaker and save it in different formats for playback on the web, a computer, CDRom, pen drive or mobile phone
- use linseed oil-based plasticene which will retain its shape and not dry out
- aim for advert length stories with simple ideas
- break action into visual bullet points
- restrict the number of characters to two or three
The next session was equally thought-provoking, not only for its varied presentations on different web publishing tools such as Skill2Skill, Wideboard, Magazine Factory and Flashmeeting but also for the opportunity to see Ewan blog everything live. He listened, typed in his thoughts, surfed the web, took pictures with his SLR digital camera, transferred them to his Mac with a USB lead and uploaded them to his Flickr account where they were automatically posted to his Typepad blog. A brilliant lesson in itself!
As for the 'official' presentations, for me the best of the bunch was Flashmeeting created by the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI, part of the Open University) and promoted by education ICT consultant Jeff Howson on behalf of the East of England Broadband Network (E2BN) and KMI, and presented by John Warwick in a glorious ten minute whistle-stop burst. Flashmeeting is a free and easy videoconferencing solution for schools wanting to connect with each other safely and securely anywhere in the world. To get started, all you need is a webcam and the latest version of the free Macromedia Flash player installed on your computer. Just contact Jeff or John to set up an account.
Once registered, you can book a meeting for a specific time for a set number of participants or guests. Flashmeeting then generates a unique web address which you can send to all those wishing to take part. Up to twenty five guests can attend any one Flashmeeting and the beauty is that you can choose to record and archive everything (video, audio, text chat). This can then be accessed later on the web or downloaded as a zip file and edited.
At the end of John's presentation, I cheekily asked whether I could borrow his laptop as mine was sulking and take part in a pre-arranged Flashmeeting on Podcasting and Language Learning. He kindly agreed and within seconds the remaining audience had the opportunity to see Jeff highlighting the main features of Flashmeeting to a collection of EFL teachers from around the world. You can watch a replay of the whole discussion here or just jump to the part when Jeff appears on screen by clicking on the list tab in the main window and select 28:15 Joe
To hear more about Flashmeeting, listen to the following interview I recorded with Jeff in Brussels where he describes in more detail how the free videoconferencing service can be used in MFL lessons to engage pupils and give them real contact with native speakers in their own classrooms. You can also see this example of pupils from China and England singing songs, playing music and showing their artwork to each other in a heart-warming 'show and tell' session.
You can also listen to the conversation, Ewan, Christelle and myself had in a nearby brasserie (complete with authentic background atmos) at the end of the conference where we chat about our impressions of the event and what we found most interesting.
I agreed with Ewan that keeping things simple, a recurring theme from the conference was an important and powerful message. This was exemplified by Marc Durando in his closing speech where he referred to the following SIMPLE acronym as a way of encouraging more teachers to launch and maintain eTwinning projects in the future:
These may be only buzzwords, but they are useful reminders nonetheless on how technology can motivate us and keep us connected in the 21st century. We now have the powerful and versatile tools we need for sharing video, audio, images and text easily and safely with each other. We no longer have to be restricted to the four walls of our classrooms and can reach out across countries and continents via the world wide web. By highlighting our differences and similarities, we can also help to break down cultural barriers, produce mutually beneficial learning outcomes and give our pupils a real reason for communicating in a foreign language.
eTwinning cannot solve the world's problems overnight, but it can help to bring nations closer together and let us learn more about each other. Exciting stuff indeed.