Multilingualism and education

Multimedia-Based Learning: Laptops in German Classrooms

A pupil at her laptop. Foto/Copyright: Christoph BrammertzChristiane and Susanne are telling the story of Kelly’s strange experiences in a greenhouse. But it’s not the content of the multimedial-presented story, which they wrote themselves, that is important here; it is merely the vehicle with which the two pupils of the High School in Bad Aibling, Upper Bavaria, want to familiarise their classmates with English vocabulary such as greenhouse or tropical rainforest.

What the two eighth-grade pupils have prepared at home on their laptops now appears behind them on a wall via network and data projector. At first, instead of the new words, there appear photos of the objects to be named, and also questions, for example, what a greenhouse is used for. In this way Christiane and Susanne can check whether their fellow-pupils have really understood the meaning of the words. At the same time, while answering the questions, the class practises the art of free conversation.

Multimedia-based presentations are everyday practice

While this is going on, the English teacher Carlo Ribeca keeps a low profile. He has already done his work: he gave Christiane and Susanne the task of introducing the new vocabulary by means of a multimedial presentation, and he has checked their text for any mistakes. This was all he had to do, for the girls are old hands when it comes to making a presentation on the computer, they know where to find useful dictionaries or suitable pictures on the internet. These work techniques are everyday practice in their class, for the 8d is a so-called laptop class: each pupil possesses a portable computer which is used intensively in all spheres of the school’s everyday life.

Screen shot from Christiane’s and Susanne’s  presentation on the introduction of new English vocabulary. Copyright: Carlo Ribeca
Screen shot
In language lessons the young people use a chat function to discuss topics with one another. This kind of communication has the advantage of training written and oral expression at the same time. Linguists refer to chat as a written medium with “conceptual orality”. Of course, the chat does not replace the actual discussion in class. “There are always phases when the laptop is closed,” says Ribeca. But in chats and forums the pupils gather arguments and pick up language patterns for use in oral dialogues. “This helps them to communicate fluently and confidently in the foreign language.”

Only the clattering of the keyboards

A further advantage: from his teacher’s computer he is able to move among the various chat rooms of his pupils, read their texts and, if necessary, insert corrections. If the pupils were to discuss with one another in “reality”, then he would not be able to follow as many conversations as unobtrusively and in a parallel mode. And the educator is pleased, not least, by the fact that in this phase of the lesson the background noise is reduced to the clattering of the keyboards.

Carlo Ribeca has promoted laptop lessons in Bad Aibling. Photo/Copyright: Christoph Brammertz In the laptop classes the irritating “paper chaos” with xeroxed worksheets is a thing of the past: the pupils have access at any time – in the classroom and at home – via the internet to the centrally stored teaching materials. Interactive worksheets also have the advantage of giving prompt feedback and can be repeated any number of times – this helps, for example, when pupils revise on their own for exams.

Laptops are no guarantee of modern lessons

According to surveys, the internet has meanwhile become the most popular medium among the 16 to 24-year-olds – even ahead of the old key medium of television. Banning the computer and internets from schools would be hardly enforceable and would be, furthermore, counterproductive. After all, using computers is great fun for most young people. Hence, as Ribeca confirms, the use of the popular leisure-time medium in lessons leads to an enormous motivation boost – in his view not to make use of this would be negligent.

Yet the use of laptops alone is no guarantee of modern lessons. The important thing is to use the new media in such a way that they help to realise a progressive methodic and didactic concept. “Only those who can explain something themselves have understood it,” is how Carlo Ribeca sums up the core idea. His didactic approach of encouraging individual initiative and self-determined learning is based on the constructivist theory of learning as well as on the principle “learning by teaching”.

The class 8d of the Bad Aibling High School in a laptop-supported English lesson. Photo/Copyright: Christoph Brammertz The teacher does know, however, that it’s not an option to leave his pupils entirely to their own devices as in absolute learning autonomy. Therefore Ribeca places emphasis on co-operative learning: in tandems and teams the young people give each other mutual support, for example by commenting on the linguistic performance of the others. In this the technology is very helpful, says Ribeca. “A chat protocol, for instance, makes it easy to follow an analysis of mistakes.”

Incorrect information at Wikipedia

Of decisive importance for Ribeca is also the teaching of media competence. This includes not only operating the mouse and the keyboard or being able to use the current software – nowadays most young people already learn these basic skills as children, just like swimming or riding a bike. What they do have to learn, however, is the critical and responsible use of the internet: the abundance of information, which is always and everywhere accessible, would be overwhelming for the youngsters if they were left alone with this.

Therefore Viktoria Moe does not only show the pupils where to find information on the internet. They should learn, above all, to assess how reliable this information is. Since on Wikipedia older versions of the various contributions are also available, the trained network administrator can, for instance, demonstrate impressively how incorrect information was intermittently available via the online encyclopaedia. Thus the pupils learn that they have to check information on several sources – and preferably not only online. All 7th-grade classes in the Bad Aibling High School attend Frau Moe’s one-week intensive courses – including those pupils who will not join a laptop class in the 8th grade.

Weight is only a temporary problem

“I don’t have the feeling that the purchase of a laptop is an extra acquisition for our pupils – most of them would have one even if they weren’t in a laptop class,” says Ribeca. However, to ensure that no-one decides against attending a laptop class for financial reasons, the school offers the possibility of paying for the computer in instalments. In fact, some families shy away from laptop lessons for quite a different reason: the weight of the computer. After all, the youngsters have to carry the laptop to school every day and then take it home again. But Ribeca regards this as a temporary problem: “The laptops are getting smaller and lighter all the time.”

Laptops for all?

Whereas, only a few years ago, the demand “a laptop in each satchel” caused much shaking of heads, it is meanwhile conceivable that all schools will be completely equipped with laptops in the near future. For in more and more schools in Germany – no matter what type of school – laptop-supported lessons are on the agenda. However, since there is no systematic support programme from the ministries of education, the laptop projects depend on the initiative of dedicated educators and head teachers and rely on funding from private sponsors. Numerous experience reports and scientific studies have shown that learning in laptop classes not only clearly increases media skills, but also significantly improves performance in school.
Christoph Brammertz
is a member of the editorial board.

Translation: Heather Moers
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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January 2009

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