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Website of the Month - October 2003

UKinFocus     www.britishcouncil.org/ukinfocus      

This review takes a special look at the first issue of UKinfocus as it coincides with the Food edition of the BS Web Pages

 

Value for ELT: reading texts/ contemporary issues/ culture background/ general interest/ British Studies

 

Producer of site (and intended audience)

This new - summer 2003 - British Council site is designed to challenge common perceptions about life in the UK (according to its homepage). Its audience is presumably that of the BC as a whole and therefore including (but not only) the educational and ELT audience. The Holidays in the UK issue begins - Did you think our beaches were all dirty? - showing clearly that the site takes a perspective from inside Britain and addressing those who live outside.

 

Description of site

If the first ’issues’ are representative of what is to come then it is going to be a ‘magazine’ with articles on various aspects of the chosen theme. Although these articles are of a good length, the range of aspects covered is rather small - no dropdown menu has more than one extra feature. In fact it seems to be produced (both photos and text) by a single person: Aidan O’Rourke.

 

Each page has some links on the left-hand side though they are mostly the home sites of theme-related organisations rather than information on the theme itself. Spotlight is a curious feature, a collection of images which also functions as a seemingly randomly-selected links page.

 

Food issue

It begins: This month, we take a look at food. Long derided as bland and overcooked, the UK now boasts some of the finest restaurants in the world and the transformation of what and how we eat has been phenomenal. Discussion of this transformation includes: a nation of curry lovers/ chefs in training/ farmer’s markets.

 

Accessibility *****

Easily accessed through a row of internal links on the homepage with dropdown menus - though the homepage mini-introductions do not necessarily match the dropdown titles e.g. Chefs in training is the same as South Trafford College

 

Range of themes covered **+

Within each theme items are selected to present a contemporary picture of Britain against what are perceived as current expectations - but it must be said it is a rather limited picture and certainly not comprehensive. The range of themes themselves to be covered remains to be seen: Food is the first, Holidays the second …

 

Food issue

The theme is so large that however much was included it would be easy to find important omissions. As an introduction it provides a very useful starting point, though a more rigorously chosen set of links could lead to a more thorough understanding to challenge common perceptions as the aim puts it.

 

Language level

Upper intermediate - as if native in a colloquial magazine style though presumably intended largely for EFL users

 

Value for students  

Age: 13+ * 16+ *** 19+ **** Lang. level:  pre-int/ int ** upper-int/ adv **** 

The texts are well written and potentially interesting in themselves. Useful as background material for projects and giving a flavour of Britain that other ELT materials touch on more marginally. Not solely aimed at the young though with items on such things as Farmer’s Markets and Peaceful Peaks with a more middle-aged audience in mind.

 

Food issue

Useful if students have been ‘fed a diet’ of ELT culture mythology to help redress the balance (as revealed in Food in Britain/ British Food - attitude survey results), but not necessarily giving a good overview either. Perhaps students would simply get a shift to a new partial perception.

 

Value for teachers ***

It will help update a teachers’ knowledge and provide a source of texts for reading activities, but little is directly useful for the classroom and there are no activities. The teacher would have to be aware and skilled in contemporary intercultural approaches to design activities to make full use of these texts for cultural outcomes.

 

Overall value ***

The site is new and no doubt will develop according to responses to the early editions. It has a clear aim though how the ‘common perceptions’ were established and how the items to challenge those perceptions were chosen is not revealed. Although directed to perspectives held outside the UK it does it from a position within Britain, and this may well be substantially different perspective from what an informed foreigner might conclude. It also does not challenge the UK’s perceptions of itself - a contentious area with a variety of positions and often conflicting.

 

A very useful complement for teaching culture in the classroom, but only a complement, a series of verbal postcards - not the basis of a course. If the teacher is following an intercultural approach the work on devising activities is still to be done. Perhaps this could include an equivalent exercise to produce materials to ‘challenge common perceptions of contemporary Poland for an international audience through the medium of English. This would surely raise a great deal of argument of the kind UK natives would engage in when confronted with this site (what should it include, what not, from which perspectives and so on), and thus give an important perspective on the limitations of what UKinfocus offers.

 
Food issue

The values emphasised in connection with food are those of organic food, recycling, farmer’s markets (very small and middle class), with an expectation of ethical values in the rearing of animals and in payments to farmers. These are the values of the rich in a society where agriculture has gone badly wrong. In many parts of the world such values are taken for granted as normal, and yet are seen as increasingly threatened by the large multinational businesses which do so much to support the UK economy.

 
The UK now boasts some of the finest restaurants in the world - sounds like tourist promotion, and the upbeat celebratory attitude taken throughout does not coincide with the recent Guardian Special reports (May 2003) which paint a very different picture - see Contemporary Food in Britain for a summary of these. Very many of the changes in UK food have in fact come about through positive influences from elsewhere in the world. Overall - an interesting, accessible and appealing picture of British food but partial and overly positive.


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