Telecollaboration in the Language Classroom: Challenges and Benefits

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Although telecollaboration is one of my research contexts, I realized I’ve never written a post about it.  So, here is a long overdue discussion of telecollaboration, the projects I’ve been involved in, and the lessons I’ve learned.  

Image by  Tumisu  from  Pixabay

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

What is telecollaboration? 

The term telecollaboration has different meanings in different fields, but in language learning it typically means using the internet to engage in language practice with people outside of one’s classroom.  Another term I’ve seen more recently is virtual exchange, presumably presented as a parallel to physical exchange, such as study abroad.  These exchanges have various forms, including:

  1. Class to class exchanges (a class in one location is paired with a class in another)

  2. Individual exchanges (individuals are paired with language partners in another location)

  3. A combination (e.g., individuals from a class are paired with language partners in another location)

There can also be various language combinations, including:

  1. Using the target language only (with pairs of learners or learner/fluent speaker)

  2. Switching languages (common when two individuals are learning each other’s language, so half the conversation in English and half in Arabic for example)

Of course, as I have found in my studies, regardless of the official rules for the exchange, if participants have overlapping linguistic backgrounds, translaguaging tends to be the norm.  

Benefits of Telecollaboration

Probably the biggest appeal of telecollaboration is that it seems more “real” to learners than a classroom, and yet can be more manageable logistically and financially than traveling to a geographic location where the target language is dominant.  In this way, it is a way of encouraging linguistic and intercultural contact, as in a physical exchange.  However, also as in a physical exchange, we need to be cautious about assuming that language and intercultural learning is an automatic outcome of intercultural contact—there are many tales of telecollaborations gone wrong, where learners left the experience with little to show in terms of language or intercultural learning, and at worst confirmed negative cultural stereotypes of their partners.  As with study abroad, sustained reflection upon the telecollaborative experiences is key to maximizing their potential for language and intercultural learning.  

My Own Telecollaborative Experiences

I’ve been involved with several telecollaboration projects as a classroom teacher and researcher, and each time I’ve learned new things! These include:

  1. An exchange between my Intermediate level Arabic classroom and language partners in Egypt (paid with a grant)

  2. A pre faculty led study abroad exchange between my Arabic students and language partners in Jordan (paid for as part of the study abroad fee, partially funded by a grant)

  3. Exchanges between my Intermediate level Arabic class and partners who work for the TalkAbroad program (our language lab pays for five conversations for each student)

Challenges of Telecollaboration

One thing I find frustrating in telecollaboration research is that the logistical and pedagogical challenges of telecollaborative exchanges are rarely discussed (unless this is the focus of the article).  When I have tried to include this information in my own articles, I have gotten reviewer feedback that it’s irrelevant to my results, or even undermines them, and should be excluded from the chapter.  Yet when I talk to other people who conduct these types of projects for research or teaching, I find that my experiences are not uncommon.  Unfortunately, I think not including these challenges in research articles leads to unrealistic expectations for new researchers and teachers in the field, and furthers the tendency to gloss over these hurdles.   So, since this is a blog post, and I’m free to write what I like, I thought I’d include my own thoughts on the challenges I have faced, and ways I’ve learned to work with (though not necessarily overcome) them.  

Scheduling

When I first started these exchanges, it seemed natural to me (and the person I was arranging the exchange with) to have a group meeting first, where all the students and all the partners would meet in one location and connect via Skype.  Unfortunately, since there is an 8-10 hour time difference, this means that the only times when both facilities are open is the first business hour in New Mexico, and the last in Egypt or Jordan.  Since this didn’t correspond to class time, neither all the students nor all the partners were available at this time.  So, I have given up on group synchronous meetings, and instead use asynchronous ones or just focus on individual meetings.  

However, individual meetings are also a challenge, with the time difference and learners’ packed schedules.  Since I also like to pack my schedule, I can’t really fault them for the latter.  So, I’ve learned it’s best to give ample time to schedule conversations, and also have buffer time if things go wrong (someone gets sick, the bus is late, the internet is down, etc.)

Technology

Speaking of the internet going down, unstable internet (in New Mexico and elsewhere) and connection problems are one of those issues that will happen at some point, although it’s impossible to predict when.  This is another reason to have buffer time in the schedule!  With TalkAbroad, they also have a tech support students can contact, which is helpful, but not available in all exchanges.  

Another technological issue is the users, who although they use technology daily, may not be used to videoconferencing, forums, or other specific telecollaboration programs.  On the other hand, they may be very familiar with other platforms.  Then there are platforms that are more popular or work better in certain physical locations, or alternatively those that are banned.  To deal with this issue, I’ve learned to take a flexible approach to the platforms used.  For example, for videoconferencing I will provide specific instructions (written and video) for a free program I know works in both physical locations (usually Zoom).  At the same time, I will allow students and their partners to choose another platform so long as they can engage in the same activity on it (Skype, Facebook video, Google Hangouts, etc.).  

Finally, there may be technological issues with the language.  While support for non-Latin scripts has come a long way since the earlier days of the internet, there are still platforms that don’t support them, or do not work well with right to left languages like Arabic.  For one of my program, I chose a forum platform based on a colleague’s recommendation, only to discover after setting it up that it had very limited support for right to left languages, necessitating writing the post in another program and copying and pasting it in.  

Classroom Integration

In order for telecollaborative exchanges to maximize language and intercultural learning, they need to be well integrated into the classroom, rather than “extra” activities, or “conversation practice”.  For this reason, I have always made the telecollaborative components of my classroom a significant part of the final grade, and also integrated them into our class work before and after the telecollaborative exchange.  While some students are able to “just talk”, I find that most students need more structured activities to be successful. Prior to the exchange, I usually have students brainstorm questions and have a practice conversation with each other, which helps them identify new words they might need for their conversation, and also helps me guide them in coming up with culturally appropriate questions (e.g. Do you have a boyfriend? is usually fine in the U.S. College context but could be marked in an Arabic-speaking one, and Are you married? is the opposite). To help students focus, I list specific Can-Do Statements for the conversation, such as: “I can describe my social media use” and “I can ask someone else about their social media use”.

After the exchange (scheduled at their own time and recorded) they have to listen to the conversation again and complete a reflection sheet that divides up the conversation into five minute segments, and asks them to list the following about each segment:

  1. At least one successful interaction

  2. At least one time you had difficulty interacting

  3. Any questions you have

  4. What you would like to improve for next time (something specific, like "be better able to discuss my interests with my partner" not something general like "speak better").

We then continue our reflection activities in class,  because reflection is that important! Working on the reflections in class also means that each student needs to come to class with their recordings to participate, which encourages them (usually) to actually complete it.  Two of my favorite activities thus far in class are the following:

  1. Before and After Skit: Two students listen to a challenging part of the conversation, and then role-play a “before and after” where they show the original and then a version where they are able to say what they wanted/understood the questions, etc.

  2. Jigsaw information: Students listen to each other’s conversations to learn specific information about their classmate and the classmate’s partner, and compare it to information about themselves and their partner.  This works well when the topic is such that each person will be discussing something similar, but slightly different (a trip, daily routines, etc.)

Headphone splitters are key for these activities, as they allow pairs of students to listen to the same recording together without total sound chaos in the classroom.  As they work, I can go around to the pairs and listen myself to answer questions about specific segments.  

Certainly, there are still students who are unable to complete the exchange, or miss class, or have technical failures, but overall this has improved in my classes throughout the years, as I’ve learned to expect and work with these challenges, rather than try to eliminate them.  In general, students seem to love these projects, as they are impressed that in their second year, they can have half hour conversations in Arabic! This success can then lessen the anxiety for the next time, as well as listening to their peers conversations and realizing that they are not the only one that has challenging segments.  

So, those are my thoughts on telecollaboration, and my experiences thus far.  Do you use telecollaboration actitvities in your classroom? How do you deal with the logistical and technological challenges? How do you encourage reflection? What are your favorite activities?