Online Intercultural Exchange: An Introduction for Foreign Language Teachers

Online Intercultural Exchange: An Introduction for Foreign Language Teachers

by Robert O'Dowd (Editor)


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This volume provides foreign language educators and classroom researchers with an introduction to online intercultural exchange, the activity of engaging foreign language learners in collaborative project work with partners from other cultures through the use of online communication tools such as email, discussion boards and videoconferencing.

The authors use their extensive experience in both the practice and research of online exchange to present a clear overview of the pedagogical theory behind online exchange and its contribution to different aspects of foreign language learning, including communicative competence, intercultural awareness and learner autonomy. The chapters look at different ways of organising such projects, such as the Tandem and Cultura models, and also provide clear discussions on practical aspects of the area including task design, the choice of communication tools and the role of the teacher.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847690081
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 10/15/2007
Series: Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education Series , #15
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Robert O'Dowd is a teacher and teacher-trainer and has a Ph.D. on the development of intercultural competence through the use of networked technologies in the foreign language classroom. He teaches EFL and Foreign Language Methodology at the University of León in Spain, where he is also involved in various research projects related to online intercultural exchange. His other special interests include the role of the teacher in online education and the role of culture in foreign language education.

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New Challenges in Foreign Language Education

The first decade of the 21st century has been a time of significant development and change for foreign language education. Issues such as globalisation, the rise of the internet as a tool of communication and self-expression, the controversial role of English as a global language and the recent developments in the so-called 'clash of civilisations' have all had effects (both positive and negative) on the importance attributed to foreign language learning and how languages should be learned (Block & Cameron, 2002; Crystal, 2001). The overall aims of foreign language education have also been subject to change. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe, 2001), for example, has been widely taken up as a common basis for language syllabuses, textbooks and examinations in many European countries. This framework emphasises the importance of 'plurilingualism and pluricultural competence' (Council of Europe, 2001: 168) and calls on educators to develop their learners' ability to apply their linguistic and communicative skills across various languages andcommunicative situations. Recent years have also seen an important shift from the previously common goal of 'communicative competence' to that of 'intercultural communicative competence' (Byram, 1997), which underlines the need for language learning to develop learners' cultural sensitivity and their ability to mediate between different cultural perspectives in communicative situations.

In the light of these new objectives, many foreign language educators have looked to the potential of networked technologies to enhance and supplement the traditional activities of the communicative classroom, which are often seen as limited and over-focussed on the exchange of information (Block, 2001; Greenfell, 2000). In particular, the opportunities offered by engaging learners in online collaborative project work with members of other cultures has been identified as being an authentic and effective way of preparing learners for the complex yet enriching experience of foreign language and culture learning. Through online interaction, it is argued that learners can become aware that communicating in a foreign language involves not only the exchange of information, but also the expression of speaker identity and the development of relationships in situations of intercultural contact. With this in mind, this volume aims to examine what one of the most popular online activities, online intercultural exchange, involves on a pedagogical level and also to explore the promises and the challenges that it can bring to the foreign language classroom.

The term 'online intercultural exchange' refers to the activity of engaging language learners in interaction and collaborative project work with partners from other cultures through the use of online communication tools such as e-mail, videoconferencing and discussion forums. The aims of such online interaction can be to develop students' communicative ability in the target language, to increase intercultural sensitivity and to encourage learner independence (Belz, 2003). In the past, the activity has been referred to in many different ways including 'e-pals', 'keypals', 'e-tandem', 'telecollaboration' or, more recently, as 'internet-mediated intercultural foreign language education' (Belz & Thorne, 2006). However, there has also been some debate in the literature as to the appropriateness of this terminology. For example, authors have questioned whether terms such as 'keypals' in some way trivialise this learning endeavour (Müller-Hartmann, 2000), while others have suggested that the phrase 'telecollaboration' fails to capture all the activity's facets (Thorne, 2006). Nevertheless, in this volume many of these terms will be used interchangeably as it will become clear that the quality of the activity far outweighs the significance of the particular terminology. For this reason, practitioners are encouraged to choose for their own work the terms of reference with which they are most comfortable.

The Origins of Online Exchange

For the unsuspecting reader encountering this area of online foreign language education for the first time, the history of telecollaboration may seem surprisingly rich and complex. The first reports of online collaborative project work between language learners in different locations only began to appear in the early 1990s when foreign language teachers and learners gained access to the internet on a relatively regular basis. However, the principle of engaging students in collaborative tasks with partners in geographically distant locations has been traced back much further in history to the pioneering work of French educationalist Célestín Freinet in the 1920s (Cummins & Sayers, 1995; Müller-Hartmann, this volume). Freinet encouraged his students to carry out project work on issues that were of personal interest to them and then to publish their findings in a newspaper, which they produced with the help of a printing press. The finished newspapers were then exchanged with classes located in other parts of France who had also created their own publications.

The work of social psychologist G.W. Allport (1979) is also said to have contributed to the rationale for online intercultural exchange. Allport, studying intercultural relations in North American society, looked at a technique used in progressive schools in the USA at the time called 'social travelling', which involved bringing groups that held negative stereotypes of each other into contact together. He mentions an example that involved bringing white middle-class students to spend time with African–American families in Harlem. He concluded that contact in itself was no guarantee of improving attitudes to other groups and that understanding and tolerance would only come about by getting members of the different cultures actually working together:

The nub of the matter seems to be that contact must reach below the surface in order to be effective in altering prejudice. Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes. (Allport, 1979: 276)

In the 1990s the first publications began to make the world of foreign language education aware of the potential of online exchange for language teaching purposes. Cummins and Sayers (1995) reported on the Orillas Network, a clearinghouse for online exchange projects between distant partner classes in the American continents and in Europe. These projects covered foreign language learning as well as other subjects and included activities such as dual community surveys, science investigations, contrastive geography projects and comparative oral history and folklore studies. The Learning Circles project (Riel, 1997), sponsored by the American telephone company AT&T, was one of the first to bring together primary and secondary school foreign language learners from countries all over the world in collaborative project work. In this period the first reports of the use of online technology for tandem learning also began to appear (see O'Rourke, this volume for an in-depth exploration of e-tandem and its historical background) and Mark Warschauer, one of the earliest and most prolific writers on online language learning, published 'Virtual Connections' (1995), a vast collection of practitioners' reports on how the internet and the networked communication tools of the time were being used to engage learners in communicative language learning. Over a decade later, although many of the references in this volume to the common communication tools of the time may sound dated (i.e. principally mailing lists and e-mail), issues which many of these educators deal with in their reports in relation to good online pedagogy and task design continue to be of relevance and are returned to here again in these pages.

While these publications were appearing in print, the number of web pages dedicated to organising and supporting online exchange also began to increase significantly. The Intercultural E-mail Classroom Connections (IECC) website (see list of online references at the end of this chapter) gave teachers the opportunity to post announcements looking for partner classes, while the e-tandem website allowed language learners to be paired individually with speakers of their target language and also provided a huge source of activities upon which learners could base their online interaction. Well known practitioners such as Reinhard Donath in Germany and Ruth Vilmi in Finland also published many reports and descriptions of their students' online projects and in the process helped to make the activity better known among the growing number of foreign language teachers who were beginning to look for ways to use the internet as a language teaching tool.

Current Areas of Research and Debate

In terms of substantive research in the area, the period from 1998 to 2006 has seen important advances. Many of the earlier publications on telecollaborative exchange were inevitably anecdotal in nature and very often the fact that students reported having enjoyed their virtual contact was deemed as sufficient justification of the activity's value (Richter, 1998). However, since the turn of this decade the growing number of journals dedicated to technology-enhanced language learning (e.g. the CALICO Journal, Language Learning and Technology and ReCALL) and the publication of various collections of articles in the area (Belz & Thorne, 2006; Ducate & Arnold, 2006; Warschauer & Kern, 2000) has allowed for a significant increase in the number of qualitative studies into online student interaction and exchange. These pieces of research have looked at certain issues and questions that inevitably arise repeatedly when two or more sets of learners in different locations interact and collaborate together in their respective foreign languages. These issues include the following:

• To what extent can telecollaboration achieve the aims of modern foreign language education including the development of intercultural awareness, learner autonomy and grammatical competence (Belz, 2003; Brammerts, 2005; O'Dowd, 2003; O'Dowd & Ware, in press; O'Rourke, 2005)?

• How should online tasks be structured in order to encourage and support interaction and language learning (Meskill & Ranglova, 2000; Müller-Hartmann, 2000)?

• What factors lead to communication breakdown and the failure of online exchanges (O'Dowd & Ritter, 2006; Schneider & von der Emde, 2006; Ware, 2005)?

• How do the students' socioinstitutional contexts influence the outcome of exchanges (Belz, 2001; Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2003; O'Dowd, 2005)?

The text-based nature of online interaction has meant that telecollaboration has also become a prime source of data for researchers from both interactionist and sociocultural approaches who are investigating second language acquisition. Studies of online learning from the interactionist perspective explore the application of Long and Robinson's (1998) Interaction Hypothesis to online environments (Blake, 2000; Pellettieri, 2000; Tudini, 2003). This theory proposes that when learners have to negotiate meaning in interaction, they are exposed to foreign language input that is both linguistically and interactionally modified. Such input draws learners' attention towards grammatical form, pushes them to modify their own output, and consequently helps them to develop their interlanguage. In an interactionist approach, negotiation of meaning and peer correction are seen as processes that occur naturally and automatically as interlocutors seek to understand and clarify each others' utterances. Such negotiation of meaning appears to occur most often in online environments when learners are writing in real-time (i.e. synchronously). Consequently, research into second language acquisition online has typically focused on synchronous communication tools (e.g. chats, MOOs) and has concentrated on calculating and examining the episodes of negotiation of meaning that occur in the online interaction.

Researchers coming from a sociocultural perspective have criticised interactionism for its overly cognitive orientation, which depicts learning as taking place solely in the learner's mind. A sociocultural approach puts much greater emphasis on the social aspects of language use and its interrelatedness with the cognitive processes of language learning (Zuengler & Miller, 2006). In the context of online intercultural exchange, various sociocultural studies of online interaction have looked at themes such as how the requirements and affordances of particular learning contexts influence student participation in online exchange (Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2003), the intercultural aspects of online learning partnerships (O'Dowd, 2003) or the development of learners' pragmatic competence in the target language through their experience of online language socialisation (Belz & Kinginger, 2002).

Issues Facing Telecollaborative Teachers

Any educators considering engaging their learners in online exchange with a partner class in another culture will inevitably have to make various methodological decisions as to how the exchange should be organised and implemented. Although this book aims to make the reader aware of the questions that need to be asked before and during an exchange, there is no attempt to impose one appropriate approach on running such a project. It is our belief that educators need to be aware of the technological and methodological options available to them and should then be able to make principled choices based on their and their teaching partners' students, learning contexts and pedagogical aims. Some of the most important questions, which will be dealt with in the following chapters, include the following.

What should be the role of the teacher in the exchange?

Teachers are often unsure to what extent they should get involved in an exchange of written or spoken correspondence between two or more individuals. Should teachers check and correct messages before they are sent? Should they make sure that students are writing before the established deadlines? To what extent should teachers decide what the content of the correspondence involves? The answers to these questions may depend, to a certain extent, on the particular model or structure of online exchange that is chosen (see Chapters 3–5). Some models of online exchange are quite strict about what students write about, while others (such as tandem) see the content of messages as a matter for the students. However, the role of the teacher in an exchange may also reflect their own philosophical beliefs about education and pedagogy. Many teachers believe, for example, that integrating the exchanges into their classes allows the teacher to guide and motivate the learners in their online activities. In the words of one practitioner:

Online exchanges should be integrated into the regular classes in the way which the teacher finds most effective. When students are left to themselves they lose interest in the process fairly soon. As any other teaching/learning process, this should be well-planned, organized and controlled – then it brings results. (Private correspondence with author, 07.05.2001)


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Table of Contents

Part One: Introduction to this Volume and its Theme 1. Introduction - Robert O'Dowd 2. Foreign Language Education and the Rise of Online Communication: A Review of Promises and Realities - Robert O'Dowd Part Two: Models of Online Intercultural Exchange 3. Models of Telecollaboration (1): E-Tandem - Breffni O'Rourke 4. Models of Telecollaboration (2): Cultura - Jesús Suárez García and James Crapotta 5. Models of Telecollaboration (3): E-Twinning - Antonia Domínguez Miguela Part Three: Issues and Questions in Online Intercultural Exchange 6. Grammar and Feedback: Turning to Language Form in Telecollaboration - Paige D. Ware and Maria Luisa Pérez Cañado 7. The Development of Intercultural Communicative Competence in Telecollaborative Partnerships - Julie A. Belz 8. Teacher Role in Telecollaboration: Setting Up and Managing Exchanges 9. How can Online Exchanges be Used with Young Learners? - Isabel Pérez and Margarita Vinaigre 10. Choosing the Appropriate Communication Tools for an Online Exchange - Melinda Dooly Part Four: Practical Accounts and Experiences of Online Exchange 11. Foreword - Robert O'Dowd 12. Integrating Tandem Learning in Higher Education - Margarita Vinagre13. The Tridem Project - Mirjam Hauck and Tim Lewis14. The Japan-Korea Culture Exchange Project - Christopher Chase and Paul Alexander15. Using the Moodle Platform in Online Exchanges - Alfred Markey 16. Voice Chats in the Intercultural Classroom: The ABC's Online Project - Eva Wilden 17. Learning to Teach Online: «Le Français en (Première) Ligne» Project - Christine Develotte, François Mangenot and Katerina Zourou18. One-to-one Desktop Videoconferencing for Developing Oral Skills: Prospects in Perspective - Lina Lee

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