Telecollaboration is a form of network-based language teaching which emerged in language teaching in the 1990s. It refers to the pedagogic practice of bringing together classes of foreign language learners through computer-mediated communication for the purpose of improving their language skills, intercultural communicative competence and digital literacies. Telecollaboration, also increasingly referred to as online intercultural exchange (OIE), is recognized as a field of computer-assisted language learning as it relates to the use of technology in language learning. Outside the field of language education this type of pedagogic practice is increasingly being used to internationalize the curriculum and offer students the possibility to engage with peers in other parts of the world in collaborative online projects. Different terms are used to refer to this practice, for example virtual exchange, collaborative online international learning (COIL), and globally networked learning.
Telecollaboration is based on sociocultural views of learning inspired by Vygotskian theories of learning as a social activity.
Guth and Helm (2010) built on the pedagogy of telecollaboration by expanding on its traditional practices via incorporating Web 2.0 tools in online collaborative projects. This enriched practice widely became known as telecollaboration 2.0. Telecollaboration 2.0, being a completely new phase, serves to achieve nearly the same goals of telecollaboration. A distinctive feature of Telecollaboration 2.0, however, lies in prioritizing promoting the development and mastery of new online literacies. Although telecollaboration and telecollaboration 2.0 are used interchangeably, the latter slightly differs in affording "a complex context for language education as it involves the simultaneous use and development" of intercultural competencies, internationalize classrooms and promotes authentic intercultural communication among partnering schools/students.
There are several different 'models' of telecollaboration which have been extensively described in the literature. The first models to be developed were based on the partnering of foreign language students with "native speakers" of the target language, usually by organizing exchanges between two classes of foreign language students studying one another's languages. The most well established models are the eTandem and the Cultura, and eTwinning models.
eTandem, which developed from the face to face Tandem Learning approach, has been widely adopted by individual learners who seek partners on the many available educational websites which offer to help find partners and suggest activities for tandem partners to engage in. However, the eTandem model has also been used for class-to-class telecollaboration projects where teachers establish specific objectives, tasks, and/or topics for discussion. The Teletandem model is based on eTandem and was developed in Brazil, but focuses on oral communication through VOIP tools such as Skype and Google Hangouts. Until recent years, however, telecollaboration has generally used asynchronous communication tools.
The Cultura project was developed by teachers of French as a foreign language at MIT in the late 1990s with the aim of making culture the focus of their foreign language class. This model takes its inspiration from the words of the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin: "It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly ... A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another foreign meaning" (as cited in Furstenberg, Levet, English, & Maillet, 2001, p. 58). Cultura is based on the notion and process of cultural comparison and entails students analysing cultural products in class with their teachers and interacting with students of the target languages and cultures through which they develop a deeper understanding of each other's culture, attitudes, representations, values, and frames of reference.
The eTwinning project, which essentially is a network of schools and educators within the European Union and part of Eramus+, contrasts with its earlier counterparts in not setting specific guidelines apropos of language use, themes or structure. This model serves as a broad platform for schools within the EU to exchange information and share materials online, and provides a virtual space for countless pedagogical opportunities where teachers and students collectively learn, communicate and collaborate using a foreign language. Quintessentially, eTwinning has the following four objectives: 1. setting up a collaborative network among European schools by connecting them via Web 2.0 tools; 2. encouraging educators and students to collaborate with their counterparts in other European countries; 3. fostering a learning environment in which European identity is integrated with multilingualism and multiculturalism; 4. continuously developing educators' professional skills "in the pedagogical and collaborative use of ICT". eTwinning has thus proven to be a strong model for telecollaboration in recent years, since it enables the authentic use of foreign language among virtual partners, i.e. teachers and students. Not surprisingly, eTwinning projects have become increasingly recognized at various educational institutions across the continent. Each of the telecollaborative models discussed above has its strengths and weaknesses:
||Various issues may arise as a result of:
The Challenges of Telecollaboration
The complexities of the objectives of telecollaboration ("telecollaborative tasks can and should integrate the development of language, intercultural competence, and online literacies") can generate a series of challenges for educators and learners. O’Dowd and Ritter categorized potential reasons for failed communication in telecollaborative projects, sub-dividing them into four levels which, as the researchers indicate, can also overlap and interrelate:
Challenges at Individual Level
O'Dowd and Ritter focus initially on the individual level of possible obstacles to full functionality in telecollaborative projects, specifically the psychobiographical and educational backgrounds of the telecollaborative partners as potential sources for dysfunctional communications, and in particular, on the following two primary aspects:
Intercultural Communicative Competences
The concept of intercultural communicative competence (ICC) was established by Byram who stated that there are five dimensions (or '5 savoirs') that make an individual interculturally competent: a combination of skills of interpreting, relating, discovery and interaction, of attitudes, knowledge and critical awareness. Learners who embark on a telecollaborative project with immature intercultural communicative competences may struggle to carry out the tasks usefully.
Motivation and expectations regarding participation in the project
Dissonance in terms of motivation, commitment levels and expectations are also potential sources of tension for learning partners. For example, long response times can be interpreted as a lack of interest, or short responses as unfriendliness (Ware).
Challenges at Class Level
Solid teacher partnerships are essential to the success of telecollaboration and ideally should be constructed before the students embark on the project. According to O'Dowd and Ritter, telecollaboration can be viewed as "a form of virtual team teaching which demands high levels of communication and cooperation with a partner whom they may not have met face to face". Furthermore, since telecollaboration has been devised as a vehicle both for linguistic and intercultural communication, educators as much as students must learn to be 'intercultural speakers' (Byram) and avoid culturally inappropriate behaviors, typecasting, culture clashes and misunderstandings.
Teachers will be aware of the curricular needs of their own institution, however these are unlikely to match exactly the requirements of their partner institute. The themes and sequencing of the tasks must, therefore, be the result of a compromise which satisfies the curricular needs of both sides. Reaching compromises necessarily implies that the partners be willing to invest time and energy in the demands of planning, and that they are sensitive to the needs of others.
Successful pair and group formation is crucial to successful telecollaboration, however factors such as age, gender or foreign language proficiency can impact projects substantially, leading to the difficult choice between leaving pairings and groupings to chance, or assigning partners according to a rationale, however challenging foreseeing compatibilities and incompatibilities might be.
Local group dynamics
In telecollaborative projects, most of the attention tends to be focused on the online relationships, with the consequent risk of neglecting the local group. The local group is the context within which communication, interaction, negotiation and, thus, a large part of the learning process take place. Consequently these relationships also require teacher guidance and monitoring.
A comprehensive preparatory phase is an essential element in effective telecollaborative projects. If teachers can forewarn learners of issues which may arise, they will be better equipped to deal with them and to protect the quality of the exchange. Potentially problematic areas include technical problems, a lack of information about one's partner and his/her environment, as well as partners' expectations not matching.
Challenges at Socio-institutional Level
Both the types of available technological tools and access to them can impact the relationship between partners. More sophisticated technological tools on one side can make a less well-equipped telecollaborative partner feel he/she is at a disadvantage. Moreover, restrictions in accessibility can limit opportunities for partners to interact, with repercussions which can include the risk of giving the false impression of disinterest when a learner with limited technological access is less responsive than a partner who has unlimited access.
General organization of the course of study
O'Dowd and Ritter include in their list of socio-institutional challenges the organization of the learners' general course of studies, and refer to Belz and Müller-Hartmann's identification of four key areas which can influence the outcome of telecollaborations:
- differences in academic calendars
- differences in assessment modalities
- differences in the educational background of the teachers and in their aims
- differences in student contact hours and in the university infrastructure
These differences can greatly affect the outcome of a project, as they can generate differing expectations regarding the volume of work, the meeting of deadlines, and so forth. O'Dowd and Ritter also indicate the pairing of students whose main focus of academic interest may not be the same as a possible source of dysfunction, in addition to the impact of clashes of institutional policies and philosophies regulating all aspects of the learning and teaching processes.
Differences in prestige values of cultures and languages
In sociolinguistics, the concept of prestige refers to the regard accorded certain languages or forms of the same language, such as dialects. Since telecollaboration involves intercultural communicative competences as much as purely linguistic skills, O'Dowd and Ritter remind us that telecollaborative interactions can be negatively affected by prestige-based attitudes both to language and culture, which in turn can lead to the ranking of one language and culture over the other, with repercussions on the telecollaborative partnership.
Challenges at Interactional Level
At this level, cultural differences relative to communicative behaviors, such as attitudes to small talk, can cause misunderstanding and impact telecollaborations. According to O'Dowd and Ritter these interactional divergences can occur within the following communicative domains:
- Illocutionary (the intention behind utterances such as promising, threatening or requesting)
- Discourse (features of contextualized language use, such as the setting, voice pitch, style or posture)
- Participation (how the communications are organized in terms of turn-taking, speed of responses, and so forth)
- Stylistic (tone and register, including the appropriateness of humor, slang or formal lexis)
- Nonverbal (in telecollaboration this refers to the area of compensatory modes of expression as substitutes for missing visual and paralinguistic cues, such the posting of emoticons)
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