I was asked to complete two questionaires from Universitat de València students doing their TFG (end of degree dissertation) on the topic of telecollaboration. Their tutor and TILA colleague, Begoña Clavel, kindly asked me to provide the teacher’s insight they wanted to cover more extensibly the scope of their assignment. Then we agreed it could be shared. Here are the results based only on my own perceptions and experiences of the project.
Do you think that the implementation of new technologies in the second language classroom involves a significant and more enriching change towards language learning for real life? Why?
I think it does. It provides stds with a connection to the world outside the classroom, it roots more easily with meaningful learning in a more progressively digital world, it enhances both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it offers a new dimension to the traditional learning tools (textbooks, workbooks, readers, etc) and it also goes a step forward in interaction techniques.
Do you consider that the role of the school as an institution has decreased in importance during the last years?
Yes, I do, as learner autonomy has become a stronger key element in more modern educational trends and syllabi. However the stds perception of the institution has not changed much yet. Stds opinions and attitudes on what they want to learn and how they want to learn it are still a long way away from causing a significant impact on teachers’ views and approaches to their daily practice, and also on educational authorities and their policies.
In what ways can the TILA project contribute to the innovation of teacher education?
Hopefully, it will provide a good basis and material for research for blended, collaborative processes of teaching and learning, adaptation of syllabi, not only for languages, but also for other subjects, as it will make them less constricted to grammar/vocabulary based courses as they are mostly run nowadays in state secondary education in Spain. The project also provides a framework for teacher development with a strong focus on using new technologies and social media.
Do you think that a focus on culture sets aside the primary goals of classroom instruction?
Not really, as cultural awareness IS, or at least should be, a primary goal in the language curriculum.
During the project, what problems related to academic calendars, ICT equipment and the internet have occurred? If so, did these technical issues reduce the positive impact of the session?
Many problems occurred, are presently occurring and will do in the future. They certainly do produce frustration and demotivation both for stds and teachers alike. School calendars and timetables are difficult to coordinate and match, especially when different countries are involved. Classroom PCs, servers, etc, are not always working as expected due to the fact that many people put their hands on them. The internet connections are neither 100% operational most of the times as maybe there is an overflow, or governmental control doesn’t allow them.
Compared to the traditional methods used in the language classroom, did the tasks developed, along with the organized sessions and intercultural topics, foster authenticity?
They undoubtedly do. There’s a feeling of immediacy, reality, ‘unbookishness’ if I can call it that way which isn’t present in the so called ‘normal’ lessons.
In your opinion, did the tandem exchange between participants increase student’s motivation towards the target language?
It does. It adds meaningfulness and authenticity to the interactions and the related tasks.
Compared to more traditional settings such as the language classroom, were students, working in small groups, more participative during the telecollaborative project?
I think so. On the other hand though, well trained students don’t show a much more enthusiastic participation than in a ‘normal’ class setting.
Did teachers and students use social media tools in order to develop intercultural awareness and communicative social skills with their peers abroad?
Not a lot so far, but they’ll eventually do so as the project develops and reaches further stages of accomplishement.
Do you think codeswitching is an indicator of students’ low language ability or rather an aid to solving problems between partners?
Both. It will depend on each individual communicative instance.
To what extent is it important to have passionate, committed and flexible partners who share similar language learning objectives?
There are so many setbacks to be overcome that support, adaptability and enthusiasm are paramount to achieve your goals. This is teamwork, schools are not competing but sharing learning experiences. Like good marriages they’ve got to work 50/50, be understanding, implicated and supportive at all times.
In your own view, do students need to open up to their foreign partners on an emotional level?
Not necessarily. In general, I must say they do. Repeated contact results in building up some kind of relationship, which is, on the other hand, desirable with a view to strengthening future bonds.
Do you consider that peer feedback may not be appropriate in telecollaboration due to students’ limitations?
I think it’s unavoidable to comment, at least with your own classmates, how things went in your interactions, or your partners opinions. I don’t think it has to be done between partners. I don’t think it adds any valuable data when talking about overall performance. I don’t mean some degree of correction between partner is to be avoided. I’d say they even appreciate it. In my opinion, judgemental statements on partners are counterproductive. Data worth anylising can be extracted from task questionnaires or/and stds’ reports whenever there are such reports.
At the end of the first phase of the project did students function as responsible and autonomous learners?
A few do fully. Many are still a slightly unaware of the implications and scope of participating in TILA.
During the first phase of the project did students feel more confident about their ability to communicate and interact in the target language?
In general, I think they do. They’ve gone from ‘formal teaching’ to some kind of ‘communicative’ play where they don’t feel scrutinised and somehow self-confidence gets a boost.
Did students feel at the end of the first phase of the project that they had met their overall goals?
I don’t think they set themselves goals as such.They let themselves go with the flow, and, considering they do all the work and tasks within the subject of ‘Practical English’, where we enjoy great flexibility of aims and objectives, they are basically happy to be participants, and leave the ‘academic’ aspects to their teachers.
Teacher of English in Secondary Education at “Clot del Moro” school (Sagunt)
Q: Dear Josep: First of all, I am very grateful for your cooperation. I would like to pose some questions related to the TILA Project in order to examine the usefulness of telecollaboration throughout this project in particular.
How did Clot del Moro get involved with the TILA Project and why?
A: José Ramón Gómez asked me to participate in NIFLAR (the matrix project from which TILA derives) and later we were asked to take part in TILA either as an associate school or as a member of the consortium. We chose the latter.
Q: How do you consider it is evolving?
A: It’s going steadily, but soundly. There are plenty of ups and downs, as some of the handicaps to be overcome can be quite frustrating. It’s very demanding for everyone involved and requires enthusiastic commitment, which is not compensated financially or in terms of promotion, reduction of ordinary school workload or improvement of working conditions. It relies on our own willingness and faith in the project.
Q: Had you participated in some other telecollaborative activity before?
A: In NIFLAR as I said above.
Q: How do you feel about the new teaching and learning method being integrated together with the conventional educational model?
A: It’s the future. One only needs to simply look at educational trends worldwide to see that globalisation is also affecting education in a wide range of aspects, not only language teaching an learning. By nature, humans are reluctant to accept and implement change, as the proverb goes: ‘it’s better the devil you know’, and in particular the authorities, whether educational or other, but this can’t stop the school communities all over the world coming to terms with social and technological updates.
Q: To the best of my knowledge, incorporating the new technology as an essential tool in the classroom may entail some disadvantages, such as the high cost of technological material. Was this an inconvenient for Clot del Moro to carry this project out? What sort of technological devices does it count on? Was it already well-prepared for this or was it difficult to afford to?
A: We’re lucky to be relatively well equipped. Our school management alloted the project an ICT classroom, which is shared for other purposes too, and agreed to make the adjustments necessary for us to get on with it. So far we’ve only spent TILA money on a laptop, a few webcams and some headsets. I’m also about to purchase an external hard-disc 1T to store everything connected with TILA. Dropbox has been, and still is, used to share information on the different work packages, literature, etc. Nowadays, most of the official materials, teacher’s database, tasks, general info from wps, and other bits and pieces are stored, displayed and shared via TILA moodle. I hope it remains there long into the future so that we can continue to access it for as long as we need it.
Q: Apart from the possible economic problems, another relevant disadvantage it may arise from incorporating technology in the daily teaching and learning could be the initial reticence from teachers, who sometimes need to be instructed in the management of technological devices. Did teachers of Clot del Moro collaborating on this project show a similar response? If so, how did they deal with it?
A: We’re already overworked and underpaid, which makes teachers initially reluctant to take courses unless they are absolutely necessary to carry out their daily duties in the teaching/learning process. Obviously, this was not a must. However, the teachers involved were quite willing to take the plunge, learning about moodlework, opensim and BBB, which are the basic tools in use for the project. We had a 4-hour crash course last June but could only learn a few basics about moodle and BBB. Opensim was, unfortunately, a bit of a failure due to faulty connections. I consider this far too insufficient as we need to be operational. This, in fact, is our first attempt to work with a fully comprehensive computerised course and one certainly learns by doing. We’re better prepared now considering we’re language teachers, but even for our technological TILA teachers, it was and still is quite a challenge to make everything run smoothly. The rest of the teachers at school still regard us as kind of ‘lunatics’. The rest of the English department (there are 7 of us) decided not to get involved. I won’t get into details about it as it is a long story.
Q: However, telecollaboration also presents many advantages principally related to the improvement of second language learning. Since you are working very closely to your students, could you explain its benefits from your own point of view?
A: To sum up: it provides a clear reference for the rationale of second language learning, it’s motivating in various degrees, it integrates a game-like element in the learning process, it adds authenticity to speech acts, it develops acquaintances that may become friendships in the future, it implies collaboration, working together, helping each other for a purpose of mutual benefit, it focuses on process and not so much on results, it’s a good springboard for autonomous learning, it brings up cross-cultural references and promotes inter-culturality.
Q: Moreover, students must adopt a role in this telecollaborative classroom that differs from the conventional way of teaching. In fact, the sense of cooperation is totally implied in the new educational model. Thus, telecollaboration may entail more mature and independent attitudes from students, who need to intercommunicate with other students and to get fluent by learning by ON their own by means of a computer, even though teachers will always be there to assist them. How did your students respond to this new method and how are they adapting? Are they presenting some sort of difficulty?
A: Their response has been good, not yet enthusiatic, but we’ve just been piloting and there has been little time for preparation and getting familiar with tools. It is has been frustrating for them when ‘things’ wouldn’t work but, in my opinion, they get on well with the whole working schedule. Perhaps, just to mention a flaw, though not an unsurpassable one, they are much less interested in filling in the questionnaires demanded from them. This is also due to the fact that they are often asked to do so as homework, as all the classtime in the telecol sessions is spent in sorting out technical faults and interacting.
Q: What functions would you say teachers must perform?
A: Everything you can think of , except telecollaborating on behalf of the students. To facilitate, instruct, guide, suggest, correct, analyze, assess, design, discipline, encourage, mentor, matchmake, you name it. All of these functions are performed at different levels of intensity, quantity and quality at different stages: before, while and after ‘telecol’ sessions.
Q: Could you explain a bit about the activities you carry out and the online tools you use?
A: We’ve used the moodle chat and BBB. We hope to do some tasks in opensim before the year ends. As you will know telecollaboration in TILA is task-based, and so far the students have carried out work related to introducing themselves and family and hometown, Christmas, holidays and festivities.
Q: I would like to go in depth about the sessions that allow intercommunication between students. What do they exactly consist of?
A: They consist in oral or chat exchanges about the topics mentioned. They usually prepare and anticipate questions and answers, gather the info received, which is normally shared afterwards, always according to the tasks previously set. This is done sometimes in one language (the target or native one in each case) in each session in tandem groups, or we split the time in a session for both languages. In lingua franca groups everything’s done in the target language.
Q: With regard to the language exchange, different kinds of tandems have place. How do students behave when acting as the native tandem? And what type of difficulties present both partners when using a lingua franca?
A: They behave normally in all cases. They are more conscious of their role as native speakers in the first case, trying to help their partners the best they can by repeating, slowing down utterances, being patient, explaining and paraphrasing. In lingua franca the approach is different as they have to negotiate meaning in a different way, use paralanguage/alternative communication strategies, cope with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation mistakes, and obviously the native cultural reference is diluted, not to say faded or lost. In this second case, it is easier to come to a dead end. It’s then up to the stdudents to look for help from their teacher, should they be available (in that very moment they may be assisting somebody else), or to carry on with the task.
In BBB the translation device was originally disabled to avoid students using it too frequently so as not to interrupt oral/written practice. I agree with this as it is more similar to real life communication, however I would suggest teachers waged the availability of a translation tool for certain tasks, according to difficulty/complexity, as I reckon it would result in a more satifactory outcome for the actors. This would obviously be detrimental for the language learning/acquisition researchers. It’s as I call it: an optical dilemma.
Q: Taking into account that language is learnt by interacting with others, communication strategies play an important role. Since these sessions are recorded to be later analysed, I would like you to give your impressions about the way students interact and use language and also about their strategies when presenting difficulties to understand or express themselves.
A: Well, there are two parts here. The first one being, they are themselves in the sense that there’s no ‘pretend to be’ assumption, they feel free to ask and answer as they want and with the language registers they can manage or consider best suited.
About strategies there’s no pre-determined way to deal with difficulties. They were taught earlier about the different communicative ways to tackle it: paraphrasing, examplifying, etc, but this was part of their syllabus for ‘streamline’ English. I had gone through this aspect in speaking sections of their coursebooks, and only referred back to it in the Practical English periods and when preparing for telecols. We haven’t had any further practice, except when actually telecollaborating. I must admit though that more emphasis should be put in communication strategies as they are the basis skills they’ll need in real life to become communicatively and linguistically competent.
Q: I will give some examples of possible communication strategies in order for you to comment which one would be the most common during the sessions. Code-switching, paraphrasing, literal translation, avoidance, description (when the precise word cannot be found), parroting or appeal for confirmation or repetition.
A: I can’t unfortunaltely be of much help here as most (very high percentage) of the time my attention was focused on checking out sound, connection problems, etc, basically making the session possible rather then assessing quality aspects of it. It must be said that the most frequent strategy used, in my opinion, was to ask me for tips, to help them out with vocabulary or pronunciation, either from themselves or their partners. I imagine when the recordings are analyzed this will be more accurately seen to. Unfortunately, I have managed to visualize or read very few of their interactions. There are quite a lot of other daily routines and duties, and even life, beyond TILA.
Q: Apart from this, the non-verbal communication also plays an important role. Do students resort to gestures frequently when having problems to communicate or do they manage quite well with their language command?
A: No chance for gestures in chats or opensim, except, perhaps, flying away. In BBB /skype (if this second one was sometime used) there’s the possibility of facial gesturing or even showing photos from their mobile phones to the webcam, or drawings on paper, realia, etc. At the moment, students aren’t allowed to upload photos or documents to sort out misunderstandings, information gaps, etc. It might be worth considering. I haven’t particularly noticed anybody doing so, at least on purpose.
Q: What are your thoughts about the efficacy and benefits of telecollaboration and of those sessions of the TILA project?
A: I think this has broadly been already answered in this and your previous questionnaire. It’s a bit early to talk about measuring results when we’re about to start the pilot follow-up. This is an experimental phase yet. We mustn’t forget that. Theses are training sessions, not the proper match. It’s certainly been efficient and beneficial to understand technical and tactical issues. SAI and Telefónica have sorted out accesibility to platforms, voice servers, etc, Adobe Flash Player has been detected as a major source of liabilities when not properly installed or regularly updated, students attitudes and preferences revealed, group-matching and timetable difficulties detected and rationalised, organisation, display and delivery of students’ tasks assessed, formated and shared in a more optimus way, more fluent and efficient communication among teachers and responsibility shares has been set up, procedural aspects in general have been enhanced, etc. We’ve walked together a long way and the path is smoother and clearer now. Our destination more visible and reachable, but we can’t stop being permanently pushing and boosting morale. And once we get there, it’ll only mean that we will in fact have already set off.
Q: And finally, I would like to pose the last question: how would you describe this experience from your own personal point of view?
A: You want adjectives, do you? OK, I’ll give you some, not necessarily in any order of any degree of importance: enlightening, challenging, awareness-raising, very demanding, frustrating and gratifying in turns, satisfying and nerve-wrecking also in turns, encouraging, formative, pioneering, very time-consuming, motivating, international, intercultural, cooperational, enjoyable, funny haha and funny weird, and altogether pleasant and promising.
Q: Thank you very much for devoting your time.