Paper presented by K. Jauregi (Utrecht University & Fontys University of Applied Sciences) & S. Melchor-Couto (University of Roehampton) at ANTWERP CALL 2014: Research Challenges in CALL, 7-9 July 2014.
Telecollaboration has been said to contribute to intercultural communicative competence (Belz & Thorne, 2006; Canto et al. 2013, in press; Guth & Helm, 2010; O’Dowd, 2007; Liauw, 2006; Ware & Kramsch, 2005, Jauregi et al. 2012). However, most research in this area has so far been carried out only in tertiary education (Pol, 2013). The European project TILA (Telecollaboration for Intercultural Language Acquisition) is one of the first attempts to integrate telecollaborative practices in the secondary education context and to research its impact in younger learners’ intercultural awareness, motivation and communicative competence. The TILA network has been extended to 45 secondary schools across Europe, all of which are actively taking part in these exchanges.
Drawing on the experience obtained so far with this project, the present paper will reflect on the challenges involved in conducting telecollaboration research in secondary schools, not least those related to the organisation of pilot experiments, the replication of previous studies with young learners and the use of tried and tested questionnaires with this audience.
The paper will also describe the research carried out during TILA’s initial stage, involving more than ten pilots in French, German, Spanish and English. The aim of these studies was to ascertain through repeated surveys the impact of telecollaboration activities on students’ perception of language learning, intercultural awareness and motivation as well as on their communicative competence.
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Online foreign language interaction is becoming increasingly popular in education as a way to enhance language acquisition (Canto et al., 2013; Chapelle, 2001; Lamy & Goodfellow, 2010; Warschauer & Kern, 2000) and Intercultural Communicative Competence (Belz & Thorne, 2006; Byram, 2014; Guth & Helm, 2010; O’Dowd, 2007; Liauw, 2006). Online communication tools can be used to facilitate telecollaboration, that is, the possibility “to bring together classes of language learners in geographically distant locations to develop their foreign language skills and intercultural competence through collaborative tasks and project work” (O’Dowd 2014: 340).
Most experiences and research results reported so far on online foreign language interaction and telecollaboration refer to tertiary language education (Pol, 2013). Educational experiences and research studies are needed in order to find out whether the positive results of research on telecollaboration related to adults at tertiary education (impact on motivation: Jauregi et al. 2012; on communicative oral competence: Canto et al., 2013; and on intercultural competence Canto et al., 2014) do apply to younger students who are learning languages in quite a different educational setting.
The European project TILA originated from this very specific need. TILA, Telecollaboration for Intercultural Language Acquisition, (Jauregi et al., 2013) seeks to:
(1) innovate and enrich language teaching programs at secondary schools and make them more motivating and effective by stimulating telecollaboration for intercultural awareness with peers of other cultures;
(2) empower (student) teachers for developing ICT literacy skills, as well as organisational, pedagogical and intercultural competences for telecollaboration; and
(3) study the added value that telecollaboration may have in language learning for intercultural understanding of younger learners.
Six countries are represented in the TILA consortium: France, UK, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Czech Republic. Each country collaborates with a secondary school and a teacher training institution. The project languages are Catalan, English, French, German and Spanish.
After creating teacher training materials and providing workshops to the teachers interested in engaging in telecollaboration practices at secondary schools, telecollaboration pilots were carried out between December 2013 and February 2014. Eight secondary schools, 200 pupils and 20 teachers, have participated in these pilots. They all used synchronous communication tools: Big Blue Button, an open source videocommunication environment where participants can see each other while talking, chatting and sharing documents with one another (sound and video are recorded in the system) and OpenSim, an open source 3D virtual world, where learners communicate orally and by chat. Users are represented as avatars, who can walk, dance, fly and visit all kinds of scenarios together (museums, beach, hotels, markets, shops, cinema, houses, hospitals, etc.) while carrying out communication tasks.
2. Researching pilot experiences
For the pilots both learner and teacher questionnaires were developed and distributed digitally. The questionnaires contained mostly closed items. A 5 point Likert scale was used with low values indicating negative experiences and high values positive ones.
Prior to the telecollaboration sessions learners were asked to complete a background survey which included items concerning the students’ affinity with languages, technology use at school and students’ preferences and attitudes about technology.
A second questionnaire was distributed to learners for evaluating a range of aspects related to the telecollaboration practices: technical quality, suitability of the environment used, tasks, communicative performance and motivation.
As for teachers, they were asked to assess the telecollaboration experiences focusing on what went (not) well and why, their perceptions about the pedagogical value of telecollaboration, their tasks and roles during the project and their motivation.
Additional questionnaires were also distributed to teachers in an attempt to measure their intercultural development. For reasons of space we will focus on the results of learner questionnaires.
77 students from 8 different institutions filled in the background questionnaires. Many of the pupils participating in the telecollaboration sessions report to learn two, mostly three and sometimes four languages at school. All of them learn English and a majority learns Spanish (82%). 92% of the pupils says to like to learn languages. When asked which elements of language learning they like the most the results show that they all like Speaking (M=3.98, SD=0.93), followed by Learning about other people (M=3.85, SD=1.02) and Pronunciation (M=3.85, SD=0.96). The least favourite is Grammar (M=2.99, SD=1.11).
Questions about the students’ technological use show that all pupils have a computer at home and 76 from the 77 have internet connection. Additionally, 90.9% possesses a Smartphone, while 74% owns a tablet, IPad and/or IPod. As to the social media applications pupils use to communicate with friends and family, Whatsapp is the most popular one, followed by Facebook and Skype. Some Spanish pupils reported to use Tuenti, a social networking application similar to Facebook. The overall high frequencies of social media applications used indicate that pupils at secondary school are very familiar with a variety of digital communication tools.
Learners were also asked about the digital tools used at school. Moodle is the environment most frequently used at schools, particularly in Spain. Some cultural trends were observed in the answers: Facebook is used relatively more in Spain, while Skype is more frequently used in England. Edmodo is used only by the French students. A majority of the students thinks that digital applications should be used more at school (65%) and thinks that the use of digital tools can improve language learning (66.3%). There is a high correlation between these two items (r = 0.72).
A total of 73 pupils filled in the user experience questionnaire. 64% of the pupils used BigBlueButton as digital communication tool during the telecollaboration sessions, 17% used OpenSim, while 9% used Skype. From all pupils, 60% communicated in a tandem setting (carrying out tasks in two languages: the foreign language and the native language) while 40% communicated in a lingua franca (foreign language for both groups).
Mean scores and their standard deviations were calculated for the different items. Technical aspects such as the ease to start and use the tool scored satisfactorily overall, but there was a lot of variance. There were 18 comments about the technical aspects showing that when there were problems, these were due to a bad Internet connection (or no connection at all) and poor sound quality (or no sound at all). The sound quality scored the lowest in the whole questionnaire (M=2.90, SD=1.08). In spite of technical problems, students still enjoyed the opportunity to communicate with foreign peers as it can be seen by the high means (and the relative low standard deviations) on items such as whether the students like to (1) communicate in the tool environment (M=4.06, SD=0.75), (2) meet students from other countries in the tool environment (M=4.35, SD=0.63) and (3) learn in the tool environment (M=4.04, SD=0.87). It does not seem to matter which tool environment is used, since almost all scores are above 4.
Aspects like comfort, motivation, satisfaction and especially enjoyment (M=4.29, SD=0.64) score very high. It is interesting to notice that students did not feel especially nervous when speaking in the target language, as the mean of the scores is neutral (M=3.15, SD=1.06). When the different digital tools are compared it becomes clear that especially in OpenSim students feel more at ease and less nervous when speaking in the target language (M=2.77) compared to Skype (M=3.00) and BigBlueButton (M=3.38).
The survey reveals that overall the telecollaboration project was positively valued. The online tasks were seen as enjoyable, interesting and useful for language learning. As to the last item “I would like to use online tasks with students from other countries more often”, this was rated high with M=4.07 and SD=0.84.
- Research challenges
A number of challenges were encountered in the development of this research study, mainly related to the subjects’ young age. The majority of tried and tested questionnaires are designed for adult respondents, who will not experience any difficulties in understanding overly complex or abstract language. However, most young students will need their teacher’s help to be able to process the questions asked. Research shows that from the age of 7 students should be able to complete a questionnaire and provide meaningful and reliable data, however, some degree of language adaptation will be required (Bell, 2007). Consequently, the questions used for our research questionnaires were simplified and kept to the minimum number of words possible to maintain their simplicity and straightforwardness. The average number of words per question is 9, with 14 being the maximum.
The type of questions included was a further consideration. Yes/No items are always easier to answer, however, in most cases a Likert-scale format was more suited to the this study’s research purposes. Once again, most adults are familiar with Likert scale questionnaires, but this may rarely be true for children. In this case, it is advisable to include completely-labelled scales -as opposed to partially-labelled ones- and verbal labels –rather than numeric ones. Using smiley faces may also be effective (Bell, 2007). Bearing this in mind, the statements included in the students’ questionnaires presented completely-labelled verbal scales, i.e. “Strongly disagree”, “Disagree”, “Neither agree nor disagree”, “Agree”, “Strongly agree”. Other data collection formats may be used, such as learning diaries, although they are more time-consuming and they need to be integrated somehow in the curriculum.
The questionnaire’s length must also be born in mind, as it may be more tiring for children to complete an extensive questionnaire and they may even stop providing meaningful answers. This phenomenon is known as “satisficing” and it means that “instead of going through the full question-answer process, a respondent appeals to some other principle in order to reach a response, e.g. simply choosing the first option on the list, or answering every question in the positive (Bell, 2007:462). The student questionnaire distributed for this study comprises a total of 40 items, which was already described as excessive by some of the participating school teachers. An attempt was made to further limit the number of items, although it was decided that this might compromise the quality and comprehensiveness of the data gathered. As a result, a decision was made to limit the research topics that the subjects would be asked about and to use separate cohorts for subsequent research studies.
Finally, the logistics of gathering data from school students must also be mentioned. Lessons are usually 45-50 minutes-long. In this time, teachers must get their students ready for the tasks that will be performed, make sure that the technology is ready and working, support their students in successfully completing the task, make sure that there is time left to fill in the relevant questionnaires, provide any guidance required to this end and collect and keep the completed questionnaires in a safe place. Research activity in the classroom adds an extra element to an already busy and stressful environment. In an attempt to simplify the data collection process, all the questionnaires used for the present study were circulated in electronic format via the specific Moodle sites used for every task. Students quickly learnt where to find them and easily adapted to the routine of completing the questionnaires at the end of every session and teachers did not have to worry about collecting the answered questionnaires.
4 Concluding remarks
The affordances of telecollaboration for foreign language learning in tertiary education have been confirmed by numerous publications and there may be grounds to believe that they also apply to secondary school classrooms. As stated at the beginning of this paper, research studies evaluating the affordances of online foreign language interaction amongst secondary school students are few and far between, although the present study presents encouraging data. A total of 77 students from 5 European countries completed a background and user experience questionnaire after undertaking a number of online foreign language interaction tasks. The data gathered indicates that the experience has been very well received by the majority of the participants, whose rating were positive despite the technical problems reported. Students find it motivating and enjoyable to communicate in the foreign language with peers from other countries and they like this way of learning a foreign language. All the tools used for the language interactions were positively valued, although the students who communicated via the virtual world OpenSim claimed to feel less nervous and more at ease than those using videoconferencing software such as Big Blue Button or Skype. The participants’ young age posed difficulties in terms of the data collection tools used, as the question’s format, wording and questionnaire’s length had to be adjusted accordingly. However, data was collected satisfactorily and the information obtained was found to be reliable and meaningful. Further research is yet needed to gain insight into aspects such as lingua franca versus tandem interaction in an online setting or the effects of anonymity on affective variables such as anxiety, self-efficacy beliefs or willingness to communicate, particularly so with young learners.
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 The research studies reported here were carried out from the experiences of a previous European project: NIFLAR (Networked Interaction in Foreign Language Acquisition and Research: www.niflar.eu).
 TILA is a European project funded by the European Commission within the Lifelong Learning Programme and runs between January 2013 and June 2015.