Observations and Reflections from a TILA Workshop with Foreign Language Teachers and Teacher Educators in Germany

The workshop was held in German and took place at the University of Tübingen on Oct 1st, 2014 from 2:30 until 5:45 pm. It was conducted by Petra Hoffstaedter and Kurt Kohn, STC Language Learning Media. [1]

The workshop participants represented a rich and highly relevant mix of pedagogical expertise:

  • 9 teachers from different secondary schools, of whom 6 are also involved in initial and/or continuous teacher education
  • 1 representative from the Regional Council of the ministry of education Baden-Württemberg
  • 4 teacher students
  • 1 representative from an educational publisher

The overall workshop objective was to introduce the participants to the pedagogical potential of telecollaboration for synchronous oral communication and intercultural foreign language learning. In this connection, special attention was given to the pedagogical requirements and learning objectives specified in national educational standards.

Following a brief introduction and discussion of key concepts and tools of the TILA approach, the workshop’s main emphasis was on a joint pedagogical exploration of case studies from the TILA piloting phase:

  1. “Learning stations” with posters in virtual world scenarios of OpenSim
  2. Discussions in pairs in the videoconferencing environment of BigBlueButton
  3. Small group conversations in the OpenSim café „Chez Amélie“

In addition to the pedagogical evaluation, observations from these case studies were used to discuss technological and organizational challenges teachers might be faced with when trying to implement oral telecollaboration exchanges. This concerned in particular notoriously critical sound problems and how they can be avoided through changes in class organization.

The workshop concluded with a reflective discussion of some observations that were deemed crucial for oral communication through synchronous telecollaboration:[2]

(1) Synchronous oral telecollaboration

(a) TILA’s synchronous telecollaboration environment (with videoconferencing in BigBlueButton and virtual world interaction in OpenSim) facilitates intercultural contact and interaction outside and beyond the physical classroom. It offers a rich pedagogical potential for authentic and motivating oral communication practice among pupils from different cultures and first language backgrounds.

(b) It is important, however, that telecollaboration exchanges are implemented in such a way that the tasks and activities are pedagogically sustainable, i.e. suitable for everyday pedagogical practice.

(2) Language constellations

TILA offers offered two types of language constellations: in the case of “tandem” the two partner classes are matched in such a way that the native language of one class is the target language of the other class; in a “lingua franca” constellation both classes share the same foreign language.

(a) Tandem constellations provide communicative access to native speakers; they also help to develop pupils’ accommodation strategies in their native language. At the same time, however, level discrepancies between pupils’ native and foreign language proficiencies may lead to communicative frustration for both listeners and speakers.

(b) Lingua franca constellations seem particularly motivating for the pupils since they offer authentic communication on an equal footing. Pupils are encouraged and challenged at the same time. Differences in target language proficiency require mutual respect and empathy, accommodation skills, and strategies for communicating with limited means of expression.

(3) Pedagogical implementation

(a) “During class time” (in general)

Because of ill-matching time slots, telecollaboration exchanges ‘during class time’ generally create problems for partner finding and organization.

(b) “During class time” in the classroom

Combining a desktop computer with a web cam and a data projector offers interesting options for both tandem and lingua franca interactions. The activities need to be carefully designed and the pupils need to be organized in suitable (e.g. speaking, listening and support) teams. Speaking time for the individual pupil is generally limited.

(c) “During class time” in the ComLab

Option1: The entire class is split up in small parallel groups, each of which interacts online with their partner group in the other country. This set-up is generally beset with two types of problems:

  • lack of communicative privacy, distractions and disturbances
  • bad sound quality due to parallel speaking parties and resulting network overload

Option 2: Only few pupils are selected to take part in the ComLab activity (in order to avoid network overload) – however, what happens with the rest of the class?

Both options create problems for pedagogical sustainability.

(d) “Outside class time”

Telecollaboration exchanges “outside class time”, e.g. from pupils’ home computers or during free project hours, might help to avoid problems resulting from lack of communicative privacy or insufficient sound quality because of network overload. What is more, telecollaborating from home seems to

  • facilitate more elaborate and authentic communicative interactions
  • foster pupils’ feeling of (collaborative) agency and responsibility

The challenge, however, of involving the entire class remains, since not all pupils may have adequate home internet access or feel comfortable in a live interaction. In a “homework” telecollaboration exchange between Dutch and French pupils with German as the target language, principles of differential pedagogy were applied to address this issue. Depending on their personal preferences or the available technological infrastructure at home, the pupils could thus chose between a synchronous oral conversation in BigBlueButton and an asynchronous written conversation in a Moodle forum. In this way, it was possible to involve all pupils.

(4) Task design

The pedagogical quality of synchronous telecollaboration activities is influenced by the preparatory and follow-up task(s) in which they are pedagogically embedded (> Blended Learning).

In the Dutch/French homework exchange mentioned above, the preparatory tasks included classroom discussions about topics that might be interesting for pupils and would thus stimulate rich conversations, e.g. „a day without mobile phone of computer“, „my outfit in school“, or „Selling alcohol to youth”. In addition, the pupils were set up in Dutch/French pairs by the teachers. Those pairs who had opted for the BigBlueButton conversation were required to make their own appointments and to check that the internet and sound connection was sufficient. The pupils helped each other with technological problems; in some cases they decided to use text chat instead of voice or switch to Skype. In the main telecollaboration task, the pairs of pupils were required to discuss some of the topics either in oral BigBlueButton or written forum exchanges. Since the focus was on as authentic as possible conversations, it was considered essential that the pupils were free to select topics they found interesting and that would allow them to bring in their own experiences and opinions. Based on notes the pupils had taken during the conversations, the follow-up activities included summary and reflective discussions in class.

The overall feedback from both teachers and pupils was very positive. The oral conversations in BigBlueButton were lively and rich. The written forum discussions generally required more prompting.

(5) Opportunities for language learning

In addition to communicative practice, synchronous telecollaboration activities create relevant instances of incidental language learning, in particular when pupils notice communication problems and attempt to solve them. Most of these instances, however, are rather fleeting; they tend to fade away unless measures are taken to collect and further exploit them. This is where accompanying chat notes as well as collaborative follow-up explorations and reflective discussions in class or forum have their place.

(6) Pedagogical assessment

Another crucial challenge of synchronous telecollaboration concerns pedagogical assessment. Performance analyses based on recorded telecollaboration sessions may not always be feasible because of lack of access or time. Other relevant instruments of assessment include reflective learning journals and portfolios; they have the additional value of enhancing learning awareness and the development of learning strategies.

[1] The TILA project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This report reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

[2] We would like to thank all workshop participants and our TILA colleagues Begoña Clavel and Barry Pennock for their comments.

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