SpEakWise is a blending learning project in intercultural communication which has been running since 2007 between Trinity College Dublin and partner institutions in German-speaking countries. We are currently partnered with the University of Hildesheim. The students have language skills at level C1/C2 in German/English respectively and take part in a variety of activities such as ethnographic research, word association and sentence completion, non-participant observation and discourse completion discussing their resultsvia WebChat in a Virtual Learning Environment. The course culminates in a negotiation activity conducted via video-conference.
Trinity College Dublin
Dominant form of language production:
|Online Communication Skills|
How long did the project last?
How was the project organized?
The exchange forms part of a 5 ECTS subject in ‘ InterkulturelleWirtschaftskommunikation’ (Intercultural Business Communication) which aims to explore ” …the theoretical and practical dimensions of communicating in intercultural settings” . The course runs for two semesters but the SpEakwise exchange takes place during the first 12 weeks in the first term between October and December and during the month of January. The course in Dublin has three hours allocated per week. During the first semester, two of these hours are dedicated to the study and discussion of course content and one hour takes place in the computer laboratory and is dedicated to the exchange.
The Hildesheim students come from various degree programmes including students taking degrees in International Information Management, International Communication and Translation Studies.
The SpEakWise exchange is based loosely on the original Cultura project and involves various intercultural activities (Furstenburg et al, 2001). The exchange takes place mainly in a Moodle platform and involves various tasks which are carried out in and outside of class-time and which involve communication in both sets of students’ target languages &ndash German and English. The tasks involve asynchronous communication in discussion fora combined with synchronous discussions in text-based chat as well as group-to-group videoconferencing sessions. The Moodle platform is praised by the Trinity team as it provides asynchronous fora, chat tools as well as enabling students to identify themselves with photos. Positive feedback on the platform has also been received from the Hildesheim users.
The tasks in the exchange are varied but all have a cultural focus and aim to raise students’ awareness of the role of culture in communication and of the perceptions which different societies can have of each other. The tasks include making introductory videos of students’ home environments, exploring notions of collective cultural memory by observing street names, statues and stamps and discussing what they tell about each culture, word association questionnaires similar to those used in Cultura, discourse completion activities which encourage students to compare the realization of particular speech acts in their L1 and the L2,synchronous chat discussion sessions and, finally, videoconferencing sessions where small groups of German and Irish students role-play business negotiations. This final task is seen as particularly relevant for the Irish students who are all studying for a degree in Business Studies.
How were the students assessed?
As it currently stands, students in Trinity do not receive any academic credit for their work on the online exchange project. The teachers explain that the Intercultural Business Communication module feeds into the students’ final degree mark. With this in mind, the course teachers are unwilling to risk students receiving a low mark due to a lack of successful communication with their German partners. Gillian explains: ” If things don’ t work out in terms of communication between the students…this could lower their final marks… There are too many ‘ unpredictables’ which could have serious ramifications for the students.” These unpredictables may be technical and/or social in origin. Instead of awarding credit, the teachers explain that they present the exchange to students as something practical and potentially beneficial for their future careers &ndash giving them practical insights into intercultural negotiations, the use of videoconferencing etc.
In Hildesheim, the students have received 4 credits for participating in Speakwise for the first time in 2011-2012. Until then it had been an optional extra course and non-credit bearing.
What worked well?
The videoconferencing sessions where small groups of German and Irish students role-play business negotiations was the final task of the exchange and was seen as particularly relevant for the Irish students who are all studying for a degree in Business Studies.
One of the possible advantages of this exchange being an ‘ add-on’ and not being fully integrated into the course programme with academic credit is, according to one of the teachers involved: ” if it [the exchange] did fail one year, it’ s not dragging everything else down with it” . He also pointed to an important aspect of successful telecollaborative exchanges: He suggests that these exchanges can ” gather momentum” and if an exchange has worked successfully for, for example, four years, it is more likely to be maintained by new incoming teachers and department heads.
What did students think of the project?
In interviews with students carried out for this report, the exchange received a great deal of praise. They welcomed the chance to use their German language skills in authentic communication situations with their partners in Hildesheim and they were also aware that apart from their language skills, they are also developing communicative skills and self-presentation skills which will later serve them in their careers in international business.
What challenges did you face?
The barriers which the Trinity team have encountered are quite representative of the challenges which most university educators encounter when running telecollaborative exchanges. First, there are various technical impediments to running the exchange. Due to technical support limitations, Skype online telephony has not been installed to date for students in the university computer laboratories. This means that the team have not been able to integrate a tool which students are very comfortable with and which would allow free one-to-one videoconferencing. They also report that Moodle will no longer be available to them in the coming years as it is being replaced on an institutional level by Blackboard Learn 9.1 in September 2012. During the first three years of the exchange, WebCT was used as it was the platform supported at institutional level. However, both students and staff involved in the project found WebCT to be not very intuitive and, therefore, were happy to be selected in the piloting of Moodle. Having had very positive experiences with Moodle, they will now have to switch to another platform.
The Trinity team also encounter the widespread dilemma of not being able to attribute a significant amount of the students’ final grade for their work on the project.
Apart from these problems related to technologies and awarding credit, the exchange has also encountered the common problems related to incompatibility in the two universities’ timetables. Both universities begin and end their terms on different dates and teachers at both institutions need to invest considerable time each year trying to ensure that their classes’ timetables will coincide the following year in order to be able to hold synchronous chat and videoconferencing sessions. Despite these attempts, three dates for synchronous chat sessions posed scheduling problems during this year’ s exchange due to events in the different institutions such as ‘ Study week’ at Trinity College and ‘ Open days’ at Hildesheim.
What did the teachers think of the project?
In Trinity there are three teachers who collaborate in the course and all three are comfortable with and interested in the telecollaborative exchange. Gillian Martin, one of the colleagues in Trinity, sees the online interaction as ” …putting into practice the theoretical concepts” of the rest of the course.
What kind of institutional support did you receive?
Although the exchange has now been running in Trinity with different partner institutions for five years, the tutors readily admit that colleagues had been generally unaware of the project until very recently. This began to change in 2010 when the project was awarded The European Language Label, an EU-funded award which recognises creative and innovative ways to improve the quality of language teaching and learning around Europe. This has served to bring a certain amount of prestige to the project in the local institution and to raise awareness among staff and students of the value of this exchange. The course website proudly announces the award, as well as providing links to presentations and publications which have been based on the intercultural exchange.