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Editorial NRInglês

Telecollaboration: A Beginner’s Guide to Online Intercultural Exchanges

According to the history of the internet, January 1st, 1983, is the official date that the world changed. On that date, the US Defense Department began to use a new communication system that allowed computers to ‘talk’ to each other. That moment led us directly to today, when we cannot walk down the street, enter a metro train, or sit down in a café without seeing our fellow human beings, heads down, messaging someone using the mini-computer that we now call the cellphone or smartphone.

The global development of communications technology has also had a profound impact on English language teaching, as access to cell phones and computers has diversified. Obviously, the availability of a global communication system has promoted the use of a global lingua franca – and at this point in time, English serves that purpose. Suddenly, there is a reason for using English in everyone’s pocket or handbag.

Consequently, the past two decades have seen a rise in telecollaboration, or online exchanges. These exchanges are usually organized by institutions, or by enthusiastic teachers, to exploit digital communication by connecting learners of English in one part of the world with their peers elsewhere. One outcome of these exchanges has been the realization that effective collaborations require an understanding of cultural differences as well as competence in English. Many telecollaborations therefore focus on online intercultural exchanges, whereby learners develop both their language skills and their awareness of different cultural habits, values, behaviors, and beliefs. Indeed, forms of cultural expression become the focus of the exchange.

As online intercultural exchanges have grown in popularity, an associated research literature has grown with them. Master’s and doctoral theses, articles, and books have been published examining the impact of such telecollaborations on the linguistic and intercultural communicative competence of their participants. Most studies agree that organizing and sustaining an online intercultural exchange is demanding: it is a little like blindfolding a group of total strangers from different countries, all of whom speak different languages, and then ushering them into a cavernous space and telling them to make friends and accomplish tasks together. It’s not easy for anyone involved!

While there has been a lot of research published on telecollaboration and online intercultural exchanges, there is surprisingly little practical advice for teachers who might wish to organize or participate in such activities. Consequently, three colleagues and friends who, for 20 years, have been working, together and with many other partners, on developing and running online intercultural exchanges, decided to produce a slim guide to introduce novice telecollaborators to the key issues that they will need to address if they wish to design an effective online intercultural exchange. Over the years, we have connected groups of students in places such as Argentina, Brazil, China, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Palestine, Poland, Scotland, Taiwan and the USA. Bruno even did his PhD on a Brazil-USA telecollaboration.

So, what does this guide tell you that you need to know? As you might imagine, a lot of the content boils down to common sense. Since online intercultural exchanges are designed to promote intercultural communicative competence, the book begins with a short description of what that is. Anyone who is interacting online with people from a different background, with different values and expectations, will have to learn the skills of negotiation and mediation, and to be able to reflect not only on what language they have learned, but what skills they are using to communicate across and between cultures. With this in mind, we embark on a series of very basic, practical questions, like ‘How do you find a reliable partner?’ and ‘What kind of platform is best for interactions?’

Finding a reliable partner is perhaps the most crucial and most difficult step to take in developing an online exchange. Although there are agencies and ‘dating sites’ for telecollaborators, we have found that it is often more effective to exploit personal contacts within the profession, and to use conferences held by teachers’ associations to find possible partners. John, Bruno, and Hugo initially met, for example, through the BRAZ-TESOL teachers’ association. Paradoxically, it is useful for partners to meet each other face-to-face, or at least on a video chat. Partners in the organization of a telecollaboration need to trust each other and be on the same page mentally, and they need to be able to support each other when communication breaks down and misunderstandings occur, as they often will. The next step in a telecollaboration is to agree on goals, which means discussing the types of participants or learners who will be involved, establishing goals in terms of the language and cultural competences to be addressed, and identifying content and, generally, the kind of tasks to be undertaken. Some telecollaborations are very focused, e.g. participants might be required to watch films or read books or stories and comment on them. Some telecollaborations invite participants to write, share, and comment on poems, short stories, or flash non-fiction about the place where they live, and their everyday routines. Other exchanges are more general and involve a series of tasks that are designed to practice skills of ethnographic observation and interpretation. Some of these formats might work better for children, teens, or adults. A failure to agree on common goals that are suitable for the participants can result in an ineffective telecollaboration.

Platforms also need to be user-friendly and reliable. There is no perfect platform for an online intercultural exchange: in the past, we have used email as well as social media sites like Facebook, and virtual learning environments, like Moodle and Canvas. Each has its pros and cons, which we discuss in some detail in the book.

Whatever the chosen platform, the virtual world can be a hazardous place. A chapter in the book addresses netiquette, ethics, and security. These issues are necessary to consider, especially if younger participants are involved in an exchange, but they are also important topics for adults to address. Authentic communication online is not always easy, and participants can often give or take offence, whether intentionally or not. From the outset, participants need to be clear about the ‘rules’ they must observe, for their own security as much as their partners’.

It will be clear by now that much of the work in organizing an online intercultural exchange has to happen before the actual participants begin their telecollaboration. Once they do, the fun really starts. Participants who are beginning a telecollaboration, just like learners starting a new course with a new group, need to find out who they are working with – so online icebreakers are vital in establishing a group ethos. Then the participants can be prompted to work together on tasks. As noted above, these tasks can take different forms, but there are specific tasks to do with cultural observation and description that can prompt the kind of sharing, reflection and discussion that is associated with enhancing intercultural communicative competence. Chapters in the book therefore address ice-breakers and task design.

The basic expectation is that participants will communicate; however, sometimes participants post items without reading or responding to posts created by others in the exchange. A chapter is therefore devoted to the negotiating of online individual and group identity, and establishing and maintaining rapport with others. The importance of punctuation, non-verbal markers (or smileys), and evaluative vocabulary cannot be overstated in conveying emotion and enthusiasm. Chapters also deal with the best ways to deal with problems, such as a breakdown in relations between participants or partners, and with organizing a videoconference to supplement the online communication.

The final chapters are directed mainly towards those readers who might wish to use their telecollaboration as the basis of action research, whether for a magazine article (like this!) or a book chapter, or a university or college project or research degree. These more formal investigations of one’s teaching and learning practices will involve assessment of participants’ learning during the online exchange, evaluation of the telecollaboration as a whole, and perhaps embedding it in an action research cycle.

Throughout the book, we have tried to keep the discussion jargon-free and illustrate it with ample illustrations from our own telecollaborations (with participants’ consent!). We hope it will encourage readers to lead their learners out of the classroom and connect them with new friends from different cultures.

  • John Corbett, Hugo Dart, and Bruno Lima. Making Connections: A Practical Guide to Online Intercultural Exchanges. Multilingual Matters, 2023.

John Corbett is an Associate Dean at BNU-HKBU United International College in China. He is the author of An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching (Multilingual Matters, 2022).

Hugo Dart is a teacher and branch coordinator at IBEU-RJ He is the current Leader of the BRAZ-TESOL Intercultural Language Education SIG.

Bruno Lima is an English Language Professor and International Mobility Officer at the Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Technologia do Rio Grande do Norte.

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