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The rapid growth and interest of college students in Computer Mediated Communication and social media has impacted the second language learning and teaching process. This study is a reflection of a pedagogical experience that attempts to analyze the use of Skype as a Synchronous Communication tool in regards to the attitudes of students in learning a foreign language when interacting with native speakers and engage in conversation. The participants are Spanish foreign language students at Fordham University in New York City and English foreign language speakers at a Jesuit University in Bogotá, Colombia. Students were paired up and were required to set up online conversation meetings.
The results of this pilot project suggest that students felt more interested to engage in conversation with native speakers and exchange personal and academic information as wells as other aspects of their culture using the target language rather than completing language laboratory activities or writing compositions.
Key words: Computer mediated communication, Skype, socio-cultural competence, synchronous communication
El continuo interés y la rápida evolución de la comunicación a través de la tecnología y las redes sociales en estudiantes universitarios han transformado el proceso de enseñanza y aprendizaje de los idiomas extranjeros. Este estudio es una reflexión de una experiencia pedagógica que busca analizar el uso de Skype como una herramienta de comunicación sincrónica en cuanto a las actitudes de los estudiantes en el proceso de aprendizaje de un idioma extranjero con la interacción de estudiantes que son hablantes nativos para participar activamente en conversaciones. Los participantes de este proyecto son estudiantes de español como idioma extranjero en Fordham University en la Ciudad de Nueva York y estudiantes de inglés como idioma extranjero en una universidad jesuita en la ciudad de Bogotá, Colombia. Los estudiantes fueron emparejados con el propósito de organizar sesiones en línea y hablar usando el idioma que están aprendiendo.
Los resultados de este proyecto piloto indican que los estudiantes se sintieron muchos más interesados en conversar con hablantes nativos para intercambiar información personal, académica y cultural haciendo uso del idioma que están aprendiendo en lugar de hacer ejercicios y escribir composiciones en el laboratorio de idiomas.
Palabras clave: comunicación a través de la tecnología, Comunicación Sincrónica, Competencias Socio Culturales, Skype
As a young college language instructor, I find myself always trying to provide my students with opportunities in which they can see a real purpose of using L2 (foreign language) outside the conventional classroom where interaction is often reduced to their peers and instructor. The idea of this project was to encourage my students to speak via Skype with other college Spanish native speakers with like-minded interests -lifestyle, culture, education, and food -through the use of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). The idea of this project started in one of my graduate courses at Fordham University when I had to survey a sample of Jesuit undergraduate students and their likelihood to interact with their surrounding community. Fordham University's main campus is located in the Bronx. The New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo surround the campus. However, Fordham's main campus is located in a community where there is a large low income Hispanic and African American population whereas the demographics at Fordham is mostly a white upper middle class student body. The survey aimed to understand how much interaction existed between these two communities - Fordham students and the surrounding community. Based on the results of the survey, most of the students prefer to spend their free time either on campus or in Manhattan. I also realized that specifically my Spanish students would not take advantage of the Hispanic population to practice their Spanish skills as they felt English would be an easier way to communicate. Consequently, I thought that as a language instructor, I would need to provide my students with a setting in which they feel comfortable and make use of the target language specifically with native speakers who have similar interests or experience similar learning conditions.
This article summarizes a pedagogical experience with the purpose of sharing with other language colleagues how I started and structured the project and it also reflects upon its outcomes.
Computer Mediated Communication (CMC)
CMC is defined as the process of creating, exchanging, and perceiving information via networked telecommunications systems facilitating the encoding, transmitting, and decoding of messages (Romiszowski & Mason, n.d.). CMC was the result of linking different computers and having people interact by sharing messages and data. CMC spread rapidly and it allowed people from geographically dispersed locations to communicate replacing traveling and Face-to-Face (FtF) meetings with more efficient ways to instantly communicate. Different studies have shown that FtF gatherings give speakers - with higher positions or power in any organization - a larger portion of speech time while CMC meetings offer an equal share of the meeting participation (Walther, 1996.) Other studies, on the contrary, suggests that CMC does not contribute to active participation because it is assumed that in many CMC discussions a few members dominate the floor and the rest of the members become lurkers or passive recipients. Both offline and online discussions have passive recipients; this implies that CMC does not discourage active participation and learning (Romiszowski & Mason, n.d.).
Allowing students to interact with others considering their mutual interests and giving them the freedom to make their own choices when learning a foreign language is essential to motivate them. Bastidas (2002) proposes integrative and instrumental motivation affecting foreign language learners. On one hand, integrative motivation suggests the interest of learners in the community and culture that involves the second language. Instrumental motivation, on the other hand, refers to the specific goals of the students. Bastidas also shows the communicative need to use any foreign language as an aspect affecting learners' motivation. He explains that many language students feel demotivated to learn a foreign language because they think the L2 is neither important nor useful for them. Additionally, more than a real life experience, I wanted this project to be an exposure to the target language with native speakers. Fordham University is located in a highly populated Hispanic community in the Bronx. Unfortunately, many Fordham students do not take advantage of this opportunity to practice Spanish with native speakers. Noam Chomsky's innatist theory (Lightbown & Spada, 1993) suggests that after that critical period of humans to learn a second language, input exposure is essential to gain L2 proficiency. For this reason, a project including input exposure with native speakers would stimulate students' interest in engaging in conversations using the target language.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication
The continuous growth of Internet-based communication and college students' interest in social media and networking seems to have a greater impact in the way they interact with others nowadays. These types of communication can be Synchronous or Asynchronous. Synchronous Communication or real-time communication refers to face-to-face discussions among people, whereas Asynchronous Communication (delayed communication) suggests a significant time delay between receiving and sending messages (Romiszowski & Mason, n.d.). Hence, the inclusion of a computer-based activity and synchronous communication in my instruction was necessary in order to encourage and engage my students in the L2 learning process. I believe that real time communication would allow learners to provide instant feedback to each other, to emotionally bond, and to be spontaneous. According to Celce-Murcia (2001), the use of media in language classes only brings the outside world to the classroom and makes the learning process more exciting and meaningful. Nevertheless, the only purpose of this project was not the improvement of L2 speaking proficiency but it also aimed to raise awareness in students about other cultures. In other words, I wanted to promote and instill values of inclusion, tolerance, and diversity as a principle of life in this globalized world. Teaching culture in a language class results in better communicators of L2. Culture is understood as body language, gestures, concepts of time, traditions, and expressions of friendliness. Consequently, linguistic proficiency is not enough for a second language learner - social cultural competence is fundamental for a more proficient and effective L2 speaker. Hymes (1996)  also stresses the importance of socio cultural competence by saying that an individual who is not aware of the appropriateness norms accepted in a determined community is likely to be placed in a position of inequality.
Other instructors and universities have implemented and explored a similar project, like the one I proposed at Fordham University, with positive results. Dickens (2009) shared an experience of two classes (one from the US and the other from Italy) in which students were initially paired up and required to interact with their partners discussing about different aspects of their life and classes' topics using Twitter. After a couple of months the instructors decided that it would be appropriate to have them interact on video chat using Skype. Dickens' report about the experience is positive. Students were able to communicate in the target language and to simultaneously multitask (surf on Facebook, share videos on YouTube, Google information, etc.) Alas, most of the session was held in the students' native language. In a different experiment, Carney (2008) started a project in which an English class interacted with a Japanese class through the use of blogs, wikis, Skype text, voice, and video chat and the exchange of homemade DVDs movies. Skype sessions in general were set up so that four English class students talk with one Japanese student. Each English class student had to prepare different questions to ask their Japanese partner. Some of the Japanese students were not able to speak due to the lack of web cams and computers. In general, this was a great experience for these students. The author recognizes the importance of CMC and its impact in foreign language classes.
There were three major objectives identified at the beginning of this pilot project which will serve as an assessment of the achieved goals:
Provide students with a space in which they can practice their listening and speaking skills in the L2 with native speakers by means of interactive and contextualized conversations online.
Encourage students to learn from their partners' culture, country, and traditions.
Give the students the opportunity to interact in real life situations using the target language.
The two participating institutions are private higher education universities under the Cura Personalis (care of the other) philosophy and Jesuit Tradition.
Fordham University is the Jesuit University in New York City. Fordham's Department of Languages and Literatures requires undergraduate students to take up to five levels of a foreign language aiming to develop the linguistic proficiency and cultural competence of Fordham students.
The Colombian University in Bogota is a Jesuit University offering its community with quality Catholic education. The Department of Languages offers an undergraduate program qualifying its students to become language teachers.
A total of 50 students participated in this project. The participants are students from Fordham University (25 students) and from a Jesuit University in Bogota, Colombia (25 students.)
Fordham University students are English native speakers learning Spanish in high beginner level courses. Students in Colombia are Spanish native speakers in intermediate English courses. It is important to clarify that Fordham students are studying Spanish (or any foreign language offered at the Department) as a mandatory language course during five (5) academic semesters. Some of them might want to minor in this language. The students at the Colombian university are future language teachers who are majoring in English. Fordham students' age in average is 19 years old; whereas their online partners age in Colombia raged between 20 to 45 years old. The technological skills of the students were not considered when implementing this project.
This pedagogical experience attempts to determine if there is any relationship between the implementation of Internet-based Synchronous Communication and the interest of foreign language students and native speakers to engage in conversation and learn about their culture.
In order to start this project, a written proposal was submitted to the Chair of the Fordham's Department of Languages and Literatures and the Spanish Language Coordinator. In this document, objectives, description, proposed activities, projected timeline, proposed partners, and their responsibilities of the whole project were specified. The Chair at Fordham University had two important concerns about this initiative: 1. safety of students and 2. feasibility of the project. With the support of the Faculty Technology Center at Fordham University, I was able to persuade the Chair that there were no risks associated with the use of Skype for educational purposes and that its viability was directly related to the collaboration of the other university and the participation of the students. I should note that at Fordham University, foreign language students are required to attend the language laboratory two hours every week. For that reason, I decided to merge this project within the laboratory activities grade. As part of the curriculum at the Department of Modern Languages, language students are required to go to the language laboratory one hour a week. During this time (students are free to decide when to go to the laboratory from Monday to Saturday in a specific schedule) students listen to the audio section of their workbook as well as they complete different grammar exercises on line as part of their course evaluation. Roger Goodson (2005) states that some faculty members and administrators are normally resistant to include technology in their instruction because of time constraints, their demanding academic workload, lack of training, and insufficient research proving the effectiveness of E-learning. It is common to see some institutions still reluctant to explore technological changes in instruction, as it was the example of San Jose State University (SJSU.) The Associate Vice-President of San Jose State University proposed to ban Skype at the University implying that Skype might infect the institution's computers with viruses and that Skype might distract students and professors in the classrooms. One faculty member expressed his concern and called the institution "luddite" about this issue and explained the reasons why Skype should not be banned: 1. Skype allows communicating at no cost with other colleagues around the world, 2. There are many international students who might use Skype to communicate with other students, and 3. Foreign Language instructors have started to use Skype to have their students communicate with other students who are native speakers of the language they are learning Shaw (2006.)
When the Chair of the Department at Fordham approved this pilot project, I immediately contacted different universities in Colombia. However, I thought that it would be a good idea to work with another university under the same Jesuit philosophy. Fortunately, a Jesuit University in Bogota, Colombia responded with great interest and eagerness in starting the project as soon as possible. The Chair of the Department of Modern Languages in Colombia designated his English Speaking Advanced class to take part in this linguistic experiment. The groups were not chosen based on any specific criteria. My two Spanish courses would participate in this project. At the Jesuit University in Colombia, the Chair chose that specific class because he was the professor in charge and had asked his students about their interest in partaking in this initiative, which had a positive reaction by the students. I clarified that this was intended to be a pilot project, which - if it were to result with positive outcomes - could be institutionalized by Fordham's Department, or at least it would encourage other instructors interested in creating a similar online community with their students. Community Development in general refers to the notion of people living close by to each other, face-to-face interactions, companionship, and support at different levels (Wellman, 1999.) However, in online communities the lack of physical location, verbal, and nonverbal cues implies impersonal relationships not able to build a community. However, other studies suggest that online communities can be built if participants have similar interests regardless their physical location they might find as an obstacle to communicate Face-to-Face (Romiszowski & Mason, n.d.).
Once the project was presented and approved by the two universities, it was necessary to establish a clear set of stages and assigned responsibilities to each instructor in order to launch this initiative. Table 1 describes the different stages that were considered.
Person in charge
A list of responsibilities was outlined and shared to students, professors, and administrators.
Instructor at Fordham University.
Pairing up students
It was easier for the instructor in Colombia to pair the students as he had more students in his class than I did in with my two classes.
Instructor at the Colombian University.
Choosing topics for each session
Both instructors agreed that each session should focus on content, culture, and grammatical structures, which would reinforce the topics, learned in classroom.
Setting up a chronogram
Considering that the end of the semester was coming soon for both universities, it was important to use the time wisely.
Table 1. Stages of the Project
The first step was to inform all the participants (instructors, students, and administrators) about their responsibilities regarding this project as shown in Table 2.
Pair up students based on their proficiency level
Monitor that students are attending their Skype meeting
Make sure that students are respectful with their peers' time
Remind students to be punctual
Decide the topics the students will be discussing
Communicate with the other instructors if there are doubts or suggestions
Provide a space for the students with the necessary technology to access to Skype
Speak only the language they are required to speak during the session.
Prepare enough questions to carry out the conversation.
Submit a screen shot of their Skype conversation in order to confirm that they actually had a conversation with their assigned partner and the required time for each session
Establish the partnership between the two universities
Attend the on line meeting in December to analyze the effectiveness of the project
Table 2. Participants' Responsibilities
Participants received an email with their respective responsibilities. Consequently, a list of Fordham students was sent to my colleague in Colombia. He was in charge of pairing up his students with mine. His class was considerably bigger (in terms of number of students) compared to my two classes together at Fordham. There were not any specific criteria when pairing up the students - it was just a simple matching exercise from two rosters. Then, each student received an email with a list in which they would find their matches for the fours sessions. The list included names and emails. The final stage of the project required each instructor to choose the topics. It was the responsibility of each professor to decide the topics students would be discussing in every session. Each session was expected to last approximately 15 to 20 minutes and it was expected to be conducted by students as follows: use of the target language previously determined (English or Spanish), personal introductions (as every session they were paired up with different partners), discussion of a previously determined topic. The topics - varying from academic structure, personal interests, gastronomy, etc. - were carefully selected so that students have a wide exposure to new vocabulary, expressions, and especially culture. The sessions were organized as shown in Table 3.
Exchange personal information (names, hobbies, favorite food, sports they practice) Also get to know about each other. Understand how easy or difficult is to learn English or Spanish.
Compare academic structures from their schools and the differences of educational system.
University in Colombia
Compare lifestyle, culture, gastronomy, and currencies.
Understand how languages are taught in the US from elementary school through the university.
University in Colombia
Table 3. Organization of the Sessions
Students were required to prepare questions and organize their ideas in order to have a meaningful conversation during the following week. Furthermore, each Fordham student was required to snap a screenshot of their Skype conversation records as a proof that they did Skype with their assigned partners. All the conversations were set up by each student at different times and days (within a week period) - this with the purpose of giving students the opportunity to organize their busy time and also to give students a sense of belonging to the project.
One important aspect to mention is that the administrators did not ever set up a meeting to discuss the outcomes or implications of the project due to the lack of time. When the project was over the university in Colombia was already in winter break.
In this section, the advantages and weaknesses during the completion of the project will be described. In addition, I will mention the opinions and thoughts of 18 participant students who were surveyed after the project was finished.
Starting the project was somehow challenging due to the lack of time and the resistance of the administrators to approve the project. Additionally, the communication between the two universities was slow. As it was previously mentioned, each student was randomly paired up with another one from the other university. In order to set up their online meetings they emailed each other. Students reported that their partner did not respond their emails in a timely fashion or kept postponing the meeting, and some others never got an answer from their partner. One student said: "I thought it was very interesting and cool to learn about the life of a complete stranger! Sometimes communication was difficult but it was a good experience." This frustrated a big part of the students because it did not allow them to ever experience a conversation - "My student never answered my emails so we were not able to talk via Skype." A student added. Sometimes there were problems related to technological issues and Internet connection, which prevented students to have voice conversations. Nonetheless, students opted to chat instead. A great part of participants described their Skyping experienced as interesting and fun. In their own words they said: "I found it extremely useful and fun. It was very interesting to speak with my partner and I believe that she and I will probably continue speaking even though the assignment has finished. I would definitely do it again and hope I have the chance to in the future." Another student added: "I did enjoy interacting with a student from another country. I found it relatively easy to understand her but harder to express my own ideas. No matter the skill level or level of success, I think it is always helpful though to get practice speaking with someone who knows the language so well." Each session was supposed to last between 15 to 20 minutes. However, most of the sessions ended up exceeding this time limit because they truly enjoyed conversing with their peers. Other students thought it was rude to conclude a conversation in only 15 minutes and they allowed more time to this activity even if they were only text chatting. Only one student requested to be given a different Skype partner. One of them was more than 20 years older than the other participant creating an uncomfortable environment in the younger student. Based on the student at Fordham, her Skype partner made her feel uncomfortable as in their first email that they had exchanged, the student in Colombia had expressed that he had physical issues that prevented him of speaking. He was asking to have someone else participate in the sessions. The student at Fordham thought it was not a good idea and as a Fordham professor I am not allowed to ask her to do something when she has expressed that it makes her feel uncomfortable. Therefore a new Skype partner was assigned to her. Throughout the development of the project some students, who were able to set up their online meetings, expressed during class that they were bonding while many others felt discouraged because they never had the opportunity to speak.
It is important to note that this pilot project has led to a possible partnership between Fordham University and AUSJAL (Asociación de Universidades Confiadas a la Compañía de Jesús en América Latina), which is an Association of Jesuit Universities in Latin America. A representative from AUSJAL has contacted me with the purpose to start a possible project in which these types of online environments would benefit students from various Jesuit universities in South America and the United States.
Opinions of the Participants
A number of 18 participants in this project completed an online survey on Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) about three different aspects regarding the development of the project as shown in Table 4 and Table 5. The third aspect was an open-ended question in order to understand the opinions of the students and their likelihood to participate again in a future similar project. Surveymonkey.com provides users with free web-based surveys. I chose this website because the website helps you to create any type of survey with predetermined formats. Additionally, Surveymonkey.com does not require a software installation, everything is self-explanatory and most importantly the basic features are free.
Based on the answers from Table 4, it can be inferred that after different Skype sessions, students mostly learned about their partners' culture regarding personal information, similar interests, and education. The results suggest that students in general were not able to exchange as much information as expected about their region's food, their schools' academic structure, and quality of life in their countries.
1. Which of the following aspects do you think Skype sessions helped you learn about your partner's culture?
Quality of Life
Table 4. Cultural Appreciation
According to Table 5, students seemed to have a greater difficulty trying to set up a Skype session with their partners than expressing their ideas and carrying out spontaneous conversations. Additionally, participants also believed that understanding their partners' ideas was challenging.
2. Considering that your Skype partners were college students with similar interests but they were people you did not know, to what degree was it easy or difficult to interact with them using the language you are learning?
Understand your partner's ideas
Set up a Skype session
Carry out a spontaneous conversation
Express your ideas
Table 5. Degree of Difficulty in Communication
Finally, based on the surveyed student responses, it can be inferred that most of the participants thought that the Skype Project with a foreign country did allow them to learn something new about another culture. Many students were surprised that, different from the US, the majority of Colombian college students live with their parents when they attend college. Also, students at Javeriana University do not use their institutional email account as frequently as many American college students do. In general, participants felt that the project was much more fun than going to the language laboratory and writing compositions. Although, they expressed that communication was somehow difficult due to technological inconveniences (e.g. Internet connection, time flexibility, lack of web cam), participants acknowledged the importance of getting to know people from other countries who are native speakers. Most of the participants agreed that setting up meetings was by far the most tedious part of the project because of their busy schedule, their lack of interest of some participants, and the fact that they were talking to, in literal words, "a complete stranger." In addition, the idea to participate in a similar project seems to be a viable one for many of them because they think these types of experiences "forced them out of their comfort zone." Unfortunately, some other students were not able to provide any feedback because they were never able to speak with their Skype partner because they never got a response to set up a meeting.
Conclusions and Implications
The idea of this pilot project between Fordham University and the Jesuit University in Colombia was to understand if Internet-based Synchronous Communication would motivate Foreign Language students to engage in conversations with native speakers and learn about their culture. Despite the difficulties found in setting up meetings and technological issues in some sessions, it can be stated that Internet-based Synchronous Communication made the learning process more meaningful and engaging. Students expressed their preference to participate in projects like this one instead of going to the laboratory. Many of the participants thought it made them feel more interested in the course as it was a more modern and interesting to learn a language. The project was able to provide participants with a safe space in which they were able to make use of the L2 either by speaking, writing, and listening with their native speaker Skype partners. Additionally, students were exposed to different topic conversation from which they did not only learned from their partner's culture but they were also able to share cultural information to their peers. It is not possible to determine the level of motivation that each student had in this project in order to engage in conversation because as an instructor I did not monitor any of the conversations; but in general, most of the participants who were able to talk via Skype, had a good experience and they are likely to do it again in another language course in the future. Besides, some students still talk to their Skype partners through the use of other social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Finally, as synchronous communication is part of college students lives, it can be stated that the project helped participants to experience a real-life situation that involved daily topics of conversations in college students.
If other language instructor would like to start a similar project, it is important to allow at least a whole academic semester time period to be able to have more than 50% of the students participate in the project if students are responsible to set up their own meetings. Otherwise, setting up a group meeting can be an alternative to give everyone an opportunity to speak and monitor the participation and engagement in their conversations. It is also important to guide students who might not know much about technology. Creating an account and learning how to make calls on Skype seems easy but, as instructors, we cannot assume that all of our students know how to work with them. It is fundamental, to consider the participants skills regarding technology. Even though, none of the students reported an issue with Skype, there might be situations in which participants are not aware of the use of the software, which would jeopardize the outcomes of the project. Finally, pairing up students appears to be a simple matching task. However, it is fundamental to ask your students in advance what their preferences (age, gender) are when being paired up because these aspects might affect your students confidence to fully engage in conversation.
I want to thank to:
Professor Javier Redondo, Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and his participant students at Pontifical Javeriana University in Bogota.
Kristen Treglia at the Fordham Faculty Technology Center for her support and advice.
Professor Sarafina Degregorio, Language Laboratory Coordinator at Fordham University.
All my Fordham University students who were the reason why I started this project.
I would like to deeply thank Dr. Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé for his support to start this project. I am also grateful to Dr. Gerald Cattaro and Dr. Kathleen Cashin at Fordham University and Dr. Peter Hoontis at Rutgers University for instilling in me the passion for research.