Needs Analyses and Reflection Logs in Telecollaboration
By Dr. Carolin Fuchs, Teachers College, Columbia University.
This contribution describes the potential of two tools, namely needs analysis questionnaires and telecollaboration log entries, for helping participants reflect actively on past and current telecollaborative practices.
WHAT IS TELECOLLABORATION?
Telecollaboration, a term first coined by Warschauer in 1996 and further defined by Belz, “involves the use of Internet communication tools by internationally dispersed students of language in institutionalized settings in order to promote the development of (a) foreign language (FL) linguistic competence and (b) intercultural competence” (Belz 2003, 68). Recently, Telecollaboration 2.0 has been expanded to include the new online literacies as additional goals (Guth & Helm 2010).
TELECOLLABORATION AND LANGUAGE TEACHER EDUCATION
At the language teacher education level, telecollaborative learning formats have demonstrated their potential for sensitizing participants to different institutional contexts and teaching environments, and to promote reflectivity (Dooly & Saddler, 2013). In a similar vein, in “New Lives of Teachers,” Day and Gu argue that “particular organisational purposes, cultures, and structures promoted by school leaders who possess particular transformational qualities and enact these through context-sensitive strategies and relationships” can result in teachers’ collective sense of efficacy, and thus foster good teaching and successful learning (2010, 135).
TELECOLLABORATION AND LANGUAGE LEARNING
At the language learning level, telecollaboration can foster language and intercultural learning (Belz and Thorne 2005; Blake 2013; Furstenberg and Levet 2001; Guth and Helm 2010) through negotiation of meaning and interaction with an authentic audience (Egbert, Hanson-Smith and Chao 2007). Despite these affordances, cross-institutional collaborations can pose an abundance of challenges for language learners. For instance, telecollaboration can amplify cross-cultural misunderstandings and reinforce stereotypes (e.g., Kramsch and Thorne 2002; O’Dowd 2003; Ware 2005; Ware & Kramsch 2005). By the same token, these “missed” or failed instances of communication in telecollaboration (Ware 2005, 64) can represent learning opportunities (Schneider and Von Der Emde 2005; Helm, Guth and Farrah 2012).
PREPARING STUDENTS FOR TELECOLLABORATIVE EXPERIENCES
If bilateral social and cultural appreciation are required for online collaborative networks to promote learning and successful communication (Chen, Mashhadi, Ang and Harkrider 1999), we then need to provide a safe space for participants to address and negotiate miscommunications and differences with one another.
This seems especially important in online exchanges among geographically dispersed learners. For instance, telecollaborative practices typically culminate in collaborative tasks (O’Dowd and Ware 2009) requiring participants to create joint products, such as bilingual websites, with their cross-institutional partners. Yet, negotiating such joint products can pose challenges due to the absence of face-to-face communication, and scheduling synchronous sessions (via tools such as Skype) becomes difficult in cases where there are major time differences.
Other important factors that tend to get overlooked or taken for granted are students’ prior experience with group work, cross-cultural encounters, and telecollaborative projects. In his recent Calico Journal article Collaborative language learning in co-constructed participatory culture, Kessler has stressed the importance of taken into account learners’ prior collaborative group work: It is critical to provide a space for students to reflect on negative experiences in order to “design more successful collaborative experiences in the future” (2013, 317).
NEEDS ANALYSIS AND TELECOLLABORATION LOG ENTRIES
The following sections will describe in more detail how both tools, needs analyses and telecollaboration log entries (see Appendices A and B) may help participants in telecollaborations reflect on these prior experiences, and the implications of such experiences for on-going online exchanges and encounters.
Needs analyses are crucial for language teaching (Nation and Macalister 2010) and indispensable in technology-enhanced learning contexts (González-Lloret 2014). Inquiring about students’ prior group work, cross-cultural and telecollaborative experiences has been an integral part of needs analyses in telecollaborative practices in order to gain an understanding of participants’ expectations and perspectives (Fuchs 2006). In addition, these tools provide participants with an opportunity to reflect on and become aware of affordances and challenges they may have encountered in prior group work, (tele)collaborations, and cross-cultural exchanges, and if and how these may impact the present.
Appendix A contains a sample needs analysis questionnaire that relates specifically to group work and telecollaboration (Fuchs 2015). The questionnaire includes open-ended questions as well as 4-point Likert-Scale items, and can be adopted for either language teacher education or language learning contexts. Part 1 of the questionnaire elicits information about students’ prior technology experience and interest. The teacher may use the results for putting students into similar-level groups, i.e., those with the most technology experience could be split across different groups. Part 2 of the questionnaire inquires about participants’ prior group work, cross-cultural, and telecollaboration experiences and perceptions thereof. This information can help teachers understand some of the within-group dynamics. Teachers can also use this information for group formation purposes by distributing those with the most experience equally across groups. In Part 3 of the questionnaire, students are asked to self-rate their technology skills with regard to specific tools. Results can help determine how much learner training will be needed for each of the tools that teachers intend to use. A final question inquires about any additional expertise that students might have.
Telecollaboration Log Entries
Furthermore, Telecollaboration Log Entries can serve the purpose of shedding more light on on-going communication and negotiation difficulties and challenges that teams may encounter during their telecollaboration. Participants can be asked to reflect regularly on their telecollaborative processes in weekly logs (Furstenberg and Levet 2010) by filling out multiple choice and open-ended questions with the goal to analyze their group work processes within both their local and telecollaborative groups. Part 1 refers to students’ experience in their local groups, i.e., group members with whom they have face-to-face contact in class. Questions inquire about the quality and quantity of time spent with local partners each week. Participants are also asked to reflect on how they feel toward their local partners by rating their levels of frustration. This information can help teachers gain insight into group processes and potential difficulties. Part 2 includes the same set of questions for the telecollaborative partner group. Part 3 contains some more general questions about the telecollaboration, namely if participants know what they are asked to do, if they agree on work procedures (Breen and Littlejohn 2000), if they face challenges, and how they feel about the overall telecollaboration.
Finally, in addition to the questions in Appendices A and B, participants can be asked to identify their learning moment item for each week in an area that they have
come across in their interactions with their telecollaborative partners. This could be a language-related item, and/or a cross-cultural or pragmatic mishap. This echoes Fink’s (2013) call for encouraging self-directed learning by having learners “think toward the future and identify what else they need or want to learn, that is develop a learning agenda” (p.160; italics in original). Alternatively, participants could be asked to use their initial needs analysis as a point of departure for chronicling learning opportunities of their choice. For example, if they mention in their needs analysis that they were not too keen on group work due to prior negative experiences, they could be asked to specifically pinpoint such difficulties and make them part of their learning agenda for the duration of the project by revisiting and reflecting on these items. In addition, students could comment on the evolvement of their virtual communities of practice or VCs (Dooly 2008) in their log entries by rating their VCs’ progress on a scale with qualitative comments indicating areas for improvement.
Nevertheless, providing students with needs analyses and telecollaboration log entries may not suffice. Participants also need to be given an arena for critical reflection on team-building and collaboration issues. These issues will then form the basis for conducting weekly check-ins with their telecollaborative teams. This can “[a]llow students to build a new connection with themselves or with others […] (that is through indirect doing or observing)” and by having students reflect on these stories (Fink 2013, 170; see also Kessler 2013). Ideally, such check-ins take place in synchronous mode (via text, audio, or video chat) in order to get immediate feedback and address issues of miscommunication.
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