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Giving students an international classroom experience by working together online

“Au Revoir!”  - “Tot ziens!”  Janneke and Chantal are finishing the Skype call they have conducted for the past 40 minutes. Using clippings from Dutch newspapers as background, Janneke has informed Chantal about the problems in the earthquake area in Groningen. She has told Chantal about damages to local property and the unrest this is causing with the population in the rural areas in Groningen. Chantal, in turn, has used French newspaper articles as background to tell Janneke about the recent decision by the French government to bring down the number of French regions to twenty-two. This has given rise to strong protests in the regions concerned. Each student has learnt new things, both about the language and about the country they are studying.  After finishing the online conversation, Janneke and Chantal are instructed to report on what their partner has told them, reflect on what they have learnt, and use the newly acquired information to produce a bilingual online newspaper together.

Janneke is a student of European Languages and Cultures at the University of Groningen; Chantal is a student of Dutch in the University of Strasbourg. The task they have been engaged in is part of the tandem learning programme set up by the language teachers, Judith Jansma in Groningen and Tiemen de Jonge in Strasbourg. Specific for this form is that Janneke , a native speaker of Dutch and learner of French, is communicating in French most of the time, whereas Chantal, a native speaker of French and learner of Dutch, is primarily expressing herself in Dutch. The tasks have been set up as telecollaboration activities, that is: activities carried out by students from geographically remote areas, supported by the use of online communication and collaboration tools. The teachers have implemented the tasks as set course work in their language courses for the second year running. Both teachers and students are enthusiastic about this mode of learning:

  • The tasks are highly authentic and relevant for the students, they build on current events and topics in the respective countries, with a primary focus on conducting a conversation. They are an example of task-based language learning, where the emphasis is on completing a task successfully and eliciting the language that is appropriate and specific for that task.  
  • Students support each other in learning the language – when the conversation stops because one of them is looking for a particular way of saying things, the other helps out (‘eh, manifestations’ – Oh, je bedoelt ‘betogingen’). This is a good way of providing the scaffolding conducive for learning a language, and other complex tasks for that matter.
  • The tasks are set up to give students greater responsibility for their own learning: they are typically done out of class, students have to set their own times for meeting online with their partners, but at the same time have to give account of what they have learnt in the reflective reports and recordings of the online conversations in their portfolios. The portfolios are used by the teachers as part of student assessment in the course.
  • Very important, the online exchanges are a great environment for building and assessing intercultural competence. Direct contact with the partner abroad and completing tasks together in audio, video and email exchanges almost inevitably brings out differences related to personality and culture. Several tasks have been set up in such a way that students are asked to reflect on intercultural communication aspects as a way of enhancing their intercultural attitudes, skills and knowledge.

It is for just these reasons that telecollaboration has become a permanent element in the French, Spanish and Italian courses in the European Languages and Cultures programme.


This is not to say that implementing it is easy. In addition to creating the appropriate tasks, embedding them in the curriculum, and aligning the programme between two or more institutions may be quite a challenge. Using existing partnerships and starting with average-sized groups (20 to 50 students) is usually a good idea. The selection of tools is also an issue. This may depend on the specifics of the tasks, preferences of the teachers or requirements in any of the participating institutions. They usually include a videoconferencing tool, for which our university has several options available. These include Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate, Google Hangouts and Skype.

Obviously, there is no reason why these virtual exchanges should remain confined to language learning programs. To prepare students for working in a globally connected world, in which English is used as a lingua franca, to give them the experience of working and discussing problems with students from other cultures and nationalities, or to prepare them for a ‘real’ study abroad period, telecollaboration provides great opportunities.  These have hitherto been largely unexplored in disciplines other than languages. But this is changing rapidly. In the US, the SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning ( has been established to support institutions and teachers in setting up such exchanges and in Europe a group of researchers and practitioners has set the UNICollaboration platform ( )  to guide teachers in integrating such online collaborations in their curricula.  Alternatively, institutions may join organisations such as Soliya ( ) or the Sharing Perspectives Foundation ( ) to have students reap the benefits of discussing global problems in international networks of peers from various cultural and social backgrounds.

Are you a teacher in the University of Groningen, and would you like more information about starting with telecollaboration, available tools and tasks? Please don’t hesitate to contact the author at the address below. Perhaps we can even initiate a project in this area in the university or further the use of telecollaboration as an innovative form of learning in some other way.

Dr Sake Jager
ICT in Education, Faculty of Arts

Last modified:24 November 2015 4.47 p.m.
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