The Internet TESL Journal

Developing Global Connections through Computer-Mediated Communication

Myra Shulman
mshul [at] american.edu
American University (Washington DC, USA)

The author shares her experiences in developing and implementing a collaborative Internet project connecting American University in Washington, D.C., and the Federal University of Parana in Curitiba, Brazil. Topics discussed include identifying an appropriate partner, designing a viable online environment, setting realistic goals, and encouraging interactive and authentic communication among students.

Introduction

Since September of 2000 my colleague Luci Collin from the Federal University of Parana in Curitiba, Brazil, and I have been involved in a collaborative Internet project. This article will discuss the background of the AU-UFPR project, its development and implementation, the problems and solutions, benefits, and suggestions for similar Internet projects. First, let me define Computer- Mediated Communication. According to John December, editor of Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, CMC is „the phenomenon of human communication and information retrieval on global networks.š It is also defined as „human interaction via computer networks and in online environments.š CMC is an interdisciplinary mix of communication, technology, education, and journalism. Of course, in education, CMC offers multiple possibilities in terms of distance learning, which is the context for our project.

The project grew out of my participation in spring and summer of 2000 in the U.S./Brazil Fulbright Teacher Exchange, which involved twelve Brazilian and twelve U.S. teachers working in partnerships. This Fulbright program is a direct but non-simultaneous exchange that offers ESL/EFL teachers the opportunity to work in each other's countries for six weeks. The goal of the Fulbright Exchange is to promote mutual understanding and cooperation between the people of Brazil and the people of the United States.

Background

Phase one of the Fulbright exchange involved 12 Brazilian teachers working in the United States with 12 American teachers. On May 4, 2000, phase one ended with a debriefing for all 24 teachers in Washington. At this time we were given training by the expert staff at the US/Brazil Learning Technologies Network (LTNet) at the Academy for Education Development in use of Internet communication tools to establish connections between Brazilian and U.S. teachers and students. The LT staff created a VEE (Virtual Exchange Environment) for us that included features such as homepages on the Fulbright Teacher Exchange section of the LTNet web site, and we were encouraged to develop future Internet projects. This was our initial experience with using the Internet to enable and enhance communication and was the impetus for the AU-UFPR project.

Phase two of the exchange took place in July and August of 2000, when I taught at the Federal University of Parana in Curitiba for four weeks. One night in Professor Luci Collin's advanced level North American literature class, fifteen students and I were discussing my students at American University, their academic and social activities, and their lifestyles. (I teach advanced level College Reading and Writing courses at AU.) One student suggested that it would be great if the Brazilian students could communicate through e-mail with my students at American University. The others were enthusiastic about this idea. Professor Luci Collin and I immediately agreed that we should develop a collaborative Internet project, and we asked the students for input in conceptualizing such a project. As a first step, two Brazilian students developed a questionnaire that each student would fill out in order to sign up for the project. Thus, the students were the true originators of this collaboration.

Development

After I returned to Washington, Professor Luci and I discussed through e-mail the parameters for our electronic collaboration and decided participation in the project would be voluntary rather than a course requirement. Our students were at the advanced level and were about the same ages. Our challenge was how best to achieve the integration of classroom learning with online experiences in a learner-centered context. Primarily, we wanted to facilitate interpersonal interaction between our students by encouraging the students to share their ideas about what they were reading and writing. The specific objectives were to enhance our students' reading and writing skills, expand their cross-cultural skills, and sharpen their technological abilities. As a general goal, our project would improve our students' English language competence while also improving mutual understanding between people in the United States and people in other countries (which is the Fulbright goal).

Because I had been trained by the staff at the Learning Technologies Network at the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, DC, I turned to them to help set up this online collaboration. They suggested a framework that approximated the format of a course and would allow students to create homepages and teachers to make assignments and monitor the students' work for clarity, quality, and quantity. Thus, the original design for the AU-UFPR project required online courseware. To keep cost low, the free version of Blackboard (www.Blackboard.com) was used. This software program expands the boundaries of a course from the classroom to cyberspace. Using the electronic classroom, teachers can teach part or even all of their courses on the Internet by posting the course syllabus, assignments, and tests on the web site. Teachers and students can communicate asynchronously via e-mail and synchronously in chat rooms. This program demands extensive bandwidth and computer memory in order for participants to use it efficiently.

Implementation: Problems and Solutions

On September 18, I announced the project in my two College Reading and Writing classes and asked interested students to fill out questionnaires in preparation for participation. Sixteen students signed up for the voluntary project. On October 10, I sent an e-mail announcing that the Blackboard environment was ready, so students could enroll in the „course.š Most students enrolled themselves, but I helped those who needed support. As the weeks passed, my students in College Reading and Writing were communicating with me and with one another on Blackboard and some had developed homepages, but there was no communication from our Brazilian counterparts. Fortunately, Eric Rusten, from LTNet, was going to Brazil and arranged to meet with Prof Luci and her students to discuss the project. At the meeting at the UFPR, Eric discovered that the Brazilian students were unable to access the Blackboard web site because of insufficient bandwidth at the university in Curitiba. (Bandwidth refers to the speed and volume of information that goes from one computer to another.) Although the students had tried repeatedly to get online, they had failed to do so, with one exception. Thus, Eric and Gini set up a simple listserv, the AU-UFPR Virtual Exchange Discussion List (AU.UFPR@listbot.com), which made it possible for the seventeen U.S. and twelve Brazilian students to communicate through e-mail and a simple chat room. Now the project became viable.

One minor problem arose in the area of cross-cultural communication skills. Although it only involved one Brazilian student, Prof Luci and I realized that students in a global Internet project like ours need a brief introduction to intercultural communication. In December 2000, I had sent an e-mail praising a book I had just read titled Brazilian Adventure by the Englishman Peter Fleming (published in 1942). This book describes Fleming's journey into the rivers and jungle of central Brazil. A Brazilian student replied to me that Brazil was not just an uncivilized jungle. Since I had spent six weeks in Curitiba, Brazil, which I assumed this student knew, I certainly did not think that Brazil was an uncivilized jungle. Thus, I was somewhat surprised by his peculiar comment. Luci then suggested the need for training in cross-cultural communication for students participating in our project. On reflection, I saw that she was right, and the intercultural awareness and competence of the students and teachers should be raised through brief lectures and assigned readings on this topic before beginning the project.

Currently, we are in phase two of the AU-UFPR project, and 23 students in Professor Luci's classes in Anglo-American Studies at the UFPR and 32 students in my College Reading and Writing classes at AU are communicating through e-mail and discussing a variety of topics, with the focus on comparisons of cultural customs and values. This semester we have twice as many students participating, so the AU-UFPR project is expanding, and our students are accomplishing the major goals of this project: to improve their English language skills, to broaden their cross-cultural understanding, and to sharpen their technological abilities. We are still using the listserv, but if funding to federal universities in Brazil is increased, and if the bandwidth is expanded in Curitiba, perhaps we will return to the Blackboard context.

Assignments and Evaluation

In College Reading and Writing, I allocate ten percent of my students' final grade to class participation and attendance. I told students that their participation in the AU-UFPR project would be counted in this ten percent, based on my evaluation of the quality, quantity, and clarity of their email messages and assignments.

In addition to the informal e-mail communication, there were three assignments in phase one:

The project this semester, which began in March 2001 because of the school schedule in Brazil, will last for one-half of the semester at American University. Thus, we do not plan to expand the number of assignments. The first assignment was a personal profile done at the LTNet web site. The second was to discuss a cultural value or tradition. The third was to write about cultural differences with North Americans. Future assignments could include writing reports in partnerships, peer review of these documents, publishing these documents on the LTNet web site (using Blogger), reading an article from the Internet and writing a reaction paper on it, and creating group web pages. Long-term goals are to integrate the course content and assignments into the online collaboration so that students would take the course through long-distance learning.

Benefits of the AU-UFPR Exchange

Luci and I are eager to let our students „explore alternative pathwaysš in our courses, which is one reason we have set up the AU-UFPR collaboration. Diverse learning techniques are necessary to meet the need of our diverse students. We believe that it is essential to provide students with a variety of learning opportunities to enhance the chances of successful learning.

Overall Luci and I are satisfied with our initial venture into virtual collaboration through the Internet, and the students have benefited in both tangible and intangible ways. The following are specific benefits that resulted from this project:

The Process of Developing Collaborative Internet Projects

Although every Internet project is different and has unique characteristics, some common parameters exist. The following are the basic steps for establishing successful collaborative Internet projects.

Conclusion

According to Stephen R. Acker, of the Center for Advanced Study in Telecommunications at Ohio State University, „As telecommunication networks begin to saturate the physical environs, we have entered a period of social transformation.š This transformation is also occurring in education, and we are all a part of it. In fact, in light of the globalization of education, long-distance learning projects such as these will become more common and more comprehensive. Luci and I hope to continue with the AU-UFPR project because we believe that a collaborative Internet project has value on many levels, from the pedagogical to the political, assuming access to computers and software exist. Experience is the best teacher, and I have learned a great deal since I first entered into the VEE (Virtual Exchange Environment) almost one year ago at the LTNet. Based on my experience in this project, I offer the following suggestions.

References

Other Sources

Project Information


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VII, No. 6, June 2001
http://teslj.org/
http://iteslj.org/Articles/Shulman-CMC.html