Videoconferencing in EFL Classes

Yu-Chih Doris Shih discusses the potential of interactive videoconferencing and describes several projects that she used with English language learners in Taiwan and Japan as well as preservice teachers in the United States. See Deoksoon Kim's Portal article, "Innovative Educational Technology in the Global Classroom," Essential Teacher, March 2009.

Providing instruction to college students in the use and usefulness of technology helps them connect with the rest of the world and can facilitate English and foreign language practice. The Internet infrastructure has been well established in Taiwan, and all levels of education have promoted learning through computer technology. Chao (2004) has delineated the frequent use of computer-assisted language learning in English language instruction in Taiwan, and data provided by the Computer Center of the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Taiwan shows that universities there have been connected to Taiwan Academic Network (TANet) since 1994 (Computer Center of MOE, 2007). Moreover, many Taiwanese students are currently connected to the Internet at home.

In the late 20th century, most online language learning research was conducted with text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC). With the addition of audiographic CMC (Rosell-Aguilar, 2005), high-speed Internet, and sophisticated software, videoconferencing experiences can now be built into EFL courses in various ways. In this article, I describe how I have conducted exchanges between native and nonnative speakers via interactive videoconferencing (IVC) and desktop videoconferencing (DVC) in my courses.

IVC With Native-English-Speaking Preservice Teachers

An intercultural telecommunications project took place each semester, with different groups of participants each term, from 1998 to 2001. Its main purpose was to offer online English language teaching and learning opportunities to preservice teachers in Texas, in the United States, and EFL learners at Fu-Jen Catholic University (FJCU), in Taiwan. The participants were matched one on one via text-based CMC (i.e., e-mail and discussion boards) to practice online EFL teaching and learning.

Two IVC sessions were carried out during the middle of the 10-week term. The participants already knew each other from their e-mail messages and could continue to expand on their learning and teaching discussions after the IVC sessions. Prior to the IVC, the students were taught videoconferencing etiquette and decided on the topic of discussion with their counterparts. Topics included festivals in Taiwan and the United States, traveling, campus life, jobs, and movies. During each IVC session, two pairs at a time talked to each other for 20 minutes, and the rest of the participants at both ends stayed in the room to observe the connection. The instructor-coordinators did not actively moderate the conversations; rather, they remained in the room to provide assistance to participants by prompting what questions to ask.

Participants from both countries gave generally positive feedback regarding their IVC experiences. Watching their communication partners facilitated their overall learning, but they found the use of IVC uncomfortable when others observed them. They also felt unsatisfied with the length of connection. Nonetheless, three main types of learning were achieved: cultural formation, oral practice and control of stage fright, and experience with nonnative speakers on the part of the preservice teachers.

DVC With Other Nonnative Speakers

A telecommunications project among Taiwanese EFL learners at FJCU and Japanese EFL learners at the university level was carried out from 2001 to 2003. Scales, Wennerstrom, Richard, and Wu (2006) point out that English language learners should not learn to speak from only a single pronunciation model. They should also respect accent diversity. As a consequence, opportunities to practice intercultural communication among students should not be limited to native versus nonnative speakers. Nonnative speakers should be given opportunities to connect with each other.

In this project, funded by the National Science Council of the Republic of China, 32 Taiwanese students taking the course Computer-Assisted Instruction connected with 38 Japanese students. Participants received instruction on the basics of telecommunications technologies and the use of MSN Messenger and DVC software called iVisit; among other things, they learned about the setup of individual chat rooms and getting connected with a webcam. Instructors at both ends provided worksheets with topics for the participants to discuss and use to exchange their views on the digital divide, wired schools, and jobs and technology.

Issues that arose during the DVC project included intruders, problems of multiple interlocutors, and ineffective use of worksheets. The participants should have learned to handle chat room intruders calmly and strategically. Furthermore, when there were more than two interlocutors in a group discussion, participants would easily get confused about turn taking. The text chat function in the DVC software allowed them to read comments more clearly; nevertheless, a system was needed to allow participants to keep track of their topics and topic shifts. To help the participants create smoother interaction, several worksheets were distributed on the day of connection. This design kept students quite busy. In fact, some groups felt overloaded and were unable to complete the questions on the worksheets. The outcome was affected by not only the language ability but also the students' keyboarding skills and the strategies for using the worksheets. Other factors that affected participants related to the ability to work on the DVC and chat software.

Connect With the Expert

Experts working in specific fields can provide helpful and authentic knowledge to students. For example, students at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, in Maine, in the United States, connected via the Internet with staff at the Bronx Zoo in New York so that the students could learn more about the zoo animals (Bell, 2003).

Using a grant from MOE in Taiwan, I connected students in the course English Language Teaching and Learning Through Multimedia to an instructional designer in the United Stateswho worked for BP North American Gas and Power and Catalyst Unlimited. Several course assignments involved students designing multimedia instructional materials for foreign language learning. After receiving training in how to use different audio- and videoconferencing software, including Skype and MSN Messenger, students in groups of two to three connected and spoke to the U.S. instructional design expert about multimedia design principles, specifically parameters for selecting the type of English to use for instruction. The expert talked about the number of dialects of English and provided examples of Web sites for the same products written in American and British English. After two sessions of videoconferencing, discussions continued asynchronously on a Yahoo! Group.

Participating students were excited and positive about the opportunity to learn about instructional design from an expert in addition to the teacher. Besides gaining concepts about designing multimedia materials, they could also practice communication with the native speaker in the target language.

Join the Global Understanding Project

With project funding again granted by the MOE in Taiwan, my department has joined the Global Understanding Project (see Shih, 2008) initiated by Global Academic Initiatives atEast Carolina University, in the United States. By August 2008, there were more than 20 universities around the world taking part in this project (East Carolina University, 2009). The project is designed to allow students in different countries to communicate with each other via interactive technologies, usually connecting to three different countries per semester, for 4–5 weeks each. Throughout the semester, students at each participating university can learn about a number of different cultures while simultaneously teaching about their own by using the English language. The exchange is based both on written communication between pairs of students, via e-mail and text chats using mIRC, as well as through videoconferencing for face-to-face dialogue. Topics of discussion ranged from college life, family structure, and the meaning of life to stereotypes and prejudices.

At FJCU, the first course was carried out in a computer room to ensure stable Internet access and technical support. Because the course was offered during the evening hours, such services were not available in the digital interactive classroom that had been specially designed for cross-site teaching and interaction and thus was a better setting for videoconferencing. As a result, the lighting, audio, and setting were less satisfying in the computer room. Nevertheless, the postcourse evaluation showed that students were highly appreciative of the opportunities for authentic contact with native speakers.

Suggestions for future improvements were made to university administration. The English department is supportive of such an international course, and it is certain that this course will continue to be offered. Students will continue to benefit from communicating in English with participants worldwide and learning about intercultural communication through cyberspace.

Encourage EFL Learners to Transfer Classroom Experiences

With increased availability of high-speed Internet, data transmission and software for videoconferencing are improving at a very fast pace. One suggestion to improve online teaching and learning is to move from simply using text-based asynchronous and synchronous communication (e.g., e-mail, text chats) to engaging in oral communication. This is especially important for foreign language learners who need to constantly practice the four skills in an integrated way. Without doubt, foreign language instructors should provide opportunities for learners to experience online technologies and instruct them in how to deal with impolite intrusions (visually, orally, or via text) during videoconferencing or in chat rooms.

Despite potential problems such as those involved with hardware and Internet speed, through experiences such as those described in this article, college-level EFL learners (who are potential future EFL teachers) can be exposed to innovative ways of learning and communicating. They can also transfer these experiences and skills to autonomous language learning and practice outside the classroom with people all around the world.

References

Bell, J. K. (2003). Videoconferencing takes Cape Elizabeth Middle School on a distance learning adventure. T.H.E. Journal, 31(4), 51.

Chao, C. (2004). CALL opens language learning windows in Taiwan. Essential Teacher, 1(3), 22–25.

Computer Center of MOE. (2007). Tai wan xue shu wang lu (TANet) da shi ji [The profile of TANet]. Retrieved January 29, 2009, fromhttp://www.edu.tw/EDU_WEB/EDU_MGT/MOECC/EDU0688001/tanet/environ/outline.html

East Carolina University. (2009). Global understanding course. Retrieved January 13, 2009, from http://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/globalinitiatives/course.cfm

iVisit (Version 4.0) [Computer software]. (2008). Santa Monica, CA: iVisit. http://www.ivisit.com/

MSN Messenger (Version 7.0) [Computer software]. (2005). Redmond, WA: Microsoft. http://webmessenger.msn.com/

mIRC (Version 6.35) [Computer software]. (2008). London: mIRC. http://www.mirc.com/

Rosell-Aguilar, F. (2005). Task design for audiographic conferencing: Promoting beginner oral interaction in distance language learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 18, 417–442.

Scales, J., Wennerstrom, A., Richard, D., & Wu, S. H. (2006). Language learners' perceptions of accent. TESOL Quarterly, 40, 715–738.

Shih, D. (2008). Cross-cultural communication: Global understanding project. Retrieved January 14, 2009, fromhttp://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/iacd_2008S/cultural_communication/index.html

Skype (Version 3.8) [Computer software]. (2008). Luxembourg City, Luxembourg: Skype Technologies. http://www.skype.com/

Yu-Chih Doris Shih (dshih@mail.fju.edu.tw) is an assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Fu-Jen Catholic University, in Taipei, Taiwan.