Sophie Adamson, associate professor of French, believes technology can effectively enrich students’ out-of-class experiences. By introducing innovative technology to the intimacy of face-to-face interactions, Adamson expanded her French students’ language-learning opportunities this spring.
“I think it’s really interesting to be able to take advantage of technological innovations that are out there right now,” she said. “I think in language departments, there’s a tendency to feel technology can get in the way of communicating and that conversations should be face-to-face at all times, but I think there’s a way to use technology to enhance the experience outside of the classroom.”
With the help of TalkAbroad, a company that allows students to communicate with native language speakers around the world over Skype, Adamson allowed her students to conduct authentic conversations with international peers.
“For me, language is living and should not be confined to within classroom walls,” she said. “In an effort to be as practical and engaging as possible and in an effort to motivate the students and to boost their self-confidence, I wanted to find other ways for them to communicate with people within the target language.”
What is TalkAbroad?
TalkAbroad is a company that hosts a network of international language partners. These partners are members of “partnering universities or non-profits who use TalkAbroad as a method to provide employment in their communities,” according to the company’s website. TalkAbroad screens, trains, and pays these partners, and each individual’s profile is listed on the company’s website.
Through this menu-like layout of profiles, registered students can view partners’ pictures, hobbies, and hours of availability. Then, they can select a candidate and reserve a 30-minute time slot to speak with that individual via Skype.
TalkAbroad records and stores the oral content of conversations on its website, too, so faculty and students can replay dialogues as often as they would like.
Adamson said TalkAbroad reimburses users if the quality of their conversation is poor. Furthermore, the company sends reminders to all participants before a conversation occurs.
“It’s got all the things that would normally stress a professor out taken care of, so that was amazing,” she said.
Adamson’s TalkAbroad assignment
Adamson’s TalkAbroad assignment served as one component of a larger project, which required students to create a fake radio show, complete with hosts and interviewees. Through this bigger assignment, Adamson said she was able to provide her students with a sense of direction for their Skype conservations since they were required to think of questions that would work well in their radio shows.
“The larger project made them accomplish learning objectives in their TalkAbroad activities, so it wasn’t, ‘Oh, what are you interested in? Me too. Oh, bye, our 30 minutes are up,’” Adamson said. “They had very specific objectives, and the larger project provided them with structure and a reason to ask questions. It felt a little less invasive.”
For the TalkAbroad component, students were required to hold two, 30-minute conversations with native French speakers. Adamson set parameters on when each conversation had to be held, and she addressed her expectations for her students’ online behavior beforehand. For example, Adamson suggested her students conduct their interviews somewhere other than their bedrooms, such as in classrooms or the library, to maintain professionalism. She also asked her students to wear appropriate, non-revealing clothing.
Students were not graded on their TalkAbroad conversations, so there was no risk of penalties for using bad grammar or mispronouncing vocabulary words. But Adamson did ask her students to come into her office to discuss their experiences afterwards.
“You’re talking about real people communicating, and I didn’t want to go right into the classroom afterwards, and just say, ‘How was it?’ and keep it superficial,” she said. “I thought that would be frustrating for me and the students and that they might want to debrief. I’m so glad I did that because we had some really powerful conversations around the round table.”
Student responses to this unique opportunity
Leading into the assignment, Adamson said she hoped her TalkAbroad project would boost students’ confidence levels and encourage students to continue practicing and learning more about the language.
“From what’ve I seen, I think students feel better prepared because people can [now] say, ‘I can pick up the phone or Skype and talk to somebody in the Ivory Coast, and I can understand enough to be articulate, and I could answer, and I could ask,’” she said.
Junior Claire Mayo echoed Adamson’s observations, saying the assignment helped her to feel more comfortable speaking French around other Francophones.
“I found it beneficial to use TalkAbroad in order to gain genuine Francophone perspectives on our topic,” Mayo said. “Conversing with native speakers increased my confidence to speak French with my classmates and allowed me to practice formulating questions.”
Senior Amy Kenney appreciated the creative, engaging atmosphere of the project most.
“Interacting with native speakers from different backgrounds and countries exposed us to the linguistic and cultural differences between members of the Francophone community,” Kenney said. “It was the ultimate learning experience. It was very cool to be reminded that people all over the world are just like us, with similar concerns about family, friends, and leading a fulfilled, successful life.”
Junior Alice Sudlow, whose group spoke with a man in Senegal and a man in Mauritius, enjoyed the authentic nature of the assignment, as it allowed her to naturally engage with Francophones and to touch-up on her language skills.
“I enjoyed the chance to practice my conversational skills with native speakers, something I haven’t really had the opportunity to do since I returned from studying abroad in France in December,” Sudlow said. “But more than that, I learned a lot about Senegalese and Mauritian culture and society that I never would have guessed otherwise.”
If you are interested in incorporating video technology, like Skype, into your own courses and would like to learn more, contact Teaching and Learning Technologies at 336.278.5006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.