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Possibilities and Limitations of Computer-Mediated Tandem: Skype vs. Adobe Connect

Opportunités et limites de l’apprentissage en tandem au moyen de l’ordinateur : Skype vs. Adobe Connect
Elisabetta Longhi et María Joaquina Valero Gisbert

Résumés

Avec l’avènement d’internet et la diffusion de la communication médiatisée par ordinateur (CMO), dans le milieu universitaire aussi, l’apprentissage en tandem a beaucoup changé à la suite des nouvelles opportunités technologiques. Ses caractéristiques ont été modifiées et étendues, ce qui signifie que l’apprentissage en tandem apparaît aujourd’hui bien éloigné du concept original de base. Désormais il existe plusieurs logiciels qui se révèlent appropriés pour l’apprentissage en tandem à distance. Dans cet article nous ferons la comparaison entre les deux types d’apprentissage en tandem par ordinateur qui ont été réalisés à l’Université de Parme, l’un avec Skype et l’autre avec Adobe Connect. Le but d’ensemble était de combiner les avantages du concept de tandem avec les nouvelles possibilités offertes par la communication par ordinateur, tout en tenant compte des exigences spécifiques de nos étudiants. À travers la présentation et l’évaluation de ces deux modalités de tandem, y compris les défis organisationnels et techniques qu’elles impliquent, nous illustrerons et nous discuterons des opportunités et des limites de l’apprentissage en tandem dans l’enseignement supérieur, tout en considérant son intégration dans les programmes d’études universitaires.

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Texte intégral

Tandem 2.0

1The advent of the Internet has affected language learning and teaching in many respects, including the way tandem programs are run. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) encompassed at the beginning such practices as the exchange of electronic mails. As Herring puts it, in fact, CMC is “predominantly text-based” (“A Faceted Classification” 1), that is why the most recent forms of communication are rather to be defined as computer-mediated discourse (CMD), i.e. “communication produced when human beings interact with one another by transmitting messages via networked computers” (Herring, “Computer-Mediated Discourse” 612). The multimedia tools used following the rapid growth of Web 2.0 have become more and more interactive and participatory (Guarda 16). A good example is videoconferencing, a kind of interaction that can be described as synchronous face-to-face conversation over spatial distance. Videoconferencing is not only or primarily used for language learning, yet it has proven very effective for oral language practice both in individual and group tandems (see below). In general, tandem learning has seen many changes due to these new technological opportunities, so that it now sometimes appears quite distant from its original, basic concept. This will be discussed through a case study taking into account two tandem programs run at the University of Parma, named “Skype tandem” and “Adobe Connect tandem”, after the videoconferencing software used.

One goal, two programs

2Considering that the focus of language teaching at the University of Parma is on written rather than on oral practice, most students often lack in fluency and perceive oral production as their weakest skill, which makes them feel insecure, as they admitted. Therefore, the common goal of both tandem programs is to help students achieve more confidence in their second language, with a focus on speaking skills, by integrating a more informal type of learning into the traditionally designed lectures. Cross-cultural objectives are pursued as well, particularly in the Adobe Connect tandem, where topics are chosen and given beforehand and discussed more thoroughly by a higher number of participants (see below). Based on the pedagogical tenets of reciprocity (Bechtel 15; Brammerts and Little 2-3; O’Dowd 46; Telles and Vassallo 88) and peer tutoring, collaborative training sessions are carried out through videoconferencing by proficient speakers of two languages, with the aim of learning from each other. In spite of this common ground, the two tandem programs are rather different in many respects, not just in the software used. Some data on both tandem designs will help us compare them better from various points of view:

Table 1. Data overview

Object of comparison

Skype tandem

Adobe Connect tandem

Attendees

2 for each session

(one-to-one tandem)

10-15 for each session

(group tandem)

Language level

any

A2, B1, B2

Languages

German, English, Spanish

German

When?

since 2012

whenever teachers and students want

October-December 2014

April-June 2015

April-June 2016

Number of sessions

(at least) 10

5 for each semester

Partner universities

(divided by nations, in sequence: Germany, United Kingdom, Spain)

Hochschule Geisenheim

Fachhochschule Frankfurt a.M.

University of Bath

University of Cardiff

University of Leeds

Universidad de Oviedo

Universidad de Valencia

Universität Mainz

Fachhochschule Frankfurt a.M.

3The overview given by the table shows that the Skype tandem is carried out more extensively in time and space, considering the number of partner universities and covered semesters, as well as for the languages and language levels included in the experimentation. Just small groups of students were involved in the Adobe Connect tandem, instead. This basic difference can be only understood by considering how the two setups worked, in accordance with the technological constraints and limitations related to the chosen software.

The Skype tandem

4A tandem is usually a one-to-one interaction involving only two proficient speakers (Telles and Vassallo). This is the model on which the Skype tandem is based: a traditionally organized one-to-one tandem carried out with new communication means. In the preparatory phase, every student joining the tandem must take an online placement test aimed at assessing their language level, in line with the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, ranging from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficiency). There is a test for each language. Such tests include a series of very short oral and written comprehension exercises with multiple-choice answers, thereby focusing on receptive skills. The underlying idea is that the most important information assessed by the test is the participants’ understanding, as well as the passive knowledge of grammar and lexis. The active use of such knowledge will follow during the tandem. Based on the points they have scored, students are paired in such a way that their language levels are as similar as possible.

5After the test, the students get the contact data of their partner (i.e. name and Skype address). The pairs must have ten Skype sessions in a given period of time, which can vary from three to six months, according to the agreements made with the partner universities. Every session includes just one modality of work, i.e. computer-mediated face-to-face conversations in pairs, and lasts one hour, during which students will speak each language for half an hour. Students are left free to choose their own topics according to their interests; the only ‘constraint’ they have is to write a summary in the foreign language at the end of every session and send it to their partner, who will correct it and send it back. The suggested new version is usually provided with an explanation for the change, though this form of non-professional feedback does not follow any rules or previous instructions, as pairs cannot be expected to act as teachers do. The summaries are then collected by the teachers, who check that the assignment has been done without giving any grades. This last stage of validation is necessary for the recognition and institutionalization of the tandem as an educational activity.

6Although no ECTS accreditation takes place, students can join a tandem program instead of carrying out self-study activities, i.e. they are dispensed from other types of language training in return for their participation in the Skype tandem. Since traditionally designed in-presence lessons alone do not grant them access to the exams, students must decide if they prefer to join the tandem or carry out individual activities: however, whichever option they choose, either of them is compulsory. This type of integration into the official curriculum is also valid for the second type of tandem program that will be presented below.  

The Adobe Connect tandem

7The Adobe Connect tandem is more like a tandem course than a one-to-one tandem as described above, nonetheless a sort of one-to-one tandem is still part of the modes of learning cooperation in the last phase of the sessions. It is a kind of shared lesson with two groups of university students located in different countries who meet at a pre-set time in a virtual room and accomplish tasks prepared by their teachers. Teachers are not only in charge of contact data, worksheets, final evaluation and all organizational matters, but they are always present in the virtual room(s) as tutors, moderators and facilitators of the learning process and, as such, they provide their guidance whenever needed.

8Some tasks are performed together with the teachers, some are performed separately: during the videoconferences the teachers are present and ready for problem-solving, but the topics and materials for the meetings are chosen by either of them and then submitted to the colleague’s approval, since it would be too complicated to decide every single detail together. They are alternatively in charge of the meeting, and in particular of the introductory phase. Every meeting namely involves three phases: first, a kind of introduction made by the teachers or by the students themselves, for example a presentation that two of them have prepared together; second, a plenary discussion with all participants in the same room; and third, face-to-face conversations in separate breakout rooms, where students continue the previous discussion in pairs or small groups, focusing on particular aspects of a more general topic. The third and last phase is, therefore, very similar to a Skype tandem session, with the only difference that it is much more structured, as it centers on a well-defined topic and a worksheet. An agreement concerning the language(s) used makes it further different, however. As a rule of thumb, everyone has to speak the foreign language, so as to train their weakest skill, spoken production. However, each session or half the session is not devoted to just one language at a time, but students can switch very often between one language and the other, which is rather uncommon for a tandem.

9In fact, this modality infringes the so-called “first Tandem principle: languages must not be mixed” (Telles and Vassallo 87). Teachers are not very strict when it comes to imposing this rule, whenever this may hinder people from expressing their thoughts properly: if someone has something important to say and feels more at ease using their own language, then they are allowed to do so. The point is that these online sessions are designed in such a way that intercultural learning plays a very important role besides language learning, and in fact teachers select intercultural themes (such as the role of stereotypes, the relationships between countries or recent history), which are known to be a good stimulus for discussion and an essential part of tandem learning (O’Dowd and Lewis). Therefore, both intercultural and language learning begins before the start of the online session, with the assigned preparatory tasks (reading texts, watching videos or even preparing a speech on a given topic), and continues after the virtual meeting, with writing tasks prepared following a handout received before the online session. Based on the notes they have taken, students are usually asked to write a summary of their partners’ opinions.

Possibilities and limitations

10As for the learning outcomes, Adobe Connect tandem is the more comprehensive pattern of tandem, because every work phase and activity is associated to one or more oral and written language skills, not just speaking and listening. Participants read texts on a topic, discuss them in groups or in pairs and write down the answers to a set of given questions, while interviewing the tandem partner on his/her opinions. The writing activity, for example, is varied too: as aforesaid, during the conversations students just take notes, then they must hand over a summary of online discussions or prepare the slides of a presentation which will start the next meeting. This diversification is rather unusual for tandem programs, which tend to concentrate on one single ability/activity at a time. One might object that listening is somewhat neglected, since everybody tries to speak their foreign language, so that at best, students listen to the foreign language spoken by fellow non-native speakers, in the plenary phase. In the individual phase, instead, they listen to their mother tongue all the time, because everyone has to speak the foreign language (see above). In spite of this, videos are watched and podcasts listened to every now and again as a preliminary task before the weekly online meeting, and this can counterbalance the lack of L2 listening practice during the Adobe Connect sessions. By contrast, the Skype tandem is more clearly focused on one skill, i.e. listening, which does not mean that this objective is reached by both partners equally, as the basic principle of reciprocity would suggest. However motivated and conscientious the tandem partners may be, their competence in the L2 will never be identical; despite the efforts made to pair them fairly, the results can only be approximate. As a consequence, the stronger partner will (probably) prevail and his/her second language will be spoken more: nobody checks that the fifty-fifty rule is truly respected. In fact, considerable imbalance in the time each language is spoken could result in one partner improving more rapidly than the other: however, the initial language level which causes it is surely not the only factor that can influence the success of a tandem experience. Personality issues, common interests, learning habits of the participants have not been considered so far, yet they could account for the success of a tandem as well. As a matter of fact, a couple of participants complained about the lack of common interests with their Skype tandem partners. A better matching in all respects should therefore belong to the teachers’ tasks in the future, especially in view of a Skype tandem, where their action is limited to the preparatory and to the final evaluative phase: the teachers disappear during the core part of the tandem, i.e. during the videoconference.

11On the contrary, the teachers’ role is more comprehensive and multi-faceted in the Adobe Connect tandem. Besides what they do before and after the Adobe Connect session, teachers stimulate and coordinate the sequence of students’ interventions and ensure that everybody takes part in the plenary discussion, calling out those who speak less. In the last work phase, they have physical and/or virtual access to the breakout rooms where dyads of students conduct the more traditional part of this tandem program. Hence, teachers supervise all the learning process and give assistance in case of problems, helping the students reach their learning targets. Despite their presence, or even omnipresence, which seems to infringe one of the principles of tandem learning, i.e. the idea of learners’ autonomy (Brammerts and Little 3-4; Telles and Vassallo 88-89; O’Dowd, “Online” 46), teachers are just acting as teaching counsellors to help and overview, not to correct mistakes or to give marks: they do not lecture or instruct the students, but rather leave them to teach one another and express their opinions in a well-organized manner. Whereas the absence of teachers during the Skype sessions can foster the use of colloquial expressions in line with an informal context, the teachers’ control in the Adobe Connect tandem seems to be linked to a more formal language register, as everyday slang is usually banned from the classroom: the teachers’ presence implies that free conversations among peers, typical of informal tandem designs, can be steered towards academic discourse on given topics which also comprehends the development of dialectical abilities. Both the contents and the form in which they are expressed go far beyond small talk. For the same reason, the Adobe Connect tandem is ideally much better integrated into the curriculum, in other words there is a kind of continuum between this project and the other in-presence courses held at the university: teachers themselves can easily build such a conceptual bridge in terms of didactic purposes, activities and topics.

12As a whole, a wider range of learning goals can be reached with the Adobe Connect tandem. However, it has a big disadvantage: it is really difficult to implement compared to the Skype tandem. A good example of this is offered by the tools used: Adobe Connect is much more professional and has got a lot of functionalities which Skype does not have (e.g. raise-hand button, availability of several setups, differentiation of attendees’ roles in hosts, presenters and participants, with different technical privileges), but Skype is free of charge and most students already use it, so they do not need to be trained or get a password to use it. From a technical point of view, the great majority of students are thus ready to start the Skype tandem at any time, which is very practical. During the Adobe Connect sessions, on the contrary, a technician’s supervision is always required, not only in case of problems: between the second and the third phase, it is the technician who divides the attendees into separate breakout rooms: changing the technical setup is necessary to work in different modalities during the same session. Moreover, one or two test sessions have to be scheduled before every tandem course and students need some time to get confident with the software, in particular with certain buttons like the “raise-hand”, to signal their wish to speak during the plenary discussion. However, this is an opportunity for the students to acquire more competences in using the media, despite it being more time-consuming. When a tool is used, one should always evaluate beforehand if it is worth it and consider that problems may arise, all the more so with demanding technologies. In the worst-case scenario, students will spend more time talking about the tool (malfunctions, use of buttons etc.) than about the interesting topics they were urged to deal with (Biebighäuser 262). The most professional software is the most complicated, but also the most reliable, so, for example, 10-15 people can be hosted in an Adobe Connect room (or more depending on the subscription), which would not have been possible with Skype in the past: beyond a certain number of participants, the software could not work. Following the recent evolution of Skype technology, group video chats are now available on Skype too, thanks to the multi-speaker functionality. The latest update of the basic version or even Skype for Business are much more similar to Adobe connect than the version we have used until now, but for a fair comparison of the pros and cons one should always keep in mind that the more features, the more possible complications one comes across. The most advanced technology is not always the best solution, as we will discuss further below.

13As for the difference between tandem lessons at a pre-set time and place and individual tandem sessions that can take place whenever and wherever students want, it is obvious that greater freedom makes everything easier. It is no wonder, then, that the Skype tandem program has involved ten times more students than the Adobe Connect tandem so far (about 400 vs. 40). The Skype tandem is offered all-year round for three languages (German, English, Spanish) and for any level, whereas the Adobe Connect tandem course was only organised as a trial for limited periods of time in collaboration with the University of Mainz and with the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, so that the language pair was always Italian-German. It was rather hard to find a day and a time when, in both universities, the multimedia room was free, the technician available etc., and problems could not always be overcome, so that we had to work with only five Adobe Connect sessions for each course, instead of the ten or more meetings carried out with the Skype tandem program. Additionally, semesters do not coincide precisely across nations, which makes everything even more difficult. This is why we decided to stop the Adobe Connect tandem program in June 2016. The total number of students reached by this program was therefore much smaller than by the Skype program, which has been running for six years now. In conclusion, a table can help us summarize the pros and cons of the two tandem programs we have dealt with.

Table 2. Pros and cons of Skype and Adobe Connect tandem

Skype tandem

Parameter

Adobe Connect tandem

-

speaking

+

+

listening

-

-

reading

+

-

writing

+

-

media competence

+

-

intercultural competence

+

+

feasibility

-

+

no. of students involved

-

+

partner universities

-

+

languages involved

-

14As the table shows, each column displays the same number of pros and cons, which means we cannot conclude that one program is better than the other one. If we consider the participants’ perceptions on their tandem experience, as it emerged from the final feedback they had to hand over in form of a short written commentary, both programs are effective in fostering the students’ self-confidence and motivation, even though they do so in different ways, for different targets and in different situations. Every time a new tandem partnership is set up, all contextual factors are to be considered in order to make a good choice.

Evaluation and future prospects

15In general, the Adobe Connect tandem program has more possibilities, but also more limitations. Didactically speaking, it is the tandem design which best stimulates dialectical abilities, media competence and intercultural competence together with language learning. Students strongly appreciate the chance to train their speaking skills both in a formal and informal context: group discussions are like public speaking, all the more so when it comes to giving a presentation to introduce a topic, whereas one-to-one conversations are like informal conversations (as when talking to a friend). In an individual tandem the linguistic feedback is more direct and immediate than in a group discussion, when public corrections would often sound impolite and are thus avoided in most cases.

16On the other hand, public speaking is the best challenge for people who feel insecure, it is psychologically more demanding, but also more rewarding than a one-to-one conversation if the main goal is acquiring self-confidence in speaking. Whilst the Skype tandem only offers one-to-one conversations, the Adobe Connect tandem program allows to experience both situations instead, but one should venture into it only if they have enough energy to invest. Broadly speaking, it depends on whether the teacher needs more control or freedom in relation to the learning requirements of the specific learner group. After all, in every tandem program there must be a certain amount of freedom and a certain amount of control, depending on the direction the teacher wants to take his students to. As for the future of tandem programs at the University of Parma, the fundamental decision is whether to keep two distinct programs, or just one, perhaps a better compromise between control and freedom, such as an individual Skype tandem with more teachers’ guidance through structured worksheets. Furthermore, to guarantee a better integration into the curriculum, some sort of accreditation should take place, after reaching an agreement with all the stakeholders (enthusiastic and less enthusiastic teaching staff, students, university’s governing bodies).

17Lastly, in the near future we are most probably going to face another critical factor which we have come across only once or twice until now: multilingualism. In a way, the Adobe Connect tandem challenges the tenet of autonomy, the Skype tandem that of reciprocity, but the principle of nativeness has remained unquestioned so far. Now, with the growing mobility of people in general and students in particular, the group of expert speakers connecting from another country can be linguistically and culturally less homogeneous than in the past, including attendees with a different national background (for example, a Chinese student living in Germany or in Italy). People engaging in a tandem usually expect that their tandem partners master the language and culture to be learned, but this was not true during some of our Adobe Connect sessions, because two attendees from Frankfurt were not natives and not even sufficiently proficient in German. It is still to be investigated in depth what this multilingualism can mean with regard to authenticity of the languages to be learned and to which extent it can turn into an opportunity, particularly with regard to intercultural learning. More cultures always mean more perspectives on the same topics, but the matter becomes much more complex for language learning. Which language has to be learnt: the standard language spoken in that country by native speakers or a sort of lingua franca, possibly including non-standard language forms too? Future tandem projects will certainly be confronted with these questions and shall find a way to answer them properly.

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Bibliographie

Bechtel, Mark. Interkulturelles Lernen beim Sprachenlernen im Tandem. Eine diskursanalytische Untersuchung [=Gießener Beiträge zur Fremdsprachendidaktik]. Taschenbuch, 2003.

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Référence électronique

Elisabetta Longhi et María Joaquina Valero Gisbert, « Possibilities and Limitations of Computer-Mediated Tandem: Skype vs. Adobe Connect », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. 39 N°1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2020, consulté le 08 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/7512 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/apliut.7512

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Auteurs

Elisabetta Longhi

Elisabetta Longhi studied Foreign Language and Literature at the University of Parma. In 2008 she received her PhD in German Literature at the University of Pisa. She is currently working as a senior lecturer of German Language and Translation at the University of Parma, where she has been mentoring tandem learners since 2014.
elisabetta.longhi@unipr.it

María Joaquina Valero Gisbert

María Joaquina Valero Gisbert is Associate Professor of Spanish Language and Literature at the University of Parma.
mariajoaquina.valerogisbert@unipr.it

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Droits d’auteur

Association des Professeurs de Langues des Instituts Universitaires de Technologie

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