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MUTUAL INSTRUCTION IN THE GLOBAL CLASSROOM

Dr. Yuri P. Tretyakov
Chair, St. Petersburg Department of Foreign Languages,
Russian Academy of Sciences.
Director, Language Center,
The European University at St.Petersburg.

yuri@eu.spb.ru

The Global Classroom Project (GCP), developed by the European University Language Center in St.Petersburg and the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA, since spring 2000, creates a unique virtual classroom where instruction is offered over the Internet to international groups of American and Russian students. The two professors who initiated the project and are currently involved in its implementation are Dr. TyAnna Herrington (School of Literature, Communication, and Culture, Georgia Tech) and the author of this article.

Project description

The GCP is a framework of experientially based cross-cultural, digital learning environments in which students from disparate areas of the world attend classes, analyze issues in cross-cultural, digital communication as they relate to specific subject-area interests, and jointly develop communication products that reflect what they learn.

The aim of the project is two-fold: on the one hand, to develop specific pedagogy and create conditions for collaborative research based on digital technologies; on the other hand, to develop cross-cultural communication skills and provide Russian students with an excellent opportunity of enhancing their knowledge of English experientially as a result of direct interaction with their American colleagues and professors. Alongside increasing general language proficiency and skills in academic communication and technical writing, GCP creates a forum for experiential learning of the other countrys culture and ways of how this culture is reflected in language.

The quality of the students' work depends on their ability to determine the most effective means to communicate accurately, clearly, and effectively in web-conference format as well as in the form of resumes, proposals, analytical reports, and creative digital products. The GCP is supported by World Wide Web conferencing software (WebBoard) to enable what would be impossible without it; as such, digital communication is used to focus on class goals rather than the technology itself. WebBoard is structured with a split screen, dual column interface that lists conference names on the left and reading/writing space to the right. Users can click on a conference name on the left to open it, then click on a post within it and the post will open up on the right of the screen for reading or response. Each post on the right side of the screen includes a menu allowing readers to reply and quote the post they reply to, reply without quoting, or to create a new post, thus creating a new thread within a conference.

Essentially, the GCP is a further development of virtual class pedagogy common in Western universities, where face-to-face classroom teaching is increasingly making way to the virtual class, and student-teacher and student-student interaction occurs via Internet through conferencing software, email and other electronic media.

The advantages of the virtual class are numerous. It provides for effective teaching in classes of 50 and more students, where every student gets an opportunity to have his or her say and to be heard. Moreover, a student can always receive an individual consultation or comment from the teacher. On top of that, asynchronous classes, when students have access to class discussions at any time and from any location, makes learning a never-ending process. Since everything that is happening in class is saved on a server, the teacher can always analyze the learning process and monitor each students participation and achievement.

ESL instruction may be called a by-product of the project; however, making language instruction an integral part of communication and research in the students specific fields is a very efficient means of increasing the students language awareness and motivation to learn a language particularly for non-language majors.

Problems

Some of the problems that arise in the Global Classroom may be described as technical (time difference, computer compatibility, software shortcomings, unreliable lines of communication, etc.). The other problems that we face are pedagogical and psychological.

The pedagogical problems arising from the specific nature of the project are numerous. Instructors need training in computer technology and computer pedagogy and have to be ready to commit a lot of their time for developing, teaching, and assessing the course. Since the entire materials of previous courses are easily accessible, each new course, though similar in structure and goals, should be unique in content. Naturally, constant communication between professors to discuss the result of every class and amend plans for the future is prerequisite.

Russian students experience psychological difficulties of working within a multinational/multilingual setting. Even students with a sufficient level of English find it difficult to communicate in a multicultural environment, where the level of understanding depends not so much on language per se, but on the knowledge of another culture, especially with regard to communication patterns and traditions. On the other hand, Russian students find it hard to adapt to group work and sharing responsibilities in doing a common job. Finally, the very nature of asynchronous communication via Internet requires a lot of attention and concentration, especially since discussions happen in several parallel conferences.

These and many other problems are time- and effort-consuming but they are easily outbalanced by the satisfaction both students and professors feel once the course is up and going well.

Principles

To try to deal with these problems, through trial and error, a set of principles has been developed that are essential for intercultural digital instruction.

Since the inception of the GCP, our purposes in creating the project were driven by our academic experiences in linguistics, technical communication, rhetorical theory, and pedagogy. Early on, the project goals were based on the needs of our two universities, educational structures, and courses, one in English language education, the other in technical communication. Although the GCP is greatly expanded today and encompasses many other goals, both pragmatic and theoretical, it remains based in the same purposes. We think that three major principles underlie the implementation of the project: student control, collaboration, and self-assessment.

We firmly believe that eliminating instructor control over a class would allow students the space to take responsibility for their work, make their writing and content choices their own, and allow for a more egalitarian setting, giving students the room to convey and support their own ideas, safe from epistemological or political agendae of their instructors, who, as the course progresses, assume the roles of facilitators.

The Russian educational system is different from the American one in that it is more traditional and rigid, lecture-oriented and presupposes individual learning rather than teamwork. Even though it is one of the European Universitys main pedagogical goals to create a more liberal, or westernized learning environment, first-year graduate students arrive there with the old school experience in which there is no place for virtual classes, or collaborative projects. The effectiveness of collaborative pedagogy has been advocated since the 1980s; in the Global Classroom, collaboration is the essence of the project and the only way to make things work.

Being in control of the project development and collaborating both at team and class levels requires a sense of responsibility from the student and continuous self-assessment. By self-assessment we mean the students need not only to evaluate the quality of his or her work but also to constantly assess the process of communication as it develops in the course of completing the project. It enhances the students awareness of communication difficulties and helps make communication more effective. On the other hand, it provides for in-depth research of interaction processes occurring in the Global Classroom, both by the students and their professors. Transcripts of WebBoard discussions, which can be archived and stored for further analysis, are invaluable materials for research in intercultural communication.

Mutual Instruction

Since the outset of the project, when these principles existed only on intuitive level, we decided that the best way to start the course would be to plunge the students into an environment where they would be naturally motivated to communicate with one another. The wisdom of early pedagogical theory in computer-based teaching was that if students were forced by the nature of a computer classroom to write in real situations they would be motivated to write, not by the need to complete isolated class assignments that they had no interest in other than to meet grade requirements, but by the necessity of writing to accomplish their assigned goals.

The necessity for GCP communication arises from true need; if students communicate with each other at all, they do so by overcoming difficulties in cross-cultural, digital communication. They may be driven by the need to complete assignments, but the actual communication that allows them to complete the assignments themselves, by necessity is real. In addition to using a common language, more difficult for Russian students, who are learning English as their second language, students in both classes, by necessity, negotiate the more difficult tasks of moderating tone, colloquial expressions, and writing styles, both to communicate with each other and to complete differing types of collaborative assignments for class. The result is that language study is a central focus for both Russian and American students, and communication as a content area is a central aspect of study for all students as well. Students not only share their knowledge with the rest of the class, but do so purposely, assuming responsibility both for successful communication and the quality of artifacts produced.

This pedagogical approach, where a student finds him/herself in a situation where he/she has to communicate in order to learn from and teach other students, we refer to as "mutual instruction."

The Language Component

It is apparent that GCP is not intended for beginning students of English. Russian participants of the course are required to be at intermediate or upper-intermediate level with regard to the main language skills. Online communication with the American counterparts begins from day one, and experience has taught us that the most essential issue to deal with at that point is cultural.

The cultural diversity, and therefore the difference in the background knowledge, of the Russian and American students are very significant. On the whole, Russian students appear to be better informed about American culture in general and the educational/research system in particular. On the other hand, since the language of communication is English, they find themselves at a disadvantage not so much with respect to the general ability to express themselves, but with respect to the ability to express themselves in a way that would be regarded as correct by their American counterparts. Thus, the Russian students require specific instruction concerning the modality of their messages: ways of making suggestions, expressing agreement/disagreement, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc., while the Americans need to be made aware of cultural differences as expressed in speech so they would not be hurt by too straightforward replies to their ideas.

The language of instruction is invariably English, which contributes to the feeling of being immersed in an English-speaking environment. Thus, from the very beginning, the students receive cultural/linguistic information from two sources: (a) what they hear directly from their counterparts online and (b) what they are told in class by their teacher. A third source is required reading and discussion of literature on issues of intercultural communication (posted on the Universitys site). A special conference is set aside on WebBoard for the Russian students to post their questions regarding idioms, colloquialisms, cliches, etc. to be answered by their American colleagues.

We supplement this kind of instruction with a case study approach, offering the students to analyze cases on intercultural communication failures described in literature and encourage them to study and resolve problems arising in their own communication practices.

Having thus established preliminary contacts as well as an understanding of communication modes, the students then proceed to the projects main component - examining issues in their subject area fields. The choice of research subjects (never very specialized in nature) is the students responsibility, as well as the writing of a joint research proposal. Although the Russian students get ample information regarding the documents format and wording, it is the American students who provide the most important language input. The draft proposal is sent back and forth a number of times for comments and editing, until it is finally presented to the professors for grading.

The time of the most heated communication is doing the actual research, when WebBoard general and team discussions are supplemented by individual email communication, the latter being totally outside the instructors control. The work culminates in three points: a jointly written formal analytical report, a website describing the research results, and a series of oral presentations from the students describing the project as a whole and their individual contributions.

In this way, participation in the GCP gives the Russian students a perfect chance to improve all of their language skills: general writing (WebBoard and email discussions), technical writing (resumes, proposals, analytical reports), reading (required reading with subsequent discussions), and speaking/listening (oral class discussions and presentations). No doubt, this type of course is not easy to implement, but the past three years have demonstrated that even semester-long GCP courses provide students with invaluable communication, cultural, linguistic and research experience.

***

The Global Classroom has no walls or locked doors and is thus open for expansion and all kinds of experiments. In September-October 2002, Swedish students from Karlskrona University joined the Russian-American discussions on culture and language, providing an invaluable input and further internationalizing the project.

Semester-by-semester course descriptions, schedules, final digital products, students photographs and resumes as well as actual class discussions are accessible at http://www.eu.spb.ru/lang/gcr/index.htm

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