HT – Telecollaboration

In language education, telecollaboration is described as “the application of online communication tools to bring together classes of language learners in geographically distant locations to develop their foreign language skills and intercultural competence through collaborative tasks and project-based work” (O’Dowd, 2011, p. 342).

More specifically, telecollaboration refers to an institutional partnership, an internet-based intercultural exchange between students of different cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds, set up in a context where educators align their courses, implement the same materials, or utilize parallel texts in order to foster dialogue, cross-cultural analysis, and critical reflections about language and culture (Guth and Helm, 2010; Thorne, 2010).

Telecollaboration projects are most frequently conducted in bilingual or monolingual settings, where the two groups utilize either a lingua franca or two languages in tandem to communicate. However, research continues to report that effective telecollaborative projects can also take place in multilateral and multilingual settings, including more than two groups and with multiple languages used for the interactions. (Hauck, 2007, 2010; Sauro, 2016; Emke & Stickler, 2011; Fuchs, Hauck, Muller-Hartmann, 2012).

Students can communicate with partners synchronously through the videoconferencing and online chats (Jin & Erbert, 2007; Marti & Fernandez, 2013), or collaborate with partners asynchronously using tools such as email, social networks, discussion boards, blogs/wikis, media sharing, and authoring software (Furstenberg, 2005; Elwood, Fuji & Orr, 2010; Shenker, 2012). Telecollaboration can also engage students in a multimodal learning environment, where a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools are implemented for communication and collaboration (Belz, 2004, Castro & Derivry, 2016; Dooly, 2011).

Telecollaborative projects are not limited to L2 courses; they can also be implemented in heritage language courses (Blake, Zyzik, 2003), as well as in teacher education programs (Dooly, 2011, Mulller-Hartmann & Kurek, 2016, Sauro, 2016) and disciplines other than foreign languages (see for example telecollaboration projects developed through the COIL@SUNY network or sample tasks published through UNI-Collaboration).

Similarly, telecollaborations are not limited to international partnerships. For some of the telecollaborative projects developed at CILC, a domestic partner was selected. The course objectives, namely exploration of Latinx identity and communities in the context of a Heritage Spanish course, were supported by a telecollaboration engaging Heritage Speakers of Spanish from different Latinx communities in the U.S. See HT – Spanish.

Different terms have been employed to refer to the practice of telecollaboration. Whereas for the purpose of our projects we have adopted the term telecollaboration, it is important to mention other nomenclatures that can be found in the literature, and to identify the salient differences between the terms.

The reference to telecollaboration as a teaching practice began to emerge in education in the mid-1990s together with the advent of the first major commercial Internet Service Providers and the proliferation of emailing systems. Emails allowed educators to conceptualize new opportunities of connecting language learners with native speakers and other language learners around the world. The publicly available World Wide Web made it possible to bring into the classroom authentic foreign materials and enabled students to develop and publish online their own materials individually or with others. In the late 1990s, the term telecollaboration came to define and formalize the practice of using new technologies to institutionalize class-to-class global collaborations. The proceedings of the Hawai’i Symposium in 1996 and the special issue of the Language Learning and Technology publication in May 2003 were devoted to this new educational practice, and they provided an arena for practitioners to start exploring the use of telecollaboration as a method to enhance language learning and cultural studies.

With the advent of emails, the term e-pals became diffused referring to the new variant of pen pals made possible through the exchange of emails versus the traditional pen-and-paper approach (O’Dowd, 2016). The ePals Global Learning Community remains today one of the largest online communities of K-12 educators, including millions of students and teachers in over 200 countries. Acknowledging the new forms of online collaboration other than email that are made possible today by new technology, ePals has been partnering with companies in educational technology and beyond to provide a variety of cloud-based collaboration features within its platform in addition to email.

Whereas telecollaboration tends to refer to a formal class-to-class activity led by the instructor, E-tandem (online tandem learning) refers to a form of telecollaboration that is classroom-independent, and which generally takes places as a noninstitutionalized bi-literal configuration. Thorne (2005) elaborates that e-tandem projects are based on the concept of reciprocity and learner autonomy, as they are set up in a student-to-student model, where learning activities are not mediated by the teacher and take place independently of classroom activities (p. 5). In a traditional e-tandem exchange, learning activities tend to be negotiated directly by the learners, who are responsible for scheduling and organizing the interactions with their partners, and negotiating discussion topics. E-tandem projects generally aim to enhance the language learning experience rather than placing the focus on intercultural studies; partners are native speakers of the reciprocal target language, who are interested in learning each other’s language and responsible for providing each other feedback on language use (O’Rourke, 2005, p. 434). In language education, opportunities for E-tandem language exchange are provided for example by The Mixxer, a site for language learners hosted by Dickinson College, where language learners and teachers can locate potential native speakers to function as language partners in a e-tandem bilingual exchange setting. Another platform that promotes this type of telecollaboration is WeSpeke, a social network for language learning, where language learners can partner with others in a tandem language exchange using text/audio/video-chat tools.

Telecollaboration is also sometimes referred to as virtual exchange. As discussed by O’Dowd (2016) virtual exchange is the term preferred for example by the Virtual Exchange Coalition, a community of telecollaboration practitioners, which aims to promote a generative ecosystem for telecollaboration projects seen specifically as a way to prepare, deepen, and enhance students’ experiences during study abroad contexts (“Virtual Exchange Coalition”, 2017).

More recently, other denominations have become favored alternatives to telecollaboration. In promoting the term Internet-Mediated Intercultural Foreign Language Education (ICFLE) Thorne and Belz (as cited in O’Dowd, 2016, p. 6) argue that the terms above do not place emphasis on the crucial intercultural objective of modern language pedagogy, and that the other terminologies do not reflect a practice specific to language education per se, because they are also applied to other disciplines. O’Dowd (2007, 2016) promotes the adoption of Online Intercultural Exchange (OIE) as an umbrella term to be used across disciplines, which is sufficiently comprehensive in all relevant aspects and variants of online communicative and collaborative learning initiatives. These latter two definitions also aim not to limit telecollaboration to a specific modality (such as the e-pals or e-tandem labels tend to do), or to an institutionalized partnership between two classes like in the case of telecollaboration; rather to encompass the more extended approaches to telecollaborative projects as seen above, which take place in multilateral, multilingual, and multimodal settings.

It is relevant to mention also another label that has recently emerged in the field of telecollaboration, Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), which refers to telecollaboration initiatives conducted within the SUNY group of universities in the United States and their partners abroad. The mission of COIL@SUNY is to develop online and hybrid courses with international dimensions, which includes the implementation of international telecollaborations and partnerships.

Linguistic/expressive benefits

Telecollaboration (TC) opens up the classroom to a variety of interlocutors; by doing so it provides:

  • Exposure to rich, authentic input (including exposure to a variety of linguistic “styles”),
  • Opportunities for negotiation of meaning,
  • An authentic audience for materials produced by learners.

Research on the proficiency of heritage speakers seems to indicate that proficiency increases in tandem with the number of speakers the person interacts with. Telecollaborative pedagogies provide a setting where learners interact and negotiate meaning not only with the instructor and classroom peers, but also with a group of learners at another school, multiplying the number and variety of available communication partners.

Intercultural competence benefits

TC puts participants from at least two societies/cultures/communities in direct contact, creating the opportunity for:

  • Identification and awareness of one’s own ideas and practices
  • Comparison and contrast between different ideas and practices
  • Negotiation and discussion of perspectives, perceptions, misconceptions, generalizations, and stereotypes.

A typical heritage language learner (HLL) is part of and interacts with a variety of communities. Telecollaborative pedagogies allow for a critical exploration of such participation and interaction.

Sociolinguistic benefits

TC allows for comparison and problematizing of:

  • Perceptions different communities have about heritage language(s) and the speakers of those languages,
  • Ideas about language “correctness” and the concept of a “standard” language,
  • The act of making specific linguistic choices.

As speakers of contact-influenced and, often, stigmatized varieties of their languages, HLLs are under pressure from both the majority society and their own community’s linguistic policing. Completing projects and engaging in discussions with telecollaboration partners in the HL can help learners develop strategies to resist linguistic discrimination.

Digital literacy benefits

TC allows for:

  • Guided academic use of digital tools to advance specific projects
  • Incorporation of multimodal forms of linguistic expression and representation (Multiliteracies approach)
  • In the case of international TC, familiarization with the digital cultures of another society.

Typically, HLLs complete most of their education in English, and have limited literacy experiences in the HL. A telecollaborative class allows these learners to use their experiences with a variety of media to develop traditional and digital literacy skills in the heritage language.

Belz, J. A. (2005). Telecollaborative language study: A personal overview of praxis and research. Selected Papers from the 2004 NFLRC Symposium.

Castro, P. & Derivry-Plard, M. (2016). Multifaceted dimensions of telecollaboration through English as a lingua franca (ELF): Paris-Valladolid intercultural telecollaboration project. In S. Jager, M. Kurek & B. O’Rourke (Eds), New directions in telecollaboration research and practice; selected papers from the second conference on telecollaboration in higher education. (pp. 77-82). Dublin, Ireland: Research Publishing Net

Dooly, M. A. (2011). Crossing the intercultural borders into 3rd space culture(s): implications for teacher education in the twenty-first century. Language and Intercultural Communication, 11(4). 319-337

Fujii, K., Elwood, J. A. & Orr, B. J. (2010). Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Central Association of Teachers of Japanese. 44-50.

Furstenberg, G. (2005). Using communications tools to foster cross-cultural understanding. Selected Papers from the 2004 NFLRC Symposium.

Guth, S. & Helm. F. (2010) Telecollaboration 2.0: Language and intercultural learning in the 21st century (Eds.) Bern: Peter Lang.

Hauck, M. (2007). Critical success factors in a TRIDEM exchange. ReCALL, 19(2), 202-223.

Hauck, M. (2010). Telecollaboration: At the interface between Multimodal and Intercultural Communicative Competence.In: Guth, S. and Helm, F. (Eds.) Telecollaboration 2.0: Language, Literacies and Intercultural Learning in the 21st Century (pp. 219–244). Bern: Peter Lang

Jin, L. & Erben, T. (2007) Intercultural Learning via instant messenger interaction. CALICO Journal, 24(2): 291-310

Martí, N.M., & Fernández, S.S. (2016). Telecollaboration and sociopragmatic awareness in the foreign language classroom. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching,10(1), 34-48.

Muller-Hartmann, A. & Kurek, M. (2016) Virtual Group Formation and the Process of Task Design. In Lewis, T. & O’ Dowd, R. (Ed.), Online Intercultural Exchange: Policy, Pedagogy, Practice. (pp. 131-149). New York, NY:Routledge

O’Dowd, R. (2011) , “Intercultural Communicative Competence Through Telecollaboration”, in J. Jackson (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Language and Intercultural Communication (pp. 342-358). New York, NY:Routledge

O’ Rourke, B. (2005). Form-focused Interaction in Online Tandem Learning. CALICO Journal, 22(3). 433-466

Lewis, T. & O’ Dowd, R. (2016) Introduction to Online Intercultural Exchange. In Lewis, T. & O’ Dowd, R. (Ed.), Online Intercultural Exchange: Policy, Pedagogy, Practice. (pp. 3-20). New York, NY:Routledge

Sauro, S. (2016). Student perspectives on intercultural learning from an online teacher education partnership. In S. Jager, M. Kurek & B. O’Rourke (Eds), New directions in telecollaboration research and practice; selected papers from the second conference on telecollaboration in higher education. (pp. 83-88). Dublin, Ireland: Research Publishing Net

Schenker, T. (2012). Intercultural competence and cultural learning through telecollaboration. CALICO Journal, 29(3), 449 – 470.

Stickler, U., & Emke, M. (2011). Literalia: Towards developing intercultural maturity online. CALICO Journal, 15(1), 147-168.

Thorne, S. (2010). The intercultural turn and language learning in the crucible of new media. In S. Guth & F. Helm (Eds), Telecollaboration 2.0: Language and intercultural learning in the 21st century (pp. 139-135). Bern: Peter Lang.

For a more extensive bibliography on telecollaboration, go to Heritage Telecollaboration References page.


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