Virtual Exchanges: My dissertation in 500 words

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My dissertation analyzed virtual exchanges and Language Learning Social Networks (LLSNs), responding to the lack of opportunities for oral interaction with expert speakers in second language instruction.

For most learners, the classroom is useful but insufficient. Generally, other means are required to develop intercultural competence and advanced proficiency. Communicative classes tend to encourage oral interaction but they are limited by time and space constraints, and by homework and assessment that do not necessarily favor intercultural and speaking skills.

Among other many outcomes, a satisfactory virtual exchange experience provides fluency development and might contribute to university internationalization.

Virtual exchanges could also ignite interest in studying abroad, taking into account that 56% of 8,606 US students “indicated they were considering overseas study” (British Council, 2013, p. 26), yet only 14% of students appears to go abroad (Open Doors, 2012). According to the British Council survey (p.37), students were mostly concerned with the cost of international study (75%), lack of confidence in language ability (44%), and difficulty of leaving behind parents and friends (39%). Tandems do not solve the first concern but they can help students gain language confidence and get out of their cultural comfort zone.

The affordances of e-tandems are evident but virtual exchange projects remain peripheral to foreign language education (O’Dowd, 2010, 2013) and rely heavily on instructor guidance in spite of the proliferation of Language Learning Social Networking sites (LLSNs).

Inspired by the emergence of LLSNs and the current literature, my dissertation:

1) Assessed students’ knowledge and attitudes in regards to virtual exchanges and LLSNs, by means of a survey administered to 155 students and a preliminary experiment with virtual exchanges. The results encourage instructors and institutions to implement virtual exchange projects and the use of LLSNs at the curricular level.

2) Measured and described proficiency development through a 10 week hybrid Spanish course with a virtual exchange requirement, in contrast with a traditional course. The study found that both groups improved in the overall proficiency score. Furthermore, the hybrid learners outperformed the traditional course participants in regards to vocabulary, an indicator of fluency potential. A closer examination of the virtual exchange recordings from a qualitative perspective showed that virtual exchange participants increased language learning awareness and autonomy over time. In particular, learners who are more engaged and inquisitive from the first encounter seemed to progress at a faster rate.

3) Gave recommendations for using and developing LLSNs and explained the state of the art of what I called social Computer Assisted Language Learning (sCALL), an overarching term that includes not only LLSNs but virtual exchange platforms and networks that connect instructors and learners.

LLSNs should focus on strengthening the longevity of virtual exchange, ensuring that users find the most appropriate partners in terms of language level, interests, and location (connecting language learners in the same town). They should enhance feedback, translation tools, rating of users, tasks and projects, recordings, asynchronous and synchronous audiovisual features, and overall usability. The ideal LLSNs could be seen as an extension of the classroom, allowing learners to develop lifelong learning skills. The dialogue between developers and the language profession should flow naturally from the core of the common interests.

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