Going Dutch: Collaborative student research on language and culture (CILASS)
This project uses a range of different new technologies to facilitate student-led collaborative international research on language and culture. Students enrolled on modules within the English Language subject area at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and at York St John, UK, will work in intercultural groups to research contemporary questions of language, culture and communication. After working online with their peers, students will come together in York for a face-to-face conference where they will present papers to each other and to their staff. The conference will also involve international students who are studying at York St John on a foundation (i.e. level 0) programme. There will be at least 100 student delegates at this conference.
The project will offer new international perspectives to students, enabling them to apply theoretical insights on intercultural communication to practical, specific and highly relevant situations. It will enable staff to work collaboratively with their international equivalents in the respective universities, to plan curriculum development and joint research. Students will work alongside their tutors to develop research plans, carry out their research, and present it to the larger community. The conference presentations will be filmed and the papers digitally archived. Departmental colleagues and the wider university sectors in the countries involved will have access to all the work produced.
The approach to learning and teaching taken on this project is that of blended learning, where students will work in the respective universities in face to face groups, and then go online to discuss topics and issues within set forums. Students will share material given to them by staff as starting points – for example, newspaper articles, websites, research papers – and will go on to develop their own research questions for a collaborative project on a chosen aspect of language and culture.
The groups involved in this project, while being broadly encompassed within the English Language subject area, represent distinctive orientations to that subject. Rather than seeking an exact match of like with like, it is a particular strength of the proposed project that it links together students, staff, modules and programmes that emphasise different aspects of the subject. For example, the students in the Netherlands will be learning English as a second language, while students at the UK university will be in the main L1 users; students at the university of Amsterdam will be enrolled on an ‘English for Academic Purposes’ course and will come from a wide range of disciplines, while in the UK, students will be on an English Language and Linguistics programme and electing to study a module entitled ‘Language, Culture and Communication’ the aim of which is to study the relationship between the three concepts in the module title.
Because of the variety within the common ground described above, the research topics will be tailored to suit the interests and orientations of the different groups, but a strong element running throughout the whole project will be a focus on the nature of contemporary communication systems and practices within an international context: so, for example, research may involve analysis of the role of English as a lingua franca in contexts such as chatroom discourse; conventions in different languages for texting; multilingualism in social networking sites; changes in everyday social rituals such as greetings and terms of address; representations of different cultural groups in tourist literature.
In terms of participants’ own communication use and experiences, a wide range of types of new communication tools will be employed to maximise student opportunities to engage with their international peers during the research process: for example, real-time writing via chat tools, digital video for drafts of presentations and feedback, real-time events in virtual classroom environments (for example, in the Wimba Virtual Classroom). The face-to-face conference at the end of the project is not intended to represent ‘real’ communication, to be contrasted with the virtual version that has preceded it. Rather, it adds a further communication context and variety which will be subject to analysis in the same way as the others experienced.
There are clearly opportunities for students to develop significant interpersonal and social skills via this project, and inextricable from these are employability skills which are demanded by 21st century workplaces, not just in terms of working with unknown others across distances of time and space, but also with reference to ecologies of communication – for example, what can be communicated quickly online, and what requires the embodiment of face-to-face interactivity for communication to succeed? Most important of all, global contexts for work and leisure require intercultural skills – awareness of one’s own assumptions and behaviours in the complex negotiation of meaning and understanding.
The project seeks to internationalise the student experience in a context where many students cannot afford to travel and stay abroad for any length of time. New technologies therefore have a powerful role to play in facilitating international communication. However, there is much to learn for staff engaged with new technologies about the affordances and limitations of different communication tools, and how they can best support meaningful engagement by users. This project therefore offers multiple learning opportunities for all involved. For students, new communication tools will facilitate intercultural communication and collaborative research; for staff, there are rich opportunities for assessing the nature of different communication tools, and learning about their most useful deployment; for the universities as a whole, the project offers a new and cost-effective initiative for inquiry based learning in an international context. Above all, the subject area will benefit from new insights on how to establish fruitful connections across different aspects of its academic community.
Professor Angela Goddard
Faculty of Business and Communication, York St John University
Dr. R. Mesker, Dept of English, University of Amsterdam
Dr. C. Bergstrom, Dept of English, University West, Sweden