Cultural Exchange in Real Time
Speaking "Screen-to-Screen" with
Parisian Students Helps Smith Students Discover Subtle Differences
that Shape French Culture
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- Early on a Friday morning, Candace
Walton's French language students pile into a classroom at
Smith College that's filled with computer equipment. An undercurrent
of anticipation is evident -- unusual for a 9 a.m. class
at the end of the school week.
In Paris, James Benenson's English class mills about impatiently
for the day to end. The engineering students are about to
enjoy the French version of spring break, but have one more
important conversation to conduct before heading off.
Both groups settle themselves in front of computers, Web
cameras and microphones.
The talking begins, screen-to-screen, in real time.
The class, known as "Cross-Cultural Connections," is
the first of its kind at Smith. Walton, who specializes in
the teaching of foreign languages, conceived the course as
a way to capitalize on new technologies, such as Web cam
conferencing, to promote cultural understanding. Walton's
students look forward to talking every Friday morning with
their Parisian counterparts.
"At the very first video-conferencing session, my students
asked to stay after class to talk longer," said Walton. "They've
already become friends with the French students, and they
stayed an extra hour just to talk."
Benenson's college-aged students are engineers at the École
Normale Supérieure de Télécommunications
and are learning English primarily to further their careers.
Whether linked "face to face" by Web cam conferencing,
writing in a special online forum or answering online culture
questionnaires specially designed for the course, a favorite
activity of the students is word association. Walton notes
that such an exercise can be quite effective in revealing
subtle differences between French and American culture.
"If you look at the French responses for 'individualism,'
for example, they are generally negative, while American
responses are generally positive," she points out.
Online forum and e-mail interaction between foreign language
students is an idea credited to Gilberte Furstenberg of MIT,
who later developed Cultura, a project designed to encourage
intercultural exchange in language courses. Walton's course
extends the Cultura concept by adding Web conferencing for
real-time conversations. She finds the new dimension "a
great way to discuss the 'hard-to-put-your-finger-on' cultural
"It's such a wonderful opportunity for an American
student to engage with a real French person, and the French
students are just dying to know what American students are
like," she explains. "It creates the interesting
possibility of American students already having friends in
France if they decide to study or travel there."
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's
foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students
from every state and 60 other countries, Smith is the largest
undergraduate women's college in the country.
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