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Remote Cultural Exchange Happens in Real Time

By Jessica Brophy '04

Early on a Friday morning, Candace Walton's French language students pile into a Smith classroom that's well furnished 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 waiting for the day to end. The 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 and begin conversing, screen-to-screen, in real time.

Cross-Cultural Connections is the first course of its kind at Smith. Walton, who specializes in the teaching of foreign languages, conceived the course as a way to use new technologies, such as webcam 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."

Smith students meet French students every week in an online conversation. Communicating with members of a class in Paris are, left to right, Lauren Reed, Sarah Martin and Meghan Hoke, all in the class of 2006. Photo by Jessica Brophy '04.

Benenson's college-aged students are engineering majors attending the École Normale Supérieure de Télécommunications who are learning English primarily to further their careers.

Whether linked "face to face" by webcam, writing in an online forum or answering culture questionnaires designed for the course, the students especially enjoy engaging in 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 differences."

"It's a wonderful opportunity for an American student to engage with a 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."

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