The forum created for collaborative class work on such a scale was possible only through the possibilities afforded by the ECML (selection of participants by the national authorities, central workshop which brought together in one place all the participating teachers to discuss the project and take important decisions, organisation of the forum using the Centre’s resources).
So this project was organised as an experiment with the aims of assessing the usefulness of language classes working on a large intercultural forum for the purpose of teaching/learning intercultural skills, seeing how the work fitted into ordinary school work, what motivation pupils had for it and what tangible results it produced. We also hoped to encourage teachers and learners to attempt such experiments more often, albeit on a smaller scale.
Class work on so large and varied a forum as Gulliver has many positive aspects but also many dangers.
A large intercultural forum (more than two classes in different countries):
- is more interesting and motivating for learners
- offers more opportunities for performing varied and interesting tasks
- favours the use of more than one foreign language, which makes it richer and more interesting in terms of acquiring intercultural skills.
However, it is:
- harder to manage. Its management requires the presence of a moderator, who must be readily available. He must ensure that the forum functions properly – post contributions in the right place, erase duplicated contributions or those containing unsuitable material, maintain ongoing contact with participants. The work of a moderator (the teacher or an outside person) will foster continuity and follow-up in exchanges
- less “interactive” because participants have to wait longer for replies and reactions from their partners.
A small forum (two partners):
- favours more in-depth exchanges
- allows more reactions, rapid and spontaneous responses and interactive exchanges. It is possible to try out the experiment with free access to the forum, both for reading contributions and for posting new forum contributions and reactions
- is easier to organise and manage
- is easier to incorporate such forum work into ordinary school work and reconcile it with the different participating countries’ curricula.
Experience with the Gulliver forum has also shown us the following:
- Class work on an intercultural forum fits without undue difficulty into school curricula. Gulliver did not disturb ordinary school work or programme implementation. On the contrary, it provided opportunities to use skills already acquired and to learn new ones. However, participation in a forum demands extra work of teachers. They sometimes find it hard to fit this in, given the limited number of hours available each week.
- The prime objective of class work on an intercultural forum is to acquire intercultural skills through interactive exchanges with authentic representatives of other languages and cultures and to perform various tasks together. The language being taught is only a tool with which to enter this intercultural space. Otherwise forum work will just be another school exercise imposed on the learners.
- Class work on an Internet forum reconciles many positive aspects: a large measure of autonomy for participating pupils, authentic texts not taken from a textbook, the play aspect, less “school-oriented” that computer work, still offers young people a chance to acquire intercultural skills in a natural and faster way.
- The more motivated, autonomous and responsible for their own learning the learners are, the better the results. It is up to the teacher not to lose sight of the objectives, curriculum requirements and examinations and to guide the learners intelligently throughout the work.
- While providing an opportunity to get to know others and come into contact with them, the work on Gulliver prompted the learners to think about their own culture and discuss it with their classmates.
- Apart from intercultural communication skills, intercultural forum work develops other skills which are important in foreign language learning and education in general, such as strategic and evaluation skills.
- It is essential for the participating classes to pursue the same objectives inside their joint project.
- The learners must play an active part at every stage in the project, from its organisation and set-up to the assessment stage.
- It is important to choose partners well, taking account in particular of their age, country of origin and linguistic standard.
- The technical side is very important. The simpler the forum and the briefer the instructions, the more accessible it is. Standards, file types and programme versions must be clearly defined in advance so as to avoid problems with posting or reading contributions. In order to find their place in the forum more easily, participants must define and observe rules governing the title, length and position of a contribution.
- All forum contributions must be referenced in the same way, eg. “Author – subject – date”.
- It is important to decide in advance how long a forum is to operate and lay down a quite precise timetable of work. Otherwise participant motivation will start very strong and dwindle over time. Like any other project, the forum must operate at the same intensity from start to finish. It is likewise best to fix a set time for discussion of a topic, and clearly decide on time-limits for posting contributions and reacting to them. Participants lose motivation if they have to wait too long.
- Free forum access remains an open, and very important, question. It generated lengthy discussion among the participants at the central workshop for future Gulliver forum participants. Finally, we decided to give pupils free access for reading forum contributions. On the other hand, in order to post a new contribution they always had to go to the teacher in charge of the class, he alone having the password. In this way we avoided the exchange of contributions of the “Hi, we’re bored, how about you?” kind and we encouraged pupils to produce a serious, ongoing effort. At the same time, however, that decision limited opportunities for fast, spontaneous interaction. Even so, we think it more reasonable to adopt this solution, provided the learners are allowed a good deal of autonomy (allowed to choose subjects on which they want to work and to vary forum working methods; allowed to work individually, in pairs or in small groups, each one being able to work at his own pace, results being individually assessed, etc.).
- Learners like working with authentic texts which they find on the forum. It is vital that the subjects be well chosen. All the Gulliver subjects were proposed by pupils themselves and carefully selected. None was later discarded (see Project information 3).
- Intercultural forum work fosters cooperation with teachers of other subjects in the same school and implementation of all kinds of interdisciplinary projects.
- The Gulliver participants – pupils and teachers alike – expressed themselves satisfied with their experience.
Our project is over. We hope it has enabled all who took part to engage in an interesting and productive experience and encouraged them to take part in other intercultural exchanges.
We also hope that our own experience, as described in this paper, may be of interest to other language teachers and their pupils, and encourage them in turn to travel through languages and cultures holding a little mouse (or not, as the case may be!).
We are convinced that such experiences and joint work by young people across
frontiers will contribute to better mutual understanding among the representatives
of different languages and cultures, and will foster social cohesion in