Special report: James Benenson

Special report: Paris Colloquium 2005, Agir pour apprendre

James Benenson on “Videoconference Exchanges with a Professional Communications Class in England”

By Lorna Monahan

Wazzup … Today …?

James is a pedagogically creative technology freak. It’s an art. He’s got the language, knows how to use the tools and brings the outside world into the classroom. What a challenging space for language students! Sitting in a classroom in Paris, a group of French students from Télécom ParisTech, are communicating with a group of English students from Sheffield University through a videoconference. It’s a role play in real time. The French students are engineers and have created a gadget that they want financed so as to put it on the market. The English students are investors, venture capitalists, business angels, bankers. The gadget the French students have invented is a ”Petulator”, a translator between a pet and its master. The product is called “His Master’s Voice”. Negotiations involve specialized vocabulary: presentations, business plans, technical drawings and diagrams, financial projections, logos, advertising slogans and, of course, communication skills.
This, the Gadgets Project, is one of many activities James does using videoconferencing.

The workshop he gave included a videoconference. About twenty of us sat around a table facing a screen, which was divided in two. On one side was Christiane Metral in Massachusetts, USA; on the other Danielle Barbereau in Sheffield, GB, and in a small square in the lower right of the screen, we could see ourselves – three-way communication between 3 different countries, including the possibility of posting PowerPoint slides and playing video. We all introduced ourselves and spent over an hour discussing, asking questions and discovering how James, Danielle and Christiane set up and worked on their projects. The Gadgets Project, already mentioned, was done with Danielle Barbereau. Christiane Metral was the partner in another project entitled Cross-Cultural Connections. Here the students worked on intercultural activities based on ‘tried and true models’ : Cultura designed by G. Furstenberg MIT and K. Maillet INT in 1997, IMRAC designed by K. English INT and S. Johnson VPI and Cities Project designed by A. Hess NYU 1995. There were activities aimed at increasing cultural sensitivity: questionnaires, comparing songs and films, and gift packages sent by each group to the other. These activities were punctuated by a whole series of weekly webcam exchanges and 3 videoconferences during the course of the project. Student time-keepers made sure that the groups worked together in each of the languages, French, then English in 15 minute segments, assuring that the student not only used their target language, but also heard it spoken by their native speaker peers.

The idea is wonderful, but what does it involve? Technically it means having access to a room which is equipped for video conferencing and most important, a technician who sets the equipment up and helps out when things go wrong. You need to find a partner in another country, a date and time when you can set up a conference (not always easy because of time differences), pedagogical tasks that are interesting for your students, a budget to pay for the conference and a back-up plan if things go wrong! And things can go wrong, hence the very essential role of the technician. This is maybe the most daunting aspect of the project for those of us who have the opportunity and would like to try working in this way. If possible there is a feedback session in the classroom after each video conference to see if the objectives set have been met; otherwise it can be done by e-mail or in the classes that follow the videoconference.

Yes, it’s a lot of time and organization, but it’s also a fantastic learning opportunity for the students: they meet people from another culture, deal with speaking a foreign language with native speakers while negotiating and having fun with them. However, the students themselves are the best judges:
What did you like most? « L’opportunité de parler d’une façon spontanée avec des français ». « J’ai préféré répondre aux questions parce qu’on n’a aucune idée de ce qu’on allait demander. Il faut penser rapidement pour créer quelque chose d’intéressant ».
What surprised you most? “The amount of work that was done on both ends”. “The diversity of the different gadgets”.
What did you find most interesting? « Les idées pour les gadgets. Elles étaient amusantes et innovantes. J’ai trouvé la plupart des exposés suffisants, mais un ou deux étaient presque professionnels. »
Qu’avez-vous à dire sur l’aspect technique de l’exercice ? « En tant qu’ingénieur la visioconférence m’a donné une occasion de parler le français en expliquant les détails de notre invention. J’ai bien profité de cela parce que je n’ai pas souvent l’occasion à le faire et il sera important si je travaille en France ou dans un environnement ou j’ai besoin de parler le français dans ma vie professionnelle ».

James’ PowerPoint slides and two short videos of the webcam sessions are available at:

For more information you can contact James

Contributed by: Lorna Monahan
Télécom ParisTech
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