September 11, 2018

Tandem Canada: A Free Platform for Authentic Communication Between Second Language Learners

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

Many second language learners are motivated by the opportunity to interact with a native of the target language. The Tandem Canada platform is a free digital tool that teachers can use in a classroom setting to enable students to do just that.

I interviewed Susan Parks, Associate Professor at Université Laval and the project manager, about the Tandem Canada platform that was created thanks to a grant from the Canada-Québec Agreement for Minority-Language Education and Second-Language Instruction. The co-grant holders are Sabrina Priego, Laurence Capus and Michael Power.

What is Tandem Learning exactly?

Although the tool is new, the Tandem Language Learning approach has been around for a long time. The approach is based on reciprocal language exchange between 2 partners where ideally, each person is a native speaker in the language the other wants to learn. When it was first used, partners met face-to-face, but the development of information technologies has reshaped this language learning approach.  Now there are numerous software applications as well as email and chat, which present language learners with opportunities to interact. However for Susan, the ESL teacher, the real challenge was to find the right platform to set up these exchanges. Something that is free and readily available.

The premise of the Tandem Language Learning approach is that students have the opportunity to interact one on one, taking turns speaking in the other’s native language.  For instance, a French second language learner whose native language is English would be paired with an English second language learner whose native language is French. Those 2 students would spend 30 minutes speaking French and then 30 minutes speaking English.

Getting students to become more autonomous is part of the philosophy of Tandem Language Learning. In fact, this approach is based on autonomy and reciprocity.

Reciprocity means that students help each other. Reciprocity also means that students get an equal amount of time speaking in their second language.

What often happens in situations like these is that the stronger language learner will dominate the conversation. A student could say, “We spoke only French the entire time because the other student didn’t understand very well”. That is why teachers must give clear guidelines to make sure the students understand and respect the notion of reciprocity during the exchange.

Students provide each other with help and give their partners a few tips. The students are not expected to teach grammar like a teacher would, but they should be open to helping and they can use rephrasing. The main thing is for students to be supportive.

A definite advantage of Tandem Language Learning approach is the students get input from a native speaker and pick up on the correct usage.

Advantages of the Tandem Canada platform

Many platforms contain useful features for second language learners, however none seem to have all of the necessary features to support tandem learning.

Before the Tandem Canada platform, Susan would recommend students use various web conferencing systems to communicate with each other. She realised though that one of the shortcomings of most of these existing tools was that they were conceived for whole groups whereas what teachers, who use the Tandem Learning approach want, is for students to be in dyads in order to practice one on one.

In the Tandem Learning approach, students are placed in dyads to practice their second language one-on-one. Photo attribution

The Tandem Canada platform offers 2 synchronous tools (videoconferencing, chat) and 2 asynchronous tools (forum, wiki). Susan explains that the Tandem Platform was created using 2 open source software that teachers should know well, Moodle and BigBlueButton to which was added a separate module for teachers to register. Having the teachers register to have access ensures the platform remains secure.

One of the most interesting features of the platform is the videoconferencing tool where students can record their conversation. The students and the teachers can go back to the recordings to listen to them; the teachers can follow up with reinvestment activities in class.  These recordings of authentic communication between the 2 students could be used as evaluation activities (formative or summative).

If teachers want to evaluate students in an authentic type of exchange, well this is pretty authentic.

A turnkey solution

Once they have signed in to the free platform, teachers will have access to a number of video capsules as well as documents explaining how to set up activities for the different tools in the platform.

Video capsules and accompanying documents

The video capsules explain all of the functions of the tools. For instance, there is a video capsule that presents all of the tools available in the video conferencing room and how to use them and another capsule so teachers can more readily understand how to set an assignment.

Video explaining how to register and find a partner class

Along with the video capsules it is also useful to have documents handy that teachers can download. A number of documents with screen shots are available to help teachers understand how to set up.


Worksheets that contain ideas on how to get the students to interact are available on the platform, but teachers can upload their own worksheets or assignments related to the themes they are working on in class.

  • For the videoconferencing there are Elementary  (students need at least a high elementary level to engage in tandem learning, especially videoconferencing), intermediate and advanced materials.
  • Teachers can download and modify WORD format materials if they want.
  • Teachers can use the worksheets as templates to create their own assignments.
  • Amongst other things, the template lays out the steps for students: what they should do before the exchange, during and after the exchange.
  • Focusing on autonomy and making the students more responsible for their learning an activity is proposed to allow students to reflect on how well their exchange went, what they could do to get more out of their videoconferencing.

Guidelines for students

A document listing strategies and tips for the students to give feedback to their partners will be made available to teachers on the platform.

Final thoughts

The advantage of the Tandem Canada platform is that it allows teachers to manage their authentic communication activities in class more efficiently as well as keep track of what students are doing.  The fact that videoconferencing, chatting, a forum and a wiki are all available on the same platform is a big plus.

Susan is eager to try the new platform during the fall 2018 session. Although she understands this is the first trial with real groups she hopes many teachers will sign up, as the comments of people using the platform are extremely important to develop and improve.

College language teachers are invited to participate with their class. The platform is there for those who wish to try the Tandem Learning approach.

About the author

Susan MacNeil

She has had a busy career in education. With a M.Ed she taught all levels from kindergarten to university. However, most of her career was spent at the college level teaching ESL. She gave Performa courses, lead workshops at SPEAQ, RASCALS and l’AQPC. She served at the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur where she contributed to the evaluation of the general education components. She received grants from L’Entente Canada-Québec for various
research projects. Susan is also the recipient of the AQPC Mention d’honneur Award. Having retired from teaching she became a contributor to Real Life Stories of education technology integration at Eductive. Chinese ink painting helps her relax and travel keeps her energized.

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