Beyond the Walls of the Classroom: Cultural Diversity Virtual Exchange on Intercultural Competency

alenjandroAlejandro Méndez-Betancor, PhD candidate, the University of Colorado Boulder. 

naomi Naomi Wahls, Teaching and Learning with Technology Consultant, the University of Colorado Boulder.

vicky Vicky Ariza-Pinzón, PhD candidate, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

 

Technology integration is one of the challenges we face nowadays when teaching a language course. Every day, we are learning new ways to integrate technology in our teaching. Students have access to many online resources, and their lives and communication methods are shaped by the ever changing flow of information on the web. They have become more digitally engaged, yet classrooms language learning continue to take place within the confines of four walls. Today’s students and educators can connect with the outside world differently because of the use of technology, and universities cannot ignore that trend. This paper reports our experience on a telecollaboration project to virtually connect peers between a Central University in Mexico and a Midwestern American University as a way to infuse authenticity in language learning.

Less than a year ago, we started a project in which we were able to create a transnational social interaction inside a classroom. We not only had a physical space for teaching, but also a digital one for learning. This was not the first time we worked on a telecollaboration project. Naomi Wahls is the author of the book Virtually Connecting Peers and Intercultural Competency Action Research with Data Collection Methods, in which she explains her experience connecting students from a Midwestern community college in the U.S. and a university in Central Mexico (Wahls 2012). In her research she used the concept of telecollaboration based on the work of Beltz (2003) and O’Dowd (2010).

Robert O’Dowd describes telecollaboration, a type of pedagogical project, as “The application of online communication tools to bring together classes of language learners in geographically distant locations to develop their foreign language skills and intercultural competence through collaborative tasks and project work.” (2010: Eurocall Symposium). Telecollaboration brings opportunities to develop social and intercultural competency, skills that often seem to be missing from college language courses on campuses.

The University of Colorado at Boulder does a wonderful job of using technology for face-to-face classes. Over the past few years, CU has focused on utilizing D2L (Desire to Learn) as the campus LMS. This resource is a great tool for communicating with students on many levels, and for giving them access to all the material used during the semester. But when learning a language, this is not enough. This platform does not account for students interacting with other universities. Because D2L is purchased directly by one institution, it is exclusive to that institution and its students. Students and instructors cannot easily use it as a hub to facilitate interactions with partners outside of the home institution.

Likewise for the university in Mexico, the use of technological resources and platforms is limited. Blackboard (their LMS), for example, was also unable to share its community space with the class in the US. Learning a language solely in the classroom is very limiting. It is possible to teach some linguistics aspects, such as grammar and pronunciation, but classroom teaching can only offer a constrained environment for cultural learning. The answer to this limitation is to offer social interaction and communication through means such as social media, a more current way to approach communication.

Until recently, the only way for college students to have any kind of cultural interaction with the target culture was through study abroad or by finding native speaker tutors. Although study abroad programs are wonderful, expenses, family obligations, or time restrictions often prevent students from participating. Sadly, not everyone is able to afford them. These programs have a set start and end dates which may not fit into everyone’s schedule. Study abroad programs are designed for students, not families, making it harder for students who are also parents to find kid-friendly places to stay. Often students are placed in homes with no room for families. Fortunately, it is possible to use the web and new technologies to offer authentic cultural experiences to our students. Online tools open up doors for students in their home countries to interact with students abroad.

The Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1988) relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller explains that, since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with activities that don’t directly contribute to learning. When teaching a language, we have to ask ourselves whether we are overloading our students with cultural readings, grammar rules and vocabulary lists, leaving little room for the true purpose of language learning: communication.

The telecollaboration project described below focused on cultural topics, allowing students to engage directly with the content and with native speakers.

VIRTUAL TELECOLLABORATION

As mentioned before, telecollaboration opens up opportunities for a genuine cultural exchange. As such, we designed an interaction that promotes a virtual cultural exchange between two classes from different countries: Mexico and the US. With this experience we tried to overcome the cultural limitations that an ordinary language class presents: that is real time interaction with native speakers. To achieve this goal, we have used Edmodo, Canvas, and Skype.

  • Edmodo was the LMS used during the Spring semester for asynchronous discussions.
  • Canvas was the LMS used during the Fall semester, allowing for more personal and social interactions in asynchronous discussions.
  • Skype was the video conferencing tool used for students to connect synchronously.

In order to generate productive online discussions, instructors on both sides monitored and managed the online discussion, helping students process the discussions. For example, instructors stimulated the conversations by pointing out to students who expected a response to their original posts that they themselves were not responding to others. The instructors explained that if students each responded to at least one other student, they might also receive a response. This encouraged interaction between the classes and more students responded to one another. Students then were exposed to various opinions about daily topics from their peers from their own culture as well as peers from the target language. Students interacted with weekly topics related to their daily life, such as self-image issues, ideas about being successful, diversity on campus, etc. Our approach provided ample opportunities for learner control as they did readings and watch short films on their own. The online discussions had deadlines but students were encouraged to continue discussing even after the deadlines passed.  All the material was made available online, allowing students to take as much time as they needed to process the new information. At the same time, students had class support for a better understanding and processing of the course material, and generate an opinion.

FIRST EXPERIENCE AND LESSON LEARNED

Our first experience was during the Spring semester of 2016 between CU Boulder and BUAP (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla). The students at CU Boulder took an accelerated Spanish class and the students at BUAP took a Pragmatics class in English. This experience took place during three weeks, and students discussed cultural topics through two readings and two short-films. We used Edmodo, a social media network that enables teachers to share content, distribute quizzes, assignments, and manage communication with students, colleagues, and parents.

This first experience allowed to connect instructors in Mexico and the US, and it provided an opportunity to familiarize all participants with an online intercultural experience. These three weeks were considered a learning experience for all the participants in the project, with the goal to repeat the project in the future.

SECOND EXPERIENCE

In the following iteration of the project (Fall 2016), we increased the duration of the experience to eight weeks and switched over to Canvas instead of Edmodo. Edmodo had some limitations. For instance students couldn’t communicate privately by emails or couldn’t have private conversations. Canvas however did allow students to have casual and private interactions. The other significant change was the use of Skype, which allowed students to have real time conversations with native speakers. The Fall 2016 semester was organized as follow:

 Week 1 – Introductions.
Week 2 – Articles and Video discussion in Spanish (Video – Por eso no tienes novio Artículo – Cosmética a prueba de selfies).
Week 3 – Articles and Video discussion in Spanish (Video – El vendedor de sueños Artículo – Una ilusión para vivir).
Week 4 – Articles and Video discussion in English (Video – reporting crisis via textingArticle – How Many Times Has Your Personal Information Been Exposed to Hackers?)
Week 5 – Articles and Video discussion in English (Video – Jane Goodall: A RetrospectiveArticle – Save the Fav, Twitter’s Digital Body Language)
Week 6 – Skype conversations in Spanish (Entrevista a tu compañero en español y  Presentación de tu compañero en clase)
Week 7 – Skype conversations in English (Interview your peer in English and present your peer in class.
Week 8 – Wrap up conversations and write Reflection Paper

Week 1 Discussion

During the first week, students were asked to introduce themselves in writing by stating their names and describing their hobbies and fields of study. Students were encouraged to talk about their college experience, describe their career plan, explain why they were in college, and what motivated them to be a part of this community (Spanish speaking community for CU and English speaking community for BUAP). These were just icebreaker questions, and students were encouraged to express themselves freely, while remaining respectful. The first week was an opportunity to focus on students as unique and diverse individuals, but also to start building cultural bridges between them.

Week 2 Discussion

During week 2, students from both universities watched the short-film “Por eso no tienes novio” by Alejandro Lozano. This short-film was part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a worldwide marketing campaign launched by Unilever in 2004 to celebrate the natural beauty of all women. The goal of this campaign was to inspire women to be comfortable with themselves. This short-film was intended to generate a discussion and personal insights about beauty standards and healthy lifestyles. As a second part of the weekly assignments, students wrote their thoughts about the videos and articles used in the class and mentioned above. Also, students from both universities were able to read and respond to all comments posted. Through this activity, language learners from both countries were able interact about culture, which was the main goal in our project.

Week 3 Discussion

Similarly, during week 3 students watched another short-film: “El vendedor de sueños”. The short-film was presented with a reading about personal achievement and happiness. As in the previous week, students recorded their thoughts about how they understood success.

Week 4 Discussion

Week 4 was intended to familiarize students with the nature of the project. We believed that helping them understand the goal of this intercultural exchange experience was crucial for our success. Based on this idea, students read about Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model. If the culture of a society was an iceberg, Hall reasoned that there are some aspects visible, above the water, but there is a larger portion hidden beneath the surface. Students learned that there are many cultural aspects that can be only learned through social interaction, and were able to share their thoughts in the open chat area.

Week 5 Discussion

Week 5 was intended to reflect upon animal communication and connect it to human communication. For that purpose, students watched the video Jane Goodall: A Retrospective by National Geographic, and read a text about digital body language in Twitter.  By the fifth week of this intercultural exchange, students began to form a learning community where they interacted with one another socially and requested more interaction with their peers. Planella and Rodriguez (2004) pointed out that online learning environments can be lonely and often miss social aspects. Castells (2002) thinks that Internet mirrors society, because it shows the social values. Societies are characterized by the relationships between individuals who share a distinctive culture. We have learned that the internet helps us to build bridges between students from different countries to learn a language in contact with its society. Based on this, and after students have had the opportunity to share their opinion in a chat room, each week they were encouraged to initiate a direct contact by emails.

Finally, the two last weeks were focused on real time conversations using Skype. Classes from both universities were broken into teams, pairing students from different countries to start talking to each other. Through this experience they were able to overcome the socio-cultural limitations inside a traditional classroom. Weeks 6, 7, and 8 are not mentioned in this article since we are currently in week 6.

RESULTS

This study has produced positive results, including feeling of connectedness amongst students: “I got to learn about people in a different country and see how I probably sound to a native speaker”( CU student). We noted that students from the spring Spanish class spoke with other Spanish students on the Boulder campus about the telecollaboration project, causing one student to enroll in the Fall course in order to join the telecollaboration project for the Fall semester. In addition, the pre-survey and post-survey showed positive results. Before the students interacted in the spring, the students were asked whether they thought there would be similarities between them and their international peers. The students were asked to rate their answer on a 5 point scale with 1 being the least and 5 being the most. 7 CU students and 25 BUAP students completed the spring survey.

 

Question: Before or After Interaction Result / Response :
Do you expect to find lots of similarities? Before 2.9
Did you expect to find lots of similarities? After 3.5
Do you expect to find lots of differences? Before 3.8
Did you expect to find lots of differences? After 3.2
What do you think is your level of intercultural competency?* Before 2.7
What do you think is your level of intercultural competency?* After 3.2
Do you expect your peers abroad to have a different level of intercultural competency than you do? Before 3.8
Do you expect your peers abroad to have a different level of intercultural competency than you do? After 2.8

 

*They were asked before and after the interaction to rate their intercultural competency, yet intercultural competency was not defined to them at all on the surveys or in the study. Students reported feeling a higher intercultural competency after the interaction (3.2) with their international peers than before the interaction (2.7). One student commented after the interaction: “I think that my intercultural competency has improved”. Interestingly enough, students reported feeling that their peers would be better in intercultural competency than themselves before the interaction took place, but then felt they that they were more similar afterwards.

Students from both universities commented that they found that their peers were very similar to themselves. “A lot of the BUAP students also wanted to go into teaching after they graduate like me.” said a CU student. Students found that their peers had similar ideas and experiences: “I learned that they are going through the same things that I am in learning a new language”said a CU student, “We basically have a lot of similar thoughts and opinions based on the videos we watched and articles we read” – said another CU student, and “Fortunately even when neither of each other speak well the second language but we can share the ideas and have a good interaction” – said a BUAP student.

Students from CU found that students from Mexico expressed religious thoughts and comments more openly. “It seemed like they found meaning in faith, more so than me and some of my peers do.” said a CU student. Students from both universities found that they learned more about how their peers thought and felt: “I think that is a very good idea, because thanks to this activity I can see how the foreign students thinks about us and culture” – said a BUAP student.

“It is important to practice speaking a language with a native speaker” said a CU student. Given that the spring interaction was only in writing, this comment is interesting because the students still felt connected with their peers. They did howeverask for video and audio connections through Skype. For the Fall semester, students are just now connecting via Skype and we hope to see students interest increase in virtual exchanges and in their target language.

Future studies will include the use of Zoom where we can record the interactions between students in a video/audio format and analyze the interactions. Since we have presented the initial findings, more educators have expressed interest in telecollaboration and we hope to connect other language educators between both universities in the future. Because of this study, other languages are interested in virtual exchanges between BUAP and CU in languages other than Spanish/English. In the coming Spring semester, we hope to see more language connections between the two universities.

References

Belz, J. A. and Mueller-Hartmann, A. (2003). “Teachers as Intercultural Learners: Negotiating German-American Telecollaboration Along the Institutional Fault Line”. Modern Language Journal, 87(1), 71-89.

Belz, J. A. (2003). “Linguistic Perspectives on the Development of Intercultural Competence in Telecollaboration”. Language Learning & Technology, 7(2), 68-117.

O’Dowd, R. (Ed.). (2007). Online intercultural exchange: An introduction for foreign language teachers (Vol. 15). Multilingual Matters.

O’Dowd, Robert & Ritter, Markus.  (2006).  Understanding and Working with ‘Failed Communication’ in Telecollaborative Exchanges.  CALICO Journal, 23 (3), 1-20.

Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).

Telecollaboration. Edutech wiki. http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Telecollaboration

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