Global Learning in a Pandemic: Using Synchronous Video Exchange to Deepen Intercultural Understanding

Global Learning in a Pandemic: Using Synchronous Video Exchange to Deepen Intercultural Understanding

Ann Warner-Ault
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8981-6.ch005
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This study explores using the Conversifi platform for video-based speaking activities to deepen students' intercultural learning and language skills during the Spring 2021 semester in a fully remote teaching environment. The study included 20 students in an intermediate/advanced college-level Spanish course at The College of New Jersey that focused on intercultural understanding. As part of the course students engaged in five 15-minute conversations via Conversifi with Spanish-speaking students in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Spain. The results of an anonymous survey conducted at the end of the course along with analyses of recorded conversations strongly suggest that this approach deepened students' intercultural awareness and improved their oral proficiency. The Spring 2021 survey results were compared with survey data from similar virtual exchange initiatives during four previous semesters. The comparison revealed slightly less satisfaction and learning in Spring 2021, but all of the exchanges showed positive gains in both language and intercultural learning.
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The recent Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the interconnectedness of our world and the need for global collaboration and intercultural awareness. This underscores the importance of approaches to language learning and teaching that prepare students to be the critically engaged citizens our global era requires. Language researchers have identified telecollaboration as a means to improve both foreign language learning and intercultural competence (Belz, 2003; Chun, 2015; Furstenberg, Levet, English, & Maillet, 2001; Guth & Helm, 2010; Schenker, 2013). Given these benefits, O’Dowd and Lewis (2016) suggest virtual exchange “go beyond being an isolated activity pursued by practitioner researchers in the area of CALL and should instead form part of the common battery of educational tools (e.g. MOOCs and the flipped classroom) used by university educators across academic disciplines” (p. 17).

Using virtual exchanges to deepen intercultural learning takes inspiration from the Cultura project, developed at MIT in 1997, which began as an email exchange between France and the U.S. to help students relativize their cultural values. However, two of the project’s founders concede that the project, largely based on exchanging written questionnaires, does not fully utilize today’s interactive internet and mobile app capabilities (Furstenberg & English, 2016). As videoconferencing tools grow in popularity, O’Dowd and Lewis (2016) suggest more data be gathered about building students’ intercultural abilities through virtual exchanges via synchronous video platforms. Researchers mention a variety of challenges with the recent generation of virtual exchanges, however, including: increased pressure on teachers, technical and scheduling difficulties, unstable project partners, varying educational goals for students, communication failures and reinforced stereotypes. (Chun, 2014; Goodwin-Jones, 2013; O’Dowd & Ritter, 2006; Schenker, 2012; Ware, 2005; Ware & Kramsch, 2005). Unfortunately, these real and perceived difficulties have prevented virtual exchanges from becoming as pervasive as research suggests they should be (O’Dowd, 2018). Emerging third-party platforms promise to make telecollaborative projects accessible to educators who lack the time, international partners, or technical know-how to create their own cultural or linguistic exchange project. Furthermore, these platforms can provide access to a wider range of speakers from more countries, a greater range of cultural input from interlocutors, and the ability to dedicate less class-time to the technical logistics of the virtual exchange and more to the cultural content students learned during their conversations. While utilizing a service provider model offers a way to overcome many of the challenges presented by traditional virtual exchanges, little data has been gathered about the educational value of this approach (O’Dowd & Lewis, 2016; O’Dowd, 2018).

This article reports on an observational study of 20 students in one section of an upper-division college Spanish class at The College of New Jersey, entitled, “Technology, Culture and Social Change in Spain and Latin America.” Course readings and discussions were supplemented by five 15-minute video-chat sessions with native Spanish speakers using the synchronous, video-based platform, Conversifi. A deliberate approach emphasizing cultural and social comparisons sought to deepen students’ intercultural learning during the conversations and subsequent reflection activities. Conversifi matches college language students from 12 countries for practice in the target language (English, Spanish, or French). Students pay a subscription fee and also have the opportunity to serve as coaches in their native language to earn tokens for conversations in the target language. The platform provides thematic modules with pre-written questions for language practice at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced level.

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