Language and Cultural Exchange in the Virtual Classroom
An essential component of effective language learning is direct, live exposure to the target language and culture. While study abroad is the most effective means of achieving such exposure, study abroad opportunities can be limited by physical, financial, and other logistical constraints. The next best means proven to be effective is interaction with native speakers for linguistic and cultural exchange via live oral practice in a virtual classroom. Online learning space is critical to the maintenance of successful language programs in the digital age, but difficult to achieve without a well-developed platform.
Online collaboration provides opportunities to engage in communication with native speakers and affords for negotiation of meaning. Benefits of such interaction are numerous. Current research into online language instruction and learning underscores the importance of group bonding, seen as particularly important when communication is the emphasis (Lamy and Hampel, 2007). Studies show that online telecollaboration contributes to development of learner autonomy (Kessler & Bikowski, 2010), linguistic competence (Ware & O’Dowd, 2008), intercultural and sociocultural competence (Furstenberg et al., 2001; Belz, 2004), online literacy skills (Guth & Helm 2011), translation skills (Chen & Ko, 2010), confidence and motivation (Wu et al., 2011), and compensation and communicative strategies (Tavakoli et al., 2011; Yanguas, 2010; Ahari et al., 2012; Lam, 2006).
Digital technologies are available in the form of increasingly sophisticated tools for social interaction and web-conferencing. However, in order to be able to use them effectively, we need to look at the existing options for online language learning, select the ones that meet the needs of foreign language programs and student population, and then, carefully incorporate them into our curriculum design and pedagogical practices.
There exists, therefore, a critical need for efficient, effective tools to optimize communication between groups of students, so they can be more independent and productive learners. Online digital learning and conversation practice, when properly set up (i.e. with the particular student audience in mind), not only facilitates development of communicative skills in the target language, but also engenders enthusiasm and self-motivation among the learners. From the beginning of the course, students are engaged in tandem projects with partners who are target-language speakers; therefore, the negotiation of meaning in the target language happens in an authentic situation and the feedback is instant. The interaction is infinitely rewarding and beneficial to learners-they become immediately aware of the results of language acquisition, and participate in this process actively.
Furthermore, the benefits of such programs are mutual, as the said arrangement can be reciprocal. Students can learn from their target-language partners and, in turn, become target-language partners for them. The additional advantage of this set-up is the exchange of cultural knowledge, awareness, and cultural experience. While it is a non-linguistic aspect of language acquisition, culture cannot be divorced from its language. Many traditional classroom setting based programs often grapple with the issue of weaving culture into language instruction. Oftentimes, it becomes an aside in an otherwise grammar/vocabulary heavy curriculum. During virtual conversation practice, speakers/learners have the opportunity to assist their partners in explanations of cultural elements pertinent to the topic of their given dialogue.
In the absence of such pedagogical methods, our language programs will remain stagnant, not keeping pace with global change and the programs of our competitors. The online learning platform does not negate traditional classroom instruction, but rather supports and complements it. Young generations of students are increasingly more literate in all types of digital media and operate in the online ‘world’ with great ease. It is our strong conviction that bridging students and teachers through an online platform will not only make foreign language learning more attractive and accessible, but will ensure that our students and faculty are not left behind, or isolated, while other academic programs make new strides in the digital age.
We are designing a solid, robust, website with virtual classrooms and conversation portals for each language to use as an interactive language learning and cultural exchange platform. We are working with a colleague in UTA’s Communication Department to create a centralized website where students can attend virtual classes, contact partners, and participate in live video chat; and where instructors can track attendance, monitor progress, report feedback, and record grades.
Principal Investigator: Lonny Harrison, Associate Professor, Russian
Co-Investigator: Neal Liang, Assistant Professor, Chinese