Languages

"Cross-Cultural Communication and the Innovative Use of Digital Technology" by Margaret Williams, ETA 2011-2012

Today we are living in a world more interconnected than ever before. Globalization has fundamentally changed the ways in which organizations, people and states interact around the world. With this change comes a new spectrum of challenges and opportunities that transcend national boundaries. The problems facing today’s international society cannot be solved by any single state, and the myopic traditional means of cross-cultural communication do not reflect this new paradigm. In order to successfully resolve contemporary global dilemmas we need global solutions. As state borders become increasingly porous, it is imperative that we as individuals open our minds to new perspectives so that we can learn from one another and successfully cooperate.

So how do we foster this new way of thinking? We must update antiquated approaches to education in order to equip today’s students with the necessary skills for a successful future. We must encourage innovating thinking and develop curricula that force students to examine problems from multiple angles. One way to accomplish this is through the use of digital technology. We now have the capacity to connect students with peers around the world, enabling them to develop and improve their cross-cultural communication skills, deconstruct stereotypes and foster greater cultural sensitivity.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Cross-cultural communication is defined as the process by which people from different backgrounds interact with one another, both verbally and non-verbally. The goals of any cross-cultural communication syllabus should focus on developing language and discourse skills and instilling an understanding of how and why cultural differences manifest. There are many ways to promote cross-cultural communication including study-abroad programs, summer camps and pen-pal projects. However, each of these methods has deficiencies that limit the extent to which they can successfully fulfill their goals. These constraints include an emphasis on describing culture through a taxonomic approach (Hofstede, 1990) and a lack of attention to cultural nuances such as discourse patterns and facial features (Ronald and Suzanne Scollon, 1995). These flaws further entrench categorizations and generalization that overemphasize cultural differences and reconfirm existing stereotypes (Zhu, 2004).

The Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue program seeks to overcome such weakness through the use of meaningful learning strategies. Meaningful learning is defined as “…education, which creates conditions for and supports students’ self-developing growth” (Kovbasyuk, 2010). First, it strives to enhance critical thinking and personal development through repeated dialogue and reflection. Second, it adopts a hands-on approach to learning to increase student ownership of the learning process. This is accomplished through reduced teacher involvement in classroom activities so that students take greater responsibility and control over their education.

The program’s goal is to “form cross-cultural connections through the use of digital technology to facilitate intercultural learning for global citizenship” (Kovbasyuk, 2010). Meaningful learning techniques allow the program to foster global thinking by bringing together students from different backgrounds to discuss a variety of issues. The students who participate in the program are foreign language students located in the United States and Russia.

Process

The Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue curriculum is comprised of three basic components: webinars, one-on-one dialogue and videoconferences. Students first review the program’s topic in their respective classes to lay foundational knowledge and vocabulary related to the issue at hand. Students are then brought together for an initial discussion one the program’s topic to obtain a preliminary understanding of how their own knowledge and experiences compares to that of their international peers. Students are encouraged, but not required, to incorporate the use of their second language. This meeting is conducted through the use of either a videoconference or webinar program. Webinars are used when the topic requires presentations that are more easily facilitated by powerpoint.

The second part of the program uses Facebook and Skype to facilitate a one-on-one dialogue between language partners. Russian students and American students are paired together and given several days to connect and discuss the program’s topic. They are instructed to use this opportunity to practice language skills, but are not given specific discussion points. There is no teacher oversight during this period. The goal is for their conversations to flow freely so that they are in control of the learning process. It is their responsibility to connect with one another, to practice their second language and to explore cultural differences surrounding the issue at hand.

The final part of the program brings all the participants back together again via videoconference. During this time students are asked to share with the group what they have learned and to evaluate how they consider one another’s culture to impact their understanding of the topic.

“Higher Education”

Last fall the Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue program brought together approximately thirty students form the Khabarovsk State Academy of Economics and Law, the Russian Far Eastern Institute of the Humanities, Mount Holyoke College and Bard College to discuss higher education. We explored the similarities and differences between the Russian and American systems, contrasted participants’ ‘student’ experiences and discerned each system’s advantages and disadvantages.

During the first phase of the program students presented information about their own institute of higher education through the use of a webinar. Students were encouraged to share any information they perceived as important to their college or university experience. The presentations covered everything from the admissions process, academics and sports to extracurricular activities, campus life and interesting facts about where the schools are located. Some students presented in their native language and others in their second language. The webinar enabled participants to achieve a general understanding of the similarities and differences between the two educational systems.

After the webinar students were given a week to meet with their language partner and further explore how the two systems vary. They were able to use this time to clarify for one another points of confusion and to assist each other with any language discrepancies. Some of the topics that students addressed include the difference between a major and a specialization, what is a minor, freedom of choice over one’s class schedule, and campus life. This also reinforced the process of meaningful learning as students maintained ownership of the learning process by controlling the course of their dialogue.

The final part of the program used a videoconference to bring together all the participants. It was as if everyone was sitting in one big classroom connected through digital technology. The time was used to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each system and to evaluate what new cultural insights had been gained. Throughout the videoconference there was minimal teacher involvement and the discussion was almost entirely student driven. Following the program’s formal conclusion, students were asked to fill out an evaluation form so that future projects could be run more effectively.

Evaluation

The success of the “Higher Education” curriculum illustrate the advantages of the Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue program as a superior means of promoting intercultural communication and language proficiency. First, through multidimensional communication, the obstacles posed by initial stereotypes are broken down. By listening to new ideas and perspectives, students open their world-view and are able to develop a nuanced understanding of how cultural differences manifest and how they impact one’s outlook and interpersonal relations. As one student said in an exit evaluation, “I was suddenly hearing ideas and thoughts I had never heard before, so I felt very engaged and invested in the discussion.”

Second, students are presented with an opportunity to improve their second language proficiency through direct dialogue with native speakers. Furthermore, the program augments traditional foreign language learning by putting students in touch with peers who can help develop conversational language skills such as idioms and slang. These aspects of a language are often absent from conventional curricula.

Third, the technology used by the Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue program is becoming the standard means of cross-cultural communication at the professional level in a variety of fields. Participation in the program allows student to gain experience and develop competence in the use of these digital technologies. These practical skills can later assist students entering the job market and seeking out career opportunities.

Finally, the program is founded upon the principle of meaningful learning, which engenders leadership skills and self-confidence. Throughout the entire program students are responsible for initiating dialogue, asking questions and evaluating the knowledge they gain. This results in increased ownership over the learning process and an increased desire to control the future direction of their education.

Fostering a sense of global citizenship among students is the ultimate long-term objective of the Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue program. Today’s local and global communities are in desperate need of confident leaders who are willing to look at problems from multiple perspectives. By cultivating vital leadership and communication skills we can endow our students with the necessary expertise, enabling them to successfully resolve international disputes in new and creative ways.

Although the program was a resounding success we did encounter some limitations and discovered room for improvement. First, we received complaints about the lack of structure and teacher involvement during group and one-on-one discussions. Students expressed uncertainty regarding how much time should have been dedicated to each language, especially if one participant was more proficient in their second language than the other. We believe this confusion resulted from the intertwined nature of the program’s multiple goals: language practice and cross-cultural communication. Despite these anxieties, we remain resolved to minimize teacher involvement. Interjecting ourselves more frequently and setting fixed parameters during discussion would not only impede upon honest communication between students, but would also take away from the effort to promote meaningful and autonomous learning.

Second, we experienced some technological glitches that sometimes made it difficult to hear one another. To improve communication, it might be useful to find a location with a stronger internet connection; however, we do not feel that this detracted from the program’s overall success and is an inherent limitation given the nature of today’s technological equipment.

Conclusion

Looking forward we are interested in incorporating projects to the syllabus that require students from Russia and the US to work together. We believe that collaborative projects give deeper meaning to cross-cultural communication, because students are forced to learn how to work together to produce a finished product. Such an experience would endow students with new insights into how culture impacts behavior and how it is sometimes necessary to adjust personal habits to successfully cooperate. Also, this past January we ran a program with American and Russian high school students. The project likewise focused on education and was a tremendous success. We hope to do more work with younger students in the future.

Lastly, the topic of this spring’s Global Learning / Partners in Dialogue program is focusing on films. Students are watching a series of movies produced in different countries and then discussing their impressions. This semester we are not only reconnecting Russian and American students, but also incorporating students from Sweden. While repetition among the same students solidifies and deepens international friendships, there is also value in brining in new students. By including students from Sweden we are able to increase the diversity of perspectives and ideas shared during discussion. We are excited to see how this experience impacts our students’ ability to communicate with their international peers as they continue to gain increased confidence and new cross-cultural understanding.

Works Cited

Hofstede, G. Culture’s Consequences: Intercultural Differences in Work Related Values. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 1990.
Kovbasyuk, O. “Meaningful Education as a Source of Global Learning.” Alagic, M., Rimmington, G.M., Liu, F.C. & Gibson, K.L. (eds). Locating Intercultures. Educating for Global Collaboration. Learn International Series. New Delhi: MacMillan. 2010. Pp. 81 – 89.
Scollen. R., Scollen, S., W. Intercultural Communication. Oxford: Blackswell. 1995.
Zhu, Y. “Intercultural Trainings for Organizations. The Synergistic Approach.” Development and Learning Organizations 18 (1), 2004. Emerald Group Publishing. Pp. 9 – 11.

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