Intercultural research-based learning through virtual inter-institutional exchange: Experiences during Covid-19 – Patrick Leung, Matt Ragas
Online learning is not new. Yet, it’s been thrust into the spotlight due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With learning and teaching on campus having been suspended, all classes are forced to go online. Since then, there has been a sudden surge in discussion among students and teachers alike about how difficult it can be to cope with and/or conduct learning and teaching exclusively online. While it is true that face-to-face teaching is irreplaceable and has its own merits, the benefits brought by online teaching should not be overlooked either.
After teaching online for a whole term, it is perhaps not difficult to realise that meaningful online teaching is neither about a sole emphasis on technology (e.g. selecting fancy online tools and improving technical abilities/know-how) nor a mere replication of our usual classroom routine ported over to an online environment. Instead, to capitalise on the affordances unique to classes in the virtual world, online education deserves its own teaching strategies and instructional design, especially for tasks that are specially devised to take place online, whether synchronously or asynchronously.
We first discussed together some two years ago, through the Community of Practice – Internationalisation of Teaching and Learning (https://www.cetl.hku.hk/cop-itl/), the potential and possibility of embarking on a virtual collaboration where we would partner students from two different universities in two different locations virtually together: The University of Hong Kong (HKU) in Hong Kong and DePaul University (DPU) in Chicago, America (https://www.depaul.edu/). After more than a year of preparation work, this collaboration finally came into being this term. From what we have observed, we both appreciate that this virtual exchange is a vivid and concrete realisation of internationalisation and intercultural collaboration facilitated by the use of technology.
The core part of this virtual learning exchange project, officially titled by DPU a “Global Learning Experience” or GLE, involved investigation, discussion and exchange of information among students at both universities. The students were undergraduates majoring in advertising and public relations or information management taking a discipline-specific content course at DPU and an English-in-the-discipline language course at HKU. Students at both universities were required to carry out a small-scale research project relevant to their field of study as part of the course assessment. These projects gave them an authentic purpose to communicate and engage with each other in a collaborative relationship. To collect data for their project, rather than just interviewing people in their local community, they interviewed their peers at the counterpart university. They exchanged views, shared experiences, compared practices, and reflected on similarities and differences.
While we could have simply put these students into contact with one another without doing anything else, to maximise the impact and learning potential of this collaborative project and to enhance their intercultural awareness and competence to facilitate intercultural communication, we first set up some online ice-breaking tasks. We then organised a synchronous virtual session for the students to e-meet and further introduce themselves to one another, well before they arranged among themselves for the interview and discussion.
One of the first key pre-tasks was to get each student to record a short ice-breaker video introducing themselves (e.g., academic major, likes and dislikes and future aspirations) and upload it to a private video-sharing platform (Flipgrid). In many of the videos, the students talked about the city they lived in, giving the peers in the partner university a perspective of what the culture and life were like in another part of the world. To establish an online community, not only did they introduce themselves, they also watched the self-introduction videos produced by their peers and recorded a response. In their video responses, they naturally related to one another by identifying similarities and differences (e.g., having the same favourite food) and expressing a desire to interact with each other at a much deeper level. We both were part of the community, so we also filmed our own videos and responded to the student videos as a model and to encourage more student participation.
As for the live online session where the students from both universities met synchronously via Zoom, we took on a casual relationship building path. At the beginning of the session, we explained to the students the rationale behind this collaboration and how advances in technology brought us together and internationalised our learning and teaching experience. Following this was a follow-up on the self-introduction videos. We discussed the similarities and differences we noticed in those videos, which were mostly related to cultural observations (e.g., people in both parts of the world like pasta!), and some interesting fun facts about Hong Kong and Chicago, and HKU and DPU. At that time, since the hot topic in Hong Kong was the stocking up of surgical masks and cleaning supplies, this issue was raised during the session. Because the reasons for wearing a surgical mask was conceptualised quite differently between Hong Kong and Chicago, this led to an interesting yet deep dialogue of cultural understanding and perspectives. As a side benefit, this discussion raised the DPU students’ awareness of personal protection during the ensuing outbreak of coronavirus in America.
Originally, for easier classroom management, we planned to conduct this live virtual session by gathering all the HKU students together in one classroom and all the DPU students in another. Because of the suspension of all face-to-face classes at HKU since early February, it was impossible to physically gather all the HKU students together. Instead, they had to individually join the live session at home. This was initially thought of as a potential problem, but it turned out that this experience exposed the HKU and DPU students to a different form of online classes and interaction. We both agree that this online session was pivotal to and fuelled the success of this virtual collaborative exchange, even though we faced a fundamental challenge of a 13-hour difference in time zones between our cities.
Through this collaboration, we have learned that to make internationalised online learning and teaching happen, teachers have to:
- be extremely flexible and adaptable to changes and the latest situations;
- understand the differences between traditional face-to-face classes and online classes (e.g. limitations and affordances);
- deploy appropriate pedagogical approaches for online learning and teaching;
- arrange a live session where all students can interact with one another in real-time to build rapport;
- devise meaningful tasks and structures, including utilising appropriate technology tools or platforms to establish an online community where everyone feels safe to share; and
- prepare students from both places to embrace cultural diversity and perspectives.
The virtual exchange project between HKU and DePaul University featured in this article was funded by the Office of Global Engagement at DePaul University and supported by the Community of Practice on Internationalisation of Teaching and Learning (CoP-ITL) based in HKU.