Home » Media & technology, Study abroad

Is studying abroad online really going anywhere?

Written By: daveski on October 22, 2008 2 Comments

Last Friday, Professor Celeste Kinginger paid a visit to the Berkeley Language Center from Penn State University’s Department of Applied Linguistics. She gave a talk in which she explained how she’s now involved in a project researching the experiences of Americans studying abroad, and she argued that—despite the fact that the U.S. Senate declared 2006 the “Year of Study Abroad”, and despite the fact the number of students going abroad is increasing in some sectors—the quality of the study abroad experience these days generally leaves much to be desired.

In fact, that’s probably an understatement. The impression that I got from her presentation is that studying abroad may not make much of a difference at all in developing a learner’s linguistic and cultural competences. As the period of stay abroad gets shorter, as home-country and English-using institutions are used more and more to help students navigate life in another country, and as students are constantly plugged in to their life and relationships at home via Skype, Facebook, and blogs like this one (OK, wishful thinking :), students are less and less able to “destabilize” their first-language identities. They are less able to negotiate critical cultural differences, and, she said, less able to find themselves in culturally ambivalent situations that force them to question their own culturally specific common sense, to learn, to grow…

So there were many provocations issued by Kinginger, and the long and lively Q & A session after her talk was evidence of how much the current picture of study abroad isn’t what most language educators would like to see. But one sticking point for me, related to a question asked by another audience member, was whether the “umbilical cord” of internet and media connectedness of many students abroad (what do YOU listen to on your iPod while you’re riding on the metro?) doesn’t in some cases help with the process of attaining a critical distance from the home culture.

Today’s listserv offering from the International Society for Presence Research featured an article, “Virtual Reality world used to teach language”. It explains the development of Realtown, a virtual 3-D interactive space where the avatar-represented foreign language learner can navigate streets and buildings filled with intelligent agents—that is, conversation partners—who speak the target language. The project development team, consisting of three professors in the College of Telematics at the University of Colima, Mexico, and one professor of the Princess Sumaya University for Technology in Amman, Jordan, sings the virtues of language learning in virtual worlds by saying, “What makes Realtown interesting is that students simultaneously perceive and interpret three different stimuli to help them incorporate their knowledge: visual, auditory and physical.”

Although there are no links in this or other article to the actual project website, my gut feeling is that probably Professor Kinginger is right in this case. Studying abroad virtually is a cool idea, and I’m sure there are aspects of study abroad that can be achieved online. Yet it’s distressing in this case to see that no one from the 4-member project team boasts of specialization or even interest in language learning; the focus on perception of multimodal ‘stimuli’, while potentially useful in the negotiation of cultural and linguistic difference, are certainly no guarantee that actual negotiation will happen. While so much attention is being given to replicating what it’s like ‘being there’, there is precious little to indicate what it is that language learners will actually be ‘doing there’.

Of course, I suppose that none of this really matters much if study abroad isn’t really about learning language anyway…

Tags: , , , , ,

Digg this!Add to del.icio.us!Stumble this!Add to Techorati!Share on Facebook!Seed Newsvine!Reddit!

2 Responses to “Is studying abroad online really going anywhere?”

  1. Claire Kramsch on: 26 October 2008 at 6:48 pm

    I totally agree that we should seriously re-visit the goals of study abroad. I wholeheartedly agree with both Dave and Celeste that the main goal is to “destabilize” and relativize a student’s native sense of self, but I am not sure that is what the students originally wanted or expected. The Grand Tour was supposed to be the capstone to an all-American elite education, not a way of problematizing this very same education. One way to destabilize students in EAP is to expose them not to rue-de-Rivoli-Paris but to send them to the more disaffected regions of France or the Paris suburbs and help in soup kitchens and the like. If EAP is no longer about learning the language, perhaps this is at last an opportunity to make them learn the harsh realities of life outside the enchanted circle of the Grand Tour. They might recognize some of the features of this harsh reality that stares them in the face in our very US of A.

  2. wisdom on: 8 November 2008 at 9:42 pm

    I contemplated studying abroad but never did. Virtually studying abroad sounds interesting.

Leave a Reply:

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  Copyright ©2009 Found in Translation, All rights reserved.| Powered by WordPress| WPElegance2Col theme by Techblissonline.com