On April 13, 2015, the Chronicle published an article written by S. Berdan titled “Study Abroad Could Be So Much Better.” Part of the article resonated with me and reflected the reasons I have been working on a project called “Real Life in Russia.” In the article, she says: “The vast majority of students I have asked about crosscultural preparation said they wished that they had been better prepared to deal with cultural differences when studying abroad. When I asked why, most said they felt confused by interactions with local people and didn’t understand what was happening in social situations. Many of the students I interviewed said they felt so uncomfortable that they increased the amount of time they spent with fellow Americans and on social media with friends and family back home — the opposite of what they should have been doing” (http://chronicle.com/article/StudyAbroadCouldBeSoMuch/229273/).
This project consists of 10 lessons that focus on tasks that students have to perform soon after arriving in Russia. The tasks are quite formulaic, but can be intimidating to students who are not used to them, while native speakers expect that this is common knowledge. Some examples include: buying food in a grocery store or a ticket for a bus, using the interface of a Russian cell phone, behavior in the home of host families, and etiquette during train travel. My hope is that students who complete these tasks in a simulated environment before their trip will better know what to expect and will therefore find it less intimidating to perform these tasks when in Russia. If students can have linguistic successes early in their experience abroad, perhaps they will be willing to take the linguistic risks necessary to grow both personally and in their language skills while in Russia.
The modules do not include assessment in a traditional way; by contrast, they try to incorporate authentic rewards for performing the tasks correctly. For example, in the telephone lesson, after students are taught how to check their balance on their phone, they must perform that task, and are rewarded with finding out their balance, as they would when they were in the target culture. When they correctly drag the right ingredients to the pot of Russian borscht, they get rewarded with a virtual bowl of soup. Because this project is mostly focused on affect, I found these types of rewards more appropriate than traditional measures.
At the request of many of my colleagues at other universities who have seen these lessons, I am also planning to open up access to the lessons to students at other universities. Because each institution has only a small number of students who study abroad in Russia each year, it makes sense to pool our resources. This will enhance the reputation of Michigan State as a leader in innovative technology in language teaching.
Technologies included in this course:
- Adobe Captivate (http://www.adobe.com/products/captivate/education.html)
- SoftChalk (http://softchalk.com/)