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Chinese language department’s virtual exchange program enhances learning experiences through virtual immersion

Program innovatively responds to the pandemic, allows upper-level Chinese students to connect with Peking University students in Beijing

<p>Dr. Yan Gao's ability to bring effective technology into the classroom is reflected in interactive flyers like this one, which helped students virtually "pack their bags" in a pre-departure information session on the first day of class.</p>

Dr. Yan Gao's ability to bring effective technology into the classroom is reflected in interactive flyers like this one, which helped students virtually "pack their bags" in a pre-departure information session on the first day of class.

The transition to a remote learning environment has brought new interest to the pedagogy of a virtual exchange program. This spring, University students enrolled in upper-level Chinese course CHIN 3020 have the opportunity to virtually collaborate and engage with students from the renowned Peking University in Beijing, China. The structure of the curriculum was designed to make students feel as if they are travelling to Beijing on a study abroad trip, exploring traditional architecture and cuisine, environmental pollution and the city’s urban development. 

All students enrolled in CHIN 3020 are automatically a part of this first-time US-China Language and Culture Exchange Program, which takes the place of their full academic curriculum as they are able to experience a real-time, immersive online journey. Although the two class sections meet on Zoom only three times a week for about an hour, outside assignments and online meetings with Peking University undergraduate and Master‘s in Education graduate students help emulate a more cohesive and comprehensive study abroad experience. 

Miao-fen Tseng — professor of Chinese and the inaugural director of the University’s Institute of World Languages — leveraged her existing professional network to recruit eight graduate and undergraduate Peking students as tutors to help integrate community-based learning aspects into the class curriculum. With their help, Tseng has made this dual-university collaboration a possibility as she teaches this course alongside Dr. Ziyi Geng, Lecturer of Chinese at the University. 

Tseng had a vision to create an innovative and technology-driven course. She drew from her many years of experience as the director and creator of STARTALK, a government-funded, online curriculum at the University. STARTALK provides Chinese teachers and students with the technology and immersion opportunities needed to enhance their language skills. 

She spent several months and long hours developing this new program in 2020, funded by a grant she was awarded from The Daniels Family NEH Distinguished Teaching Professorship. Moreover, since the Distinguished Teaching Professorship is a three-year appointment, the course will continue to be offered for the next two spring semesters. 

Speaking on the overall goals of the course, Tseng notes that her experience with incorporating community-based learning approaches started from her CHIN 3010 class from the fall of 2018, and that sentiment has flowed into this semester’s CHIN 3020 course with the help of curated technological assistance.

“The technology-mediated and task-based course is designed to create opportunities for learners to immerse in real-world and digital authenticity,” Tseng said. 

As an education technology coordinator at the University’s STARTALK since 2017, Dr. Yan Gao joined Tseng in her efforts to create an immersive and enriching new curriculum for students. Gao’s primary responsibility involves bringing effective technology into the classroom. These include interactive flyers on ThingLink with embedded Chinese cultural videos, 3D virtual reality immersion videos through interactive virtual platforms like Playposit and e-portfolio platforms like Book Creator that allow students to share images and audio recordings with one another. 

When asked about her hopes for the program and the benefits of incorporating advanced technology into the classroom, Gao explains that the technology provides students with an active learning experience from a virtual setting. 

“The course prepares students to enrich their understanding of the language and gives them the confidence to speak Chinese through constant practice with Beijing students,” Gao said.  “The 3D virtual reality video makes the students feel like they are really on a virtual trip.” 

On the first day of class, students participated in a pre-departure information session and orientation where they virtually “packed their bags” for the trip and got ready for takeoff. Prior to “landing” at  the Daxing International Airport, students watched two videos to better understand the layout and history behind the airport which was constructed in 2019.

One video was a foreigners’ take on the new airport that compared and contrasted American and Chinese airports. The other was more of a vlog narrated by renowned Chinese actor Hu Ge, who provided a tour of all the new features in the airport. Daxing is now the largest airport in the world and was recently named one of the newest seven wonders in the modern world by the Guardian. 

“The videos help contextualize what we are learning,” fourth-year College student Julia Phaltankar said. “There is all this vocab that comes along with learning about the new airport, and it has been nice to not just look at the vocab or pictures on a powerpoint but actually have a video about the different perspectives and aspects of the airport.”

Upon “arrival” in Beijing, University students learned about the architectural characteristics and symbolism of siheyuan, a traditional Beijing courtyard residence that they will virtually live in during the program. Students were given three pre-selected Airbnb siheyuan to choose from, ranging from traditional to modern styles. In class, students were divided into breakout rooms to discuss their final decisions and voted on their favorite Airbnb choice in the final minutes of class.

This type of immersive experience is likewise implemented in various forms throughout the curriculum. For example, in a later unit that asked students to explore student life at Peking University, Professors Tseng and Geng invited Peking University graduate student Yu Meng to attend one of the online class sessions for a Q&A session. There, students were able to ask a variety of questions in order to learn more about the typical perspectives and activities of a Peking University student. 

Throughout each two-week learning unit, students have the opportunity to meet with native speakers from the University’s Chinese language department. At the end of each two-week period, students meet with their pre-assigned Peking University student tutors to engage in spontaneous conversation and discuss topics related to the respective unit’s course material. 

Each tutor session is a continuous exchange of different perspectives, resulting in a steady sharing of American and Chinese culture during each session. Students carefully schedule their meetings with the Peking student tutors in order to prevent any potential inconveniences that the 13-hour time difference could inflict. 

With a total of 23 University students split into two sections and eight Peking University students participating as tutors, the program size is relatively small. This intimacy has allowed for a more comfortable space for students to put themselves out there and build a relationship with each other during class, as well as with their student tutors at Peking University. 

“One thing Professor Tseng has done really well is making sure we get to know other students in the class,” Phaltankar said.  “It can be pretty tough to do that over Zoom and the ability to really get to know your classmates is an important aspect of language classes.”

Second-year College student Grace Parker remarked that the course’s emphasis on community-based and experiential learning has helped her better understand vocabulary and become more confident in her conversational skills. Specifically, the interactive and collaborative nature of the course through vocabulary activities, simulation videos and discussions with Peking University students have all contributed to the overall success of the virtual program’s efforts.

“I have really enjoyed the class so far and appreciate the amount of creativity that has gone into the course,” Parker said. “I think the one thing that sets this class apart from other Chinese classes I have taken is that it really takes that extra step of showing you the real world application, which genuinely makes you more excited to experience that one day.”

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