In a 2007 report, the Modern Language Association (MLA) remarked that “deep cultural knowledge and linguistic competence are equally necessary if one wishes to understand people and their communities” (p. 2) and that the goal of foreign language instruction should be to produce “educated speakers who have deep translingual and transcultural competence” (p. 3). Though aimed specifically at American higher education, the MLA’s recommendations have implications for world language instruction in much broader contexts.This transcultural competence, long considered a lesser byproduct of linguistic competence, is being more commonly recognized as an integral component of world language courses. To this end, several international bodies have updated their standards to include transcultural competence as a pillar of language instruction (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 2015; American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2017; Council of Europe, 2001).
Though defined in numerous ways (see Byram, 1997; Fantini, 2000; Risager, 2007; Bennett, 2009; Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013), transcultural, cross-cultural, or intercultural competence (henceforth referred to as intercultural communicative competence (ICC)) in the context of education can generally be considered as:
a combination of attitudes, knowledge, understanding and skills applied through action which enables one, either singly or together with others, to:
— understand and respect people who are perceived to have different cultural affiliations from oneself;
— respond appropriately, effectively and respectfully when interacting and communicating with such people;
— establish positive and constructive relationships with such people;
— understand oneself and one’s own multiple cultural affiliations through encounters with cultural “difference.” (Huber & Reynolds, 2014, pp. 16–17).
Within the world language classroom, this manifests as a learner’s “ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries” (Byram, 1997, p. 53). Beyond the classroom, learners are able to “communicate and interact with cultural competence in order to participate in multilingual communities” as well as “collaborate in their community and the globalized world” (National Standards, 2015, p. 1). Critical to this endeavor is the simultaneous reflective introspection and outward community involvement. By recognizing that language education is not simply a tool for use in limited contexts, but meaningful in developing their identity, students will come to value the knowledge, attitude, and skills on a personal, actionable level (Byram & Wagner, 2018).
Inarguably, the primary means of developing ICC is through positive cross-cultural contact – interactions that necessitate mediation of knowledge, skills, awareness, and language proficiency (Fantini, 2000; Bennett, 2009). This can prove challenging in traditional school settings for both procedural and logistical reasons. First, ICC development is an on-going and lengthy process, as reflected in various models of stages or phases experienced by intercultural learners (Hoopes, 1979; Gochenour & Janeway, 1993; Bennett, 1993). Semester-length and even year-long courses may not provide enough meaningful interaction to provoke, notice, or measure ICC development. Additionally, classrooms by nature consist of a disproportionate number of learners and native speakers. Moreover, the instructor may be neither a native speaker of the language he or she teaches, nor a member of a culture wherein the target language is spoken. Thus facilitating these cross-cultural interactions could prove unattainable within many classroom contexts.
One potential solution to these problems is telecollaboration, a means of connecting students to native speakers via “institutionalized, electronically mediated intercultural communication under the guidance of a linguacultural expert (i.e., a teacher) for the purposes of foreign language learning and the development of intercultural competence” (Belz, 2003, p. 2). These collaborative partnerships can take many forms, all with varying degrees of formality, learner autonomy and responsibility, learner characteristics (e.g. language proficiency, learning goals, etc.), means of interaction, and institutional support (O’Dowd, 2016; Akiyama & Cunningham, 2018). Within formal educational settings, most programs pair groups of university-level learners who engage in both synchronous and asynchronous bilingual-bicultural exchanges through information exchange tasks (Akiyama & Cunningham, 2018). Though there still remains a need for study diversity and standardized reporting in future research (Akiyama & Cunningham, 2018), as well as implementation of deeper “critical collaboration” (O’Dowd, 2016), as a whole, telecollaboration has proven an effective approach to improving language skills (Canto & van den Bergh, 2013; Kato & Mori, 2016) and developing intercultural competence (Furstenberg, Levet, English, & Maillet, 2001; Belz, 2003; Helm & Guth, 2010).
Despite its impact on attaining the primary goals of world language courses, telecollaboration remains underutilized in the vast majority of curricula. Though not nearly as technologically restricted as it used to be thanks to widespread Internet access and the ever growing list of communicative tools and resources, telecollaborative exchanges are still not without logistical limitations. There may be low availability of target language speakers, high technological requirements and/or lack of funding, time zone differences, inflexible course structure, and so forth. Moreover, students with telecollaborative peers rarely get to meet in person and shared experiences to build more meaningful relationships are limited.
As an emerging technology, virtual reality (VR) may not only aid in addressing some of these issues, but further enhance existing telecollaboration programs. As a concept, “virtual reality” has existed and evolved over the past few decades. In the broadest of terms it encompasses “any simulated, artificial, or synthetic environment that creates a convincing presentation of a desired space” (Kessler, 2018). This has included online virtual environments (LMSs, etc.), online virtual worlds (MMOs, Second Life, etc.), augmented and mixed reality, and “second wave” immersive VR that uses head-mounted displays (HMDs). Within the domain of language learning, numerous studies have investigated the potential of these diverse technologies, examining synthetic immersive environments (Sykes, Oskoz, & Thorne, 2008; O’Brien & Levy, 2008), online virtual worlds (Shih & Yang, 2008; Sykes & Reinhardt, 2012; Sykes, 2013; Lan & Liao, 2018), and mixed reality (Yang, Chen, & Jeng , 2009; Ho, Nelson, & Müeller-Wittig, 2011). For the purposes of this project, however, VR will be defined as an experience made immersive through the use of a HMD that occurs within either A) a computer-generated environment wherein the user may actively engage with the surroundings, or B) a 360° video-based environment wherein the user passively observes pre-generated content.
Such immersive experiences offer unique affordances for language learning and ICC development. In recent examinations of the future directions of the field, many authors have noted the potential of VR as a multimodal tool that students can use to develop multiliteracies, access authentic texts, engage in social exploration, enhance intercultural understanding, and practice culturally appropriate tasks in ways that would otherwise only be possible by traveling (Blyth, 2018; Sykes, 2018b; Kessler, 2018). For both learners and instructors, VR content is becoming more readily customizable allowing experiences to be tailored to students’ individual needs. Additionally, VR experiences are heightened by enhancing the user’s sense of presence (Lane, Hays, Auerbach, & Core, 2010; Chen, Warden, Tai, Chen, & Chao, 2011; Villani, Repetto, Cipresso, & Riva, 2012; North & North, 2016) and engagement (Hussein & Nätterdal, 2015). This sense of presence also extends to social interactions, as there are many existing and cutting-edge technologies that enable immersive virtual telepresence (Riva, Botella, Légeron, & Optale, 2004; Panettieri, 2007; Beck, Kunert, Kulik, & Froehlich, 2013; McGill, Williamson, & Brewster, 2016; Fairchild, Campion, García, Wolff, Fernando, & Roberts, 2017). Though more advanced immersive virtual telepresence systems remain gated behind advanced technological and infrastructure requirements, the advent of 5G and similar networks suggests that these technologies may soon become mainstream (Orlosky, Kiyokawa, & Takemura, 2017).
Yet in spite of such promise and calls for further research, immersive VR in even its most accessible commercial form (e.g. Google Cardboard) remains to be evaluated within the context of language education (Lin & Lan, 2015). Existing studies of immersive VR are limited to university education and adult training across the sciences and medical field (Freina & Ott, 2015). Though these subjects may more easily lend themselves to the simulations initially envisioned for VR, that is not to say that language-focused equivalents do not already exist. The Center for the Advanced Study of Language (CASL) at the University of Maryland, for example, has designed a video-based VR experience to train advanced listening skills (Tare, Golonka, Clark, & Varshney, 2017). However, evaluation is warranted to both measure and guide future pedagogical interventions.
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