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Virtual reality aids cross-cultural communication in language classes

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Caroline Sibley, a UNC professor implementing virtual reality technology in her language classes, poses at the North Carolina Arabic Teacher Council Conference on Oct. 22, 2022. Photo Courtesy of Caroline Sibley.

Despite the hundreds of miles that separate them, Teaching Assistant Professor Caroline Sibley’s Advanced Arabic class is using virtual reality technology to hone their language skills with students in Morocco and Algeria.

Using Google Cardboard VR headsets, Sibley’s students “land on” clues within virtual realities that explore the histories and cultures of Morocco, Algeria and Arabic-speaking communities in the U.S. These clues, which include clips of songs and photographs, initiate conversations and perspective-sharing in Arabic between Sibley’s students and their global partners on Zoom. 

The real-world VR scenes range from archeological digs in the Middle East to a famous Arab-American bakery in Dearborn, Mich.

Sibley said her students come together with people from global communities to work on their presentation, communication and intercultural competency skills.

This experience is part of Florida International University’s Tabadul program, which focuses on language learning and community building through VR. 

When Sharmila Udyavar, the associate director for global education in the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, heard about the program from a colleague at FIU, she shared it with the Arabic language faculty.

“Caroline is the one who took it and ran and brought it to her class,” Udyavar said.

The program is funded by the Department of State’s Stevens Initiative. The program aims to build global competence for students in the U.S., along with the Middle East and North Africa region by “growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange.” According to its website, the Tabadul program currently has 1,200 participants worldwide.

“It’s kind of like having a conversation with a friend, to be honest,” LeeAnn Zainy, a junior double-majoring in political science and global studies, said. “You sit there and you talk about your day, and you’ll start to see some cultural differences and a lot of cultural similarities that you might not have expected as well.”

One of these cultural differences is the use of emojis, Sibley said. She recalled an instance in which Moroccan students sent heart emojis and “kissy faces” over WhatsApp — much to the horror of her students.

“That was pretty funny because they came in like, ‘Um, Professor Caroline, are they flirting with me?’ Like, no,” Sibley said. 

She cited the miscommunication to cultural differences between common American practices and Moroccan and Algerian culture. 

“It’s like bisou, kisses, you know? And so I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s why they’re sending you kisses. It’s ciao, hello.’”

UNC is very supportive of technological initiatives on campus, Sibley said. Her third-year Arabic students have been using the VR technology since the fall semester of 2022, but her plan for the upcoming semester is to collaborate with the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs to secure an IDEAS Grant. 

This grant would allow UNC professors to teach a Collaborative Online International Learning course in the spring of 2024. Within this course, students at the University will collaborate with fellow students in Morocco to create a documentary about the impact of education on personal identity.

The goal of a COIL course is to enhance “intercultural and cross-cultural” learning, Udyavar said.

“I don’t just want to equip students with knowledge, I also want to equip them with real-life practical skills," Sibley said. 

Udyavar said this kind of enhanced language learning promotes increased sociocultural awareness and understanding through cross-cultural communication. 

She also said feedback on the program has been positive, and students are eager to participate in more technologically-advanced education.

@ashnqm 

university@dailytarheel.com

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Ashley Quincin

Ashley Quincin is a 2023-24 assistant university desk editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a university staff writer. Ashley is a senior pursuing a degree in English and comparative literature, with a double minor in media and journalism and composition, rhetoric and digital literacy.