The intercultural competency project was predicated upon the need for learners from different environments to engage in continued transactional learning. This interaction among students that build their intercultural competency does not necessarily take place in a face to face basis. The versatile digital solutions available today, such as Zoom used for this project, could leverage the possibility of guided learner interactions.
The Collaborative Online International Learning projects (COIL) project involved students in two universities; one in Spain and the other Finland exemplified the great potential in using the internet to entrench beneficial knowledge sharing among learners. Furthermore, the project was collaborative, which means that teamwork, tolerance to diversity, intellectual humility, and intercultural rigor were nurtured throughout. The conception, design, administration, and evaluation of the COIL overcame the limitations of distance, time, and cultural diversity. Objectively and carefully designed questionnaires made it possible to evaluate the process and outcomes of the project.
Pre-Project Intercultural Competency of the Participants
The questionnaire responses showed that even though the participating university are all within Europe, up to 88% of the student involved in the project reported having very poor knowledge of the partner university. 12% of the students indicated that they had a poor understanding of partner university. This reality suggests the great need to bolster student awareness about other institutions and link them through collaborative networks. Through such initiative, knowledge sharing and generation are easily achieved. Furthermore, 70% of the students only had average knowledge of the country where the partner university is located while 30% had a poor experience.
In a classical intercultural competency development, having comprehensive knowledge about another community is key. Having conceded to a lack of adequate prior information about each other made the participants' ideal targets. Conceivably, the power of inquisition and curiosity would trigger a rigorous dialogue among the participants, thus fostering learning. Cognizant of the potential barriers to learning caused by ignorance about each other, the icebreaker and familiarization session was important. In this familiarization phase, all participating students, including the introverts, were empowered to ask questions, build relationships, share ideas, express value for diversity, embrace collaboration, and uphold active team activity.
100% of the students participating had never participated in online international learning. This percentage meant that they would not only interact but also learn the versatility of digital solutions as platforms for knowledge exchange. The assumption is that the students would learn how to work in teams, share screens, write texts, interject in virtual sessions, collaborate with colleagues in another region, and still get the best experience altogether. The project was mindful of the potential constraints to effective virtual learning, including different learning abilities and diverse cultural influences. Overcoming such imminent limitations requires a high level of motivation among participants and a self-drive to establish working teams that foster effective transactional experiences.
A 100% level interest among the students in both the subject to be covered and the project itself helped to overcome possible challenges. Conceptually, in a typical intercultural communication situation such as this COIL project, participants who have a high sense of motivation get fulfilled than those that are not. Imperatively, the participants’’ high motivation for the content and nature of the project assured of more tolerance to uncertainty and alignment of the curiosity towards engaging with the others who are different. Such understanding effectively helped to maintain goal orientation as the participants would, without compulsion, find the self- and other-knowledge gained rewarding.
All the students (100%) participating in the program considered it extremely important to join the COIL project that would give them international experience. In retrospect, the students already understood the dynamic nature of career development in which upon completion of studies, they enter different spaces globally. This reality means that COIL would significantly prepare them to develop intercultural competencies necessary for upholding intellectual humility, cultural awareness, and tolerance to diversity. These attributes are hallmarks of career growth and success.
Cognizant of the important contribution of the COIL project, the students focused on using this opportunity to improve their cultural knowledge and develop their language skills. Up to 90% of the students envisioned to use the project to attain dual experience; enhance cultural knowledge and language skills. On the other hand, 10% of the participating students prioritized using the project to improve their language skills.
The training program was conducted with full acknowledgment of how virtual learning is highly predisposed to time management challenges, changes in participant interests, and demotivation. One important goal of the program was to ensure that all the participants remain motivated throughout the sessions and that their curiosities are progressively fulfilled. Therefore, the sessions were made expressly interactive, and the supervising lecturers ensured that the students remained maximally involved.
The introduction session was comprehensively conducted to ensure that the students freely communicated their worries, suspicions, and anxieties and overcame pre-existing assumptions about the other participants. The introduction set the favorable ground for subsequent effective interactions among the students. They were also taken through familiarisation of the digital solution to be used during the program, Zoom.
The students formed their groups with which they felt comfortable to work. However, the groups' composition was moderated to attain an equal balance of the Finnish and Spanish students in them. The key to the project was the need to keep it engaging, less straining, and informative. Therefore, the topics chosen throughout were not entirely technical but captivating. Ideally, this was a good way to accommodate possible extremes among the participants. The subjects were wide-ranging and included food and drinks, traveling, and hobbies. A very relaxing icebreaker session preceded the project kick-off. During the icebreaker, students got the first opportunity to introduce themselves to one another and overcome possible anxieties.
The training was divided into four sessions lasting one hour each. Setting the length of sessions at 45 minutes was guided by the fact that cognitive attention tends to drastically decline after 45 minutes of concentrating on the same thing (Sharan & Tan, 2008). Each of the sessions had unique elements, such as topic identification, selection, and discission. Students in the teams identified topics for discussion in the proceeding session, and they would vote for each participant's topic. The topics ranged from hobbies, foods, rituals, personal life, academic and social experiences, and contemporary socio-political issues. The topic selection was liberal, which means that the instructors assumed a supervisory role and refrained from gagging the students. With the lecturers applying a hands-off approach, the sessions were not as structured as normal classroom situations.
The training covered cognitive, attributional, and self-awareness training. In the cognitive aspect of the training, students openly interrogated the selected group topics, established the facts and truths, and eventually discussed them. Using Zoom's versatile functionalities, the students could share screens, write comments, make verbal comments, or show dissatisfaction during the discussions.
The lecturers made abrupt visitations to the Zoom rooms to supervise how the students continued their discussions. Typically, the teams delved into discriminating misinformation, prejudice, half-truths, misconceptions, and gossip. They would synthesize their researched information to remain with verifiable facts alone. In attributional learning, the students had to make concessions and stay as a team. They would remain resilient even in circumstances where cultural differences threatened to cause disintegration.
Each student was systematically accultured to focus on learning unfamiliar aspects of the others. They were progressively inclined towards positively dealing with existing cultural differences and upholding cohesiveness. One way of achieving this cohesion was to exercise intellectual humility and awareness and not judge others for their behavior. Self-paced learning was applied in the project to minimize any potential strains on participants. The self-paced principle is based on humans' cognitive processes that favor progressive learning from simpler concepts to more complex ones (Jiang, Meng, Yu, Lan, Shan & Hauptmann, 2014).
Instructors in nurturing appropriate attributions were to incline all the students first to integrate the knowledge of existing cultural differences before they make conclusions. On the self-awareness aspect, the students were encouraged to identify points of departure in any aspect of other participants'' cultures, note them, and use that to reflect on their own. This element was important because agents of cultures often practice them without paying keen attention to what exactly influences their particular patterns. Using the cultures of others as a benchmark, the students could easily examine how their culture involuntarily affects their behavior.
Following the COIL training, student participants reported a significant improvement in their understanding of their colleagues' cultures. As Deardorff (2006) affirms, awareness, and knowledge about their own and other people's culture, indicate cultural competency. 87% and 13% of the students who participated in the COIL project reported having good and average knowledge about the partners' universities. This number represents a drastic shift from the pre-project situation in which the students stated having only poor and very poor experiences with the partner university. A clear transition from a state of cultural ignorance to one of awareness was thus achieved. The same shift in student awareness was also reflected in 92% and 8% recording excellent and good knowledge of the partner university's host country. Imperatively, the Spanish students greatly learned about Finland and vice versa.
The students involved in the project were non-native speakers of English, yet this was the language used. Through meaningful and transactional interactions, the students achieved high peer-to-peer learning and improved their speaking, and listening skills. However, varying degrees of interest in the COIL activity were recorded post-training. Before the training, 100% of the students expressed great interest in the subject, but on completion, 73% had a keen interest, 20% moderate, and only 7% high. This different level of interest is indicative of possible hidden student-specific challenges and limitations during the training.
In retrospect, such a disparity in levels of interest shows inherent imperfection in even individualized training approaches (Vinaja, 2003), with 82% of students being extremely positively interested and 18% somewhat interested.
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