A large percentage of today’s college students spend a semester or year studying abroad. The purpose of these experiences is to give students a global perspective by learning about other cultures, but often they huddle around their peers without truly immersing themselves in culture.
One way to combat this problem is with reflection activities that prompt the student to engage with their environment. Activities can include personal journals kept by the student, but online tools provide additional ways for students to record and publicize their experience to those back home. Many students already post about their study abroad experiences on Facebook, so it makes sense to capitalize on this interest in sharing in a formalized online context to prompt reflection on culture. Certain online tools also create legacy products or repositories of student understandings that can prompt synthesis or reflection during or after study abroad.
We have piloted several activities to capture global perspectives during study abroad as part of a teacher training program. Between 2011 and 2014, we took three teacher cohorts to the University of Surrey in England to learn about writing, technology, and culture. As a target for writing activities, participants created digital artifacts to capture what they were learning about the culture. Artifacts took different forms, but all provided a creative way for students to reflect on their experience and what they were learning about the culture.
One exercise is for students to contribute to shared Google Maps on different global themes. For example, students might contribute to a map their instructor creates on a theme like the “Victorian era” that is readily identifiable in London. Students use their mobile devices to capture photos representative of the theme in architecture, art, or museum exhibits. Students then add placemarks to the map that include their photos and textual annotations elaborating on the theme using one of the modes of writing taught in the course—expressive, poetic, or expository.
As students add to the shared map, they come to realize the often wide-ranging diversity and complexity in a given theme. Seeing posts by others gives students additional insights into the theme, as well as ideas for more elements that they could add. This activity can also take the form of “selfie quests,” with students capturing images of themselves in front of examples of the different themes. See an example at http://bit.ly/1LXpENj
Applied and Traded Memes
We have all seen those funny memes that come across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These are images of cultural icons with humorous text added to put words in the mouth of the subject. We admire them for their creativity in taking a new slant on an old icon.
This creativity can also be applied to cultural commentary. In our study abroad course, students create memes that combine familiar imagery from our American culture to help communicate an unfamiliar cultural lesson they have learned from immersion in the host culture. The result illustrates differences in cultural attitudes and practices. For instance, one student combined an image from Game of Thrones
with the phrase, “One does not simply ask for separate checks when dining in an English restaurant,” to illustrate different procedures. Another took a photo from The Matrix
and added “What if I told you ... you can’t use your cell on the train” to illustrate different norms around public transportation.
Memes are easily created using free, online meme-generating tools. These tools allow you to choose between a library of prepopulated culture images or your own uploaded images. Memegenerator.net and Imgflip.com are two popular sites. Our students downloaded and reposted their memes to a shared Pinterest board or Padlet wall, allowing us to accumulate examples of cultural lessons learned over the course of a trip. See some examples at http://bit.ly/1oHSQeg
A worthwhile addition to this activity is to invite locals from the host culture to review and comment on student memes, offering clarifications and pointing out misconceptions. Students can even create memes about their own country to share with distant partners, allowing students to learn about differences in each other’s popular culture.
Represented Actual and Fictional Conversations
Students who travel with us meet and interact with persons from the host culture, and these people often reveal a story about their life or work that illustrates a cultural theme. We encourage students to capture their most meaningful cultural interaction with another person by writing a duologue script. Students then use our class GoAnimate account to import their script and create a short animation of their conversation within a representative setting. Students can view one another’s animations in our group account and further reflect or comment on similar or different encounters. See examples at http://bit.ly/1zUsTln
Students in the program also research famous persons in the culture we are visiting and write short fictional scripts describing a comical conversation they might have with this person. Students choose not only the script, but a representative setting, such as Jane Austen in a coffee shop. For this activity students use the comic strip tool ToonDoo to visually represent these conversations. See one example at http://bit.ly/1QojreU.
Researched Places and People
To prepare our students for study abroad, each chooses a site to research that we will be visiting and prepares an online presentation to share with peers going on the trip. Some students create videos using tools such as iMovie, Apple’s video editing software, and others have used Prezi for combining photos with audio narration. Students are quite creative in combining images with narration, and are obviously proud of their product. See one example at http://bit.ly/1K9BYuh
During the trip, students are tasked with creating a multimedia timeline about some historic site or person using MyHistro. Students visit sites or museums with curated information, taking photographs as allowed and capturing notes on key dates and events. This information is then compiled into a timeline about place or person. See one example at http://bit.ly/1FxVrj0.
It only takes a small nudge and a little direction to get students to engage more with their host culture in study abroad programs. These examples can also be applied to any online course that draws together students from different cultures. Consider adding online activities to your own classes that prompt students to engage with different cultures.
Kevin Oliver is an associate professor of digital learning and teaching at North Carolina State University.