Technology's Role in an Intercultural Communication Class
For the past two years, I have taught an upper level graduate class called Intercultural Communication at Western Carolina University. Located in the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of rural Western North Carolina, WCU has approximately 6,500 students. Western is recognized nationally as being on the cutting edge of technology. In 1998, Western was the first school in the University of North Carolina System to require all incoming freshman to own a computer and to participate in "JumpStart" computer training sessions.
Given the university's emphasis on and access to technology, I redesigned my Intercultural Communication course in the summer of 1999. The main objectives for the students were:
- To develop competence in intercultural communication.
- To develop a relationship with someone from a non-U.S. culture via e-pal Web sites.
- To contribute to intercultural awareness by developing an intercultural communication Web site and presenting their work, using PowerPoint, to area high schools.
My interests in global communication and Web authoring seemed a natural fit for an upper level communication studies class in a university on the cutting edge of all things digital. The Web would also provide the needed platform for the students to share their findings with K-12 educators and their peers throughout Western North Carolina, thus serving Western's commitment to community outreach.
A major factor in the course design was the large number of education students enrolled in the class as part of their minor studies. The requirements for graduation and licensure as a teacher in North Carolina include a technology portfolio. This portfolio must contain evidence of understanding and application of state-determined Advanced Technology Competencies.
This article chronicles the role of technology over the past two years in a class that remains stalwartly project-based in its outreach goals, yet ultimately devoted to the understanding and sharing of intercultural communication concepts. I will highlight the challenges, failures, student assessments, redesign and ultimate successes we experienced.
Too Much Tech
While preparing for this course in the summer of 1999, it seemed that the boundless world of the Internet would be the perfect means to illustrate a number of communication concepts. My goal was that the entire class would contribute to an educational Web site based on their research and international contacts. During the first half of the semester, we studied the theoretical and applied areas of intercultural communication. The remaining half of the semester was project based with me (half- jokingly) forsaking the role of professor for the role of CIO. The idea was for the class to adopt a more corporate atmosphere by enforcing weekly deadlines and filtering research into a "product" that the world would soon see.
The syllabus and technology logistics were well planned. The class was divided into four groups. Each group was charged with researching a particular country's culture, and then publishing the results on a class Web site. Each group was also seeded with one to two upper-class students who were familiar with educational methodology. Within each group, each student needed to contribute the following to the class Web site:
- 750 word document on a particular aspect of a culture they were studying
- Minimum of five hard copy scholarly sources cited in the work
- Minimum of three digitized images
- Minimum of five Web sites linked to the group document that were relevant to their area of study.
We spent a total of nine weeks during the second half of the semester in two electronic classrooms: one a Mac lab, the other a Windows lab, both seating 25. A class Web account was established on our local mainframe VAX/VMS server, which had 4 MB allotted for the class, and allowed the publishing of basic text and image files. I also solicited a great deal of technical help. Included here were: a professional guest speaker from Atlanta who shared his expertise on Web page content and design; information and systems specialists from around campus; and two to three lab technicians who attended each electronic class session. In addition, guest speakers and I lectured on the overarching rationale for using the Web, while library personnel provided information on Web copyrights and on how to cite online sources. Considering Western's computer requirement and training sessions, the school's numerous online program tutorials and a plethora of technology help, I believed technical problems would be minimal.
Everything seemed well addressed, from the basics of saving and publishing with Netscape Composer to digitizing images. Groups were free to choose the country they wanted to work on and to develop a creative, but consistent design for their portion of the site. Each group elected its own "group master." Graduate and honors students were responsible for designing the class homepage, a class biographies page, and an introduction document that provided links to the group masters' pages. To provide the class with a visual image of our Web site's architecture, the following exemplary organizational chart on page 45 was posted on my Web page. It detailed each person's role in our project, along with its hierarchy.
Logging on to the finished project at www3.wcu.edu/~CMHC415, one can see that the planned architecture of the site is there. Guest speakers performed flawlessly, and computer resource personnel, typically assigned to assist faculty, were generous in sharing resources and time with students in and out of class.
However, the one thing that needed the most attention ended up being sidelined: content. Simply put, because of technical process problems, time ran out and needed editing changes were not included. Based on feedback from students and support personnel, here were our stumbling blocks:
- Word/HTML formats: Initially, students took advantage of word processing features by writing their documents in Microsoft Word. Several in-class sessions were devoted to the design aspects of Netscape Composer (tables, color, graphics, etc.). When this was completed, the Word documents were copied into Composer. Despite numerous warnings about formatting differences between Word and Composer, we still ended up with many glitches --spacing and indenting being the most numerous.
- Saving: A seemingly simple process, yet we ended up with many inconsistencies in file names. Students were required to save locally and to our class folder on a remote server. A number of students decided to customize data when saving on either their Zip or 3.5" floppy disk, and when saving to the server. Another stumbling block was with differences between Macintosh and Windows devices when saving. The Windows computers automatically attached the needed ".html" or ".htm" file extensions, while the Macintosh computers did not. Trying to publish and link these files during the last week of class presented innumerable problems.
- Storage: Our class account quickly filled up on the VAX/VMS server. Several students needed to compress or eliminate a number of their larger image files.
- Varying computer competencies among students: Approximately one-third of the class was comfortable with the class's guidelines for Web work. Many of the upper-class students were not as skilled as the underclassmen who fell into the category of "generation must," or students that entered in 1998 and 1999 and attended mandatory computer training sessions. All of the underclass students had school Web accounts and were familiar with Web programs.
Our final goal of making others "aware" was also shortchanged. Because of limited time, our needed rehearsal in front of a graduate class in education methods was canceled. We ended up giving one presentation on the idea of technology's role in globalization to an honors computer class at a local high school. Either signaling the end of this class's work for the semester or through some sense of divine providence, this too was marred. Our laptop computer crashed and would not reboot. Ironically, we relied on the high school's presentation cart for our presentation.
Student feedback for this class ended up with mixed evaluations. Most students praised the intercultural content portion, yet the majority strongly faulted the technology. Clearly, the students learned a great deal about using technology -- some more than they may have bargained for -- but the goals of intercultural competence and awareness got lost in the process.
While there probably are several contributing factors to the problems we experienced during the fall 1999 semester (e.g., varying learning styles, gender differences, and a sharp learning curve for the professor), the final reckoning pointed to the fact was that this was not a student-centered class. Rather, it was a teacher-driven, goal-oriented class. All of the technological resources and guidelines also came from outside the class. Information from the speakers, tutorials, Web manuals, etc., hit the students at a dizzying rate. A barrage of information prompted one student to state she "never felt a part of the project." Future success would not be dependent on a glitch-free technological process: the students had to have a sense of ownership for both the content and the process.
While planning the fall 2000 class, I took stock of the previous year's experience. I remained committed to the use of technology and community outreach, but I modified the technological process and final product. The goals remained basically the same: achieve intercultural communication competency, provide documentation of international contact, broaden the previous year's community outreach to local schools, and bolster more of the competency skills required for the education majors' technology portfolios.
Finding the Balance
"Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me, I will understand."
The above Chinese proverb is something of a creaky old cliché, but it became my mantra as I prepared for the fall 2000 intercultural communication class. Although a new MS Web server that could handle all types of multimedia and would give us 100 MB of space became available during the summer of 2000, I decided not to create a Web site. Nor did I require every student to participate technologically. Instead of the intercultural communication Web site, students were given two options for their final project: a final 12- to 15-page research paper with an in-class presentation, or a Web-authored, multimedia CD-ROM to be presented to area K-12 schools. The idea of keeping an "e-journal" that documented student contacts with international people also had its faults, and was replaced with non-computer mediated, face-to-face relationships with international students on campus.
Coinciding with the redesign of the course was Western's increased commitment to community outreach with a new K-12 International Outreach Program, which provided funding and logistical support for bringing international visitors into area schools. The CD-ROM format waschosen because of the great possibility that many K-12 classrooms would not be wired for the Internet and, if they were, downloading multimedia files would be time-consuming. Along with two computer savvy seniors in a separate Communications Projects class, we decided that feasible goals for the CD-ROM project should include a three-page document authored in Composer with links to culturally relevant media. Linked multimedia files entailed: two video clips illustrating an intercultural communication concept (three minutes average), one audio clip (three to five minutes on average), and a photo gallery containing a minimum of six photos.
After deciding on the CD's format, my Projects class undertook the task of deciding which software to use. We were fortunate enough to reserve space in Western's "CATA" room, or the "Collaborative Advanced Technology Area," that was designed for reciprocal learning between teacher and students. Some of the CATA room highlights in the beginning of fall 2000 included: two Silicon Graphics Octane Workstations, four Silicon Graphics 320 Windows NT workstations, two G4 Macintosh workstations and two well equipped movable audio/video racks. These house all necessary outboard gear such as VCRs, switchers, audio decks, etc. In addition to having its own server, the room also boasts the latest versions of Premiere, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and Audio Max, to name but a few. Besides platform exclusivity with some of the software, and the comparable capabilities of today's Pentium IV, the CATA room (in August 2000) offered some hefty technology and a terrific opportunity for my computer-minded Projects class.
The Projects students and I reviewed all digitizing software we thought would be applicable to our project, and then wrote easy-to-use tutorials for the Intercultural Communication students. Each of us swapped drafts of tutorials and provided clarifying feedback. After six weeks, our opinion was that the upper-end programs were overkill. Even at their most basic level of capturing and digitizing video and audio, these programs were averaging 10 to 12 steps on the tutorials. Since there was little manipulating or editing of files required for our CD project, we ended up including the basics on Apple iMovie and Adobe Photoshop, programs several students had at home or were available in many of the campus computer labs. After sorting through a multitude of sound capturing and editing programs, we ended up with one that met our needs perfectly, QuickRecord. Similar in many respects to the basic Windows sound recorder, QuickRecord has no restrictions. We could record WAV sound files to our hard drive with no limitations on time.
With our applications set and student-authored tutorials done by the end of October, the Intercultural Communication students signed up for CATA lab sessions with my Projects students. By the end of November, all five of the groups were finished with the technology and had an average of six CDs in hand.
With the aid of one native born "informant" in each group who helped with the classroom presentation, and the logistics provided by the university's K-12 International Outreach and lesson plan guidance supplied by their host teacher, all of my students had successfully completed their presentations by the second week of December. Relative to the fall 1999 class, the content had improved dramatically and there was a better understanding of technology and its place in pedagogy. In addition to some nice coverage on the project in local newspapers and the strong possibility of increased funding for next year's class from the K-12 International Outreach Program, feedback reports from host teachers and my students were overwhelmingly positive.
The difference between the two outcomes was dramatic. In the first year, technology and the teacher were at the forefront. Students tagged along. In the second year, students and pedagogical outcomes were the focus. The teacher and the technology were the tools. I dare say that over the last two years I have learned as much as, or more than, the students have.
With the exception of setting the criteria for the final project, the students were free to choose their lab hours and the software needed to complete the project. Although the majority of the groups used the software and the tutorials written by the Projects class students, several of the groups opted for some of the higher end programs when editing movie and WAV files. The lab assistants, computer staff and I were always on hand to answer questions; yet we never dictated solutions. I was no longer the CIO. I was just a teacher, supporter and a learner, too.
In the second class, stronger relationships formed and the initial intimidation factor of working in the CATA room soon dropped. The relaxed atmosphere allowed more experimentation, and several of the groups were quick to amend the tutorials and the project assignment to meet the needs of their host classroom. A new communication network evolved between the K-12 host teachers and the university (Projects students, the Intercultural Communication Students and me). Unlike the previous year's project that seemed to be a loose confederation of individuals blindly gathering for a required assignment, these groups were committed, cohesive and collaborative. By widening the class parameters and centering on student needs instead of a fixed outcome, I now realize that the role of technology should facilitate and not dominate the human communication dynamic. This is something that is not easily shown on a hierarchical flow chart.
Many thanks to Betty Farmer, Ph.D. and Beth Leftwich, Ed.D. for their suggestions.
James Manning is an assistant professor of Human Communication in the Communication and Theatre Arts Department at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. In addition to his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, other degrees include: an M.F.A. from City University of New York, an M.A. from the University of South Carolina, and a B.A. from Carroll College in Helena Montana. In addition to four years of college teaching experience, Dr. Manning taught middle and high school students for six years in Brooklyn, NY.
This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.