November 2021 | Volume 23 No. 1
Zooming across the World
For Spanish lecturer Dr Mercedes Vázquez of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, the COVID-19 pandemic ruled out a crucial part of her programme – trips to Spanish-speaking countries where students could apply their language and intercultural learning. So she came up with the next best thing and, in the process, inspired an unusual collaboration with the Faculty of Business and Economics (FBE).
Through Zoom, students in her business Spanish course met with peers at the Icesi University in Colombia over a full semester. They spoke regularly and collaborated on a proposed investment project for Hong Kong and Colombian investors – work that was assessed not only on outcome but on teamwork. “We did not accept a project that had one group do part A and another group do part B. Teamwork is not based on different contributions but on interaction, and in the pedagogy of languages, we are very aware of that,” she said.
As a result, the students learned about each other’s cultures even though they sat on opposite sides of the world and they developed what Dr Vázquez termed “intercultural competence” in dealing with each other.
“Asian students are more reluctant to talk, while Colombian students talk all the time. And Hong Kong students expect immediate replies to e-mails which may be too demanding from a Colombian perspective and also difficult because there are electricity or internet cuts. We worked on respecting each other’s cultures and what aspects could become problematic,” she said.
“Intercultural competence is not spontaneous. As we know, migrants may live in a country for 20 years but still don’t understand or behave in ways that are respectful to locals. I argue it is a very important thing to teach.”
Keen for more
The programme was developed with Professor Vladimir Rouvinski of Icesi HKU students Jack (top left) and Gabriella (top right) talking to their Colombian groupmate Fabio (bottom) via Zoom. Gabriella (first from right) has been to Spain for a summer course previously. She joined the programme to meet with peers at the Icesi University in Colombia through Zoom hoping to use Spanish in more formal and professional contexts. University’s Department of Political Studies and its success reached Dr Olivia Leung of the FBE, who thought it had potential to enrich her students’ learning.
Dr Leung adapted the Zoom approach into a more informal exchange that took place over reading week in March 2021 and let students take charge of the interactions. (Students from Dr Vázquez’s and Professor Rouvinski’s classes also joined.) The students met for one hour each day to get to know each other and discuss topical issues such as the Chinese and Colombian economies. The teachers also organised a debate on vaccine distribution, but otherwise stayed out of the sessions where students were free to choose the topics of discussion.
“I think this was very important because it showed them respect and at the same time, they did not have to feel they were being monitored,” Dr Leung said. “They really appreciated that this was not a lecture or classroom setting and they had the freedom to get to know each other. Students joined voluntarily so I think they were very self-motivated. Students got to experience the fruits of being an active learner, rather than working hard just for a grade.”
Her students were enthusiastic afterwards to continue the exchanges beyond the one-week session. “The students were really into it and wanted to build more networks, not just over Zoom so they can continue activities together online,” she said.
HKU students Jack (top left) and Gabriella (top right) talking to their Colombian groupmate Fabio (bottom) via Zoom.
Lesson for the future
Dr Vázquez’s students similarly gave positive feedback. Gabriella Tse, a BA&BEd (Language Education – English) student, joined in her final year having done a summer course in Spain previously and wanting to use Spanish in more formal and professional contexts. She also appreciated learning more about Colombian culture, including their focus on conversation. Her Colombian groupmate Fabio would spend the first half hour of meetings talking about things not relevant to the meeting.
“Although it was frustrating at first, I understood that this was part of the culture of being friendly with colleagues. He was also super helpful sharing his knowledge and experiences. That was a lesson that I’ll bring to my jobs in future,” she said.
While she missed the immersion of doing an overseas exchange, “I also appreciate the flexibility of being able to communicate with someone literally on the other side of the world. Most of the time we don’t have the resources or conditions to just travel to an exchange destination in person.”
Moving forward, Dr Leung is looking at the possibility of running the informal exchange over a whole semester and expanding interaction opportunities for students. Dr Vázquez is considering including an online component in a new major under development.
“The pandemic has shown us that very fruitful, large changes can happen just with a connection to the internet. I know we all have Zoom fatigue and nothing substitutes for a physical exchange, but at least we can still get great benefits and we don’t even need to invest much in the technology,” Dr Vázquez said.
Gabriella (first from right) has been to Spain for a summer course previously. She joined the programme to meet with peers at the Icesi University in Colombia through Zoom hoping to use Spanish in more formal and professional contexts.
The pandemic has shown us that very fruitful, large changes can happen just with a connection to the internet. I know we all have Zoom fatigue and nothing substitutes for a physical exchange, but at least we can still get great benefits.
DR MERCEDES VÁZQUEZ