One New Thing: Integrating Simulations into a Cross-Cultural Communications Course
Written by Sarah Bania-Dobyns, Josef Korbel School of International Studies
In the winter quarter of 2018, I taught a class that had been taught for many years in the Graduate Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies: Cross-Cultural Communications. This course is considered a “skills” course within the MA programs in the Korbel School. Therefore, as I designed the course, it was critical for me to keep its practical orientation so that students would walk away with tools they would use in international and/or domestic, cross-cultural and intercultural professional contexts. As I examined the syllabus that the previous instructor had designed, I sought to build on what had been successful, while deepening students’ practical engagement with cross-cultural communication skills.
Adding an Experiential Learning Component
As I looked at the prior syllabus, I thought there was great potential for giving students more practice with non-written communication skills. The class was grounded in theories and concepts from the cross-cultural communications field (e.g. Edward Hall, Geert Hofstede), so students were learning a solid framework they could use to understand and expect cultural differences. However, other than giving a verbal presentation, students were not extensively practicing verbal and non-verbal communication. I knew that our students would go on to careers in which they could be involved in issues as diverse as human trafficking, disaster relief, peacekeeping, and other international roles where cultural mistakes could make a critical difference.
While I could not replicate the seriousness of inter-cultural situations they would face in the classroom, I did think that I could simulate inter-cultural encounters so that students would gain practice thinking on their feet when faced with dilemmas prompted by — or exacerbated by– cultural differences (see Figure 1). To do this, I introduced the use of several video simulations that would challenge students to use different communication strategies in hypothetical cross-cultural situations. Students would role-play the scenarios in groups, using culturally informed knowledge to make decisions about how to interact in the simulations. They would also engage in a thorough reflection process in which they would re-evaluate their own communication styles in light of course readings and their interactions within the simulations.
Before even discussing the pedagogical issues surrounding the simulations, there were some basic practical issues that had to be addressed first. How would students record and share the simulations with each other? With the class?
To make the recordings, students were able to check out video recording equipment from the Digital Media office. Also, in one of the simulations, the students were asked to focus on the challenges posed by long-distance, remote communication, so they recorded that simulation using Zoom.
To share the videos, students used DU’s Video Manager. Rich Path, from the Office of Teaching and Learning, visited my class to orient the class to using Video Manager, an internal university resource where students, faculty, and staff can upload and share videos. Video Manager allows you to upload videos that are for your own private viewing, as well as for specific groups, which you can create.
For the simulations process in the class, I planned on having students work in groups for the length of the quarter. Together, each group would role-play the simulations (there were 4). Thus, I created several groups on Video Manager, as well as a whole class group so that students could share their videos with each other and with the whole class.
Finally, I encouraged students to use the “bookmarks” function in Video Manager, which allows users to mark specific time frames within the video with notes–much like placing an electronic post-it note. This function was valuable when we held feedback sessions in class to reflect on the simulation process. The bookmarks allowed the individuals who were receiving feedback to mark specific moments within the video that they wanted to focus on in their feedback sessions.
I also scaffolded a reflective process around the simulations so that students would become more aware of their own communication preferences, strengths, and areas of growth as related to culture.
How it Went: Learnings for Future Courses
When I began planning this course, I was most concerned about making sure that all the technological components would be integrated smoothly into the course. And there were certainly a few minor issues with using Video Manager, but we were able to address these technological issues fairly easily.
What turned out to be much more challenging was the integration of a rigorous, reflective process alongside the video simulations. I anticipated that I would need to model a feedback session, so I invited Casey Dinger, the Assistant Director of Internationalization, to co-facilitate a feedback session. The model feedback session involved showing a brief video of a cross-cultural encounter. I then role-played as one of the characters, and I explained my reflections on my culturally influenced behavior in the video, and then identified what I wanted feedback on. Then Casey facilitated the discussion, guiding students to use concepts such as uncertainty avoidance, power distance, etc., to analyze my role in the video and provide feedback.
However, students found it extremely challenging to write about their own experiences from a critical, reflective standpoint. As graduate students, they were used to writing traditional academic papers, in which the use of the personal voice is limited. I was asking them to use a personal voice, but also critique it by using academic reasoning and sources. Because of these challenges, I ended up scaling back the number of simulations in order to make time for discussion about the goals of this type of writing. In a future iteration of the course, I plan to introduce them to the concept of reflective academic writing with an initial assignment that will introduce them to the purpose of such writing and to the premise of the course: to reflect carefully and thoughtfully about communication in cross-cultural contexts and to use the theories as tools to help each individual become more aware of –and therefore grow– his/her own communication skills.
Sarah Bania-Dobyns would like to thank the following people for their assistance with the class: Rich Path, for his assistance with incorporating the new technology elements; Casey Dinger, for visiting the course, helping model some of the reflective elements, and providing feedback about the simulations; and Dr. Linda Seward, from Middle Tennessee State University, who consulted with the instructor on course content.