In 2014, Sophia University’s Center for Language Education and Research (CLER) revamped its curriculum to reflect its status as one of the “Super Global Universities” in MEXT’s Top University Project. In addition to the basic Academic Communication courses required for freshmen, electives were added as well. These include three types: academic, practical, and professional English.
Among these, the Japanology electives (in English) have turned out to be some of the most popular. Having been assigned one of these courses for the first time, it brought to mind a similar course that a friend, Ms. Sigler, teaches at the University of Akron in the U.S. entitled “Japanese Culture through Film.” Since she and I have been using CALL to collaborate on various projects throughout the past 15 years, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try to add some kind of intercultural communication between our classes.
Textbook and Films
The text we selected was The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno. This book has essays that focus on various aspects of Japanese culture, such as communication styles, behavior patterns, values, and attitudes. In the spring semester, the class at Sophia would focus on: bushido [the way of the warrior], omiai [arranged marriage in Japan], ikuji [child-rearing practices], and gambari [Japanese patience and determination], to name a few. In addition, students would watch four films that demonstrate these concepts (Twilight Samurai, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Parenthood, and Departures). Finally, students would answer some of the questions at the end of each book chapter to use in small-group discussions. During her spring semester, Ms. Sigler’s class watched films, had discussions, wrote blog entries, and gave short presentations related to several chapters from this same text as well.
Sophia University students who had at least completed the spring semester of the required Academic Communication course were permitted to enroll. For this semester of collaboration, there were 28 students initially enrolled. The course was listed at an Intermediate 1 level, but because many students take it based on the time that it is offered, there are often advanced and near-native speakers participating as well. In this class, levels ranged from CEFR B2 to C2, with a couple of students even having lived in English-speaking countries for a few years. Thus, in reality, the collaboration class had mixed levels.
University of Akron students were native-English speaking upperclassmen (sophomores - seniors) from various departments (Nursing, Business, Engineering, etc.), who were interested in Japanese culture. On average, there were about 25 students who participated in the collaboration.
Due to the time difference between Akron and Tokyo, synchronous communications were impractical. Therefore, the instructors chose asynchronous video blogs (VLOGs). When this collaboration began in mid-April, the American students were almost ready to conclude their semester (in early May), so they had already watched all of their films and completed the majority of their discussions and work. However, here in Japan the students were only just beginning their term, so they had yet to begin their studies. Thus, the instructors decided to ask the American students to reflect on their course through the creation of VLOGs. We asked students the following questions:
- What was your favorite movie from the class, and why?
- What did you learn about Japan that was the most interesting?
- What do you want to know more about?
- If you had to choose key concepts about the US to teach Japanese students, what would they be?
- What movies would you recommend to Japanese students to watch that portray these concepts?
- Do you have any other questions?
Ms. Sigler’s students completed this assignment with their own devices, and then uploaded them to the class blog on Tumblr. Seventeen students completed the VLOG responses.
In their second class, in the CALL classroom, students at Sophia each watched one of the American student’s VLOGs, and responded to the question, “What do you want to know more about (of Japan)?” For example, if the American student wanted to know more about the Japanese education system, then the Japanese student might explain their high school life, club activities/sports, and the pressure of entrance exams. Because the CALL room is not equipped with video-recording software, they were not able to record their own VLOG responses (which the American students had requested), so they gave written responses instead. Ultimately, because of the timing of the semesters during the spring, as well as the available technology, the American students were not able to receive equivalent responses/reactions, making the assignment feel incomplete. These are issues to consider for expansion of the activity in the future.
Benefits of Using VLOGS
In all the years that Ms. Sigler and I have been collaborating, her students always commented about how exciting it is to talk to real Japanese students. At their universities, they have exposure to studying with many international students, but to actually have the opportunity to speak with someone who is living and studying in Tokyo is a rare opportunity.
For the Japanese students, it is motivating. They can test their English listening skills with a native speaker. VLOGs are great, because students can start, stop, and rewind them to clarify misunderstandings when watching them. After the assignment, students were asked whether listening and reacting to the American students’ VLOGs had been beneficial or motivating. Twenty-six out of 28 answered that it had been. One of their responses was “American students tried to tell more details about each question with no hesitation. In general, Japanese students don’t participate so much, so we should imitate their attitude as we can.” Another student responded, “Yes it has!!! Through this video, I could imagine what kind of classes they [American students] were taking, know what Americans think the uniqueness or key concepts of their culture, and know what they were interested in! These information [sic] are something we can only gain for student’s real voice, and it is a valuable experience.” Yet another student stated, “Yes, it has been motivating for me because I want to study abroad, so this activity is very close to study in the overseas and useful. And also, we can learn American student’s idea about Japan. It’s very interesting.” Specifically for listening, one student said, “It has been motivating for me. I’m not good at listening, so that listening and reacting to the American students’ speech promotes my listening skill and also writing skill.” Finally, one student said, “It was interesting, for in the VLOG, I could see a sort of American personality. It’s normally difficult to know about foreigners without going there.”
As the teacher, I could globally monitor all of the students’ levels by walking around the classroom or listening in on the CaLabo system, to get an overall idea of how to pace future discussions. Plus, as the students mentioned, it was a great activity for the beginning of the semester, because the students could hear a native model of how I would like them to engage in discussions throughout the semester. It brings the discussion questions to life, sets the tone, and gets them off to a strong start.
Other than the lack of video-recording technology for the Japanese students, the only other notable challenge was regarding the difference in the semester calendar. Another risk might be that students can often be resistant to the idea of homework, or not have a high enough English level (at least CEFR B2) to listen to native speakers. However, the students in this course were highly motivated and capable, so those were not problems in this collaboration. For teachers who have never attempted a collaborative activity like this, I would say that finding a reliable and enthusiastic teacher to work with might also be an initial challenge.
In the end, a VLOG assignment of students recording their answers to questions on a topic, uploading, and sharing them, is really not that much extra work for the teacher and students. It can easily be adapted to different levels and added as an extension activity to lessons. As a teacher of this Japanology course, the greatest benefit was being able to help new university students to understand the mindsets of foreign students and also to imagine the kinds of conversations they themselves should be having in their upcoming discussions during the term.
In the years that I have been teaching at Sophia, many of my students have commented that the reason they chose this university was because it is international or because they wanted to study with foreign students. CALL activities like these are a great way to satisfy that expectation of their desired college experience, especially for students in CLER, for whom these opportunities might not be as readily available.
Editor’s Note: I hope everyone has enjoyed a wonderful holiday season and is now looking forward to a happy, healthy, and productive New Year. We’re delighted to announce that a new Co-Editor is joining the Wired column staff. Paul Raine will be assisting with the editorship of the Wired column over the coming year, with the goal of him eventually taking over the reins. We look forward to sharing our readers’ experiences with CALL and technology in language learning in the coming year, and we are always looking for authors to share their successes and challenges. If you would like to submit an article, please contact us at the email address listed at the top of the column. Best wishes for a Happy and Wired New Year!!