Virtual Study Abroad: Connecting Iowa to Colombia
The best motivation to continue beyond basic levels of language learning is usually contact with native speakers of the language. Spanish majors and minors at the University of Iowa have many ways of seeking that personal contact, including study abroad, community involvement, and conversation partners. This GOLDrush project seeks to expand those opportunities through Virtual Study Abroad: extended intercultural communication experiences, and the chance to develop relationships with students in a comprehensive education and community center in Medellin, Colombia.
In Spring 2017, a partnership was formed with Colegio Fe y Alegría Luis Amigó, a comprehensive educational center (serving students from kindergarten through adult education) in Medellín, Colombia. The first phase of the partnership was a course project in a class entitled Medellín (SPAN:3215), in which Iowa students communicated with high school juniors at the Colegio. Students in Iowa and Colombia made videos to describe culturally significant places in their home communities and posted them on YouTube. They exchanged questions and answers via Facebook groups, created blog posts, and attempted a video chat in small groups. Many students on both sides described the “virtual friends” exchange as the most valuable part of the course for them.
The excitement and inherent motivation of trying to communicate with new and very different people was constantly frustrating, however, by weak telecommunications infrastructure in Colombia. As is commonly the case in Colombian public schools, this group of 36 students uses a computer room in which facilities consist of a dozen or so aging monitors connected to a cloud shared by the entire school district, more than 20,000 students, faculty and staff. Even free videoconferencing software such as Skype was inaccessible, prohibited by the district because of security concerns and the load it would place on an already overtasked system. Facebook groups provided a limited means of connection, allowing smaller groups of students to post photos, questions and answers, and use the text messenger function, but the video chat application also could not withstand the bandwidth demands from the Colombian side.
The regional Secretary of Education has pledged to match up to $6,000 raised from Iowa, and the Colegio has located a corporate sponsor that will replace their monitors (from 2005-2012) with newer ones, 2014-2016. The Colegio has an estimate for a new Sala de Conectividad – Communications Salon - that would allow for a dedicated server, headphones with microphones, webcams, added security for the building, and additional training for two key staff members. The Salon would be christened MorIowa, a combination of the neighborhood – Moravia – and their intercultural partners from Iowa. The investment in infrastructure would allow for a wide range of course-related intercultural exchanges: repeating the Medellin course from 2017 on a larger scale, semester-long conversation partners available to any Spanish major or minor, senior seminars focused on oral histories with the Colombian adult students, more focused projects such as independent studies and honors theses that Iowa students might conduct with Iowa faculty supervision.
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