Breaking Language Barriers: Virtual Tabadul Pioneers English-Arabic Learning Through VR Exchange

CoreCollaborative International worked alongside Florida International University and three other universities in the US, Morocco, and Algeria, on a project that uses virtual reality (VR) to create an English-Arabic language learning community. The project is titled “Virtual Tabadul;” “tabadul” means “exchange” in Arabic. The project gathered evidence-based research on whether virtual learning fosters second language acquisition, by using virtual feedback as compared to traditional classroom-style teaching methods. 

The project won funding from the Stevens Initiative, whose goal is to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and worldwide by growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange (VE). Created in 2015 as a tribute to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the Initiative expands the VE field by investing in promising programs, sharing knowledge and resources, and advocating for VE adoption. Virtual Tabadul’s principal investigator, Florida International University (FIU), is itself a leader in the area of virtual exchange. Ten faculty and staff members collaborated across multiple FIU departments, together with the University of Michigan-Dearborn (US), Ibn Tofail University (Morocco), and Larbi Ben M’hidi University (Algeria)

In Virtual Tabadul, US students enrolled in Arabic as a foreign language were paired with Moroccan and Algerian students enrolled in English as a foreign language. Pairs of students engaged together in 12 different VR settings based on students’ real-world needs and experiences. The VR spaces represent everyday scenes in the US and North Africa, such as an outdoor market, a restaurant, and a classroom setting. Students met together on Zoom, using Google Cardboard holders for their own cell phones to enter the VR spaces. In those spaces, they completed language learning tasks, such as successfully ordering food at a restaurant.

By completing real-world tasks together in both English and Arabic, participants developed language proficiency, socio-cultural openness, and cultural humility. 1,200 students participated over five semesters, from April 2021 to June 2023. They were assessed in fluency and intercultural competency, and they also created portfolios showing language, phrases, and cultural norms learned, as well as the pedagogic tasks that they had achieved together in English and Arabic. 

The project also allowed researchers to measure the impact of contact hours and the learning environment for the acquisition of Arabic as a foreign language, a first in the field of applied linguistics. This research component of the program included measuring language acquisition by testing three experimental groups: one cohort of students based on 12-meeting exposure to VR sessions, one cohort of students based on 6-meeting exposure to VR sessions, and a control group. Language learning outcomes were assessed via traditional language assessments as well as via brain imaging. As the first study of its kind to examine the impact of dosage as well as the learning environment for the acquisition of Arabic as a foreign language, Tabadul brought together interdisciplinary areas of expertise to scale language learning virtual exchange and to contribute to knowledge on virtual exchange efficacy.

One of the aims of Virtual Tabadul is to understand whether and how students’ worldviews shift and change as a result of participating in VE experiences. In addition to developing career skills for a globalized workplace, the Stevens Initiative seeks to develop understandings and capacities for collaboration between students worldwide. CoreCollaborative International’s work on the project was to assess these capacities through administration of the Beliefs, Events and Values Inventory (BEVI). The BEVI asked Tabadul participants to answer a series of questions about their past experiences, beliefs, and values. The survey yields 17 constructs that range from personal views of one’s life experiences to emotional intelligence, self, and other forms of awareness. Data helped program designers understand what students were taking away from the Virtual Tabadul experience, as well as how and why. CCI also worked with Virtual Tabadul project designers to create the VR settings, tasks, and prompts, such that they align with BEVI constructs.

As part of its work with Virtual Tabadul, CCI briefed participating faculty members in the BEVI, and in turn, received feedback on the educational contexts involved to determine the best approach for deploying the instrument and establishing trust and confidence in the process. For each Tabadul cohort, CCI recruited students via email to take the instrument both before (T1) and after (T2) their participation in the exchange. The data were collected and aggregated within the BEVI administrative system. Participants who completed the BEVI received a free copy of their narrative report, though all data was reported in aggregate, to reduce identifiability within the group.  

One would expect Virtual Tabadul to broaden participants’ perspectives on unfamiliar others, and BEVI data confirms that it did. But the data also suggests that the experience had a profound impact on how learners perceived their own identities, especially those learners who were in the majority had greater resources, and/or started out with stronger political or religious convictions. This kind of impact is of course not always a comfortable one, and students’ experiences in Virtual Tabadul gave rise to a new research question: how best to provide support to learners who may find these experiences challenging, not just in language learning but in how learners come to feel about themselves? This question is part of a larger conversation about how faculty should embed intercultural activities into language learning experiences. 

CCI was pleased to take part in this unique project on the cutting edge of understanding how language study happens. CCI’s role in testing the efficacy of this new modality – bringing people together for cultural exchange in the VR environment – was crucial. Beyond that, CCI brought to the table a fresh focus on intercultural capacity development. CCI’s knowledge and expertise in this area provided weight to the idea that intercultural capacity development is not just a passive outcome that needs assessing but rather is something that needs teaching and embedding throughout a curriculum – in language learning as in other subject areas.The CCI team has years of experience in creating meaningful learning experience design with a focus on intercultural capacity development. The team’s approach results in positive outcomes for learners whatever the environment – in the traditional in-person classroom as well as in virtual learning, and now even in cutting-edge spaces such as virtual reality. Discover how CCI can help your organization promote learning by contacting us today.