Using Virtual Reality to Create a Language Learning Community

May 10, 2021

UM-Dearborn students taking Arabic language courses will practice speaking through digital interactions with college students in Algeria and Morocco in an environment stimulated to look like Middle Eastern marketplaces, kitchens and other gathering spaces

Map of digital learning lab areas across the world

UM-Dearborn students can see what it’s like to live in Middle East North Africa (MENA) countries, practice speaking Arabic and meet college students in Morocco and Algeria — all from the comfort of their homes or classrooms.

Starting this fall, UM-Dearborn will partner with Florida International University (FIU) to offer Tabadul, a digital learning platform that gives students an opportunity to practice interacting with others using the standard Arabic language, while also learning about the day-to-day life in MENA countries.

Through the experience, UM-Dearborn and FIU undergraduate students will meet college students at Oum El Bouaghi University in Algeria and at Ibn Tofail University in Morocco in a virtual environment that is simulated to look like MENA marketplaces, Middle Eastern kitchens, and other gathering areas where they can have conversations — which will be tailored to skill level — while immersed in an authentic-looking environment. To bridge any cultural barriers, professors at all four colleges will discuss interactions and answer questions students may have.

Photo of Assistant Professor Wessam Elmeligi

Assistant Professor Wessam Elmeligi, who teaches Arabic language courses and is director for the Arabic Translation Certificate, said this opportunity is for both advanced Arabic speakers and for those looking to become more proficient in one of the world’s top spoken languages.

And whether a student is new to learning the language, or is growing up in a household of speakers, there is plenty to learn.

“As a campus, we are privileged to have many heritage learners of Arabic descent, and in particular Yemni, Iraqi and Lebanese students. But households typically speak in a regional dialect, and not the standard Arab language. This course will give our students a foundational understanding of the language — as well as give an opportunity to see places that they may not have been able to travel to yet,” Elmeligi said. “It’s a language and cultural immersion experience.”

Elmeligi, who has taught in Egypt and the U.S., has more than 20 years of teaching experience and builds programs for students to better understand Arabic and English languages and literature. “My goal has been to foster a learning environment to bring out the creative potential in my students and empower them to think independently and challenge stereotypes.”

The collaboration was made possible by a $450,000 grant to FIU through the Stevens Initiative, which focuses on helping students grow cultural competency and career readiness skills through virtual exchange programs. The UM-Dearborn students who take part in this virtual exchange will use a specially created cell phone app along with the virtual reality device Google Cardboard.

 Photo of Director of Global Engagement Scott Riggs
Photo of Director of Global Engagement Scott Riggs

UM-Dearborn Director of Global Engagement Scott Riggs said that the partnership with FIU is a long-standing one with frequent collaboration — for example, Chancellor Domenico Grasso and other campus leaders shared UM-Dearborn Global Learning initiatives last year during an FIU podcast — and this international opportunity that will include 1200 students across the four campuses was a natural progression in their educational partnership. 

Riggs said this digital resource is an exchange program that overcomes travel challenges due to the pandemic or financial constraints that may limit people from studying abroad. The experience will primarily be available to students studying Arabic language and cultural studies; the digital learning component will complement course studies.

“The virtual reality component allows people to interact with people from different cultures in a way they weren’t able to do before,” said Riggs. “It’s a way to learn a language while also experiencing cultural nuances together.”

The digital learning experience will be available from Fall 2021 through Spring 2023. After that time, Elmeligi will gather data from participants to gauge its effectiveness as a learning tool. Through his academic research, Elmeligi — along with FIU partners — will evaluate if the program is something that should continue and/or be expanded.

For more information about the digital exchange experience or the Arabic language programs at UM-Dearborn, contact Assistant Professor Elmeligi.