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Partner: The Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations

Team: Diego Vergara, Hyeong Shin, Anya Zimmerman-Smith, Hannah Skutt, Laurel Schy


After interviewing and observing students and community members using the language tables at The Oldenborg Center, we developed the OldenBox picnic, a portable tool to promote group language practice, to reimagine and redesign the experience of language immersion and to develop intercultural agility all without the need to rely on a facilitator.

Pomona, CA


How might we reimagine language immersion for college students and community members? 

The Oldenborg Center is a language house, dining hall, and academic administrative office. It directs a number of curricular and extracurricular programs designed to promote the teaching and learning of foreign languages and international studies. To begin, my team and I attended various events at the Language Center, such as the facilitator led language tables and luncheon colloquia, and immersed ourselves in the space to learn how people interacted with it. We observed the dining hall and food, the study rooms, the design of the building and dorms and the ways that students, professors, and community members used these spaces. Three interesting observations we made were--

1. Many attend for reasons beyond course requirements. For example, to learn their boyfriend or girlfriend's first language.
2. Students often come in pairs.
3. Beginning students often do not speak when the facilitator is not engaging them.

There seemed to be a tension between language level, integration and acceptance, participation, and enjoyment. Oldenborg felt like home for some and a frightening environment for others.

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Why do you go to the language tables? How do they make you feel?

Our team interviewed a variety of people related to Oldenborg and learned that while for some Oldenborg was a place that felt like home, others had trouble feeling integrated and participating at all. 

Exercise sensitivity to anxieties

Invite more than yes or no answers

Avoid assuming prompts

While individuals attended the language tables for emotional and personal reasons, spacial, social, and facilitation barriers preventing them from learning the most. When facilitators had to miss several weeks or did not excel at including everyone and fostering a learning environment, students stopped coming and no longer had their Oldenborg community.



How can we make the language table experience successful without relying on facilitators and space?

It became clear to us that the facilitator was the lynchpin to the success of the language tables, the aspect of the Oldenborg Center that most students engage with. Since so much rested on their involvement we saw an opportunity to create an environment where students came away having learned and enjoyed all on their own.

Point of View

A tight-knit community of Oldenborg participants needs an experienced, compassionate facilitator to spark conversation, welcome new community members, and embed language learning as a habit, because the facilitator maintains the environment of accountability, encouragement, and empathetic vulnerability that the community depends on.

How Might We?

Make everyone a facilitator?

Have the facilitator not be the keystone of the language table experience?

Make facilitation possible in the absence of Oldenborg?

Put less pressure on the facilitator to make the experience good?

Make the language tables less dependent on the facilitators+space before Oldenborg goes through renovation?

From "The facilitator isn't engaging me so I'm not learning"

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To "I can participate at a level comfortable to me, feel valued, and learn!"



Creating ways for all to find their own confidence.

After brainstorming a plethora of ideas to meet our How Might We Questions we arrived at 3 that we went on to prototype. OldenBox was most liked during testing with our initial interviewees. We observed how much of the facilitator role the OldenBox Picnic can replace and learned that our users liked how location neutral and conducive to fun interactions it may be, but they also raised concerns about whether it was friendly enough for beginners. For example, how can two beginners help each other progress if they don't have language knowledge to teach each other. We iterated several times for different additions until we arrived at themed vocabulary flash cards and additional games to facilitate beginner learning.

Simulated emergency disaster situation -- only allowed to speak in the new language. 
Tinder-like platform to find language learning partner through shared interests -- less lonely, scary experience. 
The OldenBox picnic, anytime, anywhere -- games, food, and objects to facilitate group conversation in the language. 
​In the end, our greatest insight is that Oldenborg is the people, not the place.
The physical space and the dependence on the language tables and facilitators provides a frustrating constraint for the success of the participants. We also learned that everyone’s experience is different, some want to connect with people, some just want to learn the language and that there needs to be a space which is effective for all.



While the idea of the OldenBox is great and seems to land with our users, if we were to pursue implementation we would need to consider functionally:
                                       -  how would these boxes would be made
                                       - where they would be stored
                                       - who refills them
                                       - who mans the checkout system
                                       - etc.
While a design in and of itself can be innovative, in order for it to be effective a systems approach to implementation needs to be though through. These are some of the questions I would ask and areas I would delve into if I were to continue with this project.

I spent a large amount of time working on clarifying our storyline and storyboard so that through our video we could accurately convey the narrative of insights we discovered. 

We presented our idea to several members of the Pomona College Board of Trustees who are involved with the Oldenborg Center and it's future redesign and rebuild. They expressed great interest in our idea and I look forward to following up to see how they are incorporating into the renovation what we learned in our empathy work.

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