Technology: Virtual mobility with a difference

Technology: Virtual mobility with a difference

Student mobility is on the rise. A previous Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education  set a target of at least 20% of those graduating in the European higher education area having participated in a study or training period abroad by 2020. While this aim is very desirable, it does beg the question: What about the remaining 80% of students who may not engage in some kind of physical mobility during their studies?

The need to expose the maximum number of students to the benefits of working and interacting with members of other cultures has led many educators to engage their students in telecollaborative or online intercultural exchange projects with partner students in distant locations around the globe. These exchanges usually involve collaborative project work using two or more languages. For example, telecollaboration may involve students learning German at an Irish university communicating on a weekly basis using e-mail and Skype with students of English at a German partner institution. Alternatively, Business Studies classes in Spain, Poland and France may use English as a lingua franca to work on collaborative projects together using an online collaborative platform such as a Wiki or a NING.

Integrated virtual mobility

While some university institutions have used telecollaborative exchange in autonomous learning contexts where students are responsible for maintaining virtual contact with their partners outside of class, the vast majority of telecollaborative exchanges are integrated into classroom-based set-ups where virtual activities and online interaction with foreign partners are closely integrated to the activities which go on in class time. For example, following a period of online intercultural interaction with partner students, students are often required to discuss and analyse this interaction in class with their teachers. They can also use their partners to carry out research projects which originate in their face-to-face classes.

Combining virtual and physical mobility

Of course, telecollaboration does not have to take place in isolation of physical mobility programmes. It is also possible to use this form of virtual exchange to support and contextualise physical mobility with considerable success. The Spanish-American Cultura programme, for example, is a virtual exchange project which combines phases of virtual and physical student mobility. Every summer semester for the past seven years, a class of students of English as a Foreign Language at the University of León, Spain has spent three months in intense virtual contact with a class of Spanish as a Foreign Language students at Barnard College, New York using an online platform. During these three months, students in both classes make multimedia presentations and videos about their home town and university for their partner class and carry out various online tasks together which require the analysis of documents from both cultures and intensive discussion in online forums. They each spend two weeks on exchange at each other’s institution to further develop their intercultural understanding. The students then update the project’s virtual platform with the reports of ethnographic projects carried out in the target culture, digital photos of their trips with commentaries as well as essays and other materials related to the exchange. This final phase of the project also involves a reflection of the periods in the target culture and students continue their online interaction, discussing each others’ projects and experiences. Students have praised the authenticity of the programme while the exchange has been received so positively by the two institutions that a memorandum of understanding has been signed in order to explore further collaboration together.

So why isn’t everyone doing it?

Telecollaborative exchanges can be quite difficult to set up and run successfully and to integrate into existing course curricula. Educators who organise exchanges often encounter practical barriers, such as difficulty in finding partners, misalignment of academic calendars, differing assessment procedures and divergent attitudes toward online technologies. In my own research in this area, I have found that telecollaboration is often viewed as an ‘add-on’ activity which relies on highly motivated teachers and students who are willing to invest a lot of extra time working online with their partners. Further reasons for the lack of success of telecollaboration include the lack of pedagogical training for educators, educators’ apprehension of extra workload due to lack of support and resources, the dearth of long-term stability in partnerships with other universities and, significantly, the lack of academic credit awarded to students for telecollaborative activity.

Supporting new telecollaborators

With this in mind, the European Commission has awarded funding through its Lifelong Learning programme to a project which aims are to raise greater awareness among students, educators and (senior) managers at university level of online intercultural exchange (OIE). OIE can be seen as a pedagogical model serving the goal of virtual mobility in foreign language education, achieving more effective integration of telecollaboration in university institutions. The INTENT project (Integrating Telecollaborative Networks into Foreign Language Higher Education) involved a major study of telecollaboration practices in European universities. The project has led to the development of an online platform where educators and mobility coordinators can join and find everything they need to learn about and set up telecollaborative exchanges. The platform includes a partner-finding tool, a task databank, assessment portfolios and training materials. The platform is free and open to universities all around the globe.

These developments are all made possible due to innovative pioneers who see the potential technology has for enhancing the learning experience for students, bridging the mobility gap, and ultimately contributing to the internationalisation of higher education. As technology advances further, we expect to see many more exciting initiatives within the international higher education area emerging.

By Robert O’Dowd, University of León, Spain

Robert O'Dowd
University of León, SpainRobert O'Dowd is Associate Professor of Modern Languages at the University of León.