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Engaging University Classes in Online Intercultural Exchange: The INTENT Project

Screenshot of the uni-collaboration platform – www.uni-collaboration.eu

Foreign language telecollaboration or Online Intercultural Exchange (OIE) engages groups of foreign language learners in virtual intercultural interaction and exchange with partner classes in geographically distant locations. These exchanges most often involve bilateral projects between classes in two different countries, each learning the other’s language. However, they can also include more complex, multilateral projects involving language learners from many different countries working together online using a lingua franca such as English as a means of communication. For example, classes of Business studies in Israel, England and Germany, can now work together on projects using English as a lingua franca using a shared workspace such as a wiki or a NING.

Whilst primary and secondary school teachers interested in running OIE projects have been supported for many years by major networks and virtual platforms such as ePals and the European Union’s Etwinning platform, telecollaboration has received little support in university contexts to date. However, in October 2011 the INTENT group (Integrating Telecollaborative Networks into Foreign Language Higher Education) was awarded funding by the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning programme[i] to carry out a 30-month project. The aim of the project is to raise awareness of the advantages of telecollaboration as a tool for virtual mobility in foreign language education among students, educators, student mobility coordinators and (senior) managers at university level.

Photo of the INTENT project team

The INTENT project team

We believe that telecollaborative projects offer many advantages to a wide range of different stakeholders in Higher Education. Telecollaboration can be an effective tool in the development of students’ foreign language skills, as well as their intercultural competence and other transferrable skills. It is also an excellent form of preparation for physical mobility and is a viable alternative for those students who cannot participate in physical mobility programmes for personal or financial reasons. It can also form an important part of an institution’s internationalization at home policy.

Our European Study

The INTENT project started with a survey to gain a representative overview of telecollaborative practice amongst European universities. The survey identified the characteristics of telecollaborative practices currently undertaken by European university educators and explored the barriers which practitioners encounter when organising online intercultural exchanges. The project team also gathered the views and opinions of European students with different OIE experiences, with regard to the impact that participating in online exchange has had on them. In the second part of the study, the project team collected various case studies of universities, partnerships and telecollaborative networks which would provide a representative, qualitative picture of the type of online intercultural exchanges which are being carried out around Europe. Some of the most interesting findings included the following:

  • The majority of exchanges involved the use of English as a foreign language. However, a considerable number of teachers of French, German and Spanish also responded as well as teachers of less commonly taught languages. This demonstrates that OIE is an activity which can be of value to teachers and students of any language.
  • Most OIEs currently involve classes from European universities collaborating with partner classes with US universities. There are currently few exchanges between universities in European counties and there are also few connecting Europe and the so-called ‘developing world’ or emerging countries/economies.
  • OIEs have the potential to support physical mobility by engaging learners with students in their future host institution before departure, and by supporting learners during their period abroad. However, there are very few examples of such exchanges currently being carried out.
  • Lack of time and the difficulty in organizing online exchanges are seen to be the main factors hindering the take up of these projects by other educators. In many cases the lack of institutional recognition and support was also a factor.
  • Telecollaboration can have different levels of integration into study programmes. Most practitioners assess the intercultural and communicative learning outcomes of their exchanges. However participation in OIEs may not lead to academic credit and students’ work is not always institutionally recognised. The more these exchanges are ‘recognised’ and awarded academic credit, the more likely they are to be considered of value by students and faculty members.
  • The impact of participating in OIEs is seen by students who have participated in projects to be educationally significant. Many reported that participating in a telecollaborative exchange led them to become more open to others, accepting and understanding of difference and to realise that their own points of view are not necessarily “the best or only ones”. Many students reported establishing long term friendships with their telecollaboration peers, keeping in touch once exchanges are over and some even visiting one another. OIEs are often an incentive for students to engage in physical mobility.
  • Telecollaborative exchanges are recognised by many universities as valuable activities for internationalisation and for the development of student mobility. However, institutions are unaware of the extra time and workload which such projects require and are either unwilling or unable to provide adequate support to staff who wanted to organise such exchanges.
  • Telecollaboration is seen as a useful ‘first step’ on the way to developing physical mobility exchanges between institutions.

Next steps

To achieve greater awareness of telecollaboration around the academic world, the INTENT team are now developing a platform – www.uni-collaboration.eu – 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. It is hoped that it will be a useful hub for experienced telecollaborators as well as for novices who are interested in learning how to run exchanges, finding partners etc. The platform will be officially launched in February 2013.

Screenshot of the uni-collaboration platform – www.uni-collaboration.eu

The uni-collaboration platform – www.uni-collaboration.eu

Screenshot of how to search for partner classes on uni-collaboration.eu

Search for partner classes on uni-collaboration.eu

During 2013 we will also be holding training workshops in universities around Europe.

These workshops are aimed at university teachers, mobility coordinators as well as management who are interested in learning how to integrate online intercultural exchange projects in their institutions. Registration is free but participants will have to cover all their own travel and maintenance costs.

Details about the workshops:

  • The Italy workshop will be held at the University of Padova, Italy on 21 March 2013. Contact person: Francesa Helm
  • The  French workshop will be held at the University of Grenoble III, France on 5 April 2013. Contact person: Elke Nissen
  • The Polish workshop will take place as a joint event with the PL-CALL Conference, in Warsaw on 9-10 May, 2013. Contact person: Gosia Kurek
  • The UK workshop organised by the Open University will take place in London, UK on 18 October 2013. Contact person: Tim Lewis

To read our full report on telecollaboration in European universities or to find out more information about our project, visit our news site or email the INTENT project.

In early 2014 the project will close by holding a major international conference at the University of León, Spain on the theme of telecollaboration at university level.

 


[i] This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This article reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Robert O’Dowd
Director of International Training
Office of International Relations
Universidad de León
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