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Benefits and Challenges of Collaborative Online International Learning Projects – Katarzyna Radke

In today’s globalized and interconnected world universities put a premium on preparing graduates for life in societies where cultures and diverse mentalities interact. It has been shown that internationalization experience boosts graduates’ employability opportunities (Beelen, 2019; Rubin, 2019). Yet, even though more and more exchange programs have become available in the last few decades, most students do not engage in physical mobility. Moreover, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic substantially limited travel and led to a sharp decline in the number of students participating in international on-campus programs. Higher education institutions all over the world were forced to explore online internationalization options to give the largest possible number of students an opportunity to work in an international environment.

Our presentation offered an overview of 13 Virtual Exchange (VE) projects carried out in 2021/22 by language teachers of Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) who represent the Foreign Language Teaching Center. All the projects were designed in partnerships with international educators from 14 universities located in Europe and both Americas. Virtual Exchange encompasses Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) (Rubin & Guth 2022) and is defined as “technology-enabled, facilitated, people-to-people education programs sustained over a period of time” (O’Dowd, 2018, p. 1).

Before the launch of the projects all the teachers had participated in VE course design training offered by UNICollaboration and the Compostela Group. The projects had an interdisciplinary character and engaged almost 500 Polish and international students in intercultural activities mediated by English as a lingua franca. The teachers followed Gilly Salmon’s Five-Stage-Model (n.d.) with the aim of developing the students’ employability skills such as communication, teamwork, emotional intelligence, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity (de Campos et al. 2020). In this presentation we will focus on the benefits and challenges the students experienced in these projects.

During regular foreign language courses undergraduate AMU students are offered from 30 to max. 120 hours of general language instruction. Most graduate students benefit from 60 hours of English for Specific Purposes. Foreign language classes, mostly conducted in monolingual (Polish) groups of learners, are aimed at preparing students to take final certified exams at B2/B2+ level. So the students dramatically miss opportunities to engage in authentic international conversations and often lack confidence when faced with communication hurdles in real life settings.

Those 13 collaborative online international learning projects were to bridge this gap and prepare AMU students to cope with the requirements of the modern labor market and give them training in problem solving while using a lingua franca right before graduation. AMU students worked for 6-12 weeks in pairs or small groups of 4-6 on various intercultural tasks designed by their teachers in collaboration with international educators from various countries. Most of the teachers had met when doing the VE design training. All the projects the students participated in had five main stages: (1) orientation, ice-breaking and team-building, (2) information exchange and analysis, (3) material collection and production, (4) online exhibition and feedback, (5) reflection and conclusion.

The disciplines and main themes of the projects varied. Some had literature and the language in their focus, e.g. English and Spanish in poetry, where the students of English philology from Poland and students of Spanish philology from Spain analyzed together 3 sets of poems about life, love and death, and then were asked to create their own pieces of work under the supervision of their international partners and teachers. Others focused on the job application process on the international market. Here the Polish, Belgian, Hungarian and American students analyzed their opportunities of being employed in their branches in various geographic locations, wrote their CV and letters of application appropriate for a given culture, provided constructive critique of each other’s achievement and finally participated in mock job interviews conducted online by HR departments in authentic international companies in the countries of their partners.

There were four projects that revolved around UN Sustainable Development Goals and required the students from Argentina, Poland, Sweden, Mexico and China to analyze the environmental, social and economic situation in their countries, and then design together campaigns on how regular citizens could contribute to reaching those goals by 2030. There were seven projects that explored various cultural and social aspects of life in Poland and Spain, Mexico or Peru, like the role of women in various cultures, the condition of media and pop culture or the creation of graffiti and cartoons.

The students proved to be extremely creative and motivated. Most of those who joined the project groups persevered and reported substantial gains when it comes to collaborating efficiently with peers from other cultural backgrounds. They encountered various challenges, like deadlines and the need to complete tasks in a virtual setting, managing time zone differences, communicating in English as a lingua franca, or coping with failing technology and using new tools. But mutual help, strong motivation and interest in other cultures helped them find solutions to those hurdles that cropped up along the way.

What they cherished most was socializing and making new friends, finding common interests, talking about everyday problems, breaking personal barriers, dealing with difference. They liked doing things in a group, sharing responsibilities, dividing the workload, learning from one another, improving collaboration skills, and finding creative solutions. And many VE participants reported that they gained confidence in language use, developed communication strategies, and got used to different accents. Some even found value in learning foreign languages. One anonymous participant wrote in the fall semester 2021:

“I feel free to think creatively to try new things and fail without the fear of consequences. I feel more flexible and adaptable to changing conditions, I learned to work in an international team, despite the cultural differences, I am able to effectively achieve my goals, I am able to react faster in case of crisis situations, I think my english is now definitely more fluent”.

It is important to highlight that virtual exchange projects offer opportunities for teachers too. Educators develop tasks together – unlike in their regular classes, in VE projects the teachers always have someone to rely on. They share perspectives and learn from each other, critically assess their teaching competences, gain insight into the research capabilities of partner institutions, and often do research and publish together. Thus virtual exchange brings benefits to the whole university community and is an accessible form of internationalization at home.

References

de Campos, DB, de Resende, LMM & Fagundes, AB (2020). The Importance of Soft Skills for the Engineering, Creative Education, vol. 11, no. 8, (pp. 1504–1520).

https://doi.org/10.4236/ce.2020.118109

O’Dowd, R. (2018). From telecollaboration to virtual exchange: state-of-the-art and the role

of UNICollaboration in moving forward. Journal of Virtual Exchange, 1, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.14705/rpnet.2018.jve.1

Rubin, J. (2019). Collaborative online international learning (COIL): now preparing students

for international virtual work. In R. Coelen & C. Gribble ( Eds), Internationalization

and employability in higher education (pp. 189-199). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351254885-15

Rubin, J. & Guth, S. (2022). The Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange: Implementing, Growing, and Sustaining Collaborative Online International Learning. Stylus Publishing.https://coilconnect.org/_storage/guidebook.pdf

Salmon, G. (n.d.). The five stage model. https://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html

Katarzyna Radke is an internationalization coordinator and a senior lecturer of English at the Foreign Language Teaching Center of Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU), Poznań, Poland. She teaches general English and English for Specific Purposes with the focus on e-learning techniques and the use of  new technologies in language learning. One of her main interests lies in the use of online tools for intercultural collaboration and virtual exchange in higher education. Together with her international partners she launched 8 COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) projects for students from Poland, Argentina, Canada, China, Finland, France, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

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