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Setting up Online Intercultural Exchanges - Workshop for ENVOIE participants

Date:23 February 2018
Author:Juan Albá Duran, MA
ENVOIE Workshop
ENVOIE Workshop

Setting up a virtual exchange is a challenging and at the same time very rewardful experience. The best way of learning is by trying out and doing a project yourself with a partner university, but to guarantee its success and sustainability it is really valuable to be able to count on the support of experienced professionals that can help you in the process.

This is what happened in the “ENVOIE Workshop on Online International Exchange” at the University of Groningen, where participants had the great opportunity to have Sarah Guth and Malgorzata Kurek (Gosia) build up the knowledge and skills required to develop this type of exchanges. Taking into account the diversity of participants present (lecturers, researchers, language teachers, officers) and degree of experience (some were preparing their second exchange, some were about to start their first one and some never did), Sarah and Gosia accompanied us through the whole process in a real hands-on practice. We had a clear and structured overview of the steps to follow and the resources that teachers have at their disposal.

Here are some highlights from the workshop and some questions that can make you think about your needs and how to address them creatively:

  1. Why OIE? We live in an interdependent world in which citizens are expected to have a wide range of soft skills, which are most appreciated by companies and employers, such as working in international teams, having critical thinking or problem solving skills. Such competences are developed in most virtual exchange projects. For other benefits for students and teachers/institutions, see our previous post here.
  2. Learning from others. There are different types of virtual exchange depending on their focus (content - language) and methodological approaches or models. It is always a good idea to have a close look to what others have done previously, how they have solved specific bottlenecks and issues instead of spending the time in reinventing the wheel.
  3. Learning Objectives and Outcomes. It is crucial to determine the learning objectives and specify how these will be observable (outcomes). In this sense, it is useful to ask yourself the question: What do you want your students to take away from your exchange? Specify the learning objectives: “After having taken part in the exchange my students will be able to… Their ability will be evidenced by…”.  While many times soft skills are part of the transversal or hidden curriculum, it can be interesting trying to bring some of those into the explicit learning objectives of the course.
  4. Task Sequence. Are the activities built up according to the inherent needs of the online collaborating process? Tasks can be set up in such a way that they interfere with or promote the learning process. On the one hand, the preparation phase may include getting familiar with the project objectives, outcomes, phases, evaluation or technical and foreign language preparation, which will release cognitive complexity. On the other hand, creating positive social bonds with participants of the partner institution will also help working online together in the distance. Once the social common ground is created, activities should be set up according to an increased level of cognitive difficulty: 1. Information exchange, 2. Comparison and analysis and 3. Product creation. There should always be a reflection activity that consolidates what has been learned throughout  the project.

    A core element of product creation tasks is that they should require students to collaborate closely, promoting the principle of interdependence and enabling substantial dialogue during the joint decision making.
  5. Tools must be chosen after the activities have been set up. A criterion for choosing the tools can be what kind of communication the student needs or prefers to have in a specific activity: Synchronous or asynchronous? Written or oral? Another one can be what kind of cognitive activity the task is requiring: for instance, chatting to get to know each other or for collaborative problem solving; working together in one common document; presenting the final product to an audience or sharing it online.
  6. Assessment consistency. It is crucial that the assessment focuses in the intended learning objectives. As these exchanges can sometimes create tensions between participants due to cognitive or affective factors, it is always advisable to end up with positive aspects of the experience, with what the students have learned and enjoyed the most.
  7. Managing challenge. What challenges or tensions do you think might occur in the exchange you are planning? Anticipating these and searching for the colleagues’ or experts’ advice can help you gain confidence and be prepared for when the project is running.
  8. Keys to success. One of the keys of success mentioned during the workshop was flexibility, the capacity to modify the previously set up plans. Also not to force students do things in this or that way, but  allowing them to find their way in order to carry out the task. The activities and tools should help students reach their goal and not to put extra or unnecessary difficulty. Taking this into account can be a good way of keeping it simple and modifying some of the elements on the way, together with the partner institution. A good communication can always put into focus the needs of the students and project while working on it.

If you would like to learn more about the topic, you can check the online resources at the UNICollaboration site. If you teach in  the University of Groningen and would like to participate in a virtual exchange with your students or want to know more about this form of international learning, please contact Sake Jager, the ENVOIE project manager: s.jager  

It may also be interesting to know that we have recently started a complementary project, EVOLVE, which is intended to promote this form of collaborative learning further in European HE institutions.