Preparing students for a physical mobility through Virtual Exchange: E-Tandem at the University of Padua

Author: Sara Pittarello, Outreach Officer and Project Manager for UNICollaboration. See contributors page

The eTandem project is a Virtual Exchange (VE) between incoming international students and domestic students interested in a language and intercultural exchange, developed by the Language Centre of the University of Padua in collaboration with the International Relations Division in 2015. It runs twice a year for 8 to 10 weeks before each semester starts. All domestic students - in particular future outgoing ones - as well as international students planning to study at the University of Padua in the following semester(s), are invited to apply. The project is particularly appealing for students enrolled in joint/double degree programs as it allows them to deepen their linguistic and cultural knowledge (both oral and written) learning at a distance by using several tools (videoconferences, Moodle, WhatApps, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, chat, e-mail, etc…).

Participating students join the multilingual e-community, where discussion topics are suggested by the moderators, and mixed groups of eight to 12 students take part in regular facilitated dialogue sessions; students are also paired for their tandem sessions, during which students can practise their target language.

Weekly self-reflection diaries are compiled by students on the learning platform, to enable them to think about the intercultural issues addressed in the e-community. A final reflection paper and feedback questionnaires are also required at the end of the project.

The aims of the project are therefore:

  • Linguistic: to enable students to practise their target language(s) in the one-to- one exchange, and the various lingua francas in the online multilingual and multicultural community.
  • Cultural and intercultural: to gradually foster students’ cultural and intercultural awareness, by enhancing their curiosity towards others, familiarising them with different cultures and deepening their knowledge of their own culture.
  • Social: to help international students integrate with those of the host country.
  • Technological and digital: to develop students’ digital literacies, encouraging them to learn how to behave responsibly online, by experiencing opportunities and potential risks linked to social networks.

Domestic students enrolled in language and literature degree courses are awarded 3 ECTS credits upon successful completion of the project, formalised as an optional activity within their curriculum, while other participants are not awarded credits, as they take part on a voluntary basis. All students are nevertheless issued a certificate of attendance when they successfully complete the required activities.

Opportunities and challenges:

This project has had a great impact on students' preparation for their mobility experience, providing them with guidance and support on the practical aspects of living abroad. In addition, the eTandem project shows that it is possible not only to involve all future (and past) mobile students, but also students who may be interested in an online exchange to practise their target language and develop intercultural skills and knowledge about different educational contexts. These students can then become “buddies” of incoming students, obtaining an international experience at home.

In a pre-departure VE such as the e-Tandem project, a main challenge can arise from the wide variety of students who take part in the VE activities: coming from different countries, the students often have different levels of language proficiency and/or subject-matter knowledge, as well as varying levels of maturity (particularly if the project includes both undergraduate and postgraduate students). Overcoming initial potential misunderstandings and making students leave their comfort zone may hence take longer or be more difficult than for other VE scenarios.

Another challenge is that the VE activity may be accredited and recognised only in specific circumstances or within a given degree course, but not for all students, unless it has been fully integrated at institutional level as propaedeutic to the physical mobility. Hence, it is highly recommended that the various units concerned with credit recognition are involved in the design and implementation process from its very beginning and work closely with the units responsible for mobility programmes as well as with programme coordinators, to ensure that this type of VE is fully recognised for all participating students.

An additional challenge could arise when the VE, organised as a preparatory activity by one HEI, as in the e-Tandem project, is offered to all its future incoming and outgoing students: unless the home universities of the incoming students are directly involved, the students from those institutions may feel less committed to the VE, and may consequently drop out half way through the programme. It is therefore important that these students’ home universities understand the benefit that the VE offers their own students, and take on the responsibility of ensuring commitment on the part of their students. The development of this kind of initiative within University Alliances, or as part of Joint Programmes, can be a way to ensure commitment on the part of all the parties involved.

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