1. Background detail about the initiative

  • Title of the initiative described by the case study: Communication across cultures
  • Contributor of the case study: Marta Giralt, University of Limerick
  • Data sources used for the case study: Data collection: survey and reflective essays (students)
  • URL of initiative / URL of initiative
  • University behind the initiative: University of Limerick, Ireland / Sharing Perspective Foundation 

2. Introduction to the case: brief history and goals of the initiative

This project presents the implementation of an Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange initiative in a module entitled Communication across cultures held at the University of Limerick (UL), Ireland. The Communication across cultures module is an elective content-specific module that was designed firstly in 2017. It focuses on developing student’s intercultural learning making them critically aware of the central role that language and culture have in the intercultural communication sphere while being socially responsible citizens. The module, which spans over 12 weeks, is characterized by a blended type of approach where face to face lectures are combined with a virtual exchange (VE)  element in order to include both a practical and an experiential type of learning. In the first part of the module, students are introduced to theoretical issues related to interculturality whereas in the second part of the module students take part in a iOOCs (Interactive Open Online Course) offered by a non-profit organization called Sharing Perspectives Foundation (SPF) that provides a model of VE designed as a ready-made package of expert content  blended with weekly live dialogue sessions. The integration of this iOOC is possible thanks to the E+VE initiative that offers the possibility to integrate options such as this into the university courses. It is important to highlight that telecollaborative practices have been widely and successfully integrated over the years among language students in the School of Modern Languages and Applied Linguistics at UL. The Cultural Encounters programme, which represented  the online component of the module, allows participants to engage with partners from other cultures through a VE experience. The module aims at equipping students with the practical competencies for actively engaging with the real world problems while being interculturally aware and socially responsible citizens. guistics at UL. The Cultural Encounters programme, which represented  the online component of the module, allows participants to engage with partners from other cultures through a VE experience. The module aims at equipping students with the practical competencies for actively engaging with the real world problems while being interculturally aware and socially responsible citizens.

3. Key aspects

The Communication across cultures module is one of the elective content specific modules offered at the university of Limerick. The module falls under the internationalisation aim which is at the core of the university strategy offering students the opportunity to engage in language and intercultural learning while understanding and appreciating their own culture and the culture of others. The module was first designed in 2017 and it was decided to include a virtual exchange element in order to provide, together with a theoretical approach, an experiential type of learning. The School of Modern Languages and Applied Linguistics had a longstanding experience in telecollaborative practices as they have been integrated in various modules over the years (see the Ready, Mobility, Go! programme and the i-TELL PREP project in particular presented among  the FRAMES scenarios). 

The integration of the Virtual Exchange practice was facilitated by Sharing Perspectives Foundation (SPF), a non-profit external service provider that offers Interactive Open Online Courses (iOOCs) where academic content, online discussions and collaborative activities are implemented using English as a lingua franca. The iOOCs promoted by SPF have been running since 2018 within the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange initiative. As regards the Virtual Exchange practices, over the years the School of Modern Languages and Applied Linguistics has integrated up to five iOOCs in various modules. The Cultural Encounters programme was the first to be integrated in the Communication across cultures module presented here.

The Communication across cultures module aims at making students critically aware of the role that language and culture have in intercultural communication. The first part of the module is theoretical and explores views on identity, culture, language and intercultural communication allowing students to reflect on their own identities while critically and emphatically exploring the ones of others. The second part of the module is more practical as students participate in the Cultural Encounters iOOC having the opportunity to put into practice skills of intercultural communicative competence and cultural and intercultural awareness by being in contact with people from different cultural backgrounds in real life contexts. Therefore, the module follows a blended type of approach where traditional face to face lectures are combined with online activities. 

The module is twelve weeks long, the face to face part covers the whole length of the course with weekly lectures of two hours and the online delivery is ten weeks long with two hours online mediated sessions per week plus other activities. During the face to face lectures, students are introduced to topics on interculturality upon which they reflect engaging in critical discussions. The conceptual approach is complemented with the participation in the iOOC online module which is mandatory for students in order for them to receive academic credits.  

From a linguistic point of view, a considerable number of UL participants are English native speakers who are sharing perspectives and experiences with English non-native speakers during the VE sessions. Being English the lingua franca, this puts them in the position to reflect upon how to use the language and the messages mediated through it. The rest of the cohort of UL participants are Erasmus and international students who feel that participating in the VE through the medium of the English language provides a valuable opportunity to practice the language itself and discuss socio-political issues.

On an organisational level, before starting the VE, students were introduced to the main features of the iOOC; after an initial registration, they had the possibility to attend a preparatory session that would allow them to get familiar with the platform and tools used throughout the exchanges. It is important to highlight that SPF in conjunction with UL staff provided regular academic and technical support to the participants. 

Students had to complete a minimum of 70% of the weekly group-based online seminars and have to actively engage with different tasks such as video lectures, responses to video lectures, video dialogue assignments and a weekly reflective journal. The reflective journal uses a Google form where each student can record their thoughts about the content of the seminars and that of the different discussions and activities undertaken. It is worth noting that the module coordinator and the lectures involved in the module can monitor the attendance and engagement of students in the VE as SPF provides detailed reports on students participation. 

The sessions of online dialogue take place once a week and involve UL students and students from different European and Southern Mediterranean universities. The UL students choose a suitable time for engagement and dedicate two hours per week to the iOOC.  These two hours were aside the face to face part of the module hence technically equipped spaces were provided for students to carry out the online activities. The technical requirements needed to carry out the VE were limited to internet accessibility, a computer (preferably a laptop but mobile phones were used at times too), headphones and a quiet space.  

The assessment mechanism of the module is organised in two phases: on one hand there is the assessment provided by SPF on the VE sessions through attendance and participation in the online dialogue sessions, completion of the video lecture response, video dialogue assignments and the weekly reflective journal. All these assessment components count for 60% of the final grade. On the other hand, the assessment of the face to face theoretical lectures consists of a final reflective essay based on the student’s experiences in participating in the VE while relating these experiences to the concepts and theories covered during the lectures. These final reflective assignments count for 40% of the students’ total grade.

At the completion of the iOOC, students received a digital badge in recognition of their multicultural experience after participating in the VE as well as 6 ECTS credits for the module.

The Communication across cultures module has also been offered as an alternative or as preparation to the Erasmus physical mobility. In these iterations, students were asked to reflect on how the VE has helped them in getting ready for their time abroad and how their intercultural competence has been impacted by the participation in the VE sessions.

During the implementation of the VE, quantitative and qualitative data were gathered respectively through a survey and the final reflective essays. Results from the data reported that, thanks to the participation in the VE, students improved their critical thinking, their soft skills (such as active listening, confidence, respect, empathy, interpretative and reflective skills), their awareness on global issues and broadened their perspectives on cultures and societal matters. The VE fostered sharing, contrasting and exchanging different opinions, perspectives, views and interpretations. Students also agreed that participating in a VE to discuss topics related to Europe and current affairs in general was a very atypical pedagogical approach; however, the experience added a very valuable practical element to their learning, motivating them to get more informed and involved on a societal level. The digital badge received after the successful completion of the VE was considered by the participants as a very positive addition and motivating tool for the whole experience.

In terms of sustainability, the funding model for engaging with the iOOC may differ from institution to institution. Up to 2020, the project was offered through the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange initiative funds.

4. Lessons Learnt and Transferability Opportunities

At institutional level, the VE offered the opportunity to develop internationalization strategies by making the curricula more globalized while practicing  “internationalization at home”. At students’ level, the initiative enhanced participants’ intercultural awareness and intercultural communication skills. 

Some issues were highlighted in relation to students’ workload and time management having a reported impact on their engagement; as a consequence, some of the face to face time allocated was reduced. Another issue concerned some technical problems during the exchanges; however, they have been overcome by the SPF  technical support team.

In recent times it has been shown that students in UL educational context display a lesser degree of interest towards socio-political and global issues in favour of a more localised and regional concern. The VE offered students the unique opportunity to become aware of and engage with such issues while developing their intercultural skills. 

It is important to highlight that the integration of an iOOC and VE sessions into a module requires a big support at an institutional level as well as an important commitment by the module coordinator in guiding students in what is perceived as a new pedagogical approach.