1. Background detail about the initiative
- Title of the initiative described by the case study: eTandem
- Contributor of the case study: Sara Pittarello – UNICollaboration
- Key informant: Lisa Griggio – Università degli Studi di Padova
- Data sources used for the case study:
- Griggio, L. & Pittarello, S. (2020) “How a multilingual project can foster and enhance international mobility” A case study, Designing and implementing virtual exchange – a collection of case studies, Helm F. and Beaven A. (eds.), Research-publishing.net, pp. 127-139 (https://doi.org/10.14705/rpnet.2020.45.1121)
- Griggio, L. & Pittarello, S. (2020) “Participants’ perceptions and perspectives of intercultural and social inclusion in an awarded telecollaboration project”, Routledge Focus Collection – Mobile Assisted Language Learning across educational contexts, Morgana V. & Kukulska-Hulme A. (eds.), chapter 5
- URL of initiative
- University behind the initiative: Università degli Studi di Padova – Italy
2. Introduction to the case: brief history and goals of the initiative
Developed by the Language Centre of the University of Padova in collaboration with the International Office (IO) in 2015, eTandem is a Virtual Exchange project between incoming international students and domestic students interested in a language and intercultural exchange.
In the very beginning only Italian and English were used as linguae francae in the exchange between peers, but in the following iterations additional languages such as Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese have been added, thus contributing to multilingualism.
The eTandem project was developed to respond to several needs:
- to meet the requests of domestic students interested in the already existing face-to-face tandem learning but who could not be paired up with international students because there were never enough international students to meet the demand.
- to contribute to deepening the participants’ linguistic and cultural knowledge as well as their digital competences, thus improving soft skills.
- To boost internationalisation at home and abroad. The eTandem project enables those students who cannot or do not want to go abroad, to add an international dimension to their studies, i.e. acquire experience in virtually communicating with people from different countries, gain intercultural skills, create networks, and improve their language and global competences. At the same time, eTandem also enhances mobility abroad owing to the emulation process it triggers among those students who have not applied for an international exchange programme yet.
Hence, eTandem aims are multifold:
- Linguistic: to make students learn and/or practice the languages of study in the one-to-one exchange, and the various linguae francae in the online multilingual and multicultural community. Plurilingualism and inclusive multilingualism are key to the project and the focus is on content rather than on linguistic form (fluency versus accuracy).
- Cultural and intercultural: students’ cultural and intercultural awareness are gradually fostered, by enhancing their curiosity towards others, familiarising them with different cultures and deepening their knowledge of their own culture.
- Social: boosting the integration of international students with those of the host country is a key aim.
- Technological and digital: students are encouraged to learn how to behave responsibly online, by experiencing opportunities and potential risks linked to social networks.
The project was awarded the European Language Label in Italy in 2016 and recognised as an E+VE initiative in 2019, following the e-tutor’s participation in training and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding.
3. Key aspects
The eTandem project 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 staying at the University of Padova in the following semester(s) are invited to apply directly online on the language centre website. The International Office (IO) units send an invitation to all the future international students planning to study in Padova in the following semester and to all future outgoing students.
Domestic students come from a range of degree courses. A substantial number of them are enrolled in languages and literature degree courses. Another substantial group (recruited through the IO) are future ‘outgoing’ students, who will spend a period abroad as mobile students in the future and are interested in practising their language and/or learning more about the country and university system where they are going.
The number of participants has grown every year, and the most recent edition (12th) involved 65 Italian and 150 international students from all over the world.
Two communication modes are foreseen, in a double line of interaction (see Figure 1):
- many-to-many through the e-community. Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and English are used as linguae francae, and mixed groups of eight to 12 students take part in facilitated dialogue sessions; and
- one-to-one. Time should be equally split between Italian and the other target languages, for both students to benefit from the language exchange. To this end, pairs of students are matched by the e-moderators prior to the project start and reminded to meet up regularly. As the number of participants for each group is not always equal, not only dyads but also triads are formed in certain cases. Students are matched according to different criteria: their destination/country of origin, study area, and language chosen.
Figure 1. Outline of interactions in eTandem
Tools/technology used to implement the initiative
Two separate platforms host the online multilingual community simultaneously: an institutional one (Moodle) and an informal one (Facebook). Neither of them is compulsory, but participating students have nevertheless been invited to join at least one of them to be able to contribute to the e-community.
Students are instead free to choose the interaction language and tools (WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Messenger, Skype, Zoom, etc.) in the one-to-one interaction.
The eTandem project is structured around asynchronous and synchronous activities.
- Asynchronous activities
The e-moderators provide discussion topics to favour many-to-many interaction. The first week is aimed at familiarising students with the online platform(s), with the tools and with each other. Theme-based asynchronous activities are included on a weekly basis, from the second to the tenth week, to guide learners through the topics discussed in the e-community. Starting with a Motivation Monday activity, prompts are launched every week, followed by further sub-themed activities throughout the rest of the week. It is however left free to students to contribute to a discussion they liked, even in the weeks after the prompt has been launched. Both safe and more controversial themes are discussed, ranging from reading, traditions, stereotypes and superstitions, differences between cultures (body language, gestures, and tips), culture shock, cultural intelligence, food, and many others, to more controversial topics such as the role of media, climate change, veganism, social inequalities (job and gender, gender and pay gap), technology and education, humans versus robots, and social inclusion.
In the dyadic interactions, any argument introduced in the social community area can be dealt with, in addition to more personal themes such as families, hobbies, and interests.
Weekly diaries of language and culture are compiled by students on Moodle, mainly aimed at free writing and self-reflection, to enable them to keep a record of what they discuss in the one-to-one interactions and what they think about the intercultural issues addressed in the e-community. While this ‘writing space’ on Moodle contributes to enhancing students’ self-awareness, it also helps tutors to monitor the project development, in particular the constant interaction between students in their one-to-one interactions, and to continuously adjust the project to students’ needs, competences, and suggestions. A final reflection paper and feedback questionnaires are also required at the end of the project.
- Synchronous sessions
Synchronous facilitated sessions lasting 1,5 hour have also recently been offered on Zoom, dealing with various topics. The very latest editions have seen a high increase in the number of synchronous sessions being offered, with a total of 8/9 (one per week) are now offered with two facilitators. The increase in the synchronous sessions has been an adjustment made to meet the students’ request during the Covid pandemic.
Assessment and recognition
Domestic students enrolled in language and literature degree courses are awarded 3 ECTS credits upon successful completion of the project, as this has been 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 following activities required:
- writing at least four (out of six) language and culture diary entries,
- contributing to at least six eTandem community discussions,
- writing a short final essay in the target language,
- participating in at least one online session, and
- completing a questionnaire at the end of the project.
Students are also awarded an Open Badge issued by the University of Padova and, formerly, by the E+VE initiative.
Quality Assurance mechanisms
Students are asked to fill in a feedback questionnaire at the end of each edition. While it aims at exploring students’ participation, motivation, and perspectives related to different areas (technological and digital, content, linguistic and metalinguistic, cultural, psychological, and social), it is also a pivotal tool for revision and improvement of the project. With every iteration, following a review of the feedback received, slight adjustments are made. For example, the number of synchronous sessions has recently been increased from 3 to 8/9 (i.e. one every week), based on students’ feedback and needs.
4. Lessons Learnt and Transferability Opportunities
The project has proven to be highly beneficial at various levels:
- At the institutional level, it promotes internationalisation at home as well as study abroad: the initiative’s timing and the composition of the Italian group were planned and chosen carefully. The project mentally and emotionally prepares students to study abroad, but it also works as an incentive for those who haven’t yet considered applying for an international exchange programme.
- It acts as a bridge between virtual exchange to physical mobility. Moreover, after their arrival in Padova, international students can meet in person with their Italian partner to develop their friendship with a face-to-face tandem project. Students show real empathy by providing mutual support. During the Covid-19 lockdown , eTandem was for many of the international participants the only opportunity they had for contact with domestic students. This was particularly valued by those who had remained in Padova.
Despite being very successful, some drawbacks have been identified in the way the eTandem is implemented and integrated, prompting actions to further improve the initiative:
- Pairing students is very demanding and time consuming for the eTandem team, as is managing high numbers of emails, looking for alternative partners when one drops out.
- Another challenge is creating a feeling of trust in the community so that students feel safe to speak, which requires time and patience. Flexible and neutral trained multilingual e-tutors are pivotal to this end.
- Counterparts from other institutions and countries need to be involved for international students to be more motivated to participate. A local coordinator in the partner institution is essential to this end, as would be foreign e-tutors.
- To increase students’ motivation, it is equally important that the VE is accredited for all the students participating in the initiative, while so far it is only accredited for students majoring in languages and literature.
The project iterations have proved that students’ motivation is crucial to the project success. This has been encouraged by:
- letting students choose the topics they preferred to deal with first and proposing themes that are relevant both at a global and local level;
- letting students choose the tools for one-to-one interactions and the languages of interaction with their e-peers.
- creating a multilingual community space;
- avoiding correcting mistakes publicly (peers suggest corrections directly in a private setting only);
- providing task-based activities on a regular basis;
- setting up (and subsequently increasing) online synchronous sessions in addition to asynchronous communication;
- issuing E+ open badges (which has substantially increased the number of students who have completed their learning path).