1. Background detail about the initiative
- Title of the initiative described by the case study: I-TELL PREP Project (Intercultural Telecollaborative Language Learning Project for Pre-mobility preparation)
- Contributor of the case study: Marta Giralt, Catherine Jeanneau, University of Limerick
- Data sources used for the case study: Data collection: feedback questionnaire (participating students), reflective portfolio (participating students) and class journal (project facilitator)
- URLs of the initiative:
- University behind the initiative: University of Limerick, Ireland
2. Introduction to the case: brief history and goals of the initiative
A sojourn abroad (either to study or for a work placement) is an essential experience for university students on their academic journey. Going to a foreign country, for students, means developing their cultural, intercultural and language competencies.
However, research has shown that while it is crucial to increase the opportunities for students to go abroad, it is misleading to think that they will benefit automatically from this experience. It is in fact essential for students to be adequately prepared for their mobility period. The i-TELL PREP (Intercultural Telecollaborative Learning for Pre-mobility preparation) project emerged from the need to address this issue.
The project, initiated in September 2014, aimed at fostering intercultural awareness among students while promoting language practice through online exchanges. In addition, it intended to explore the impact that this pre-departure intervention had on students.
A task-based approach was chosen as the most appropriate. Eight second year students of Spanish (A2-B1 level) from the University of Limerick in Ireland were paired with eight students of English (B1-B2 level) from the University of León in Spain.
All participants were set to go respectively to Spain on Erasmus or work placement, and to the UK or Ireland on Erasmus. During an eight-week period, students had to complete telecollaborative tasks on cultural and intercultural topics such as “the home university”, “finding out about the host country”, “expectations about living abroad”, “comparing university life and academic systems in the two countries”.
In order to cover these topics, students carried out four specific tasks:
- Introduce themselves;
- Describe university life;
- Discuss cultural differences;
- Share useful tips before leaving.
The virtual exchange was carried out using email, video recordings (Voicethreads) and video conferencing platforms (Skype). Throughout the duration of the project, the Irish students had weekly face-to-face meetings with the project facilitator and they were advised to have two weekly exchanges with their international peers using their preferred tools and platforms. It is important to highlight that each exchange had to be conducted half in Spanish and half in English (i.e. the email had to be written half in Spanish and half in English; the Skype conversation had to be of 40 minutes, 20 of which were in Spanish and 20 in English).
In terms of participation, the Irish students took part in the project on a voluntary basis, receiving a certificate of participation at completion, whereas their Spanish partners received 2 ECTS credits. After this first iteration, the project has evolved and has brought together different initiatives under the umbrella of the Ready, Mobility, Go! programme.
3. Key aspects
The i-TELL project aimed to respond to the need to increase students’ intercultural awareness and before their mobility period while improving their linguistic, cultural and digital competencies. An interdisciplinary team in the School of Modern Languages and Applied Linguistics at the University of Limerick set up telecollaborative initiatives to equip students in advance of their period abroad. These initiatives were brought together under the name of Ready, Mobility, Go! and the i-TELL project falls under this umbrella.
The i-TELL project participants were undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines. In this regard, it is important to highlight that, while preparing for the period abroad was their common aim, their profiles, needs and timeframes often differed due to their academic specificities. Participants consisted of a group of eight Second Year students (A2-B1 level) who started learning Spanish in their first year at the University of Limerick, Ireland, and eight students learning English (B1-B2) at the University of Leon, Spain. The Irish students took part in the project on a voluntary basis, receiving a certificate of participation after the completion of the course. On the other hand, the Spanish students received 2 ECTS credits.
As part of the project, participants had to complete a series of telecollaborative tasks working in pairs or small groups over an eight weeks period. The topics proposed were discussed and agreed in conjunction with the International Education Division, who suggested some issues to be addressed (such as information about the home and the host university, knowledge about the host country, expectations about living abroad, and comparisons of university life and academic systems in the two countries) to help students during their study and work experience abroad. The students carried out four main tasks based on O’Dowd and Lewis’s (2016) progressive exchange model: (1) Introduce yourself, (2) Describe university life, (3) Discuss cultural differences, (4) Share useful tips before leaving.
A range of platforms were integrated in order to conduct the VE. Specifically, email and video-recordings for the asynchronous type of communication and video-conferencing platform for the synchronous. Each exchange (both synchronous and asynchronous) was conducted half in Spanish and half in English.
Throughout the duration of the project, the Irish students had weekly face-to-face meetings with the project facilitator and, in order to build and strengthen communication with their international partners, they were advised to also organise online meetings with them twice a week.
The i-TELL project outcomes were assessed through a quantitative and qualitative type of approach using questionnaires, students’ reflective portfolios, and facilitators’ journals. Specifically, the portfolios were organised in five different sections related to the topics discussed during the exchange, plus one final section dedicated to an overall reflection on the experience; the facilitators’ journal was filled by the Irish academic support staff at the end of each face-to-face session with the students.
From a linguistic point of view, results from the data reported that, thanks to the VE sessions, students improved their oral and aural skills and fluency in general while learning new vocabulary and expressions in context.
From an intercultural point of view, participants gained knowledge of their target culture following different stages that went from factual to deeper reflection on the target culture. Specifically, students talked about cultural diversity between Ireland and Spain starting with factual information and moving towards more pragmatic communicative situations. They became aware of certain aspects of cultural knowledge such as belief systems in the target culture, as well as of practical insights such as the university system.
From an emotional and psychological point of view, data showed that participants received strong encouragement from their partners when they shared their general feelings and concerns about living abroad, confirming how virtual exchanges support students in a journey that is both intellectual and emotional.
From a social media communication point of view, when the i-TELL project started, the use of social media was not contemplated; however, data showed that many participants became friends on Facebook as they considered this platform a good and more informal way to keep contact and continue communicating. In the mobility preparation context, this means that, just before departure or as soon as they arrive abroad, the students are in touch with somebody from the host country who has a similar profile.
The i-TELL project had a great impact on students’ preparation for their mobility experience as they received guidance and support on the practical and logistic aspects of living abroad. Students became aware of academic matters such as the university systems, timetables, facilities, class sizes, student life and aspects of daily life such as accommodation, prices and eating habits.
It is interesting to also highlight the data collected through the facilitator journal. Throughout the i-TELL experience, students appeared to be very concerned about accuracy and correction. In particular, they were more concerned about accuracy when talking during the synchronous sessions than during class time. In some instances, participants corrected each other during their video conferencing conversation but never dared to do so in the email exchanges. They all agreed on the importance of the peer review/ learning type of approach during the exchanges. The students performed as conscious learners when communicating in their L2 and as skillful facilitators when communicating in their L1.
Students also highlighted the importance of images and videos shared during the exchanges as these were important tools that contributed to the improvement of their intercultural competence. Hence, a stronger focus on multimodality is highly recommended.
The promising results of the i-TELL project allowed for this initiative to be extended to other languages and to include other participant profiles, at the same time as becoming fully integrated in the language modules. Institutional partnerships involved undergraduate students of Spanish, French, and German in Ireland, and students of English in Spain, Belgium, France, and Germany within their specific cohorts. Participants are both language and non-language specialists.
During the process of establishing partnerships, reciprocity is a core principle. In addition, due to the success and flexibility of the i-TELL virtual exchanges, the project could be upscaled by being offered systematically to university students as an additional source of pre-mobility preparation.
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4. Lessons Learnt and Transferability Opportunities
The i-TELL project proved to be instrumental for preparing students for their period abroad both logistically and psychologically.
Specifically, three factors have been identified as crucial for the success of the initiative:
- the two sets of students have to have a similar profile, with comparable needs and expectations;
- the tasks have to be carefully designed to encourage participation and interactions and to allow for intercultural learning to take place
- guidance and support have to be available at all times throughout the project; however, students have to feel free to use the tools of their preference and to conduct the exchanges when suits them best (keeping in mind of course the task framework).
Students reported the importance of images and video clips (exchanged via social media) for the development of their (inter)cultural competencies.
The exchanges were not affected by the fact that Irish students took part in the project on a voluntary basis whereas their Spanish partners received 2 ECTS credits for it.
However, some Irish participants reported that not having a reward for their participation has slightly impacted their motivation. As of 2018, some of the Virtual Exchanges of the I-TELL PREP are subscribed to the EVE programme and the students are awarded a European badge for their participation.