1. Background detail about the initiative

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

The Soliya Connect Program is a virtual exchange established in 2003 by the NGO Soliya which aims to provide a deeper understanding of the perspectives of others on important socio-political issues and help students foster skills such as critical thinking, communication, and digital media literacy.

The involvement of students from the University of Padova (UNIPD) in Soliya’s 8-week Connect Programme started in 2009. Since then, every year, between 20-50 UNIPD students from two departments – Department of Linguistic and Literary Study (DiSLL) and Department of Political Science, Law, and International Studies (SPGI) – have been taking part in the Programme. The two departments have signed agreements with the organisation.

At SPGI, as of 2009 the former Connect Programme lasting 8 weeks has been part of an alternative Programme to the Advanced English Language Courses for students of European Studies and Human Rights and Multilevel Governance. The socio-political themes addressed in the exchange program as well as the skills it fosters make it an ideal opportunity for students to develop their English language and other competences.

The opportunity to participate in the Connect Programme at DiSLL met the need to provide an engaging opportunity for students to develop confidence in the language they are studying.

3. Key aspects

At DiSLL the Connect Program is available as an elective, and participation is recognised with 3 ECTS credits as “Linguistic Study” (“Approfondimento Linguistico”) within the framework of “other activities”, as approved of by the Adjunct Council of the Degree Course (CACL), in the same way as the eTandem project (see the relevant case description under the 1st scenario). The VE project lasts one semester and is offered to students enrolled in the Linguistic and Cultural Mediation degree course. Activities required for the VE recognition include participation in an initial meeting with the coordinating professor, attending the eight weekly 2-hour dialogue sessions, reading the recommended texts, completing a collaborative assignment, and writing a weekly reflective journal. The coordinating professor receives weekly updates on student participation and performance in sessions and a final evaluation. Attendance in all sessions, completion of assignment and reflective diaries, and a positive evaluation from Soliya are requirements to obtain the 3 ECTS.

Several students have written their thesis on this project or other telecollaboration and VE projects, hence VE has produced an opportunity for students to carry out empirical research.

At SPGI, the Connect Programme was integrated with additional reading texts and seminars to make it a 6 credit course and was offered, as a stand-alone activity, as an alternative Programme to the Advanced English Language Course for students enrolled in the European Studies and Human Rights degree courses. Students also had to write an extended essay for their professor in addition to the reflective diaries and collaborative assignment for Soliya.

The constant feedback loop between coordinating professors and Soliya is important to ensure students are participating regularly and are punctual for their sessions. It is also important for the professors to make the requirements for credits clear to the students, and their responsibility towards their Soliya group and thus not miss dialogue sessions or arrive late.

Some students from both DiSLL and SPGI followed training to become dialogue facilitators which Soliya makes available to exchange alumni at no cost, and then volunteered with Soliya as facilitators. This has been a positive follow-up for several students, some of whom have had this officially recognised as an internship.

From 2009 to 2018 participation in the Connect Program required the payment of a nominal annual fee by each department (approved by the Department Council), and student numbers were thus limited. With the launch of Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange in 2018, there was a considerable increase in the number of students taking part as more places were available, and there was no fee as it was part of Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange. In 2021, Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange was no longer running, so the departments have had to pay fees (with funds which can come from various sources eg. for teaching innovation, or internationalisation projects – which have to be requested and approved every year).

From a research perspective, SPGI has been able to fund a one-year research assistant and a 2-year assistant with funding from EC funded projects related to virtual exchange and a partnership with UNICollaboration for Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange research. Also some of the outputs from an EC-funded project on gender and media (AGEMI) with SPGI staff provided key content for one of the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange projects, thus disseminating the research outputs and expanding the impact. The potential impact of virtual exchange therefore, extends beyond the student experience to research and dissemination of research.

4. Lessons Learnt and Transferability Opportunities

In terms of opportunities and benefits, Soliya was introduced as a way to enable students to practice the languages they are studying more, as it offers a safe, non-threatening environment where students can express themselves without the fear of being judged on their language skills. Many participants in the Connect Programme at DiSLL report an increase in confidence during the exchange. But perhaps the most important thing is the intercultural element. Many of the language students have very limited experiences of communication outside a European context. Soliya helps them to overcome preconceived ideas about other “cultures” by bringing to the fore the many-faced nature of intercultural communication.

Students have always been enthusiastic about the project and value it for the transversal skills developed as well as the multiple perspectives and insights into issues relevant to their studies (migration, terrorism, foreign policy, religion and politics, populism, nationalism) through their interactions in the very diverse groups.

The integration of such ready-made VE programs has, however, also brought about some challenges. First, the recruitment of students initially proved to be quite demanding as students were not familiar with this kind of experience and feared the unknown. However, word of mouth and inviting alumni to talk about their experience has raised interest in participation. Secondly the timing is problematic for the Italian academic calendar. Students need to be recruited in September as the program starts at the beginning of October, however September is exam time and the semester has not yet begun which makes recruitment and organisation challenging.

Second, the way the VE program is recognised does not provide evidence of the VE experience, as the Connect Programme is offered either as an alternative to the Advanced English Course or as Linguistic Study. Consequently, participation in the VE is not visible as an online, international experience or course, as would be the case for ‘virtual mobility’ and courses taken on Erasmus.