International On-line Collaboration within a Course – Panic and Pitfalls

Marianna Leikomaa and Petri Tuohimäki
Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Finland
marianna.leikomaa@tuni.fi
petri.tuohimaki@tuni.fi

Offering students a chance for international collaboration within an existing language course is often the easiest way to ensure authentic learning situations. However, this requires a bit of time, work and flexibility from all parties. Two English language teachers from Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK) collaborated with a colleague from Volga State University of Technology, and offered their students a chance for structured on-line meetings as a part of their language courses. The practicalities from the teachers’ viewpoint included helping the students create their on-line collaboration teams, deciding the discussion topics, creating a feasible schedule which also matched the teachers’ schedules, and occasionally even acting as arbiters in the discussions.

Key words: internationalisation, on-line learning, authentic learning

Background

The original idea was a result of an international week, where teachers from other universities came to teach at TAMK for a week. During the event, a Russian colleague suggested collaboration. In the end, the actual collaboration was carried out with another Russian partner whose group and schedules fit the Finnish teachers’ course better. The students from Finland were bachelor level media students from several different countries, while the Russian students were master level students of education. The collaboration project formed a small, 3-week part of an existing all-semester long course for the students in Finland, so it also had to be scheduled accordingly.

The students began by creating their groups using a shared GoogleDoc. As there were far more students in Finland than there were students in Russia, the students were instructed to make sure each group contained one Russian student to 3-4 students from Finland. The students were also instructed to share their e-mail addresses and the students in Finland – who had just gone over the topic in their English course – were responsible for sending an initial, professional e-mail to their Russian group member. This took a bit more time than originally planned and quite a few nudges from the teachers, as some students were not quite so quick to get started on e-mailing and agreeing on the schedule. The students needed to schedule three live on-line meetings (i.e. Skype, GoogleHangouts etc.) over three weeks of time.

Discussion topics

The collaboration was divided into three distinct discussions, each of which had to take place during a given week. The students had the freedom and responsibility to agree on the actual meeting times and what tools to use, but they all had to follow the same weekly schedule. The discussion topic for each week was published to the students on Monday and the students had a week to discuss it on-line. During the first week, the students also needed to fill in a pre-project survey detailing their backgrounds.

The first topic for discussion was Cultural Diversity and Stereotypes, the second Education Systems, Values in Education and Language Policy and the third Social Issues and Growing Global. The topics were chosen by the Russian teacher who had done a similar collaboration project before and wished to use the results for research purposes. All in all, the topics were well-chosen and, due to the international nature of the participants, the viewpoints covered included many other countries besides Finland and Russia as well. The discussion topics connected well to the course contents in both universities. The students in Finland did not have to write a report about their discussions, but they were asked to take notes and the topics were also talked about in class afterwards.

Challenges

There were some issues also. Some of the students found it difficult to schedule the meetings, even though the teachers in Finland had scheduled no classes during the weeks when the students were supposed to have their meetings. As a result, some groups did not function quite a well as hoped and a few had their final meeting a week later than originally planned. This was, naturally, much better than the alternative of having no meeting at all.

Discussions on the given topics were carried out successfully in most cases; however, one meeting about Social Issues ended quite abruptly when one participant was berated strongly for her sexual identity by another, and the team at the receiving end reacted by quickly thanking everybody for the discussion and closing the connection after the initial shock.

Conclusion

All in all, the experiment was a success and while the teachers’ input was necessary, the students did most of the work independently. We would suggest this type approach to others as well. The students get to experience many aspects of on-line communication which they will need in their working lives, regardless of their careers: approaching strangers professionally on-line, scheduling, taking part in meetings on-line etc.

Although some of the students in Finland sometimes felt that they have enough internationality in their education already – perhaps because they were all studying in an international programme – this mix of different nationalities and educational fields likely enabled for much more varied and diverse discussions than what students of a single nationality or degree programme would have produced.

URN

http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:jamk-issn-2343-0281-44

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