The V-PAL (Virtual Partnerships for All Languages) has been running for the past four years at the University of Manchester in the UK and engages students of Italian in online oral interaction with partners in different Italian institutions. The exchange caters for students at Manchester who are studying a joint honours degree in two Modern Languages. However, the project also serves other students who may be studying a pure degree in Italian, or Italian with another non-language subject, such as law, business, history of art. It has been recognised as an official credit-bearing module at the University of Manchester.
V-PALis a reciprocal language-learning course unit in which students of Italian are paired with Italian students at the University of Macerata, Italy, to work on a series of weekly language-learning tasks in Italian and English. Participants are of similar linguistic ability and interact over the net using video-telephony (Skype) for language practice, and meet their course tutors regularly for seminars / workshops and to discuss tasks.
Dominant form of language production:
|Online Communication Skills|
How long did the project last?
How was the project organized?
The project was originally set up four years ago and is repeated every year.
Students at Manchester participating in the exchange meet their individual partners virtually through Skype on a weekly basis and have to produce a portfolio of language activities that have been designed by Elena and her colleagues. The students have to take part in a minimum of 8 weekly virtual meetings via Skype in order to complete the course successfully. The tasks have a strong lingua-cultural focus and students have to discuss a topic of their choice from within the course booklet. These topics include getting to know each other, Folklore and Traditions, The Media, Young People’ s Language, Sport, Accommodation, etc. Students can also create their own topic prior to agreement with their course tutor.
After each topic, the students have to do a write-up exercise in Italian to report what the conversation was about and to reflect on what they have learnt from the online session. They then send the rough copy of this report to their Italian partner, who corrects any language errors. This final draft is then added to the students’ portfolio for later evaluation by their course tutor.
Apart from these student Skype meetings, students also attend two online seminars via the University of Manchester’ s VLE Blackboard. In the seminars, students from all the participating universities come together to discuss two topics, one in each language.
How were the students assessed?
At the University of Manchester the exchange is an official credit-bearing module and is worth 10 UK credits. Italian students at Macerata receive 6ECTS.
Students receive 50% of their final mark for their portfolio work, 15% for their oral performance during the recorded Skype sessions, 10% based on peer assessment and 25% based on their end-of-year exam.
What worked well?
The V-Pal exchange represents a fascinating example of an exchange that has moved from being a peripheral add-on activity to a fully-recognised and credit-carrying course for students at the University of Manchester. This has been achieved by the enthusiasm and hard-work of the collaborating tutors, but also by its integration into a carefully structured and evaluated course and by the recognition by management at the University that such online exchange can be a valuable part of a language students’ university education.
What did students think of the project?
What challenges did you face?
Elena Polisca, organiser of the exchange at Manchester says coordination problems arose as she tried to suit the needs and timetables of her own students and those in Italian partner universities. Partner tutors at Cagliari are keen for their students to have their virtual sessions at their Language centre during class time and not during the students’ own free time. This means that both tutors have to coordinate two-hour slots during the week when both sets of students are in class and online together. She also recognises the challenges of collaborating with colleagues in the Italian universities using only virtual communication tools: ” It can also be difficult to understand what your colleagues want out of the scheme [the exchange] if you are only communicating via email and sometimes on Skype. It’ s difficult to have transparency.” To avoid the instability which can occur when working with distant colleagues, she drew up a contract agreement with them which outlined the basic structure of the course and ensured the commitment of the collaborating partner tutors to maintain the exchange until its conclusion each year.
What did the teachers think of the project?
Elena has this to say: ” I think some colleagues are genuinely impressed, but when they realise the amount of work it takes to set such thing up they are a little discouraged. And to be honest, unless it becomes a credit-bearing module, staff will have to do it above their day-to-day workload, which could become unfeasible (and it did exactly that for me, which is why &ndash partly &ndash I wanted to get formal recognition for them).”
What kind of institutional support did you receive?
Following negotiations with her head of department, her proposal for two credit-bearing course units (for students in their second and final years of study) were brought to the School’ s Undergraduate Programmes Committee who approved them immediately. Since then, the V-PAL courses are optional courses which are offered along with the core language courses. Each course lasts one semester and is worth 10 UK credits. (Students in the Italian institutions receive 6 ECTS) For students who take these courses and eventually graduate, the courses will appear on their degree transcript alongside all their other courses. Both these online exchange courses also appear in the University’ s directory of course units, which is published online by the language department. These courses get the same coverage as any other ‘ bigger’ , conventional face-to-face course.
Senior management at Manchester see the value of such exchanges for the university’ s international profile and developing its internationalisation policy. Prof. Mathew Jeffries, Assistant Associate Dean in the Faculty of Humanities, says that ” …the University recognises the value of online intercultural exchange as part of its growing internationalisation. While much attention has been focused on the University’ s research standing…this kind of project can also play a part in raising the institution’ s international profile. It is conceivable, for instance, that links established via V-PAL could develop into full-blown ERASMUS exchange agreements…” .
He also acknowledges that the key to the success of this exchange has been its integration into the formal academic programme at the university: ” Key to its success has been the fact that it is a credit-rated unit, formally integrated into the curriculum, and not just an optional extra. Thus students have the opportunity to improve their language skills in a relaxed and informal manner, yet still acquire credit for it.” However, the commitment and expertise of a motivated telecollaborative teacher is also vital for the exchange’ s success: ” &hellip it is clear that they require a dedicated individual to organise and maintain them, and here Italian has benefited very much from the involvement of Dr Elena Polisca” .