A ‘Shared Garden’ Virtual Exchange project

Thierry Villard, is a language teacher, from the Institute of Technology at the University of Bordeaux. He’s been collaborating on a virtual exchange project with the university of Léon in Spain for the past 6-7 years.

Some background to the project:

This collaboration is between the University of Bordeaux, France and Leon, Spain and involves students of Applied Physics and Measurement Engineering (APME), and Electrical Engineering.

The project combines science and intercultural competences and is an interdisciplinary project called ‘Shared Garden’ because of the collaboration of students of different years and countries working together.

The students work together on designing a real garden in Bordeaux within ecological and sustainable parameters.

The Spanish students help design elements to allow them to save water in their garden.

The project was also designed to enable students to improve their communication skills by working in English in an international team – which is useful for navigating their future professional life.

This is a water and science VE, so how do language and water science fit together?

“It began as a personal interest of mine in water management. But as a language teacher I questioned my legitimacy in taking on such a collaboration. I wanted to use science content, therefore I knew I needed support to do so.

“The International office at Bordeaux came to the rescue and I was swiftly matched with another academic in Spain, Maria Fernandez Raga.

“I agree, it’s strange mixture. But I get help from a science teacher and this virtual exchange has been designed for science students, not language students. We use English as a tool to communicate so the interdisciplinary approach offers knowledge to both sides.

“My students at Bordeaux don’t have the same level of knowledge or experience as their Spanish counterparts, so they get knowledge from the Spanish. Basically, to build a physical garden in Bordeaux, we need the expertise of the Spanish students. The collaboration chain works like this: the French students provide the ideas. They send over their ideas to Spain and the Spanish students provide feedback on the ideas. The ideas then come back to France and the communication continues back and forth. They use English as a lingua franca and I assist with the communication. The Spanish students don’t have English classes, therefore their English language level is lower than the French students. I make sure, therefore, that this aspect is taken into consideration.

For the collaboration to succeed, intercultural communication needs to happen. My students don’t have the science knowledge and experience which the Spanish students provide.

How many students do you have to manage typically and what are the main challenges?

“The numbers of students vary from year to year, so typically about 8-10 in France and in 8-14 in Spain.

“In terms of challenges – you would think that French and Spanish students would be similar, but they aren’t, despite being geographical neighbours. My students assume the Spanish will take the lead as they are older. Therefore, we had to intervene and make it clear that age is not a factor.

“Another issue was timetabling. Although there is no time difference, there is a timetable difference and this makes coordinating meetings hard. My students had to come to terms with having to work a bit later than usual at times because the Spanish students have classes till 8-9pm. And of course, the different levels of English. It means I have to be present to make sure all runs smoothly.

“Students can find it hard to communicate. We mistakenly assumed they had mastered the technology, but we realised they aren’t always very good at setting up appointments, for example! They have the tech, but they still need to be shown how to do it.”

How much autonomy do the students have?

“I give them autonomy but am available for both tech and organisational skills. Platforms are now less of an issue. But we have to be there and make sure it’s all working. And sometimes students say, ‘oh we can’t deliver this week, we will deliver next week’, and this can be a real problem as the VE collaboration has time constraints. Our VE is quite long and runs from October to May, mainly due to timetable differences, holidays and student feedback. But, believe me, it goes fast and we had to extend it because otherwise they felt under pressure.

Is it always the same VE or does it evolve?

“The collaboration evolves over time and we have had to adapt.  Now it’s more of a ‘citizen-oriented approach’, if that’s the right word. The garden is out in the community. It’s moved from campus and this was due to a student saying we should talk to ‘real people’. This came as a shock to me as I thought we were ‘real people’. But they meant we should talk to ‘real gardeners’. This proved to be a game-changer.

“Now we focus on water supply and water management. This became the focus after they spoke to allotment owners and other gardeners, resulting in a substantial change in the project at our end. And it hasn’t stopped evolving, all thanks to our students.”

“Students are becoming more aware of sustainability issues and those with the scientific knowledge are supporting existing gardens now.”

“Also, because the campus closes in the summer, no one can look after the garden, so we have taken on a more supportive role in the local community. And what is lovely is that it connects various generations too, young and old alike share the experience.  The students woke us up to this and this is great.”