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Collaborative teaching across borders: Breaking down barriers with Virtual Exchange

Collaborative teaching is finally gaining momentum in and between European universities. But what tangible benefits does this offer to teachers and their institutions? Here, Joan-Tomàs Pujolà outlines the lessons he has learned from pursuing Virtual Exchange with international colleagues in the field of foreign language education.

Collaborative teaching is not yet common within many European universities, and even less so across borders. However, it appears to be gaining momentum. We have seen this up close through the experiences shared in the European University Association’s 2022 Learning and Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Collaborative teaching practice,” and as evidenced in recent reports such as “Internationalising Higher Education and the Role of Virtual Exchange” (O’Dowd 2023).

International collaborative teaching in higher education can take many forms and names, such as Virtual Exchange (VE), telecollaboration or Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). These novel forms of learning provision allow students to benefit from international educational experiences without physical mobility. Online activities provide them with the opportunity to engage in an intercultural dialogue with fellow students from higher education institutions in other countries. Here, there are multiple opportunities for students. For this reason, the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE) 2021-2027 fosters a framework for international cooperation in innovative good teaching practices in which collaborative teaching takes the form of joint blended degrees and Virtual Exchange.

But what tangible benefits do approaches such as Virtual Exchange offer to teachers and their institutions?

The physical borders are easy to overcome. Technology helps teachers to break down classroom walls, and various other barriers, to allow for collaborative teaching. Indeed, during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns forced teachers to move to remote digital teaching, sparking an increase in digital collaboration.

To give a concrete example, I will draw on my own teaching experience, having been involved in a VE project for much of the past decade. Indeed, from my home institution, the University of Barcelona, I have had the opportunity to co-teach with two international partner universities (the University of Groningen, 2013 to 2017, and the University of Iceland, 2018 to present). Following on from our first partnership with colleagues in Groningen, in our current telecollaboration project with the University of Iceland, we aim to teach students from different degree programmes: The participants from the University of Barcelona are future language teachers taking a Masters’ degree at the Faculty of Education, whereas participating Icelandic students follow “Spanish as a foreign language” courses as part of various degree programmes. The project has two main objectives:

  1. To improve language learners’ communicative skills in digital contexts; and
  2. To build pre-service teachers’ digital skills for innovative means of teaching and learning.

Teachers from both universities joined forces to develop the telecollaboration project without any specific financial support. As such, the project has succeeded for many years due to strong commitment of the individual teachers: Juan, Gerdientje, Olivia, Pilar and yours truly, who have complemented each other professionally and personally. Being foreign language teachers undoubtedly helped us to successfully adopt the collaborative approach, as VE has been a recognised and commonly used pedagogical approach in foreign language education for quite some time.

From a teacher’s perspective, the project has been a win-win situation for all parties. Partnering in this way with international colleagues has led us to better appreciate the art of collaboration. Indeed, this requires thoughtful consideration and a great deal of flexibility on the part of teachers, including adapting to new methodologies and diverse cultural educational contexts. Negotiation was key in the planning phases and continuous communication has been equally vital during each phase of this VE project. We have each gained many different teaching strategies, allowing us to grow professionally and better value university teaching as an educational process free of intellectual boundaries, while developing inter- and cross-cultural understanding in a globalised world.

From this experience, I would certainly encourage teachers in higher education to start a VE project from a bottom-up perspective, break down barriers and open their classroom up to transnational collaborative teaching. Teachers who are interested in doing so can get valuable information by contacting different European consortia and projects such as UNICollaboration, a cross-disciplinary professional organisation for telecollaboration and virtual exchange in higher education.

Despite its many advantages, collaborative teaching across borders also demands an extra effort from the institution. Thus, there is a need to help teachers to overcome psychological or professional barriers, such as a fear of facing new educational contexts or the perception that VE is a rarefied domain. These barriers may also prevent teachers from fully understanding the opportunities that VE holds for their continuous professional development.

There are undoubtedly many challenges to be faced when developing a VE project. However, in my experience there has always been much more to gain for the teachers (and our students) when we managed to face these challenges and collaboratively solve any problems that emerged.

Note: a call for participation for the 2023 Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Challenges and enablers in designing transnational joint learning provision” is now open.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Joan-Tomàs Pujolà

Joan-Tomàs Pujolà is currently Senior Lecturer in Language Education at the University of Barcelona, where he also collaborates in teacher training courses at the university’s Institute of Professional Development. His research interests cover Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) methods such as m-learning, telecollaboration, tandem learning, LMOOCs and e-portfolios for teacher education, as well as active methodologies such as gamification. Joan-Tomàs holds a doctorate in Applied Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh.

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