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Re-thinking language and communication skills in curriculum development

The University of Jyväskylä in Finland is redefining the role of language and communication skills in curriculum development and aiming to educate multilingual academic professionals. A university-wide strategic development plan creates a completely new, multilingual structure for language and communication studies. As Marja-Leena Laakso and Peppi Taalas tell us, this brings together different languages and combines content and language expertise in the curriculum design.

In academia, we tend to agree that the purpose of higher education is to educate academic professionals who are prominent experts in their fields and disciplines. When looking at recent research one can conclude that expertise is seen as relational referring to the capacity to work with other practitioners in transdisciplinary contexts that are often multilingual, multicultural and multimodal. One feature common to all these contexts is that they are in constant transition. The academic experts we educate need capabilities and competences that help them cope and work in these changing contexts. One of these is in the area of language and interaction. Experts need to be able to operate and manoeuvre across different literacy spheres and languages, across different boundaries of working modes. They also need to be able to address different audiences from different disciplines, cultures and backgrounds and through different media. This requires an innovative way of approaching learning and teaching in higher education.

To be better able to address this changing notion of academic expertise and to take into account the ever-increasing need for multilingual repertoires and thinking, the Language Centre at the University of Jyväskylä decided to profoundly re-think and re-structure the degree- and discipline-specific language and communication courses. For this purpose, a university-wide strategic development plan was launched to create a completely new, multilingual structure for language and communication studies. The development work aimed at bringing together different languages, as well as combining content and language expertise in the curriculum design. The development was planned in stages to cover all of the university’s six faculties by 2020 and include more than 5000 students annually. All planning and development were carried out by the Language Centre in close cooperation with the subject departments and faculties.

The new language and communication modules at JYU are multilingual and phenomenon-based focusing on themes such as academic literacy, multilingual interaction and research communication. For example, academic text skills are approached from different language perspectives by comparing similarities and differences. Languages are neither studied nor used in isolation, and the goal is to support students in using, as well as in developing their language repertoires. The learning outcomes are aligned with the learning outcomes of the main subject courses running in parallel with the language courses. The working modes and reading and writing subject-specific texts are supported by metalevel capacity building, through reflection, strategies development and peer work.

The overarching goal is to build the mandatory and elective communication and language studies, internationalisation and employability, as well as metalevel skills into a structure that supports the development of academic language, communication and intercultural skills. Instead of individual courses, the focus of the design is on the three-year bachelor’s degree. New forms of communication and language studies are also a continuation of new curricula for lower levels of education, where linguistic awareness and multidisciplinary skills are central. This innovation is not really about new content, but about a new approach to language and language use, as well as language learning and teaching.

This significant undertaking has already now proven to be very successful both among the students and the department and faculty staff. The students are supported in their academic path in a multitude of new ways and at the right moment in their studies. The staff find the students to be more prepared for deeper academic thinking, expressed both in reading and writing and through different languages. In addition, for the teachers this co-creative approach to curriculum development has been a pedagogical journey beyond comparison, which strengthens their sense of purpose and academic expertise.

Marja-Leena Laakso and Peppi Taalas were members of EUA’s Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Continuous development of teaching competences.

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

Marja-Leena Laakso

Marja-Leena Laakso is Vice Rector for Education at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU) in Finland. As a Full Professor of Early Childhood Education at JYU, she has published extensively in the field and served as Dean of the Faculty of Education and Psychology.

Peppi Taalas

Peppi Taalas is Director of the Language Centre (spring 2019 onwards Centre for Multilingual Academic Communication) at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. In her research career she has focused on learning technologies, new learning cultures, multimodal language pedagogies and language curriculum development in higher education. 

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