Student exchange led to long-term cooperation
Irène Charbonneau first became interested in Finland during a trip made to a conference in Oulu. In the conference, Charbonneau also met Elina Lehtomäki, Professor of Global Education at the University of Oulu.
At the time, Charbonneau was a master’s student at Stockholm University. From France, where she had completed her bachelor's degree, Charbonneau had gone to Stockholm to pursue her interest in teaching, education and their development. The courses offered at Stockholm University seemed suitable for studying these themes.
The interesting range of courses offered in these themes also took Charbonneau to the University of Oulu as an exchange student for the autumn term 2019.
“I wanted my exchange to focus on studying. I had already experienced living abroad in Sweden, so travel experiences were not so important to me,” Charbonneau says.
“I was slightly older than the other exchange students so I learned to know many local people during the exchange, and Finland through them,” she adds.
The exchange as a whole was a rewarding experience to Charbonneau. Although studying took a lot of time, she found the courses interesting and teaching at the University of Oulu of a high quality. She feels the teachers also encouraged students to accumulate diverse skills.
“I liked it that students were encouraged to take initiative in Finland. It is not like that everywhere else.”
Traineeship working on an international online course
During the exchange, Finland had become a place where Chardonnay wanted to spend more time and, thanks to her initiative, she ended up staying in Finland for slightly longer.
“Irène was on exchange in our faculty and heard that we were planning an international online course. She then asked about the possibility to conduct a research project on the course,” Lehtomäki explains.
The course the were preparing was part of the Sustainability in Development study module of the UniPID network. In addition to Finnish university students, the course would be open to foreign degree students and exchange students.
Lehtomäki had had students as trainees in her projects and courses before. The experiences had been positive so they agreed that Charbonneau would stay on at the University of Oulu as an Erasmus+ trainee focusing on students’ feedback and learning diaries. During the course, she also observed the students in teaching situations and groups discussions on Zoom and interviewed them about their experiences of teaching technology and online studies. After the course, Charbonneau drew up a report on the course to Lehtomäki and the rest of the teaching team and wrote her thesis on the basis of the material.
The thesis was granted an award in the conference of the European Distance and E-learning Network in October 2020.
Research on online studies is important
According to Charbonneau, research on online education is important because online studies are on the increase. However, higher education institutions sometimes focus on the content of the teaching and do not pay enough attention to the social side of the studies or to students with fewer opportunities.
“They may assume that everyone has the same skills, equipment and connections for participation in online education. In order for online studies to not increase inequality, it is extremely important to collect feedback and listen to the students,” Lehtomäki says.
However, Charbonneau and Lehtomäki see a great deal of opportunities for promoting equal participation in online studies.
“People often think that an international group of higher education students is automatically a diverse one. In reality, this is not the case,” Charbonneau says.
“For example, a family, disabilities or pets may be a reason to skip the exchange,” Lehtomäki specifies.
According to Lehtomäki, online studies cannot entirely compensate for a period abroad, but it may slightly increase the equality of international opportunities by offering internationalisation to those for whom it would otherwise not be possible. She considers international opportunities important because international cooperation teaches critical thinking, among other things. Critical thinking means questioning one's own ways of thinking and understanding the realities of others.
“In online studies, this also happens in an environmentally friendly way as you do not need to fly long distances,” Lehtomäki notes.
Virtual cooperation continues
Although the online course at the University of Oulu has already ended and Charbonneau has completed her thesis, cooperation between Charbonneau and the teachers of the course still continues. They are working on an article on the opportunities and challenges of technology in engaging everyone and promoting equal participation.
The Erasmus+ student exchange thus initiated long-term cooperation, which has not required people to be in the same place. Instead, they have been working online.
Lehtomäki hopes to see more extensive development in virtual international cooperation as it is one way of offering good learning experiences and capabilities for career development to students.
“More online courses could be organised and universities could offer more traineeships, even remotely. Funding from the Erasmus+ programme could also be used for developing different projects that would be carried out online and implemented together by students from several different countries,” Lehtomäki says enthusiastically.
However, according to Lehtomäki, it is important to collect feedback and analyse the activities when developing virtual internationalisation and online studies. Research on virtuality and internationalisation, cooperation similar to what Lehtomäki and Charbonneau have done, and research on online studies, such as Charbonneau’s thesis, are therefore required.
Tips from Charbonneau and Lehtomäki to those considering participation in Erasmus+ activities
- Think about a goal. Think about whether the main goal of your exchange is participation in interesting courses or intercultural learning. Choose your destination and plan the programme for the exchange according to your goals. This increases the success of your exchange.
- Take initiative. You should also ask about options that are not offered directly.
- Keep on applying. Completing applications may sometimes feel exhausting or challenging, but it is worth it!
- Offer a place for traineeship. Traineeships are important opportunities for students. They help students gain new perspectives.
- Go abroad virtually. Teachers should also take advantage of the opportunities and “visit” other educational institutions. In addition to individual visits, it would be important to create a constant dialogue between different actors.
- Project type: Erasmus+ for Higher Education, Student mobility and traineeship in higher education
- Sending university: Stockholm University
- Receiving university: University of Oulu
- Project period: Student exchange autumn term 2019, traineeship in higher education spring 2020
- Partner countries: Sweden and Finland
- Funding: The grant for students’ mobility or traineeship varies according to the destination country and other factors.
Author: Alma Smolander