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Academic mobility within a department What happens when French and German specialists work on an Italian distance course. Elodie Vialleton & Dr Uwe Baumann, Department of Languages, The Open University. Context. UK Higher Education sector: resource constraints

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Academic mobility within a department What happens when French and German specialists work on an Italian distance course

Elodie Vialleton & DrUwe Baumann,

Department of Languages, The Open University


  • UK Higher Education sector: resource constraints

  • The Department of Languages at the Open University

    The challenge: widening the curriculum with limited new resources.

    The approach: cross-language teams to develop new modules in Welsh, Chinese and Italian

This paper
This paper

  • is based on feedback from colleagues

  • describes our Department and how we work

  • presents a case study: L150 Intermediate Italian

  • examines outcomes: challenges and benefits

The department of languages
The Department of Languages

  • Founded in 1991

  • Modules in Chinese, English for Academic Purposes, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Welsh

  • from beginners’ to graduate level in French, German, Spanish

  • Various qualifications, including BA Modern Language Studies

  • over 11 000 students in 2012

  • about 70 members of staff in the Department

  • about 40 academic staff

Distance learning materials
Distance learning materials

  • Course website as the hub

  • Use of VLE

Distance learning materials1
Distance learning materials

  • Course books

  • Audio-visual materials, DVD-ROMs

Distance learning materials2





Distance learning materials

  • Materials for e-tutorials (virtual whiteboards)

Module production

  • in-house design and production (all stages, from syllabus design to activities on the VLE and assessment materials)

  • in teams

  • traditionally: up to 4 years development time

Case study: intermediate Italian

  • L150 Vivace

  • Standard model: mix of media, in-house design

The team

  • 2 academics specialists of Italian (one experienced in Open Distance Learning or ODL, one novice)

  • 4 non-specialist academics: 2 specialists of French, 1 specialist of German, 1 specialist responsible for student and tutor support (all experienced in designing and writing language courses for ODL audiences)

  • 1 administrator

  • Some consultants

The input from non-specialists

  • Planning the module structure and distribution of materials across different media

  • Overall syllabus design and design of unit outlines

  • Planning cultural content and overall focus of videos

  • Designing the principles of assessment

Did it go as far as materials creation?

  • Yes…

  • writing up content taught in English based on outlines or items provided by specialists

  • …but

  • The bulk of the writing had to be done by specialists

The input from specialists

  • Details of the syllabus (linguistic progression, vocabulary, etc.)

  • Writing all the content in Italian (designing language and culture activities)…

  • … and a lot of the content in English (e.g. feedback, grammar teaching points)

  • Supervision of video production (e.g. what questions to ask to elicit particular language content) and audio recordings

  • Writing of assessment tasks

What worked well in cross-language teams

  • The combination of the knowledge, skills and experience of the specialists with the transferable skills and previous knowledge and experience of the non-specialists

  • All team members developed a sense of ownership of the project

  • Flexibility, open-mindedness, pragmatism, perseverance

  • Role of administrative support

What were the challenges in cross-language teams?

  • Focus of Italian specialist on writing, less involvement in other tasks and discussions

  • Negotiating different perspectives and approaches to teaching of language and culture, and different approaches to ODL

  • Issues due to roles being interpreted differently at the outset (e.g. blurred boundary between generic / specific content)

  • Dealing with different personalities

  • Experience of and expectations about team work

The benefits?


  • Higher focus on reflection on cultural differences reflected in the development of intercultural competence in the module

  • A different angle to critical reading, closer to a student’s perspective

  • Higher standardisation across the module due to writing being shared

  • Comparability with modules at the same level in different languages

The benefits?

Personal development

  • Confrontation of cultures and teaching cultures

  • Stronger focus on teaching practices, opportunity for self-reflection on pedagogy and teaching methods

  • New skills and different experience gained

  • Redefining of identity (professional and individual)

  • Intercultural communication ‘live’

The benefits?

For the Department

  • Cost effectiveness. HR management, deployment of resources and opportunity for more rapid response to market demand

  • Sharing of practice and expertise

  • Widening the skills base of staff

  • Development of a more collaborative approach

  • Breaking down of ivory towers

  • Stronger harmonisation across language teams

  • Stronger sense of community, better integration of members of smaller teams.

Internal academic mobility

Beyond distance teaching

  • Fostering collaboration and dialogue outside of individuals’ subject specialism

  • Exchange of knowledge and practice (embedded staff development)

  • More integration across related disciplines

  • Greater comparability of student experience which is a ever greater concern in the sector

  • Developing a different sense of identity, for individuals and for subject communities

[email protected]

[email protected] of LanguagesThe Open UniversityWalton HallMilton KeynesMK7 6AA