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Transforming Education

How a Colombia field trip became a successful virtual exchange

Field trips and study visits are an essential part of the educational experience at the University of Exeter. A particularly successful trip for students from our College of Medicine and Health was given a new lease of life as a result of the pandemic.

Field courses are a capstone of many degree programmes, facilitating immersive and experiential learning opportunities. Students can engage with various aspects of their chosen field in situ, in an authentic and often applied way. This might involve touring unique facilities, interacting with external experts, attempting to conduct research in another language, and gaining first-hand experiences with the nuances of local culture. How could any of these hands-on activities possibly be replaced by a virtual trip?

In the College of Medicine and Health (CMH), a prime example of this is the Colombia field course – one of several potential ‘special study unit’ electives that Medical and Nursing students can undertake to personalise their learning experience by exploring more specialist topics. Normally, the trip allows UK-based students to meet Colombian healthcare professionals, see the hospitals in which they work, and watch the Colombian healthcare system in action. Doing this overseas allows students to develop cultural competency skills that they can then apply when working with diverse patients and colleagues.

The trip is normally run in conjunction with partners from the University of South Florida (USF) and Colombia’s Universidad del Norte, so that students from all three institutions can meet up and learn collaboratively. It was through this partnership that University of Exeter educators learned of an approach that could support them during the COVID-19 pandemic in taking the Colombia trip online: the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) model developed by the State University of New York. USF has successfully used COIL to provide students with international collaborative learning projects in the curriculum—so, on their recommendation, three University of Exeter staff enrolled for a crash course on this technique. Alison Marchbank (Nursing) and Professor Nicki Saulsbury (Medical School) attended in their capacity as academic leads, accompanied by Emma Mcfadyen (Global Partnerships) to provide logistical support.

Using the COIL framework to design the approach

Using the COIL framework to guide their pedagogical decisions, partners from all three institutions put their heads together to assess their existing curriculum – prioritising goals, determining which learning outcomes could be met with an online course, and selecting the best activities to achieve this. In addition to considering the intellectual side of things, the educators also had to tackle logistics. This included thinking about what technology was available to participants, which learning platforms could be accessed by learners in all three countries, how much screen time would be required and how that would be scheduled, and how they could facilitate meaningful interactions amongst people who not only didn’t know each other, but also didn’t necessarily speak the same language.

They opted for a blended approach that allowed students to engage with icebreakers, form working groups, and select research topics in Term 1, well in advance of the virtual exchange itself in March. This gave the students plenty of time to do background reading and preparation for the ‘trip’ while also giving staff a chance to monitor progress and make pedagogical adjustments where necessary. For example, an early glitch with Microsoft Teams was addressed by switching to Google Meet, which worked better for the Colombian students who predominantly engaged via mobile phone rather than laptops. There was also a quiz night where Kahoot was used to ask questions about food, music, and other aspects of the cultures represented amongst the cohort. To be fair to students with different native languages, some questions were asked in Spanish and others were asked in English, with translations quickly provided before the countdown timer ran too low.

The exchange itself was conducted over an intensive four-day period in March, during which the students attended presentations from medical experts in all three countries; contributed to group work meetings culminating in presentations; and were even treated to a Latin dance lesson to take the place of a night out at Carnival – the Latin version of Mardi Gras. All sessions incorporated time to cover the material in both English and Spanish (accompanying slide sets also included both languages), which gave students an opportunity to broaden their vocabulary regardless of their mother tongue.

Student Feedback

Although the virtual trip required significant preparation, concentration, and stamina (especially for CMH Digital Learning Developer Patrick Coniam, who provided extensive technical support, and the bilingual students and staff who contributed their expertise as translators on top of their primary role as learners or teachers), engagement was high and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The online format allowed students to ask questions both out loud and using the chat feature, which fostered interesting and meaningful conversations. Students reported that they felt the course contributed to their professional development and overall learning – including their expertise in clinical skills, despite the fact that they never even set foot in a physical clinic.

Staff are already thinking about what they learned this year and how it can be applied to future cohorts. For example, they will be exploring the inclusion of additional cultural competency support (such as Spanish language training to introduce field medicine terms); deciding whether to use the virtual exchange as a replacement for the in-person trip or a standalone option; and seeking to embed virtual pedagogy in additional modules.

Virtual trips such as this are just some of the teaching innovations introduced since the start of the pandemic, and their success opens up a range of possibilities for delivering education that is cutting-edge, inclusive, and adaptable.