Why I don't believe in a one size fits all approach to student exchanges


As the Erasmus+ coordinator for the school of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, I have been engaging with Erasmus exchange for more than 10 years, planning for more than 180 students to take part in summer work placements at 14 different partner institutions in seven European countries.


While summer placements are now established and allow around 30 students per year to explore a career in research with leading scientists in Europe, I am looking for new ways to engage a wider range of students in an international experience. I strongly believe that the opportunity to leave the UK, work and collaborate with international peers is important to enrich the student experience and allow them to gain valuable soft skills such as communication and team working. Since each student is different and has different personal circumstances, as well as individual career aspirations, I really want to be able to provide exchange opportunities that suit their own individual development plan. In this way, more students will engage in an international experience which will help them in their development as biomedical and healthcare professionals when supporting and caring for people of all backgrounds.

I have seen many students mature and gain confidence by pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and taking up mobility opportunities. In order to make exchanges available to more students, my colleagues and I have started to work with our international collaborators to develop short exchanges (1 or 2 weeks) that allow a small group of students (up to 10 at a time) to explore the practice of pharmacy in a different country. Eye-opening experiences are offered both on the other side of the world, at Nihon University (Japan) and just across the channel, at the University of Caen-Normandy (France). Our students join their peers in comparing the roles of pharmacists and exploring best practices in different countries, learning new perspectives and getting ready to become professionals who are flexible and open to change. After her journey, Hannah (pharmacy student) said, 'Experiencing pharmacy in Japan enabled me to see a side of the profession that I had not previously considered. I would thoroughly recommend this experience to any student wanting to learn more about pharmacy as a profession and where it can take you!'. The students unable to travel are offered the opportunity to work with the exchange incoming students, in order to learn more about their time abroad.

The latest exchange opportunity I have developed is an Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange programme. This was possible thanks to the training and support received by Erasmus+ and the collaboration with the University of Jönköping (Sweden). Students enrolled in health care professional courses (e.g. pharmacy, nursing, medicine, etc.) from three European Universities, worked together to explore interprofessional collaboration. Once graduated, they will all work in environments where collaboration with different professionals is key to the positive outcome for the patient. Research shows that best interprofessional collaboration is achieved when students start working together and gain knowledge of each other's working practices during their studies.


Our virtual exchange programme is designed to allow for a sustained (over 7 weeks) collaboration between students via a succession of individual and group tasks. Tasks are constructed following a pedagogical design that allow students to move together through a series of stages of learning. In our case, students used podcasts and videos to share their knowledge of the national health systems of their countries and developed case studies to illustrate how best practice in interprofessional collaboration from each country could enhance the patient experience and outcome. Through these tasks, students learn from each other's experiences and achieve the core objective of this programme: sharing best practice and extending working knowledge between different countries and their systems.


All interactions occur online with a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous activities and students also become familiar with a range of digital tools that will advantage them in the future job market. The synchronous activities include facilitated dialogue sessions aimed at developing critical thinking, a reflective approach to learning and enhancing skills in intercultural dialogue. These sessions have been particularly relevant to students this year, as with the Covid-19 lockdown, we suddenly all had to communicate digitally and from a distance. Tessa (medical student) who took part in virtual exchange in January 2020 said, 'I had a technical advantage compared to my fellow students and colleagues. I knew about break-out rooms, silencing your microphone, etc. Also, I felt very comfortable participating in virtual meetings.' Other digital tools we explored were blogs, podcasts and videos which were all new to the students. As they were studying science-based courses, students tended to communicate their knowledge via more established ways such as reports and slide presentations.


The challenge of presenting themselves and the topics they study via different communication tools pushed them out of their comfort zone and helped build their confidence. Virtual exchange is a powerful tool to enhance students' communication skills and other transferable skills in the digital era. Brenda (Pharmacy student) said, 'I really like the idea of meeting and working with new people from different courses. It has sharpened my interpersonal skills and makes me feel confident in engaging in new teamwork activities.'


The virtual exchange model opens many new opportunities for collaboration not only between students of different countries but also between students of different disciplines, as they can support each other's learning and work towards the common goal of developing those key skills employers are looking for. Another advantage of this model is that it can be developed as a university wide approach to provide training in different areas such as leadership, entrepreneurship, and mental wellbeing. These are topics that would benefit all students in the institution. It also allows developing new models such as blended exchange.


While the present pandemic is creating many challenges for higher education, it is also giving us the opportunity to think out of the box and implement new ideas. Short, virtual and blended exchanges offer the opportunity of an international experience to a wider range of students and future-proof international collaboration. It provides a degree of flexibility in the face of limitations imposed by the current pandemic and any present or future travel ban.


Dr Marta Roldo is a Senior Lecturer in the Pharmaceutical Science and a Departmental Exchange Coordinator at the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, University of Portsmouth.

You can find out more about UUKi's current mobility research projects here and book your ticket to the Go International conference 2020 here.

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