What I learned from my OLE exchange experience

Is there more to OLE's than just resume boosting?

Image by Sydney Abroad.

I still remember the awkward moment when my German friend sent me “Frohes chinesisches neues Jahr (Happy Chinese New Year)” on Facebook a month ago. At that time, I didn’t even know what the sentence actually meant. He was one of the few local students I met at Humboldt University of Berlin.

When I replied, with my poor German knowledge the only word that appeared in my mind is “danke”, which means “thank you” in English. Shaking my head helplessly, I grinned bitterly and ended this brief greeting with “danke”. It was only then that I finally realised I could barely remember anything that I learned during the half month exchange in Germany.  I do wonder about the value of the Open Learning Environment (OLE) in-country experience, aside from the freshness of visiting a totally strange country, the indulgence of exchange life and the considerable achievements on my transcript.

The OLE in-country experience program is a brand new study unit put forward by the university in 2018 after teaching reform. The program usually consists of two parts, learning a new second language in foreign countries and participating in several cultural courses offered by the partner universities. It aims to provide students with interdisciplinary learning experiences and enriches their language learning background when they complete their degrees. Today, the development of OLE in-country experience units seems to deviate from the original goals set by the university.

The first and most prominent problem is that it is difficult to achieve the expected language learning target during the two or three weeks study time. Initially, when the School of Languages and Cultures established the unit curriculum, the target groups for OLE in-country experience units were students with little or no knowledge of a second language. Referring to the European Common Language Reference (CEFR), the language learning outcome planned by the OLE unit of study outline only reaches A1 level, breakthrough or beginner, which is the same as the other language units provided by the university. Apart from that, the learning results of OLE experience country programs are more limited than other language units. 

I have taken two language units in the university, FRNC 1601 French Introduction 1 and OLES 2153 Experience Germany. Compared with German, I have a more solid French background after finishing these two units. Learning and memory established through repetition and practice throughout a whole semester are far more effective than a half month of intensive learning.

Next, the unit of study outlines provided by the partner universities are nearly out of supervision. Thus, it leads to another serious consequence – learning experience and outcomes between different courses may vary from unit to unit. Isabella Cui, a Medical School student, told me in the interview that, “I strongly recommend everyone to take OLES 2147 Experience Italy. We don’t have any quizzes or exams during the exchange time. Only need to shoot a short Vlog. And everyone gets a satisfactory score”.  However, not every student is as lucky as Isabella. Fengwei Yu, a Sydney Law School student, holds a different view towards the OLE unit. “We are the first exchange students to attend The Jean Moulin University Lyon 3. During the three weeks study time, we have to suffer endless French grammar quizzes and tests. Most importantly, the majority of students get very low marks. Initially, I wished to improve my WAM through this unit”. Indeed, many students are forced to undertake unnecessary risks of “selecting the wrong course” in the lack of uniform assessment standards.

Therefore, for most students, there are two reasons to choose OLE exchange units – being able to achieve a relatively high score with minimal effort and travelling to a new country to have fun in the name of study. Students’ purposes in picking study units may no longer be to choose the language of their interest but, rather to select “high-score” courses and travel destinations.

Another problem that needs to be considered are the costs involved for what is a less effective learning program. Since most partner exchange destinations are in the northern hemisphere, the round flight ticket is about $2000, taking the cheapest economy class ticket as an example. Taking into account accomodation, food and travel, the costs are exorbitant for both domestic and international students. Although the university provides $1000 exchange scholarships for students who achieve over 70 WAM, it’s still hard to cover the full cost of the exchange.

Lastly, as exchange students, we rarely have opportunities to communicate with local students. During my exchange in Germany, Humboldt University of Berlin did not provide us with the opportunity to connect socially with local students. The only non-language course – an introduction to the German political system – was also studied with my classmates from the University of Sydney. It seems like we are observing others across the glass, but still cannot truly get involved.

The only thing that the exchange confirmed is that I still use English when communicating with other non-native English speakers. We always talk in English unconsciously after a brief greeting in the other’s mother tongue. I know it’s an unrealistic thing to master a completely foreign language in such a short time. But I do hope that OLE exchange units can provide students with better and more authentic language learning experiences rather than becoming a choice to escape from the pressure of other units. 

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