The gruppo 62 Italian project: undergraduate collaboration between the universities of Hull and Leeds

Author: George Talbot


This paper reports quite briefly on a project in progress, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) through the Collaboration Programme in Modern Languages proposed by the University Council for Modern Languages (UCML) and directed by Professor David Robey.

This article was added to our website on 02/01/03 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


This paper reports quite briefly on a project in progress, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) through the Collaboration Programme in Modern Languages proposed by the University Council for Modern Languages (UCML) and directed by Professor David Robey. The project is of 24-months duration and began in October 2001. The name ‘Gruppo 62’ may require a little gloss. On the one hand there is a geographical reference to the north of England. Our two Yorkshire universities are linked by the M62 motorway. On the other hand there is a historical and cultural reference to a group of writers (including Umberto Eco) in Italy who in 1963, when they were young set out an agenda for change within Italian culture. Our Gruppo 62 has been in existence since 1994, running an annual mini-conference and arranging for reciprocal staff visits to address each other’s student body on matters of mutual interest.

The project has three broad aims. Firstly we intend to build on our existing regional collaboration for the promotion of Italian studies in Yorkshire and the north of England. Secondly, in the face of shrinkage in the sector and the loss of colleagues with vast experience in particular areas of the cultural curriculum, we see this project as an important opportunity to maintain and enhance breadth of coverage in both institutions. Finally, both departments have been active for a long time in the development of C&IT tools for learning and teaching and this project allows for some convergence of existing expertise, for mutual benefit.

We have set ourselves some specific objectives. These include firstly the development of a distinct set of topic-based modules. Secondly, within these modules we intend to provide students with a range of materials for the study of Italian culture, history, linguistic history and literature. Finally, we intend to adapt and enhance elements of existing modules for self-access/distance learning. Furthermore, we expect to explore issues surrounding the delivery and assessment of inter-institutional modules.

The topics we are concentrating upon are (1) History & Culture of Medieval Italy, (2) History & Culture of Renaissance Italy and (3) Linguistic Variety in Modern Italy. From the outset, it was clear that we would have difficulties to overcome and as those are difficulties which any such collaboration scheme is likely to encounter, it may be useful to document them. Firstly, after exchanging documentation on undergraduate modules, it became clear that while we taught a broadly similar programme, we teach students different things at different levels. For example, one department teaches a course on Renaissance Italy to students in their second year, while the other teaches analogous topics to students in their final year. Clearly there are arguments in favour of both practices. Equally clearly we cannot teach and assess the same course in two different institutions, to students at different levels of academic progression. Secondly, each of the four lecturers involved in the project envisaged putting the learning materials to different kinds of uses. This is less of a problem. It is perfectly feasible to use good materials in different ways. Thirdly, we approached the project with the intention of using a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). That in itself is not necessarily a problem, however, before very long however we recognised that we were dealing with a can of worms.

VLEs harness the power of the internet, but we are at an early stage of their development and quite simply there are too many in the field. The fittest may survive, but there is no indication at this stage as to which these are likely to be. This might be less of a problem if both our institutions were using the same VLE, but they are not. Indeed even within the University of Hull, we use Blackboard - a commercially available external product - and also use MERLIN - a VLE developed within our Modern Languages department's Language Institute in collaboration with British Telecom. The University of Leeds, on the other hand, uses its own proprietary VLE, Bodington Common. In short, Hull students and staff are familiar with one or two different VLEs - both are different from the one familiar to our friends down the M62. What to do?

It appeared that we were faced with the dilemma of using one VLE only, or of developing two different packages in parallel. The former route would almost certainly alienate one partner, the latter could be described as 'collaboration' only by an unacceptable stretch of the imagination. We began to weigh up the pros and cons of VLEs. In their favour was the concept of a corporate identity; students and staff can deal with a familiar and relatively stable environment which integrates communication (group and individual), learning resources and internet reference points. The downside of implementing in just one VLE, as has been mentioned, is identity crisis. Students from one institution should not have to register at another in order to pursue a module which is part of their own programme. However, implement in two parallel environments and you lose the ethos of collaboration, and indeed inter-site communication, we have found that communication itself can be a mercurial concept when it comes to having students on one site involved in on-line discussion. The idea works well in distance mode and could work well between Hull and Leeds, but it is by no means obvious that a group of 18 students, all based on the same campus and attending the same lectures and seminars, will prefer this mode of interaction. These are areas of the project which must be kept under continual review.

Gruppo 62's pragmatic solution to the VLE problem has been to place the learning material in a closed-access website, which may be accessed by both sets of students. Access may be direct, or, more usually, through their familiar VLE. This means that both departments continue to use their familiar VLE for purposes of communication and learning support, but both share the learning materials which are independent of each VLE. This model has the virtue of being open-ended, so that if other institutions wished, at a later stage, to make use of the materials, that could be arranged without disruption to existing users.

The Gruppo 62 solution means, of course, that students from the two institutions are not in direct contact, despite using the same materials (not necessarily in the same ways). Instead, we plan to have an 'expert consultant' from the other university on-line at strategic points of the modules, to answer questions and to discuss the topics. This will work on a pilot basis in the course of 2002-03, with a review towards the end of the project. We look forward to reporting on the results at the project's conclusion.