For 17 years, students from Kantonsschule Wiedikon in Zurich have enjoyed an intensive 3-week language immersion course in Norwich, with classes and social activities run by Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE). When it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic was going to impose more than a temporary postponement on the September 2020 course, NILE Director, Thom Kiddle, and Kantonsschule Wiedikon’s Hania Bociek, (who developed the original Wiedikon-NILE project in 2003 and has worked with it ever since), put their heads together to design a way to take the Norwich experience online to Zurich. The result was a highly innovative and hugely successful two-week intensive online programme, combining a range of virtual tools and creative approaches to give the Kantonsschule Wiedikon students a unique experience and access to Norwich and Norfolk sights, sounds, people and places, alongside top-quality language development activities. As Hania says,

“This trip was going to be my last and I was so looking forward to it. Instead, I found myself doing something even more exciting: taking our NILE Norwich project into the digital age and giving it a whole new dimension”.

Pre-course coordination

After four months of careful planning and organisation, the NILE coordinators and lead trainer, Emma Halliday, met Hania and her group of 16 students for a welcome meeting via Zoom to explain the digital platforms to be used. The students were in two socially-distanced classrooms in their school in Zurich, and Hania’s presence and coordination on the Swiss-side was critical to the successful management of the course throughout. Pre-course diagnostic tasks involved long-turn speaking tasks, and extended writing assignments uploaded to the NILE Online Brightspace platform, and allowed the tutor to plan the focus of language development tasks and resources for the course.

Live language teaching sessions

The intensive programme consisted of five hours per day of live sessions with Emma, with an explicit focus on CEFR C2-level language development, and a complementary focus on the Cambridge Proficiency exam. Classes were delivered on the Zoom platform, with combined use of online breakout rooms, and small-group discussions in the physical setting, monitored and managed by Hania. The combination of the local English teaching expert, and the online tutor, Emma, from NILE, enabled monitoring and feedback to be co-constructed and targeted, and overcame some of the challenges in remote monitoring of pair and group activities. Emma used a wide range of presentation and interaction tools and resources to recreate structured language exposure and practice opportunities for the students throughout each day.>

Additional language practice platforms

We were able to harness the affordances of the NILE Online Brightspace platform, and our global partner Macmillan Education’s English Campus platform to provide collaboration spaces (e.g. Padlet embedded into the Brightspace platform for vocabulary curation), writing assignments with individual feedback, and Listening and Reading practice activities graded at the C2 level, and with an exam format. This combination allowed individual self-study with personalised feedback, both from automated scoring and tutor comments, as well as co-constructed learning among the students. It also provided an additional practice space for fast-finishers, and a repository for students to download resources from the live sessions.

Virtual tours

A key element of the face-to-face study visits to Norwich is the social programme’s guided tours to explore Norwich and beyond. We very much wanted to keep this dimension in the course, and so we experimented with three different models of virtual tour, with three different local tour guides. The first desk-based tour of Norwich used images of Norwich past and present to walk the students through this attractive and historic city, with questions and answers from the guide. The second and fourth tours, of the Norfolk Broads and the seaside towns of Cromer and Sheringham, added video footage and an interactive quiz for the students, allowing them to take a tour on a sailing boat and a paddle steamer through the video lens. The third, and most popular of the tours, was conducted live in Cambridge, with two guides walking through the city with a handheld video camera, narrating their tour and bantering with each other and the students. Each model gave a different perspective and mode of interaction, but we agree with the students that the live, on-location tour made for the most engaging experience.

Interviewing Norwich folk

Another of the immersive experiences we didn’t want to lose is the opportunity for linguistic and cultural exposure to people from Norwich who are the homestay hosts for the students when they come to Norwich in person. This ‘real-life’ language practice, with non-language professionals who don’t grade their language, is an enriching experience on both sides and adds an extra dimension to the Norwich visit. In order to take this online, we asked 16 Norwich hosts, four each on four separate occasions, to be interviewed by the Kantonsschule Wiedikon students in small groups, with prepared topics and questions. The format was highly engaging and enjoyable for the hosts and students alike, and the spontaneous language produced, and the depth of conversations surprised and impressed us greatly. One student commented,

“Meeting the hosts was very interesting, just simply because it was an interaction with foreigners who have a different culture.” 

The cultural quiz and farewell tea

Our NILE social programme coordinator, Miriam Anderson, began the course closing activities with a team quiz on English culture, bringing in aspects of the tours and other British customs and food. Our traditional closing ceremony on the face-to-face courses in Norwich is always a cream tea in one of Norwich’s historic buildings or in the cathedral cloisters. This element to the online course was deftly re-created by Martin Hefti, another of the Kantonsschule Wiedikon teachers, who laid on a fine spread with tea, with scones and jam, and even got close to authentic clotted cream! Martin teaches Biology immersively and, as coincidence would have it, was on the first trip to Norwich with Hania in 2004, so the cream tea also had a special significance for the founders of the course project. It was the perfect way to segue from students on individual computers to a whole group gathering with a projection screen where the NILE tutor and coordinators could join the feast virtually and raise a cup of tea in celebration of the hard work put in, and huge strides taken, by the students and the tutors in developing and implementing this innovative course programme.

Closing words

Post-course feedback from the participants, and opinions expressed by the teachers, were united in their views of the course as a great success. The ability to integrate the intensive virtual programme into the English curriculum at Kantonsschule Wiedikon, facilitated by the presence of the local English teacher, is a huge plus for this model, and the variety of virtual experiences was truly appreciated by the students. We were really pleased that our creativity in facing up to the challenges and restrictions on movement imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in such a rich and rewarding learning experience for all concerned.The last word goes to one of the students:

“First of all I want to say a huge thank you for making this course and this experience so wonderful! I've really learned a lot and I was able to improve my English skills enormously. Overall this course was amazing. Although it was intense, it was worth it every minute.”