It is not common for schools to launch a joint course and start teaching and learning at the same time in the same virtual classroom. Even rarer is such an international cooperation in vocational education. But now Tartu Vocational College and Zealand Business College let the first swallow to fly and held the first joint lessons of the “International Customer Service” course online.

Behind the birth of the course is vocational teacher Triinu Virnas, who spent the first semester of the last academic year as a mobility student at Zealand Business College in Denmark. First shadowing her colleagues there, then as a co-teacher, and finally, together with teacher Pia Bonnensen, she developed a new form of international cooperation into a joint curriculum.

One thing was clear from the start – the International Customer Service course had to be taught in English and internationally. Practical collaboration is what makes learning really meaningful. Just in the same way, a pool full of water is essential to learning to swim. The second, but no less important component was the flipped classroom method. Again to make learning more explorative and practical. And despite the fact that there was no similar model to follow in Tartu or Denmark, the elective course was uploaded to Moodle for implementation from this autumn.

According to the teacher, Triinu Virnas, such a course is needed by all learners. “The aim of international customer service is to give students an overview of how to do business and provide the best service to people of other nationalities. And look anywhere from small businesses to multinational corporations – everyone needs to get to know and serve international customers, regardless of national borders or language barriers. Whether you’re a car painter or a potter, you still have to talk to the customer, and there’s no getting away from customer service, even international customer service. Once you have some initial experience from school, you have something to build on in your future working life,” she explained enthusiastically. “Or take Estonia’s education strategy – multicultural education is in there too. And a modern approach to learning – please, that’s what we’re doing with our flipped classroom and international co-learning.” continues Virnas.

The students seem to agree with the teacher. When Tartu VOCO opened enrolment for elective courses, the international customer service module filled up at lightning speed. The course has attracted mechatronics, cooks, sales managers, business managers and IT students. “I sent a letter to my students and after only 10 minutes I received a reply that I could no longer enrol on the course. The places just filled up so quickly.” In total, there are 22 students on the international customer service course, exactly half of them from Tartu and half from Naestved in Denmark.

Triinu admits that the high interest is of course gratifying and that the courses should be interesting and lively, but as a teacher she has also had some headaches. “Arranging dates, for example, is doubly time-consuming: moving holidays, breaks, different schedules to take into account. And if I once thought that 1 hour of time difference is a piece of cake, it actually matters a lot. Also, the curricula are different in the schools and while in VOCO the learners have an elective course, ZBC learners have no choice but to take an extra English class,” she gave examples.

But all that is now behind and the first lessons in the same virtual classroom at the same time, based on the same curriculum, have been successfully completed. “We started from the beginning – how to communicate, which channel to use to initiate and maintain business relationships. We’ve got learners interacting with each other, and that’s very important too. Contacts are important! We use the flipped classroom method, which means that teachers initiate the topic, review the theory and share materials. Learners have to do their own reading, find the answers and make a presentation for the next lesson. We listen and discuss, and then we change the topic again. The roles are set- I am the customer service and sales teacher and Pia is the language teacher. And as the language of instruction is English, learning vocabulary and grammar as well as linguistic development in general, one of the outcomes of the course, because language only develops when you use it. For example, when I went to Denmark a year ago, I could also say that I speak really good London. But a foreign language environment is where you learn and develop, and that’s why I haven’t over-explained anything in Estonian”.

In addition to Meet’s virtual classes, there are also plans to study together in real life. According to Triinu Virnas, Tartu students are planning to pack their bags and travel to Denmark in March. “In Naestved there will be joint lessons, students will do their final presentations and get feedback. In addition, they will meet fellow students they already know, and we will definitely see the city and its sights,” Virnas promised.

The first feedback from learners is positive. “For example, they said that it wasn’t so scary,” she laughed. “The students also like the fact that we have well thought-out topics with teacher Pia and that we have a good interaction, we joke around and that makes the learning atmosphere stress-free”.

Of course, the students’ interest and feedback is very valuable but it also gives the school the confidence to continue with such a course. Already there is interest from Barcelona, Spain, and the possibility of bringing even more students from different countries, cultures and temperaments together is in the air. “Yes, that could be one of the advantages of coming to study at VOCO,” Virnas makes no secret. “There is no other international course like this in Estonia, with its own curriculum, specific topics and teaching method, which you can study in English as an elective in vocational school. Secondly, the first few lessons have proved to me that all the work, the effort, the worry and the six months of living abroad – it has paid off! If the students like it, if they are happy and smile, the tiredness just disappears. That’s the biggest motivator for a teacher,” said teacher Triinu Virnas.

Kaire Mets