VCSE Guidebook/Conclusions/Strengths and weaknesses of the VCSE virtual campus

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7.1. Strengths and weaknesses of the VCSE virtual campus

The VCSE organisational model

The Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (VCSE) is an open, bottom-up and flexible network of European universities, based upon the principle of subsidiarity for the exchange of courses, students and know-how on e-learning for sustainability. Thus, most of the educational and organisational decisions are the responsibility of the individual partners' universities. Its main strengths are: the strong commitment of the "core" VCSE-partners, the accessibility to new partners due to the minimum bureaucratic and administrative requirements, the diversity in educational formats and technologies for e-learning, the bottom-up assurance of educational quality and the low-maintenance and running costs (open-source e-learning platform).

On the other hand, its bottom-up voluntary nature carries within it the risk for a lack of commitment on the part of the project partners, especially the new coming members, unless supported by close "follow-up" and evaluation procedures. The rich diversity of didactical approaches at course level might be confusing for students and create difficulties in the efficiency of learning processes, but this may be easily counter-balanced by a common introductory phase in each VCSE-courses.

Lastly, even though many of the organisational responsibilities are distributed among the partners, there is still the need for a central coordination, mainly in relation to the enhancement and enlargement of the VCSE Network. The sustainability of the VCSE Network beyond the EU co-financing may be guaranteed by the creation of a bi-annually rotating VCSE Secretariat, which will be supported either by annual membership contributions or contributions in kind (e.g. man/days of scientific or technical staff) of the individual partners.

The VCSE web portal

The VCSE open-source content management system and e-learning platform can be seen as a low-cost and easily reproduced good practice example for other virtual campuses. Nevertheless, the open-source decentralised approach requires shared responsibility among the partnership. Thus, a clear sub-division and distribution of responsibilities among the partners for its continuous development and improvement has to be envisaged.

The VCSE e-courses

The VCSE e-courses comprise a wide variety of existing and tested courses on sustainable development issues adapted for a wider audience of students of inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural background. The diversity in terms of content, didactical approach and methodology offers students the opportunity to choose from adequate courses regarding their individual curricula. Thus, the existing VCSE e-courses do not make up a consistent curriculum, but comprise a collection of available seminars that might fit in different study courses.

The main challenge for the VCSE-partners is to assure the official accreditation of the VCSE courses at the institutional level. Up to now, most courses are only accredited as electives; but as long as the students are not guaranteed to receive credits for the courses they attend, the interest in participating will remain low. Therefore, the integration of the VCSE e-courses into the curricula of the partner universities is of crucial importance for the promotion of the courses via the official institutional channels, for their accessibility by the students through the information systems used at universities and, last but not least, for their final accreditation.

The VCSE enlargement strategy

The VCSE enlargement strategy via a combination of “passive” mediums (VCSE e-Newsletters and VCSE Web portal) and comparatively more successful “active” mediums (VCSE Central Demonstration Workshops) resulted in the desired expansion of the VCSE Network from 5 to 15 European universities, as well as in very promising possibilities for even further enlargement. One of the key success factors of the VCSE Central Demonstration Workshops was the careful selection of the invited guests among key professionals/institutes on education for sustainable development and genuine interest on e-learning at European level. Furthermore, all invited guests were offered free access to the current running VCSE e-courses, in addition to guided-tours and technical support during the workshops.

The actual challenge commences as soon as the enlargement goal is achieved. The new VCSE members were convinced to join in, but they need to have a clear overview of their role and responsibilities and be constantly encouraged and technically supported in order to be active in the network. For example, an operative helpdesk or, even better, an interactive FAQ service is strongly advised, as well as a well defined timeframe of increasing commitment to network activities. Lastly, the common endeavour of new course development, tutoring, assessment and evaluation would better engage new partners and support those for whom e-learning for sustainable development is relatively new.

The promotion of the VCSE model

The VCSE on-site workshops, addressed to both local education staff with (positive) experience in international e-learning and relevant decision makers (e.g. dean, vice-rector, head of department), proved to be a successful medium for a hands-on ‘test-it-yourself’ VCSE experience and subsequently the further promotion of the VCSE model to other universities. The offer was additionally supported by a ‘free trial period’ of access to the virtual campus and its e-learning courses as an observer and ‘virtual tours’ of the current VCSE e-learning courses available through the VCSE website.

It soon became evident that a more tailor-made approach of the VCSE on-site workshops would further increase their effectiveness and efficiency. For example, when addressing decision-makers and other staff involved in the administrative issues at stake, the focus should clearly lie on addressing the possible administrative drawbacks and obstacles at the visited university. On the other hand, when addressing university teachers and technical support staff, the focus should be to address the educational and technical competencies required for active participation in the VCSE. Furthermore, the active participation of an enthusiastic local contact person in the on-site workshop, indicating the potential benefits and challenges of the virtual campus for that particular university, will enhance the effectiveness of on-site workshops. Thus, it is highly recommended to organize the on-site workshops as a follow-up activity with interested actors (and potentially new partners) after a Central Demonstration Workshop.

Creating regional (e-)learning networks

The VCSE-partners mainly addressed their dissemination activities on regional or local level, based on long-standing relations and links with regional authorities and decision makers, regional networking structures (e.g. RCEs) and towards the educational sector such as schools. In addition, specific actions addressed to the local business sector (e.g. UOM and OUNL blended learning courses for local/regional businessmen) and the general public (e.g. CUEC with the introduction and use of Enviwiki) are also envisaged. As far as the use of educational technology is concerned, the partner universities focus on the use of web-publishing and the delivery of blended or e-learning courses through LMS or CMS.

The main difficulties in building or expanding local/regional networks for ESD lie upon the need to engage local/regional actors in an active public dialogue in order to take their needs under consideration and work together towards a common vision with a long-term perspective. Thus, it involves a continuous effort with non-easily achievable results and requires time. The VCSE-partners will elaborate further on this direction via the Lifelong Learning Network for Sustainable Development project (3-LENSUS, funded by the European Commission, beginning January 2009) in close collaboration with the Regional Centres of Expertise and through more systematic connection with cross-sector learning communities.

Lastly, another question which is food for thought for the future concerns language: the VCSE is in English and each partner university has to individually decide on needs of actors in the respective region, thus adapting contents, methods, etc. It is an advantage to have both English and the language spoken in the region at disposal; but the awareness about the use of language needs to be raised in order to well exchange expertise and reach regional actors groups. The main focus should be to open up to a wide public in the region, which is usually mainly in language spoken in the region.