VCSE Guidebook/How to organize and implement a Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe/Lessons Learned

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Strengths and weaknesses of the VCSE organisational model

The absence of top-down formal agreements and the emphasis on the bottom-up voluntary nature of the VCSE carries with it the risk of a lack of commitment from the project partners, and especially from the new members joining the partnership. This risk could be managed by establishing a procedure to follow up new partners so as to keep them engaged. This procedure may include an evaluation from both sides (new partners and partnership) after a “try-out” phase, when both parts evaluate the partnership. However, once new partners have ‘bought in’ by providing courses or students to the VCSE, the commitment issue is likely to be resolved.

The rich diversity of didactical approaches at course level might be confusing for students, with negative impacts on learning outcomes. However, not many students are expected to take more than one or two courses from the VCSE, and thus it seems that it is not the diversity between the courses but the one common feature, i.e., being offered in a virtual learning environment in stead of a face-to-face setting, that is more likely to create problems. This problem might be countered by a common first phase in each VCSE-course, introducing the students to the typical elements of an e-learning course. In fact, several of the courses do already have such an introductory part, but they could be aligned and made a standard part of every VCSE course.

An implication of the bottom-up approach of the VCSE is that the Virtual Campus is not automatically linked to the partners’ institutional databases with student registrations, course descriptions, or personnel information. Therefore, administrative data need to be entered into the VCSE platform manually. This offers a lot of flexibility and, with the current numbers of courses and students, manual input is not seen as a problem. However, considering the anticipated expansion of the VCSE it will be useful to explore technical solutions that minimize the need for manual handling of administrative data.

The evaluation of courses was identified as a joint responsibility of the partnership and is an important mechanism to ensure high quality standards. The first runs of the VCSE courses, however, have revealed several weaknesses in the current approach. The quality of both the pre- and post-course questionnaires needs to be improved and the two questionnaires need to be aligned. A common format needs to be established for the internal course evaluation reports (prepared by the course leaders) after we have reached agreement on what kind of evaluation data for each VCSE course are required. Even more important than the format is to agree on a follow-up procedure: what do we (course leaders, partnership as a whole) do with the reports?

Many of the responsibilities are distributed among the partners, but there is also a substantial number of issues that need to be dealt with by the partnership repeatedly. It is our experience that adequate handling of these issues by the partnership requires a central coordinator. Thus far, this position has been created and supported with external funding. To provide continuity of central coordination after external funding ends, the VCSE-partners might consider the establishment of a VCSE Secretariat, which will rotate among the VCSE-partners every two years and will be supported by an annual membership contribution of the individual partners. A central coordinator must not be confused with a strong leader. Although strong leadership in a consortium can help to set a clear course and keep the group together, it is not compatible with the bottom-up organizational model of the VCSE, which rests on the pillars of enthusiasm and commitment of the educational staff members of its partner universities.

Strengths and weaknesses of the VCSE web portal

With the existing web portal including the intranet section, an open source solution has been developed that proved its basic functionality. It could further function as a good practice example for other virtual campuses as well.

Responsibility for the continuous development and improvement of the web portal might be seen as the most crucial point. The approach of an open-source content management system allows for a decentralised approach and shared responsibility. However, such a technical implementation does not assure that such division of labour is actually implemented. To run an up-to-date portal, a clear distribution of responsibilities will be needed.

The actual use of the intranet shows how important it is to clearly communicate the added value of a specific tool or function should such tool or function be used. To date, it is only the basic tools like a file manager and the wiki as a shared information pool that have been used to a greater extent. Other possibilities, like the discussion forums, have been tested but have not been used any further, despite the fact that they are working. Thus, although the intranet may well be seen as a central point of collaboration, it has not fully developed its potential significance –perhaps because of the well-working organisational model with little need for centralized decision-making. Even if not as THE central point, however, such an approach is still recommendable in the sense that it carries the potential for a central “drop-in-centre” for information, communication and collaboration.