VCSE Guidebook/How to organize and implement a Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe/The VCSE Organisational Model

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The VCSE is organized as an open and flexible network with distributed responsibilities and with subsidiarity as its leading principle. Subsidiarity is the principle according to which matters ought to be handled by the lowest competent authority. Following this principle, as many as possible of the tasks involved in operating the virtual campus are the responsibility of the individual partners. Only those issues for which a joint approach is considered essential are handled at the level of the partnership. Table 1 presents an overview of the various educational and organizational aspects of the virtual campus, and the level at which these are handled.

Table 1. Handling level of educational (or: pedagogical) and organizational (or: administrative) issues in the VCSE. See text for explanation.

Handled by Partnership Handled by Individual Partners
  • language of instruction
  • academic level
  • size of courses
  • entrance requirements
  • course evaluation
  • general course topic
  • general course topic
  • specific contents
  • learning objectives
  • didactic model
  • protocols & guidelines
  • distribution of responsibilities and tasks
  • promotional activities
  • selection of new partners
  • scheduling of courses
  • evaluation of virtual campus
  • integration in study program
  • fees
  • attracting students
  • student registration
  • enrolment & exclusion
  • assignment of grades
  • certificate of completion
  • local recognition of credits

Educational issues

Educational issues handled jointly by the partners include the choice of the language in which the courses are offered (English as a common language), the academic level of the courses (late Bachelor’s or early Master’s level), the approximate size of the course (in European Credit points), the entrance requirements for the students (basic skills in English and ICT, access to computers with Internet connection, basic understanding of sustainable development), and course evaluation (comparable pre- and post-course questionnaires). ‘Intra-course’ aspects, such as the specific contents and learning objectives, the didactic model and protocols or guidelines for students and teachers, are discussed by the partnership but are the responsibility of the partner offering the course. The didactic model includes not only the sequence of learning activities but also the learning approach (e.g., self-study or collaborative work), the learning technology employed (type of e-learning platform, learning materials and communication tools) and type of assessment (e.g., emphasis on process or product, knowledge or skills). The general topic of the course is an aspect that involves both levels of decision-making: an individual partner proposes one or more topics and the partnership accepts or chooses to ensure complementarity both within the selection of courses offered by the virtual campus and with the curricula of the individual partners.

This distribution of responsibilities results in a rich diversity of topics and approaches at course level, which has advantages for both the students and the teaching staff. The students are provided with a wide choice of courses, which are clearly distinct in terms of content and competence objectives. This allows them to choose a course with a clear added value as compared to the courses offered by their home universities. For the teaching staff, this diversity creates the opportunity to learn from each other. This mutual learning process is promoted by giving all teachers access to all courses offered by the virtual campus and presenting and discussing course evaluations at the level of the partnerships. In time, this might well result in convergence regarding certain aspects such as the e-learning platform and ICT tools used and the assessment protocols. Also a convergence in the didactic model of the courses may be expected, moving from the more traditional, content-oriented courses towards more communication-oriented courses, thus making the most of the potentials of e-learning in the development of international and intercultural collaboration competences.

Organizational issues

The responsibilities for organizational issues are distributed in a similar way as those for the educational issues (Table 1). The individual partners can adopt different roles in this respect. Following the terminology of the EU Erasmus program, they can be ‘host universities’, offering a course, or ‘home universities’ for their own students who take courses from another university. As host universities, the individual partners handle administrative issues that directly concern the course(s) they are offering, such as student registration, assignment of grades and issuing certificates of completion. Exclusion of inactive students, which is necessary in collaborative learning-based courses, is also the responsibility of the host university (after consulting the students’ home university). As home universities, the individual partners are responsible for attracting students to the virtual campus, enrolment in the sense that they must decide which students (or groups of students) are allowed to choose which courses, course fees, local recognition of credits awarded by a host university, and integration of international courses into the study programs, either as compulsory or optional courses. Especially accreditation is important, as credits are a major motivational drive for students, and handling this at the local level offers better prospects than dependence on high-level international agreements.

A number of organisational issues must be handled at the level of the partnership, for reasons of effectiveness and efficiency. These concern the distribution of responsibilities and tasks within the partnership (e.g., maintaining the technical facilities of the virtual campus, managing the content of the website, hosting meetings etc). Other issues requiring a collective approach are promotional activities for the expansion of the partnership, selection of new partners, formal agreements, scheduling of the courses in the academic year and regular evaluation of the virtual campus.

Sustainability of the VCSE Virtual Campus model

We expect that the distribution of responsibilities following the principle of subsidiarity as outlined above will result in a sustainable virtual campus model. The pillars of durable success will not be the top-down obligations arising from formal high-level agreements, but the bottom-up assurance of educational quality, financial viability and accessibility to new partners.

Educational quality is assured through various mechanisms. The VCSE partnership selects and invites promising potential new partners to central demonstration workshops and, based on an evaluation of their presentations and course offerings, invites them to join the VCSE. It is the responsibility of the teaching staff at the home university to decide which VCSE courses they offer to their students. They can base their decision on their personal evaluation of all VCSE courses offered, as they have full access to these courses. For each VCSE course, the participating students fill in evaluation questionnaires, and the outcome is discussed by the partnership and used for course improvement.

The VCSE organizational model minimizes out-of-pocket costs by following a ‘quid pro quo’ approach, based on an exchange of courses, students and know-how on e-learning. External subsidies are only needed to get the virtual campus started, that is, to develop the concept, to form a core group of partners, to develop the virtual campus web and to attract new partners. In principle, the partners are expected to strike a certain balance between incoming and outgoing students and to prevent an excessive teaching or tutoring load, e.g., by setting a maximum to the number of foreign students per course. However, this balance will probably not be maintained very strictly, as in many of the courses offered foreign students are not seen as a burden, but as a necessity to create internationally mixed student teams. By handling course and student-related matters as much as possible at the local level of the host and home universities, respectively, formalities at the level of the virtual campus partnership can be kept to a minimum, which enhances the accessibility to new university partners as well as to students.

The use of open-source software for the virtual campus web, as discussed in more detail in the next section (2.3), contributes to these factors. Educational quality and accessibility are supported by providing new partners with a fully equipped e-learning platform in Moodle for free, including and intranet with extensive collaboration options for educational staff. Open software also allows each partner to contribute to the continuous improvement of the virtual campus web. Financial costs are kept low as there are no user restrictions in terms of time and quantity.