VCSE Guidebook/How to promote the VCSE-model/The VCSE-model for virtual mobility

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5.1. The VCSE-model for virtual mobility

For over 20 years, the European Commission has been stimulating physical mobility of students and teachers in higher education through the Erasmus program. The objectives of this international exchange program range from promoting a sense of European citizenship and the competence to cope with cultural diversity, to improving access to high quality education throughout Europe and improving the quality of higher education through international collaboration and competition. The Erasmus program can be considered a success, given that more than 1.5 million students have participated since 1987 (European Commission, 2006) (Erasmus: Success stories - Europe creates opportunities. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. ). In fact, however, in each academic year, less than 1% of the total European student population take courses at a university in another member state (Bijnens et al., 2006). The European Commission is currently aiming for a major increase in student mobility by 2012 (European Commission, 2008) (Lifelong learning programme (LLP) ) , but it appears that these targets will not be achieved by physical mobility alone. Even if the campaign is successful, the large majority of students will not be internationally mobile, due to a variety of social, organisational, administrative, financial and physical barriers. It is for these students that an alternative has been suggested in the form of virtual mobility, i.e., ‘using information and communication technologies (ICT) to obtain the same benefits as one would have with physical mobility, but without the need to travel.’ ( ) One type of virtual mobility is a ‘virtual campus’. A virtual campus is a web-based platform to deliver either a collection of virtual (e-learning) courses or an entire virtual study program. In addition to teaching and learning functions, a virtual campus usually includes administrative support services, such as web-based enrolment, and sometimes also social functions, such as a web-based ‘cafeteria’ (chat rooms). It is based on international cooperation between higher education institutions, involving formal or informal agreements on quality assurance, entrance requirements, transfer of credits etc. (cf. European Commission, 2007) (The lifelong learning programme 2007-2013 - Glossary. ).

Recent reviews of virtual mobility initiatives list many actual or potential advantages and benefits at student and teacher as well as institutional level (Bijnens et al., 2006; Brey, 2007 )(Brey, C. (Ed.). (2007). Guide to virtual mobility. Report e-move project, European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU). ). These range from better Europe-wide access to courses for students, to an enriched, internationalized work environment for teachers, and a cost-effective expansion of the number of courses being offered for universities. Table 2 lists the major benefits of the VCSE, as perceived by its members. A benefit to students that deserves particular attention is that virtual learning environments offer great potential for effective development of the competence to work in international (multi-cultural) and multi-disciplinary project teams. In the field of study covered by this campus, sustainable development, the issues are particularly complex and have a strong international dimension. As a consequence, there is a great disciplinary and cultural diversity in perspectives and concurrently a need for students to communicate, learn and collaborate across the boundaries of the different perspectives. An international virtual campus can provide computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) environments, that allow communication and collaboration, independent of time and place, between geographically dispersed students in multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary teams at low cost. This educational benefit would apply just as well to other interdisciplinary fields of study requiring an international and multidisciplinary approach in teaching and learning.

Table 2. Benefits of VCSE

General benefit Details
Virtual mobility for students
  • wider choice of courses
  • access to high quality education in Europe
  • international experience (language, culture)
  • effective competence development for
    international, multi-disciplinary team work
Enhanced quality of study programmes
  • more courses on offer at home university
  • internationalisation scores high in quality
    assessments of education (e.g. EVS)
Exchange of expertise for staff
  • different educational formats and
    technologies for e-learning
Platform for web-based courses
  • systematic evaluation and joint learning
  • open source e-learning platform (Moodle)
  • multi-lingual technical support
Accessible partnership
  • free trial period, different levels of
  • minimal formalities

Despite the benefits associated with an international virtual campus, there are still many challenges on the road to implementing and sustaining virtual campuses of European universities at a large scale. A large number of educational, organizational and technological issues need to be tackled (see Table 1, Chapter 2), and given the many differences between universities across Europe, it is not easy to find joint solutions. Another major barrier is the wide-spread conviction, often rooted in ignorance, among educational staff and students of conventional universities that e-learning is unattractive and less effective as compared to face-to-face learning environments.

The VCSE-model deals with these challenges and possible barriers in various ways:

  • The virtual campus is organized as an open and flexible network and 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 (see Table 1, Chapter 2).
  • The focus of the virtual campus is on an international, multi-disciplinary field of study, for which the educational objectives can better be achieved in international e-learning environments than in regular face-to-face university courses.
  • The VCSE allows for membership at different levels of participation (observer, partly active member, full member), which may change in time. Educational staff interested in learning more about the realities of a virtual campus can be granted the observer status, and are given access to the e-learning courses offered by the VCSE.
  • The VCSE makes use of open-source software (Moodle, TYPO3). This enables free replication of the VCSE’s virtual campus web solutions, including a fully equipped e-learning platform in Moodle, to other fields of study (see Chapter 2).