VCSE Guidebook/Strategies for developing and running e-courses for the VCSE/Lessons Learnt

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3.5. Lessons Learnt

The approach of the Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe to build upon existing and tested courses offered the possibility to have a set of established courses right from the beginning. The challenge was to adapt them for their new target group and thus to consider students’ inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural background. The different backgrounds of the partners, which allow for a great range of different courses, might be seen as the biggest advantage of such an approach. The differences in terms of content, didactical approach and methodology give students the opportunity to choose for adequate courses regarding their individual curricula. Being offered a “test it yourself” approach and a general overview of all courses in the web, students are guided with their decision.

When building on existing courses, the general drawback of such a “bottom up” approach is the generally low control possibilities. Thus, it is not the approach of building a consistent curriculum but more or less a collection of seminars that might fit in the different study courses.

As a general topic of all courses, sustainability can be seen as a useful framework to build competence oriented courses dealing with aspects of uncertainty and complexity. Thus, it is not only to the potential benefit of students or teachers looking for HESD but also a topic to be integrated and offered in general studies that are focused on certain competencies. In that respect, e-learning proved itself as handy for self-directed and collaborative learning.

By evaluating all courses we have the opportunity to learn from each others’ experiences and to harmonize the courses whenever this might be helpful. If we are to get feedback during the courses, the need for a formative evaluation is obvious. While a summative approach at the end of the seminar helps us to understand the learning process and to assess the results, a formative approach offers us the possibility to react within the duration of the running courses. Decisions as the one to work on a standardized introduction phase are the result of such a general evaluation. Another such result is the working group picking up the need for a more qualitative and formative evaluation approach. Here the feedback of the external evaluators’ interim evaluation report has helped a lot.

Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the different courses also helps to draw conclusions that might be helpful for new courses within the VCSE or in other virtual campuses as well. Among others, these conclusions point at:

  • The importance of offering a structure with clear tasks, roles and deadlines as well as clear student requirements to participate in the course,
  • the special meaning of clear assignment description to guide the students and
  • the general necessity of guiding students during the learning process to overcome the anonymity experienced in a virtual learning environment. Here, short video introductions as used in the course of the University of Graz and the live Skype conference calls in the EVS course proved to be useful instruments.

Regarding the attraction of potential students, the number of students finally participating in the courses was not overwhelmingly high, apart from courses, which were already more institutionalized, such as the EVS course at the Graz and Prague Universities. This provides us with food for thought for future VCSE courses, at both an institutional and a course level.

At the institutional level, the main challenge seems to be the lack of official accreditation of the VCSE courses. So far, most courses are only accredited as electives; as long as the students are not guaranteed to receive credits for the courses they take, the interest in participating will remain low. Therefore, the integration of the VCSE courses into the curricula of the partner universities is necessary in order to make them not only accessible through the information systems used at universities but also attractive to students. Moreover, the coordination for promoting courses at partner universities needs to be channeled and handled more concisely so as to reduce promotion efforts, which sometimes do not seem very fruitful. The difficulty here is in the fact that the planning of the curriculum and courses has to be done some time in advance and the legal framework is sometimes less flexible than the one required by initiatives or projects like the VCSE. Courses of partner universities which are not integrated in the local universities’ information systems –as not part of their curriculums– are not accessible through the regular ways and thus students are not attracted enough to sign up for them.

A good example is shown by the University of Lüneburg, where the impact of integrating the VCSE courses in the curriculum has been significant; the three courses of the winter term 2008/09 are attended by more than 30 people as compared to a significantly lower number before.

At the course level, there is a need for the provision of more realistic, transparent and standardized information regarding the workload of the VCSE courses, the number and type of assignments, etc., in order to attract more students. The students need to see an additional value and benefit in taking the course, without being frightened off by lengthy course descriptions and wrong expectations. The main barriers to that are: a) the requirement to use a foreign language is usually taken to mean extra and overly demanding work and b) the non-familiarity of many students with the virtual setting often results in their perceiving it as a technical complexity rather than as a broadened means and way to study. Thus, the description of the VCSE courses should be such as to undo these negative perceptions by means of showing that what may seem as barriers are actually important benefits waiting to be gained.

When it comes to the active involvement of the students, it turned out to be an important point to give students a certain degree of responsibility and to focus on the interdisciplinary and inter-cultural components of the learning process in the course.

However, the collaborative and communicative aspect is still the critical factor in several courses. This may be due to the e-tutors’ role, but also to the fact that too many tools were used, leading to the confusion or to excessive demands of the students who then feel intimidated and lose their motivation. One means of preventing this in the future is to carefully select and apply tools for the aims laid out in the course. At the same time, the tools offered in the virtual learning environment might not be sufficient to fulfill the needs of the course design. In that case, other means can and should be used (such as webcams, video conferences, etc.).

In non-collaborative settings, the learning processes depend mostly on individual students who need to be motivated through other channels. The chat room and discussion forums seem to be less used if a direct need for completing the course successfully is missing, as in the Graz course and in CORSUS (UOM). However, even in the non-collaborative settings students can still be active on an individual basis, and this means that the course designers should always focus on relevant, real-life, authentic tasks and examples.

Another strong point, which has not yet been given its due significance, is to give the students’ work some form of public recognition by creating an online publishing environment and presenting best practice examples. This is a factor, which can also be highly relevant for future activities with regards to regional actors (see chapter 5).