Sunday, May 14, 2017

Towards virtual mobility

Virtual mobility is a concept that enables internationalisation for all by using digital media to let students collaborate on projects, modules and even entire courses without the need to travel. It can also enable teachers from partner universities in different countries to make virtual study visits as well as collaborate on course design and offering joint courses. Since the technology has been available for many years you would imagine that virtual mobility would be mainstream by now but sadly this is not true. For most people the concept of mobility refers only to physical mobility.

For the past two years I've been involved in a project at my university, called Global Classroom, to raise awareness of virtual mobility and the opportunities it offers. The main aim is to create a framework and organisation to establish international networking and collaboration as a key element in all courses at undergraduate and masters level at Linnaeus University. The project does not have the resources to make major changes in the organisation so we have focused on helping degree programme leaders to identify the degree of internationalisation in their programme from three perspectives (faculty, teacher and student) during workshops where they work from a self-assessment grid. They then select criteria that can be realistically fulfilled within, say, a year and we then help them to plan the process and raise the internationalisation level. We aim to raise the bar and then cascade the lessons learned to other programmes rather than trying to impose radical change. Take a tour around our project website for more information.

One inspiration for the project was the OUVM (Opening universities for virtual mobility) project that concluded last year. Partner universities from five countries offered a selection of online courses of 3-6 credits and students could study one of these and get credits from their own university as well as recognition that they had gained international study experience. This is the online equivalent of an Erasmus exchange in which so many European students participate and points the way towards offering students much more scope for mobility and intercultural exchange in the future. Virtual mobility may not be as exciting as actually travelling but if that option is not available it can still offer many advantages, not least learning the skill of collaborating online.

There are many advantages of promoting virtual mobility, for the students, staff and for the university as a whole. The most important aspect is making internationalisation a natural part of all studies rather than a brief adventure for a select few. Experience of working in an international environment and collaborating in multi-cultural groups is today an extremely important element in every graduate's CV and although the best experience is to actually travel to another country that opportunity is not available for all. The inclusive element of virtual mobility is therefore extremely important but seems not to be promoted so actively at many universities. Working with virtual mobility is also an opportunity to expand our cooperation with international partner universities. Furthermore virtual mobility can complement and enhance physical mobility by facilitating deeper collaboration between students before and after the physical visit.

Of course there are many obstacles. The most obvious is that any new practice involves considerable effort and time, often in short supply for teachers and leaders already under pressure. New methods, tools and routines must be developed and tested as well as partnerships established. Digital skills are essential as well as awareness of multi-cultural communication. Virtual mobility must be integrated into the syllabus and must lead to tangible rewards, primarily in the form of credits, not as an optional extra. One avenue we are exploring is using badges to reward participation in virtual mobility activities as additional recognition. This means that badges must be established as recognised credentials at the university and that process takes time.

We realise that the process will be a slow one but the word is spreading and there are already several promising initiatives. The key factor is of course management support and providing the time and resources for teachers to experiment with and implement different forms of virtual mobility.

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