Written by the group “International Collaboration for Online Education” (ICOE)
Online teaching and studies have become a new normal during the pandemic times. However, we saw developments regarding opportunities for online studies already before COVID-19 struck. Many universities offer courses, which nowadays can be taken online. For example, the University of Helsinki (as well as other universities) for some years already had several MOOC courses available for anyone to participate in. Universities have also collaborated both nationally and internationally to create education and learning platforms such as edX (www.edx.org), where universities and institutions offer MOOCs on various topics.
But, while MOOCs make teaching available for also others than registered university students, and while they have other positive effects, both pedagogically and technically, there are also limitations and difficulties with MOOCs (see, e.g., Korpela 2020). This is why MOOCs cannot and will not be the only option and solution when considering international online education in the future.
Just one of many other options is to create and consolidate international teaching support networks. Namely, the pandemic accelerated the exchange of – online – guest lectures within courses offered at various international universities. That is, as one possible answer to the new situation of teaching being shifted to online spaces almost everywhere around the world, and in the spirit of making the best out of an impairment, we now witness an increased sharing of teaching expertise, worldwide. It now seems easier and more sensible and common to invite colleagues from far away universities, to be part of one class and thus enrich the entire course. This international exposure paired with the possibility to interact with the foremost experts on a certain topic has been very well received by students so far.
The COVID-19 crisis also encouraged teachers to experiment with novel methods and media in their online teaching. Textual and visual educational media can be complemented, for instance, with educational audio. Recent years have seen the exponential growth of the podcast as a medium of information, entertainment and popular education, but it has made little headway in the halls of academia. Yet the COVID-19 crisis might just change that. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, educational audio expert Zachary Davis notes that podcasts have many benefits over journal articles as a medium of exchanging ideas: “Podcasting offers us ways of sharing scholarly discourse and teaching that are more open, accessible, and emotionally engaging.” The medium might be especially useful in the social sciences and the humanities, where the traditional visuals of an online lecture might distract the student from concentrating on argumentation. Podcasts based on a conversation can also offer a learning experience that is more dialogic than watching a lecturer address absent listeners.
Universities also develop approaches to allow students to study at international universities in the future. One example is UNA Europa (https://www.una-europa.eu/), a collaboration of eight European universities to create an European inter-university (University of Helsinki joined in October 2019). In this way, it would be possible for students to take courses from the member universities without the need to do an exchange period, and even complete degrees from the UNA Europa University. The process towards this University of Future is still in progress, but it is possible for students from UNA Europa member universities to take courses at the University of Helsinki even now, see https://studies.helsinki.fi/instructions/article/una-europa-online-courses-university-helsinki.
Now that physical exchanges are cancelled, the University of Helsinki is encouraged to arrange virtual mobility (VM) options for its own students and to attract international ones. While planning virtual learning activities, the teachers should be aware of students’ expectations for VM. VM certainly fails to provide the same kind of rich and holistic experience compared to physical exchange, and the main motivations of students are linked to the topic of the course and the good reputation of the institution offering the course (Buiskool and Hudepohl 2020). However, many students also expect VM to provide exposure to intercultural experiences such as opportunities to learn and network with participants from another culture. Building courses that support intercultural learning and collaboration requires planning and cooperation between universities (Buiskool and Hudepohl 2020). For instance, it might be necessary to have teachers facilitating the group discussions, to allow a safe environment for the online learners to discuss and debate in virtual, real-time settings. In addition, there are many administrative aspects, such as registration and fees, timetable overlaps, recognition of the VM modules in degree programmes, technical support etc., that need to be addressed early in the process.
Overall, the current world situation will very likely accelerate the development of online studying possibilities, and encourage universities to further develop and increase cooperation networks, platforms and tools for studying and teaching, together.
Alvarez, Maximillian: “Podcast University”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 April 2020 (https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-podcast-university/).
Buiskool, B.-J. and Hudepohl, M., 2020. Research for CULT Committee – Virtual formats versus physical mobility – Concomitant expertise for INI report. European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, Brussels.
https://www.una-europa.eu/ (cited 8.10.2020)
www.edx.org (cited 8.10.2020)
Korpela, M., 2020. Avointa ja ilmaista korkeakoulutusta kaikille? Aikuiskasvatus 40(2), 140-146.