Digital Impact: How Is International Student and Staff Mobility Changing in Higher Education?

Providing an international perspective to students and staff in higher education has become one of the central objectives for the 21st century and has been prominent on the agenda in Europe (e. g. Erasmus+) and worldwide (e. g. Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Internationalisation in higher education includes intercultural aspects of cross-national cooperation and requires exchange of knowledge, ideas, talents, values, services and technologies.

The significance of internationalisation in higher education has been discussed from the perspective the contribution of higher education to handling of cultural diversity and the contribution to the growth of knowledge societies, focusing on the improvement of the human condition. The benefits of internationalisation in higher education encompass academic, socio-cultural, financial, economic and political benefits such as:

  • Developing 21st century skills including critical thinking, cooperation and creativity
  • Preparing students for working in multi-national companies and/or working abroad
  • Developing of leaders within a global context
  • Improving reputation and quality of education programmes
  • Enhancing institutional compatibility for inclusion, global justice and equality
  • Providing additional revenues and funding opportunities
  • Adding to a domestic talent pool and helping to strengthen the knowledge economy
  • Promoting international and intercultural understanding and global citizenship

Despite the benefits, many challenges have been pointed out, which range from political to individual issues and include unwelcoming atmosphere for foreigners, discrimination issues of adjustment and integration, financial costs, problems obtaining visas, family and health-related as well as legal hurdles. These and other issues have led to a decline in the physical student mobility in a number of countries.

However, the global landscape of internationalisation in higher education has been changing together with the impact of the digital media. Traditional forms of internationalisation such as physical mobility of students and staff, which have dominated the landscape in the past years, have been supplemented or even replaced by new forms of mobility which make use of the digital media. Propelled by the advances in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), digital media has entered the the international dimension of teaching and studying at higher education as expressed in virtual cross-border learning and teaching in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and diverse forms of “open learning”. Together with the concept of “internationalisation at home”, internationalisation in higher education has started to include virtual components which allow student and staff to gain international experience from “home” in a “virtual” environment.

The concept of “virtual mobility” has entered the vocabulary of internationalisation in higher education in Europe and beyond:

Virtual Mobility stands for a set of ICT supported activities, organized at institutional level, that realize or facilitate international, collaborative experiences in a context of teaching and/or learning

Erasmus+ Programme Guide

Virtual mobility is a form of mobility between two or more higher education institutions supported by a curricular, legal and institutional framework provided by the Learning Agreement. Through virtual mobility, students in one university have the opportunity to follow a course or a program online at another university, and enjoy all the formal benefits of student mobility, such as tuition and support, assessment and exams, as well as credits for a successfully completion, which are accepted by the home university and accredited as part of the curriculum.

Virtual mobility has a great potential to contribute to the internationalisation in higher education in view of the socio-economic, political and health-related issues mentioned above. The prevailing barriers to physical mobility can be reduced by adding the virtual component and making internationalional experience accessible to more students and staff.

Yet, despite numerous virtual mobility initiatives and projects in the past years, the uptake of virtual mobility in higher education is still low and the possibilities of virtual mobility including virtual campuses, seminars, labs, internships and placements remain unknown to many educators and students.

Additionally, the upsurge of other forms online education such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), Open Educational Resources (OERs) and the availability of (free) digital communication and collaboration tools, have significantly broadened the range of possibilities for students and teachers to engage in international learning and teaching experiences. Universities and individual teachers and students have been using a range of digital media to use available resources for self-study and self-development and to connect across-borders beyond the formal framework of virtual mobility programs, which require participating higher education organisations to sign formal agreements. This complex landscape requires a better understanding of the current practices related to enhancement of internationalisation through open education practices in context of virtual mobility.

The open, non-formal forms of virtual mobility, in which students seek for open education opportunities to enhance their own learning and/or teachers design opportunities for their students to engage in cross-border cooperation and learning with digital media beyond the administrative burden of legal agreements and accreditation of learning outcomes, have been called “Open Virtual Mobility” in the European strategic partnership of nine higher education organisation founded 2017-2020 under the Erasmus+ program under the name “Open Virtual Mobility – Accessible Opportunities for Virtual Mobility Skills in Higher Education”:

The Open Virtual Mobility (OpenVM) project addresses the need of creating accessible opportunities for achievement of skills needed to engage in open forms of virtual mobility to ensure a higher uptake of virtual mobility altogether. Virtual mobility can develop its potential, provided higher education educators, students and other stakeholders, including International Offices, develop necessary skills, confidence and readiness to initiate and implement OpenVM actions. To achieve this, the project partners have designed an OpenVM Learning Hub for educators and students in higher education, which allows to acquire, assess and recognise their skills needed to successfully design, implement and participate in OpenVM activities. The openVM Learning Hub provides a series of miniMOOCs and a set of OERs dedicated to the development of skills for (open) virtual mobility:

The series of MOOCs in the OpenVM Learning Hub is based on a set of key skills needed for (open) virtual mobility. These skills have been identified in the project using the Group Concept Mapping (GCM) in an empirical study with experts, educators and students. The results of the study revealed eight skill clusters each comprised of a set of sub-skills. The main skill clusters are:

  1. Intercultural skills and attitude
  2. Networked learning, active self-regulated learning
  3. Media and digital literacy
  4. Autonomy-driven learning
  5. Interactive and collaborative
  6. Learning in an authentic international environment
  7. Open-mindedness
  8. Virtual mobility

The design of the miniMOOCs is based on the microlearning approach (short times, small contents). To enhance the learning experience in the miniMOOCs in the OpenVM Learning Hub, a meaningful gamification approach has been applied  to design learning pathways, levels and visualisation of progress. Learners participate in miniMOOCs which include individual and group learning activities, assess their skills based on automated assessment, peer-assessment and e-portfolio-assessment and get their skills recognised with digital certificates based on the Open Badge Standards. Currently, the OpenVM project is piloting the miniMOOCs at partner organisations and explores the possibilities of using Blockchain-based certificates for recognition of OpenVM skills.

It remains yet open how this strategy can help students and teachers in higher education to develop skills for (open) virtual mobility and enhance the uptake of these new forms of internationalisation in higher education. The evaluation of different aspect is scheduled for 2020.

We invite broader audience to discuss the concept of Open Virtual Mobility and its implication for internationalisation in higher education on the project website and on Twitter.

Written by Ilona Buchem

Ilona Buchem facilitates the Pre-Conference Workshop The Role of Open Credentials for Virtual Mobility of Students and Teachers – Enhancing Internationalisation in the University of the Future at OEB Global 2019.

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