Digitalization in internationalization of education – what’s in it for me besides the difficult words?

Is digitalization the answer to challenges of internationalization? There are many views on this topic, and the correct answer always depends on the person asking the question. For some it really is the new way of working together, reducing the need to travel, and making the cooperation more approachable and achievable. For others, digital cooperation can never substitute international networking and learning from others in a new country, in a new environment. In my opinion both are correct, and neither is wrong. In the previous post, Kirsi wrote about a virtual exchange experience our student Pihla got when the situation forced us to pause international mobility. That was a good solution in the moment and it will be a good option for some of our students in the future as well, but like Kirsi wrote, diversity is the key.

According to Laurea’s strategy 2030, Global Competence is one of the working life competencies common to all degrees, and it consists of the following competencies:
• Internationality competence
• Understanding cultural perspectives
• Ethical agency in global media and technology environment

Physical exchange and the learnings it can give on a personal level can’t be fully replaced with a virtual experience, but having an easier (and usually free) access to an international environment can bring those learnings to a wider group of students who would not be able to travel to an exchange. There is hardly any field of work where international experience and the global competences are not needed, so providing these opportunities to all students is more important than ever. Diversity really is the key in the ways of getting international experience and gaining global competence, and digital or virtual solutions play a big role in it. While the pandemic created barriers for physical mobilities, it also created a massive change in many countries that were not so familiar with the online possibilities in higher education. This change and the need for internationalisation at home has also helped our students by opening virtual study opportunities for example in Mexico, Japan, Scotland and Austria.

At Laurea we have had plenty of experience of teaching in an international cooperation, often including a virtual component, already before the pandemic and that has provided our students valuable possibilities for learning. These cooperative study units have often included a short study visit to Laurea and from Laurea to partners, but some have focused on bringing the students together only in a digital environment. There are different ways of providing virtual studies in an international environment, but the most important factor is that students from different countries and backgrounds get to work together, to learn from each other and see different perspectives and ways of working towards the shared goal. Seeing different ways of learning, thinking and approaching challenges provides a much wider understanding of the topic, and prepares students to work in diverse teams, where the colleagues will be more and more often located in another country. With guided reflection, the students can learn a lot about themselves and their way of working and seeing things from another perspective.

At Laurea, we see Online International Learning (OIL, also referred to as COIL in some HEIs) as a form of teaching and learning where lecturers and students from different countries come together on a study unit to work in teams and to solve a shared problem with digital meeting and collaboration tools. Often this way of teaching includes introduction and working in a digital environment as well as a short physical mobility which allows the lecturers and students to gather in one place for intensive collaboration and deepening their cooperation.

As I mentioned before, Laurea’s lecturers have already done a lot of great work in the world of OIL, and we have many successful examples of study units that have provided our students with experience of virtual collaboration with students from other countries, as well as short mobilities which have inspired many students to get even more international experience. Designing the contents, deciding the materials and setting up the cooperation with partners can also be a rewarding experience for our lecturers, and needless to say it provides a great base for networking – even though it can be demanding in resources and the differences in pedagogics and bureaucracy can feel very difficult at times. In 2021, a group of experienced and enthusiastic lecturers got together in a workshop to develop OIL model in Laurea. Experienced lecturers brought their knowledge and own experiences of the cooperation, and lecturers with less experience of OIL brought their ideas, needs and good questions to the table. We wrote down the pros and cons of OIL, ideas for developing and marketing the possibilities within Laurea and identified different steps and necessary tools and other resources for creating an OIL study unit. The results are being developed in spring 2022 into concrete guidelines and a model that will hopefully help other lecturers to get inspired about OIL possibilities and provide some help and ideas to get started with the process.

Snip of Miro board with pros and cons of OIL cooperation from lecturers’ point of view
A snip of Miro board with pros and cons of OIL cooperation from lecturers’ point of view.

This type of international cooperation where students share a short mobility supported by virtual cooperation is also called blended mobility, and in the new Erasmus+ programme a Blended Intensive Programme (BIP) was introduced in 2021. Erasmus+ programme handbook on OPH’s sites states:
“The Erasmus+ programme for the period 2021-2027 supports, even more than its predecessor, the take-up of digital technologies, innovative and open pedagogies in education and training. The programme is also designed to reach out to a larger and more diverse group of students and staff in higher education, for example by a greater use of information, communication and technology tools, as well as a combined use of physical mobility, online learning and cooperation. Ultimately, this shall lead to the development and improvement of digital skills and competences of students, teaching and administrative staff participating in the programme.
While long-term physical mobility is strongly encouraged, the higher education mobility action offers a more flexible physical mobility duration to ensure the programme is accessible to students from all backgrounds, circumstances, study fields and study levels.” (European Commission/DG EAC/Unit B.1, 2021).
With the introduction of BIP programmes comes also funding: students taking part in the BIP mobility in Laurea’s partner institution can get a grant to cover some of their costs, and a BIP organized in Laurea hosting international students can get funding for the organization costs. The requirement is that there must be at least three partner institutions from the EU area taking part in Erasmus+ programme, so each BIP needs two partners to join Laurea in the teaching and sending or hosting students. In the times of tight budgets this is a very welcome addition to the Erasmus+ programme, and the first pilots for this new way of cooperation are already being set up in Laurea. We in the international services are happy to help you to find out more about these possibilities – whether you are a lecturer looking to find new ways of working and partner to start your cooperation, or a student trying to find an international experience that works best for you.

Writer: Riikka Lindholm

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