European universities should cooperate on online teaching

With Covid-19 imposing huge strain on universities’ digital course development, collaboration is the obvious solution, says Alexandra Mihai

June 18, 2020
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Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities have been operating in emergency mode. Because online education had not been a priority in the past, the pandemic forced universities to find a quick fix. Et voilà – the “Zoom lecture” was born.

But effective online education is more than a few videos and chats. Universities are now discovering that those quick fixes will not be enough in the long term. With only a few months before the beginning of the new academic year, universities need to come up with more effective solutions.

However, quality online education requires some substantive upfront investments, both in infrastructure and, more importantly, in pedagogical expertise for building engaging learning experiences. Add to that the time it takes for teachers and instructional designers to work together on course design and the thought of being able to teach fully online at high quality standards this autumn quickly becomes wishful thinking for many (if not most) universities.

Looking at the situation in Europe, some universities have been slowly building their online learning capacity in recent years, but this has by no means been mainstreamed. On the contrary, the differences among universities in different countries and even within the same country are substantial, and attitudes towards online learning vary greatly.

In such an unbalanced landscape and with the current time constraints, one obvious solution would be inter-university collaboration. By pooling existing resources, both in terms of infrastructure and pedagogical support, universities can ensure their students’ access to quality online learning.

This does not have to mean a unified curriculum, so the diversity of the academic offer is not endangered in any way. The main idea is to join forces on the aspects of instruction that are too resource- and time-intensive to be tackled independently at the moment, particularly the expertise and support for designing and delivering online courses.

It sounds like a no-brainer but, unfortunately, this is not the way universities operate. Collaboration is not really in their DNA, and the academic landscape has become more and more competitive in the past decades. Each university is keen to preserve its identity and would rather stress its individual character than see the similarities and potential cooperation with other institutions.

In Europe, the variety of national education systems also erects unnecessary barriers to cooperative endeavours. When collaboration happens, it mainly concerns research rather than education. This is also partly due to the fact that teaching is still seen as an individual activity. While informal exchanges on teaching take place, they are seldom formalised as inter-institutional programmes.

Yet away from the spotlight, innovative e-learning initiatives have been developed around Europe for the past two decades. Some of them can provide inspiration for universities to choose a different, more effective path in the current situation. For instance, the Virtual University of Bavaria (VHB) is a network of 31 universities that provides its members with funding and pedagogical support for developing online courses.

There are a few key aspects that make this initiative sustainable. First, collaboration is the default option: in order to get funding and support, each course proposal has to come from a team of at least two professors from different universities. Second, quality assurance plays an important role: the network provides numerous professional development opportunities on technology-enhanced learning, and the courses are evaluated by a team of external experts. Last but not least, online learning is an integral part of the institutional strategy for all participating universities, carried through with the funding support of VHB.

The result, after two decades of operation, is a mature network that has developed a culture of online learning, a growing portfolio of courses accessible to students from all participating universities and a centralised support system covering all practical aspects of the course design process. For the post-Covid reality, this configuration would bring about obvious advantages by consolidating the existing pockets of expertise into an efficient and sustainable system.

While such models work well at regional and national level, there is also potential for cooperation across borders, at the European level. There are several EU-funded initiatives, such as the European Universities Initiative, that bring together universities from across the continent. European universities traditionally have many bilateral cooperation agreements, so the infrastructure exists, but, at the moment, it is used either for research or student mobility. The next step should be to scale up and consolidate these cooperation models by adding a strong focus on online education; a good starting point could be to develop joint introductory courses for different disciplines.

Such collaboration is not a quick fix: networks like this take time to cultivate. But it could be a short cut. It could offer a way to build a culture of cooperation and openness to online learning that will increase both the quality and the accessibility of the learning experience in the post-Covid world.

Alexandra Mihai is a researcher in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences and an associate researcher at the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on her blog.

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