Sunday, October 27, 2019

The future of student mobility is digital - whether we like it or not

I have spent the past week contributing to an international staff training week on virtual exchange at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, southern Poland. I was responsible for several workshops and presentation sessions on subjects like tools for digital collaboration, webinars and the open online course for teachers that I help to run, Open Networked Learning. It was a truly global gathering and our common interest was widening international collaboration between students and teachers by using digital platforms and tools. Integrating internationalisation in the curriculum has been common in language teaching for many years but today’s online collaboration goes far beyond the level of simply linking up with colleagues abroad using Skype. Using synchronous and especially asynchronous platforms students can collaborate on common projects in practically any field, teachers can develop common online courses and students can even work for international companies through virtual internships. The participants were all enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by virtual exchange and many different projects and approaches were presented and discussed.

This part of Poland, Upper Silesia, and surrounding cities like Katowice, Chorzów and Zabrze are synonymous to many people with heavy industry such as coal, iron and steel and the resultant pollution. In recent years, however, most of the mines and factories have closed and this has led to a massive restructuring of the economy, moving from industry to services. The cities are changing as the old industrial landscape is replaced by modern housing, offices shopping malls and motorways. In many cases industrial buildings are converted and repurposed and many of the impressive new public buildings have elements of the past heritage, such as the use of local bricks. Some industrial areas have been converted into parks or wetlands and slowly the region is emerging from the polluted industrial past. During the week, we were taken on a tour down an old coal mine, a visit that made me ashamed to ever complain about my own work having seen the conditions that the miners have had to work in. This process of totally overhauling the regional economy is painful and far from complete but the change has been essential. Our conference in some way reflected this in that we are facing a radical shift in how we work with internationalisation.

With the background of the urgency to reduce carbon emissions, especially through air travel, it would seem logical that virtual exchange/mobility is clearly the way forward in terms of international cooperation in higher education. However, this week made me realise that the field is still in its infancy compared to the efforts universities put into physical mobility programmes. Even if my colleagues this week were all enthusiastic about the potential of online collaboration and were trying hard to influence colleagues at their respective institutions, it seemed to me that physical mobility is still the default option, even if an average of around 5% of all students ever get the opportunity to study abroad. Even without the climate crisis, the arguments for investing in virtual exchange activities would seem to be convincing. Online collaboration enables all students to learn how to work in international and multi-cultural teams, a skill that is highly valued in the labour market. It also promotes accessibility since students with restricted mobility are able to participate in international activities on equal terms. If we genuinely believe that students benefit from meeting and working with students from other countries and with other perspectives then the only way to enable this for all of them is by using online platforms and tools.

The elephant in the room however is the realistic prospect that we may soon have to drastically cut or even stop our use of air travel and physical meetings and conferences will become rare or unfeasible. Even those who are working with virtual exchange are still flying to meetings and conferences and the desired outcome of many projects is a physical exchange at some point. This is a very hard pill to swallow and although I have been trying hard to avoid air travel for the past few months it still hurts; especially those extremely long train trips through Europe with hectic platform changes and bags to carry. However, I suspect that the pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of higher education will increase rapidly in the coming year and no matter how exciting it is to travel and meet each other in person, we will simply have to find other ways. I am very glad, however, that I was able to attend this event and meet other enthusiasts who see great potential in virtual exchange.

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