19 Oct 2021
by Felix Bitterer, Vicky Großkreuz, Maximilian Köster, Daniel Kappe

3 approaches to promoting virtual mobility in higher education

3 approaches to promoting virtual mobility in higher education


We can and should think of digitalisation and internationalisation as two sides of the same coin. And we should understand that international experience is not only gained abroad, but in any kind of meaningful international exchange, no matter if physical or virtual. When universities develop virtual mobility formats as a complement to physical mobility, they enable more students to gain international experience. A completely new range of opportunities opens up and allows internationalisation for all. In this article, we present different approaches to promoting virtual mobility at Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences (Bielefeld UAS).

At Bielefeld UAS, the Digital Mobil @ FH Bielefeld project is the key actor in the implementation of virtual mobility formats. Funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the project makes international experience accessible to all students – even those who cannot or do not want to travel abroad. Bielefeld UAS understands virtual mobility as an institution-wide endeavour. Thus, Digital Mobil follows a comprehensive approach: team members are located in different departments (IT, administration, e-learning). They enable and support various forms of virtual student mobility together with lecturers. Based on our experiences, we recommend three approaches to realising virtual mobility.

1. Offer your lecturers a virtual mobility training

Even though lecturers are interested in virtual mobility, they might not be aware of the possibilities they have at your institution. You can offer virtual mobility trainings providing information about and support for applicable virtual mobility formats, eg international co-teaching, research projects or theses. Training might include an introduction to the benefits of virtual exchange, available online collaboration tools, suitable teaching methods and administrative aspects. If you cannot offer such a workshop on your own, you can make use of existing training programmes such as COIL trainings or the EVOLVE self-study course for lecturers who want to implement virtual exchange.

At Bielefeld UAS, two Digital Mobil members are part of the e-learning department and give lecturers advice on how to integrate virtual exchange in course concepts. They offer a workshop on the basics of virtual exchange once a semester introducing suitable methods and already realised international co-teaching projects as models and inspiration. The Digital Mobil staff also informs lecturers about the administrative aspects of international co-teaching scenarios, for instance available cooperation partners and enrolment procedures for students abroad.

2. Provide joint learning environments across borders

If lecturers are willing to realise an inter-institutional co-teaching project, an important requirement but also a major challenge is the technical realisation of a joint virtual learning environment. Giving students convenient access to online resources and collaboration platforms should be as easy as possible. Linking the learning management systems (LMSs) of partner universities solves this challenge by providing each student with access to all eligible foreign courses in their home LMS. This solution removes the need to acquire web addresses and login credentials for all foreign systems. The LMSs automatically exchange student data between universities and provide them with a trustworthy data set.

Giving students convenient access to online resources and collaboration platforms should be as easy as possible.

At Bielefeld UAS, a member of the Digital Mobil project team in the IT department offers lecturers to link the LMS of Bielefeld UAS to those of partner universities abroad. The technology used here is the Learning Tools Interoperability standard (LTI) providing access to a wide array of LMSs, e.g. Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas. Up to October 2021, seven international LMS links have been established at Bielefeld UAS. This allowed around 380 students to communicate and collaborate virtually across borders on one and the same platform.

3. Create new made-to-measure virtual mobility formats for your students

If international co-teaching is not an option for lecturers at your university, you can create new virtual mobility formats for your students. For example, your university and a partner university can open several courses for students from the other institution. Such an offer can be realised outside a larger mobility program such as ERASMUS. Students benefit from such micro-mobility as a flexible format to gain international experience: It is easier to fit a single course into their study plan than a whole semester. On the lecturers’ side, the advantage is that they can offer already existing courses instead of developing new co-teaching scenarios.

Together with Boise State University (USA) and South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences (Finland), Bielefeld UAS offers online courses that are open to all students of the three partnering universities without the need to participate in a broader mobility program. The universities have selected suitable online courses from the existing offers and compiled a joint course catalogue. Students can select courses from the catalogue according to their interests. After successful completion, students receive a certificate of participation: a micro-credential. The Digital Mobil members in the administration department supported the initiative by developing a new student status for virtual exchange students as a low-threshold way to join courses at Bielefeld UAS free of charge and with only few documents needed for registration.

Virtual mobility poses completely new challenges for teachers and students, but also for administration and IT. At Bielefeld UAS, we experienced that creativity as well as the involvement of important stakeholders are essential for developing successful new formats of meaningful international exchange. Virtual mobility is not meant to replace physical mobility. It is a complement providing the opportunity to get a taste of studying abroad and to gain international experience even when physical traveling is not possible. We encourage everyone to try it!

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