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Coimbra Group High Level Webinar on Education Policy

16 December 2020

“Challenges and future of internationalisation in the European Knowledge Area”

3-4 December 2020

Wrap-Up Summary

Whereas virtual exchange and digital education in general were already trendy topics prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sanitary measures taken all over the world to combat the novel coronavirus have put the spotlight on the challenges and pitfalls linked to them. This has led to an urgent need for a collective reflection based on sharing of good practices and collaboration. The Coimbra Group High-level Policy Webinar explored the challenges posed by digital transformation and the role that higher education institutions can play towards this transition.

Challenges are wide-ranging, going from IT skills gap among university staff and students to assessment, data and inclusion issues. Up until now, digital education has been predominantly led by industry. In his keynote speech, Ben Williamson (University of Edinburgh), stated that the pandemic has created a catalytic opportunity for higher education institutions to change this trend. Industry actors are trying to compete with universities when it comes to the provision of online courses by giving students the false impression of immediate returns on their investments, the underlying assumption being that the purpose of a degree is to find employment. However, as Ben Williamson stressed, graduates’ employability is not the sole purpose of higher education; universities contribute to the social, economic and cultural wealth of society and the training they provide is therefore all-encompassing.

The main challenges identified throughout the discussions with the webinar speakers included:

  • Proctoring: besides raising students’ anxiety, it entrenches the idea of individual examinations as the ultimate assessment method. Assessment is therefore one of the areas that needs further reflection.
  • Data-driven digital transformation: the risks with industry actors as repositories of student performance data raises risks linked to reputational damage, legal action, breaches of ethics and rights. These challenges point towards the need for a sector-wide framework for data ethics.
  • Need to mobilise and support virtual exchange experts and build on the good work that has been done so far. The spring lockdown and the current sanitary measures in place throughout Europe have resulted in additional pressure on the workload of university staff. Although there are virtual exchange experts in many institutions, at present it is very difficult for them to find the time to dedicate themselves fully to a structured reflection on digital transformation. In his keynote speech, Robert O’Dowd (University of Léon) highlighted that it is essential to train teachers in running virtual exchange and it is equally as important to support them through incentives. Staff development activities were mentioned by the ARQUS alliance as being essential for the introduction of pedagogical innovation.
  • While digital education did certainly facilitate, during the lockdowns, the participation of people who would have normally not had the opportunity of taking part in specific activities, inclusion remains a challenge, more specifically when it comes to connectivity and equipment. As Sophia Eriksson-Waterschoot (DG EAC, European Commission) stressed: “We cannot have digital transformation without taking into consideration the inclusion aspect”.
  • Digital education and virtual exchange ought to also consider learning as a social experience, according to the Circle U. alliance. The lack of social interaction during the lockdown confirms that being on campus is not just about gaining academic knowledge – it contributes to shaping students’ mindsets.

The pandemic has revealed how interdependent we all are. Collaborative work and networks will be key in the transition to digital transformation. In this sense, we are yet to exploit the full potential of technology for facilitating collaborative work. At institutional level, case studies presented by the universities of Pavia and Uppsala pointed to the importance of involving all layers of university actors (management, faculty, professional services and students) not only when it comes to emergency planning, but also in the reflection exercise on digital education. It is important to continue to ensure the dissemination of practices, both good and bad, so that we are aware of what is effective and what is not. In this sense, European University Alliances are good testbeds, said Una Europa alliance.

There is the danger of a tendency to resort to quick technical fixes rather than adopting a long-term, holistic approach to the challenges posed by the digital transformation we are currently experiencing. Indeed here we are being presented with an opportunity for a real change, rather than an adaptation to a temporary emergency situation (as was the case during the first lockdowns in spring 2020). There was general agreement on the fact that virtual cannot replace physical. As Dirk Van Damme (OECD) put it: “Contact with people from other countries relates positively to interest in learning about other countries”. That said, instead of focusing on polarizing the virtual and physical, we should take the best of both worlds and reap on the benefits they can offer.

Please visit the webinar page for the sessions’ takeaways and the presentations.