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“Leverage digital” to transform sector – report

Recognising the challenges of the pandemic should be an opportunity to rethink the priorities of international education and digital exchange should be part of a “larger, university-wide digital transformation process” rather than a short-term fix, a report has urged.

Virtual or digital exchange formats "need to be explored more deeply and systematically", said swissnex. Photo: Unsplash

"Whether forced by the pandemic or in response to the climate change debate, Higher Education institutions are rethinking and reinventing how to exchange with their peers worldwide"

Entitled Rethinking International Exchange with Digital: Bringing agility and innovation to international higher education, the report – released by the swissnex Network, part of Swiss State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation – is based an online roundtable organised by swissnex India and Movetia, the Swiss national agency for mobility and cooperation, in 2020.

“Premier Indian universities now seek a more two-way exchange with aligned objectives”

“Leveraging digital to transform international education requires a mindset shift, upskilling, and considerable effort to build a network,” the report contends. “And as a result, substantially more students gain access to valuable intercultural experiences that ready them for work in international and dispersed teams.”

The report’s vision, as expressed by Movetia, is to “combine the strengths from both experiences: physical mobility and digital exchange” in a post-pandemic world. Among the stated headline benefits of this approach are:

  • Preparing students for work in international and geographically dispersed teams;
  • Providing faculties with creative and interdisciplinary ways to pursue research interests;
  • Raising the visibility of institutions as an innovative learning destinations.

Amanda Crameri, head of the Higher Education Sector and board member of Movetia, suggested that “before and after a stay in a different country, students should be able to network digitally and exchange”.

But from 2022, “classic” physical mobility such as one or two semester stays abroad with Erasmus will “be enriched with the so-called blended mobility”, which could reduce duration of physical mobility by between 5 days and 5 weeks.

“To enhance the effects of a short physical mobility, students should remain digitally connected with the host university before and after mobility.”

While the offer is still being developed and not all parameters have yet been clarified, digital and in-person activities must be high quality and recognised with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.

“The duration of physical mobilities is designed to be as broad as possible to allow the greatest flexibility so that HEIs can decide according to their needs.”

In order to achieve this rebalancing, the report suggests a number of steps for HEIs to take, including:

  • Make a map to include stakeholders early on;
  • Explore ways to bring together research and classroom learning;
  • Utilise your network – alumni groups, research cohorts, partner institutions, and involve students;
  • Redirect money that can’t be used because of Covid-19, such as travel budgets;
  • Help stakeholders realise the value for their own priorities – research, career, institutional goals;
  • Develop a culture of digital learning and iteration;
  • Take a “hackathon” approach by tackling issues collaboratively with an interdisciplinary group.

A number of examples of international digital co-operation are cited by the report across COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), summer schools/academies and other events.

Specific projects included Swiss and American students solving business challenges set by US startups and Swiss and South Asian students looking at building skills to address the UN Agenda 2030 – Sustainable Development Goals, with a special focus on climate change, waste management, and biodiversity.

Since moving to digital models, swissnex has observed a big change in participation from Asia and beyond, citing swissnex India’s forthcoming Genomics Training by Functional Genomics Centre Zurich (University of Zurich-ETH Zurich) and C-CAMP Bangalore, which has received over 270 applications from India, Colombo, Doha and Nigeria.

Meanwhile, running between April 11-30,  Knowledge 2 Action Online Academy on SDGs has received over 100 applications from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland and Iran.

“Whether forced by the pandemic or in response to the climate change debate, Higher Education institutions are rethinking and reinventing how to exchange with their peers worldwide,” Sebastien Hug, CEO of Swissnex in India and the Consul General of Switzerland in Bangalore said.

“We do not believe that virtual exchanges will, or should replace physical mobility. But virtual or digital exchange formats need to be explored more deeply and systematically, as they offer additional, more sustainable and inclusive avenues to interact with people and institutions worldwide.”

Last year, swissnex India released the Emerging Models of Collaboration with Indian Higher Education Institutions report looking at how to make Switzerland a “go-to destination for Indian students and researchers.”

It noted that there are currently 1,000 Indian students enrolled in Swiss universities out of a total of 1.09 million studying abroad. As well as guidelines on identifying the right partner from within the higher education sector in India, the report also covered collaboration with online and blended learning initiatives.

Maitree Dasgupta, head of University Partnerships at swissnex India and co-author of the report, said: “Premier Indian universities now seek a more two-way exchange with aligned objectives and are taking initiatives to build a stronger global network outside the United States and the UK.

“It is quite a radical shift and a great opportunity for Swiss university stakeholders. It’s pivotal to have the right insights on the expectations, motivations and the engagement models to build meaningful partnerships with Indian institutions for international exchange, research and innovation.” 

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