Networking European Universities through e-learning (reviewed text)

Jana Dlouhá
Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (VCSE) network has been selected to be part of the EC DG EAC Inventory of innovative good practice on education for sustainable development.
The main purpose of the Inventory is to show concrete examples which have been implemented in the Member States under the concept of ESD in formal and non-formal learning contexts and which are at the forefront as regards innovative approaches. Projects/programmes selected as innovative good practice will be used to inform the preparation of the next Progress Report on the EU Sustainable Development Strategy in Education. See European Commission DG Education and Culture Inventory of innovative practices in education for sustainable development, the case study VCSE - Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (EUROPEAN LEVEL), page 33.

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Networking European Universities through e-learning (reviewed text)

2008-07-26 11:07:15

Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (VCSE) network has been selected to be part of the EC DG EAC Inventory of innovative good practice on education for sustainable development.
The main purpose of the Inventory is to show concrete examples which have been implemented in the Member States under the concept of ESD in formal and non-formal learning contexts and which are at the forefront as regards innovative approaches. Projects/programmes selected as innovative good practice will be used to inform the preparation of the next Progress Report on the EU Sustainable Development Strategy in Education. See European Commission DG Education and Culture Inventory of innovative practices in education for sustainable development , the case study VCSE - Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (EUROPEAN LEVEL), page 33.

E-learning Course: “Critical approaches to globalisation: developing writing competences”

A case study of an e-learning course in higher education is presented with respect to the added value it brings to the learning environment. Students’ evaluation of the more traditionally taught blended-learning course showed their specific interest in the technical support that ensures availability of the teaching material, fair assessment, and wider communication opportunities. On the basis of this interest, the course was developed into an e-learning version and is now used in international collaboration in ESD teaching. Based on the need for an open space for virtual student mobility, the Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (VCSE) network of universities was established. This European initiative represents a functional model of collaboration on different levels of education (Bachelors, Masters).

This case study is focused on meeting learning objectives of ESD (education for sustainable development) in the virtual environment.

Introduction

Interdisciplinary approaches in ESD are essential due to the complex character of environmental problems. The challenge faced by educators is that interdisciplinary studies require changes in concepts, structure and overall organization of learning to be sustainable in the long term. After reflection and evaluation of the interdisciplinary teaching/learning environment we can conclude the following:

  • New forms of co-operation between educational institutions are an imperative for interdisciplinary teaching – but they are not yet institutionalised.
  • This cooperation can be achieved by establishing a shared (virtual) environment, where not only information exchange would take place, but also communication at a higher order of magnitude (such as research co-operation, co-development of expert opinion, etc.)
  • The new requirements imposed on knowledge sets or structures in interdisciplinary settings[1] lead to the development of innovative forms of texts for sustainable development studies –electronic media provide an appropriately dynamic and flexible environment for emphasizing and making visibly conspicuous the complex character of the problem.
  • The aims of multidisciplinary teaching for sustainable development can be ensured by implementation of e-learning either in an advanced blended learning setting or in a completely virtual environment.

The course “Critical approaches...” in an e-learning environment

The course “Critical approaches to globalisation: developing writing competences” is a successor of the traditional face-to-face ‘Globalisation and Global Sustainability Issues’ framework course, which provided general information on the nature of globalisation and the major related issues. The topics cover the entire range of the study area from various perspectives; to maintain this inter-disciplinarity, inputs from various specializations are used in the course, originally from leading professionals in their respective branches.

New goals in developing an e-learning version of the Globalisation course were extended to fulfill educational objectives neglected in the traditional face-to-face lecture. Due to this objective, new “active learning strategies” were included, which slightly changed its general concept. Now the course is includes training writing skills – using the globalisation theme as a topic for envisaged students’ products.

In the new setting, the multi-disciplinary course is not only focused on the process of globalisation and its problems. It has twin objectives: to develop students’ capacity for critical thinking in exploring the complex reality of the globalised world, and ability to work in a heterogeneous environment, thus preparing them for future involvement and participation in society. The other goal is to foster powerful skills crucial for everyone in academic environment and beyond: clarity in presentation of ideas, structured argumentation and critical analysis of texts. Students can choose a particular area of interest which serves as a background to completing specific assignments to develop analytical and writing skills. The learning environment supports cooperation of students in exchange of ideas on global problems or case studies, and also within the process of “peer review” of writing products.

General Goals of the course – cognitive goals and value judgements

The course is still focused on the process of globalisation and its problems – the core of recent discussion focused on searching for sustainable solutions to global challenges. It gives a holistic view of globalisation issues from the perspectives of various constituent disciplines (economic, social, environmental, political, security, ethical, etc.). From cognitive point of view, the aim of the course is to:

  • Lend support to the student’s overall perspective, navigation in the SD issues for non-specialists, where integration of different perspectives and an emphasis on links and relations is the rule;
  • Foster commitment for involvement in sustainable strategies;
  • Draw a synoptic ‘map’ of the various approaches to globalisation issues;
  • Study the main causes, driving forces, development trends and their visible manifestations;
  • Realize the risks associated with the development, gain an overview of the current solution options;

Figure 4. Themes of the course available for students’ contribution in the common Wiki space.

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Specific – competences and skills

In the e-learning version of the course, knowledge is gained as a result of active exploring of the topic done by students themselves. Through independent work (carefully guided by tutor) with the texts of the course, participants are encouraged not only to learn about the offered themes, but also to develop skills necessary for any university student. Reflection, relevant research and production of text (of a sufficient level corresponding with the study level and background of students) are methods of learning at university level that support the following skills:

  • Developing critical thinking, enabling students to weigh various perspectives;
  • Give each student the opportunity to contribute their own stone to the knowledge production mosaic;
  • Working with different sources of information (and citing it correctly!);
  • Critically reflecting on the credibility and reliability of texts, critical analysis;
  • Re-structuring provided texts and amending them with one's own contributions ;
  • Finding one’s own standpoint and formulating questions;
  • Developing arguments ;
  • Fostering an ability to write in a clear and structured way;
  • Producing a text with defined parameters – an essay dealing with a chosen topic;
  • Expanding the background course materials with a case study (contributing to further development of the subject).

The aim of the course is fulfilled as a constructivist task; active learning and critical thinking objectives are met. At the same time, students’ work creates a visible product – a Wikipedia educational resource – that may be suitable for further development and serve as a common knowledge base and resource for other members of the academic community.

Figure 5. Example of introduction to the independent work

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Method:

The course leads step by step from 1) understanding texts, 2) reconstruction of texts, 3) the more advanced and comprehensive ability to make an original contribution to the theme of the texts while meeting all necessary academic demands. In each step, skills in formal procedures of scientific writing are taught and students should be confident in coping with complex issues.

Outline of the lectures:

  1. Technical introduction – Moodle (“manual” for students: introduction to the study material, tasks, assignments, discussion forums etc.), Wiki (space for realization of the assignments, creativity of students)
  2. Formulation of the “research question” – first of all (before focusing on acquisition of new knowledge) students are given the chance to express their own interests, which acknowledged their past and current interests and experience which they bring to the course
  3. Work with selected text – structural analysis of the provided study material & transfer to Wiki space
  4. Study engagement – reading of all course texts, reflection, discussion with others, …
  5. Work with external resources – comment on reliability of the resource, quality & Citation rules (aim is to find materials relevant to the research topic, write annotations and quote correctly!)
  6. Start with writing assignment – principles of creative writing, while avoiding plagiarism! (students are asked to formulate their hypothesis and arguments in a creative way)
  7. Writing a literature review & development of a case study (first real reflection of the theme from professional point of view)
  8. Revision of the text & upgrading text according to quality criteria
  9. Peer review (active engagement of the students)
  10. (Mutual) evaluation of the writing product

Work with the text

Knowledge of the globalisation process is acquired through reflection of the relevant texts – not only reading, but also writing summaries, annotating every paragraph, doing structural analysis, transfer to the common educational space – Wiki environment – and discussing every point with other students.

Figure 6. Example of student’s work with the provided text.

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Figure 7. Guidance for text analysis – background material accessible by hyperlink.

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Guidance in every step (work with resources)

The method of teaching includes thorough preparation of learning materials so that students have to fulfill very simple tasks and do their job more or less mechanically. The “mental capacity” is not overfilled and they can concentrate on “higher order thinking” jobs: the content of the text and analysis of its qualities, which leads them to the first experience necessary for their own writing. Students have to:

  • Choose a specific subject that can be described with respect to various disciplinary approaches;
  • Develop the topic into a final form through a writing assignment which will be supported at every step of the process.

Figure 8. Support for writing annotation/summary – and space for mutual evaluation of the products.

5_informace_critical_glob_image010

Constructivist approach

All participants are invited to gradually contribute to a common educational environment by

  • inclusion of delivered texts in a required format,
  • amending texts by (cited) online or printed (reliable) resources and its annotations,
  • producing short original paragraphs and texts,
  • writing more extensive articles or case studies within one of the outlined themes.

These products are realized through mastering an easily acquired technical skill – Wikipedia software. Respect to the academic criteria is trained through the students’ peer reviewing of the final text.

Figure 9. Guidance for independent research – formulation of the question (and space for another evaluation!)

5_informace_critical_glob_image012

Requirements and opportunities

In the course, communication and the exchange of experiences between students of different backgrounds is supported. In a “global” network of participating institutions the course provides an opportunity to collaborate in tasks and constructively peer review and comment on each others’ progress.

Students should be prepared to collaborate in an online educational space by contributing to focused discussion forums and working with text via the Moodle electronic learning platform. At the end of the course, students should have necessary skills to meet academic criteria – this will support their future career whatever their professional orientation might be.

Through the process of learning, students become happy to have an opportunity to contribute to the learning environment. They are using active learning strategies – constructing the knowledge base instead of pure utilization of it.

Figure 10. Example of student ‘ s work

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Conclusion

On the content side, the virtual environment is supportive for understanding complex issues – it gives an access to diverse resources and possibility to link different information and reflect mutual relations.

On the side of teaching method, e-learning provides an opportunity to fulfill pedagogical objectives appropriate at university level – develop knowledge independently by researching relevant resources and working with texts and materials in a process of reflecting and re-formulating ideas, building on them and amending them by personal contribution. That is a core of academic skills which often are not practiced along with fulfilling study duties on a university level.

The virtual space also opens opportunities to train team competence and communication skills and it has potential in promoting an international aspect – ensuring cooperation of students across national borders, thus addressing the Bologna process of student mobility, which otherwise would be difficult or expensive to organize.

The new approach in the described case is based on the idea of Writing Support Centres (see some 15 000 000 Google hits for “University Writing Support Centre”, mainly from universities in the US). Implementation of this approach is highly innovative in the context of university studies in the Czech Republic.

Final info

Course is part of VCSE e-learning environment offering courses on sustainable development for European higher education institutes, see www.vcse.eu

The VCSE project provides opportunities for cooperation with students across Europe; it provides a space for virtual mobility between students and tutors of partner universities and also between local “actors” on sustainability issues.

The original course ‘Globalisation and Global Sustainability Issues’ was developed by the Charles University Environment Centre with the support of the Chancellor of Charles University. E-learning version of the Globalisation course is based on materials used by this concurrent Czech course. The course Critical approaches of Globalisation: Developing writing competences is taught online by Charles University Environment Centre in English to university students (Bachelor or Masters Degree) from across Europe. It lasts for 10 weeks. Number of credits – 4. The course workload is 120 hours per semester.

Both courses were co-funded by following grants: the EU European Social Fund, Prague Municipal Government, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic. The translation of the materials into English was funded by grants by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic and e-learning course is a part of the VCSE project financed from the EU Lifelong Learning Programme.

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[1] Disciplinary discourses could not be ignored or substituted (they represent the epistemological space for knowledge generation). These discourses participate in the “language games” that guarantee diversity of views and make “unification of worldviews” impossible. The dialogue between different discourses in interdisciplinary settings suggests that practical and variable frames for structuring of knowledge (generated in different discourses) should be designed so that constructivist approaches are respected.

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