Modelling a European Networked University for e-Learning
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A serious obstacle in a close collaboration between traditional universities turns out to be the mutual acceptance of standards, academic level of content and the quality of studies. It is simple enough in political and strategic declarations to consent on principles. But it is far more difficult to practice such agreements. Even more resistance and questions are exposed when Internet with on-line learning is the major way of presenting the program to students.
The work with a quality assurance system (QAS) tends to fall into two main categories or levels:
- the overall institutional/administrative level
- the faculty/staff level
The first one concerns the fact that there is a great variation between the different universities with respect to their views on strategy for quality assurance. Some universities have rigid systems for accepting courses/ studies from other universities, while others have a more liberal policy. The policy chosen does not necessarily mean a better or a poorer quality, however.
At the faculty level there are multiple variations in the way master degree programmes are built, regarding e.g.:
- content and academic level of the courses
- tutoring and guidance of students etc, etc
- assessment system
- when does the academic year start - end?
- on-line vs. on-campus learning environment
A great challenge to all dual-mode universities is to develop an international accepted quality assurance system that also incorporates networked learning.
The MENU project sets out to reveal some of these differences between the partners involved in the project. Furthermore the project will try to harmonize where it seems possible. As a basis for the MENU QAS, a series of international reports and documentation from national authorities and partner institutions are collected and studied by our team. MENU uses the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) as a backbone or standard for its QAS.
Among the international reports we find e.g.:
- European University Association (EUA) policy paper on Quality Assurance, approved by the EUA Council on 27 September 2001
- Final project report "Towards Accreditation Schemes for Higher Education in Europe”
- European Commission - EUA Joint publication: Survey on Master Degrees and Joint Degrees in Europe, by Christian Tauch and Andrejs Rauhvargers September 2002
Documents relevant for the demonstrator, i.e. master degree programmes etc, have been of particular interest, and are used for composing a commonly agreed QAS for the project - and for a possible future ENU. An important challenge is to construct a system that also allows e-learning into the system.
Our work is still in a data-collecting phase. We foresee a lot of discussions and differences in opinions and in rules and regulations to tackle on our way to an agreed QAS. The report will be presented on the MENU web page, public area, as soon as it has been finalised by the working group. But even at that stage, the discussions and challenges will not be over. In the wake of the Bologna, Prague and other declarations, there is a lot of ground to break before a united QAS will be accepted by both academics and administrators.
The MENU demonstrator - testing and revision of the model
This task is still in the planning phase. It is stated in the proposal that the theoretical model based on all the plans (above) will be tested in a real situation. To make this even more complex than just testing a few separate courses or modules, it was decided to run a master degree programme as a demonstrator. Within the time limits of the project, 18 (or actually:12) months, it would not be possible to let students go through the whole program - which normally takes 2 years. Different parts of the study will therefore be tested by students at different stages in their degree program. In parallel to this, also some other modules and courses will be demonstrated.
A chosen demonstrator is a 2 year master degree in ICT in learning, based on a professional bachelor degree in teacher training, with a basis in pedagogy and operational skills in ICT. The actual testing will start in January/ February and last until end of the Spring term, involving 2 or 3 courses at master degree level in addition to on-line tutoring and guidance of students at their final masterwork, the 30 (ECTS) credit thesis. A central course in the test will be the course on research methods and scientific theories.
In this demonstrator the applicability of plans and QAS will be tested against academic staff and administrators at regular dual mode universities. Problems / challenges observed and experiences recorded in this phase of MENU, will be the main inputs for revision of the model, to turn it into guidelines for a real ENU.
A possible conclusion may be that we find this model for collaboration on e-learning services too complex to function in real life. Our belief so far, however, is that we will be able to present a realistic model and that within a year or two we may see a functional European Networked University offering courses and study programmes to learners from many countries - in and outside Europe.