Original publication: March 2020
Authors: Bert-Jan Buiskool; Marye Hudepohl
Short link to this post: https://bit.ly/2QEj87J
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Key findings:
  1. There is an abundance of evidence that physical mobility provides a wider set of benefits including: the development of personal and professional skills and competences; increased adaptability to new and changing environments; development of a sense of European citizenship; and increasing labour market opportunities.
  2. There is a clear argument that virtual formats reduces travelling and thereby saves on travel costs, emissions and time. Nevertheless, digital tools (video streaming; cloud computing; etc.) have a significant carbon footprint as well.
  3. No clear evidence is available that compares virtual formats with physical mobility in terms of learning process, outcomes and wider benefits for participants.
  4. Existing evidence is sufficient to confirm that virtual formats can serve as an effective option to address challenges related to cultural awareness, inter-cultural collaboration, and transversal or soft skills. Nevertheless, virtual formats cannot completely provide the same kind of learning experience compared to physical mobility in Erasmus+, where many of the benefits are derived specifically from immersion in another culture. When immersion in another culture is not at the heart of a scheme (i.e. short-term mobility) virtual formats can be considered
  5. Virtual formats have benefits and risks for the programmes. A significant shift to virtual formats would present a wide range of challenges in terms of planning, logistics, the development of platforms or other systems, and the provision of technical support on the implementation and use of these systems.
  6. There is general agreement amongst scholars that none of the forms of mobility learning is an alternative for replacing others. Each form adds to the enrichment of education in a different way, while still offering students the opportunity to develop international competences and skills.

This short briefing paper is part of the study into effective measures to ‘green’ the Erasmus+, Creative Europe and European Solidarity Corps programmes, which aims to provide input for the CULT Committee own-initiative report (“INI report”) on effective measures to “green” the CULT programmes.

One of the considerations addressed by the previous introductory paper (and by stakeholders) is the promotion of online forms of learning, cooperation and mobility (such as virtual learning, blended learning, etc) and the extent to which these can serve as replacements or additions to physical mobility to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses. On the one hand, this consideration would be in line with developments seen over the past years in which learning institutions across Europe have increasingly adopted the use of innovative modes of teaching and learning through ICT tools. These methods have resulted in a shift in mainstream education from traditional (face-to-face) learning to new, blended forms of education (EADTU, 2019).  

Further, the European Commission has showed a growing interest in virtual formats as a tool in education through financing several virtual exchange projects in the past, as well as the project Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange (EVE) in 2018. This is a flagship project aiming to expand the reach and scope of the Erasmus+ programme via virtual exchange. Erasmus+ further supports different IT support platforms such as eTwinning, the School Education Gateway, the European Platform for Adult Learning (EPALE) and the European Youth Portal and includes further features, such as: virtual collaboration spaces; databases of opportunities; communities of practice; and other online services for teachers, trainers, practitioners, young people, volunteers and youth workers in the field of school and adult education across Europe and beyond. Additionally, Erasmus+ also supports the development of innovative teaching and training methodologies based on digital technologies (e.g. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), simulators, augmented reality, etc.), as well as virtual and blended formats for learners and staff (European Commission, 2019). Analysing the full project overviews of Erasmus+, European Solidarity Corps and Creative Europe programmes (published on their respective project results platforms) for the period 2014 to 2019, however, show that only a few projects address ‘blended mobility’ in their summary description, being a very small share of the total of 129 263 projects. The Commission proposal for the future programme refers to the ambition to introduce a number of improvements and novelties such as virtual and blended formats, however, not being precise how this will be effectuated (European Commission, 2018a).

On the other hand, the physical mobility scheme has always been at the core of the Erasmus+ programme (Key action 1, in particular). This raises the question as to what the impact of a significant shift towards virtual formats in the Erasmus+ programmewould be and what benefits for participants, delivered through the current programme, would be lost in the process. In order to contribute to answering these questions, this paper will address the added value of physical mobility (compared to virtual formats, within a context of capacity building). The methodology consists of desk research of scientific literature on physical and virtual learning formats, studies into the impact of Erasmus+ mobility, as well as reports discussing examples of Erasmus+ initiatives within a context of virtual formats.

To what extent does physical mobility in the Erasmus+ programme provide a unique opportunity for capacity-building and intercultural contact?

From the start of the predecessor of the Erasmus+ programme in 1987, the central objective has been to create an international experience that facilitates the immersion of people into another culture (EADTU, 2019). This is achieved through supporting the learning mobility of individuals (e.g. studying in another country and through strengthening the cooperation between institutions across Europe (European Commission, 2018b).

There is an abundance of evidence that physical mobility provides a wider set of benefits. First of all, it is important to note that there is a solid theoretical base for the expectation that students develop a sense of European identity by spending part of their studies in another European country. This refers in particular to social theories that highlight transnational and intergroup contact as important mechanisms for identity-formation and reducing intergroup bias (Mitchell, 2012). Furthermore, studies into the effects of physical mobility have shown a variety of positive influences for participants delivered through the Erasmus+ programme, including the following effects: the development of their personal and professional skills and competences (Dolga et al., 2015); increased adaptability to new and changing environments (Llurda et al., 2016); development of a sense of European citizenship or European identity (Mitchell, 2012; Llurda et al., 2016); and increasing opportunities in the labour market (Ballatore et al., 2013).  Additionally, research shows that physical exchanges have a significant positive impact on the participants’ understanding of complex cultural dynamics, tolerance and their willingness to work globally (Kokko, 2011). The most recent Erasmus impact study 2019, confirms the positive influence of Erasmus+,  enhancing students’ quality of life and career prospects, as well as building a sense of European identity and social cohesion (European  Commission, 2019).

With regards to the effect on developing a European identity, there is an ongoing debate as to whether studying in another country causes European identity or whether students who already identify as European citizens are more likely to participate in international mobility. However, this does not seem to be the case for Erasmus+ as shown in the empirical studies by Mitchell (2012), where only 10% of (2,011) Erasmus students indicated that they already associated with other nationalities to the same or greater extent before participation in the programme. This indicates that the Erasmus+ programme does provide a unique opportunity for intercultural contact for the majority of participants. Nevertheless, the resulting increase in ‘EU awareness’ is generally considered a secondary gain to participants’ individual objectives[8], rather than an explicit objective (Llurda et al., 2016). Some scholars argue that physical mobility does not always lead directly to the development of intercultural competences or an enhanced transnational identity and instead often remains a somewhat random result of experimental learning. This type of learning depends on situations, on encounters, as well as individual psychology (Papatsiba, 2005). There have been similar findings by Paige et al (2009), who argues that the key to successful physical mobility programmes is how the exchanges are structured and the type of learning experience provided.

Also, evaluation surveys among staff in Erasmus+ compared to a control group showed that participation in the programme is generally associated with wide networking and cooperation, stronger attachment to Europe and greater use of digital resources (European Commission, 2017).

To what extent are virtual formats suboptimal compared to physical mobility?

In the last few years increased attention has been given to virtual formats. This has mostly come from the perspective of inclusive education as, for a large number of students, it is not possible to go abroad for social, financial or other reasons (and given that not all students are able to receive funding from Erasmus+) (Richardson, 2016). Mobility is limited to a relatively small percentage of the student and staff population. Even if the EU benchmark for 2020 of 20% is to be achieved, this will leave 80% of students with limited international and intercultural experiences as part of their university studies. International exchange opportunities for youth workers, school pupils and other individuals are also very limited due to a variety of financial, socio-economic and personal circumstances.

To compare physical mobility with virtual formats, it is first necessary to clearly define virtual formats. Four main types can be identified: (1) A virtual course or seminar; (2) a virtual study programme; (3) a virtual work placement; or (4) virtual support to physical exchange.  Each type has its own purpose, working mechanisms and outcomes. Generally speaking, there is a lack of comparative research between virtual formats and physical mobility. While there is a clear argument that virtual formats reduce traveling and thereby save on travel costs, emissions and time, no clear evidence is available that compares virtual formats to physical mobility in terms of learning process, outcomes and wide benefits for the participants. It also needs to be mentioned that digital tools (video streaming; cloud computing; etc.) have a carbon footprint as well, using a significant amount of electricity contributing to CO2 emissions. Besides, blended formats do not reduce traveling, since physical mobility is still taking place (short mobility).

Nevertheless, there is a body of academic research, although fragmented, that shows that virtual formats (in particular exchange schemes) do indeed have a substantial impact on their participants, such as a positive relationship between virtual formats and cultural intelligence. In addition, assessments performed on the Sharing Perspectives Foundation and the eTwinning platform provide evidence of improvements in soft skills (Education for Change, 2013). For instance, ‘Study of the impact of eTwinning on participating pupils, teachers and supporting staff’ found that participation increases curiosity, openness to other European cultures, cultural awareness, social competences, language and teamwork skills (European Commission, 2013). Moreover, the positive effects of participation in virtual exchanges are not limited to cultural views. The teachers’ survey identified five main benefits of eTwinning, including: making new friends and networking across Europe (64%); new or improved ICT skills (60%); a positive impact on pupils’ skills or motivation to learn (55%); a sense of involvement in an international teaching community (55%); and improved foreign language skills (54%). By the same token, a survey of 6,000 eTwinning teachers in 2016, showed that eTwinning strongly impacts students’ motivation with around 90% of teachers declaring that the project had a moderate or large impact in this area, and 91% of teachers reported that eTwinning improved their cross-curricular skills (Kearney & Gras-Velázquez, 2018). The pilot project Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange, supported by the Erasmus+ programme also reports positive outcomes amongst participants in terms of: building positive and meaningful relations; increase in digital competences, foreign languages, and teamwork; collaborative problem solving; increased tolerance; and intercultural sensitivity (Helm & van der Velden, 2019). Recent research on MOOCs, on the other hand, paints a more negative picture with low completion rates, although completion rates have proven to be higher when students have been nudged via interactivity.

features (such as mentoring and feedback from peers) being added to online courses and when courses cost money  (Reich & Ruipérez-Valiente, 2019).

Furthermore, when comparing physical mobility to virtual formats in terms of the learning experience they provide it is the journey itself and the ‘change of place’ that provides the experience in physical mobility. For virtual formats, it is the knowledge that travels, which is then used in different social and cultural contexts to provide the experience (Aguado et al., 2014). This provides an indication that virtual formats cannot provide the same kind of learning experience as the Erasmus+ programme currently delivers through its physical mobility. With this in mind, it also follows that when immersion into another culture or language is desirable, virtual exchange cannot replace physical mobility and the latter would be preferred. In cases where a stay abroad is not specifically required or when immersion in another culture is not at the heart of a scheme (i.e. short-term mobility) virtual formats can be considered, especially when virtual learning environments have become technically sophisticated enough to support both small and large groups.  

The feasibility study of the Erasmus+ virtual exchange initiative (European Commission, 2017), identified a number of benefits and risks of virtual exchanges. Benefits relate to lower costs; better outreach to target groups and (non-eligible) regions; different forms of interaction and outputs; development of soft skills and digital competences; and possibility that the platform becomes a virtual hub of civic engagement. Identified risks concern low participation since core elements of physical exchange being absent (live interaction; traveling;  extra-curriculum activities); individual or cultural concerns regarding privacy; difficulties in ensuring commitments/ attendance of participants;  limitation that only young people with high quality devices and good access to internet join in, as well as those with more privileged backgrounds; low quality infrastructure, support materials, and skills assessment tools; unqualified prepared facilitators; intercultural misunderstanding and conflicts; unattractive, unclear interface; issues with compliance with the EU data protection regulations; and young people being sceptical of any initiative associated with ‘institutions’ such as the EU. A significant shift to virtual formats would therefore present a wide range of challenges in terms of planning, logistics, the development of platforms and other systems, trained individual users, and the need to provide technical support on implementation and the use of developed systems to universities, teachers and students. Moreover, although digital tools and resources are increasingly available to educators, they continue to be used in a very limited, traditional manner by most teachers. The European Commission (2015) reports in this regard that online technologies are mainly used as a remedial tool and innovative approaches to using online technologies are often limited to the pedagogical activities of a small minority of innovative practitioners.

In conclusion, existing evidence is sufficient to confirm that virtual formats can serve as an effective option to address challenges related to cultural awareness, inter-cultural collaboration and transversal or soft skills. The question is, however, whether virtual formats should strive to copy physical mobility as much as possible in order to provide the same benefits or to complement physical mobility. Scholars argue that that virtual formats are, in essence, different from physical mobility, although they can be perfectly used as a

complement to or alternative for physical mobility. There is general agreement amongst scholars that neither of the forms of learning is an alternative to the other. Each form adds to the enrichment of education, offering students the opportunity to learn international competences and skills. By incorporating a combination of physical, blended and virtual forms of mobility into a curriculum, students have greater opportunities to integrate an international learning experience into their portfolio and have more opportunities to develop competences such as intercultural and linguistic skills, online collaboration, media and digital skills, online team work and networking, open mindedness, and critical thinking (EADTU, 2019).

Link to the full publication: https://bit.ly/629-217

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