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Web Conferences at Higher Education Institutions - International Thanks to Virtualisation

By Wolfgang Döhl

Like research, teaching at German higher education institutions is also to become more international in the next few years. The current models for exchanging lecturers are however very complex. But alternatives are being developed, for example web conferences for communication between lecturers and students.

Web Conferences at Higher Education Institutions - International Thanks to Virtualisation© subwaytree - Photocase.comVirtual elements are expected to complement traditional attendance lectures
German universities of applied sciences are significantly less internationalised than comparable institutions in other countries. In France, for example, a significant proportion of teaching is provided by professors from abroad. It is however now widely accepted that the proportion of international lecturers is a quality and differentiation criterion for universities of applied sciences that will become increasingly important in the future. Bavaria, for example, uses target agreements with the higher education institutions to advance the internationalisation of teaching; in these agreements the federal state specifies, among other things, that each faculty must acquire at least one lecturer from abroad for a semester and continuously increase the number of visiting lecturers.

Traditional lecturer exchanges

However, targets such as these are difficult to fulfil with the traditional model of lecturer exchanges where a visiting lecturer spends an entire semester at a university abroad and is involved in teaching and possibly also in research there. This model holds significant difficulties for lecturers and higher education institutions: accommodation, support from the hosting higher education institution, compensation for lost teaching at the visiting lecturer's home university, remuneration, several months of separation from family and friends, as well as incorporation into the hosting higher education institution etc. present issues that require significant effort to handle. In addition to extensive costs and complex administration, this model also demands great personal dedication particularly from the involved lecturers, which in particular very highly qualified lecturers with extensive commitments at their home universities may find off-putting. A long-term future for this model exists in places where due to political circumstances targeted funding is coupled with minimised administrative hurdles.

Alternative models complement traditional attendance lectures through virtual elements. They require the use of meeting and collaboration tools that allow participants to meet in virtual "rooms", see each other on screen, hear each other via Voice over IP, hold presentations and jointly work on documents. The compiled documents, files used, and the log that is simultaneously created are automatically sent to all participants of the work session as soon as the meeting has ended. The technical requirements for the use of such technologies are minimal; investments are rarely necessary, as this equipment will usually already be available at the higher education institutions.

While businesses already use these technologies widely today, German higher education institutions still have a lot of catching up to do. And this despite the fact that web conferences can not only save money but also increase communication frequency and quality. The possibilities range from lectures in which students can actively participate from home to "web streams" that are available for repeated listening, for example to prepare for examinations ("lecture on demand"). Offerings like this are well received: the Department of Industrial Engineering at the Munich University of Applied Sciences achieved an average usage rate of 20% over an entire semester for a web lecture on its further training course "MBA and Engineering".

Block exchange - virtual plus real

In the "block exchange" model, the guest lecturer spends a limited period of approximately three to fourteen days at a university abroad and conveys the content of his or her lecture in this time. Individual lectures may also be distributed among up to three visiting lecturers. At well-organised higher education institutions, on-site presence is coupled with preparation and follow-up, which must be managed by a representative of the hosting higher education institution. This exchange model avoids most of the problems associated with the traditional model. However, it is difficult to combine with rigid lecture planning; it requires a powerful planning and communication system that can provide precise daily lecture plans, a simple way of communicating schedules, and an individual lecture calendar for each student. Tried and tested web-based systems exist for this purpose. The block model is extremely well suited as a basis for internationalising higher education institutions. Together with web-based tools for meetings and collaboration it will define internationalised teaching in the future.

Ring exchange - complex organisation

The "ring exchange" model adopts the basic structures of block exchange and expands the circle of participants. A particular item is then for example taught by two lecturers from abroad. Numerous higher education institutions practice this model when their aim is to bring increased intercultural or interdisciplinary aspects to teaching. The Department of Industrial Engineering at the Munich University of Applied Sciences plans to implement the ring exchange model with partners from Grenoble and Tokyo in the winter semester 2010/2011; preparations in the form of bilateral projects are taking place over the summer semester 2010. This model requires excellent organisation on the part of the participating higher education institutions and lecturers, and must be carefully planned and developed. Decisive for its success are capacity for teamwork, willingness to cooperate, and intercultural tolerance. It often arises when higher education institutions are already connected through bilateral exchange relationships and the lecturers are already in contact with each other. Due to the extensive coordination required, it is almost impossible to implement this model without Internet-based tools.

About the author
Wolfgang Döhl is a professor at the Department of Industrial Engineering at the Munich University of Applied Sciences.

Forschung und Lehre :: Juli 2010