COVID-19 created a temporary chaos in the field of internationalisation of higher education, as the pandemic found thousands of international students stranded abroad. Every year, around 350.000 students go abroad under the Erasmus+ programme. When the pandemic hit Europe, those students were given three choices: to continue their studies abroad by following online courses, to return home and continue studying remotely by following online courses, or to cancel their exchange programme. In any scenario, it was clear that the mobility experience for those students wouldn’t be the same as it would have been under normal circumstances.
In a research report that we at the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) conducted, with responses from 22.000 international students, we saw that ⅔ of students continued their mobility programme. Half of those students, however, chose to continue their mobility programme from their home country. In both cases, students followed classes online. The option of online learning given to the students was the best solution in order to continue their studies. However, the main question troubling the internationalisation sector is whether online learning is here to stay or it is just a temporary solution to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the summer of 2020, the European Commission took measures in order to ensure the continuity of the Erasmus+ programme in the upcoming autumn semester. Erasmus+ students were offered the option to start their mobility online from their home institution and later, when the circumstances would allow it, to travel to their exchange destination. From our contacts with our national and local ESN associations and from the interactions with students and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), we realised that the vast majority of students who were selected to undertake an Erasmus+ mobility chose to travel to their exchange destination already from the beginning instead of following online courses from home. This already shows a trend, how HEIs and students feel online learning does not offer the same possibilities and experiences as physical mobility.
COVID-19 brought the conversation about the benefits of online learning at the forefront and made it a prominent topic. This topic is not a new one - it has existed for at least 20 years now. There are different methodologies for online learning, such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), Collaborative Online Learning (COIL), etc. What is quite new, or at least brought back due to the pandemic, is the notion of “Virtual Mobility”; offering students the possibility to study in another university through online means.
“Virtual Mobility” has been embraced by some, but by others it has been seen with great skepticism, including by ESN. The main question is whether we can define online learning as a mobility experience. There are many actors in the internationalisation sector who believe that if designed well, online learning can have similar impact as physical mobility. Additionally, many projects and policies have already been set up to facilitate this form of mobility.
The European Commission, however, with input from stakeholders and student organisations, has chosen to follow a middle ground, when it comes to the Erasmus+ programme at least. Already before the COVID-19 pandemic, a new approach towards student mobility started being discussed in the European Commission’s working groups among National Agencies, internationalisation experts and student organisations. This new approach is called “Blended Mobility” and it combines short-term physical mobility with online learning components. This new type of mobility will be an integral part of the new Erasmus+ programme which is expected to start from 2021.
It is therefore evident that in one way or another online learning is here to stay, and it is not just a temporary solution to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The main challenge in the future will be to safeguard physical mobility and ensure online learning will be utilised in a complementary manner. We at the Erasmus Student Network, have been supporting international students for 31 years and we know very well that the experiences students get while abroad are invaluable. By living abroad, students, apart from the academic benefits, have the chance to experience another culture, to make lifelong friendships, to challenge themselves, and to volunteer with their local communities. Those experiences are not replaceable nor comparable to remote learning. Thus, even though we welcome potential added value of online learning, we see our future that ensures students making their own choices which include having the opportunity to be fully emersed in the invaluable study abroad experience.