Internationalising online programs/Study Abroad

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Study Abroad at Comenius University

Description of Activity

Comenius University is the flagship state university of the Slovak Republic. In the early 90’s, after the Velvet Revolution, the institution started to modernize its curriculum and established a “Faculty of Management” to meet the growing interest and national need for business education. The Faculty of Management, Comenius University (FMCU) was wildly successful, attracting interest throughout the region, allowing the program to select the to 6% of all applicants. The student body was bright and creative, wanting to take advantage not only of the Western course of study, but also exchange programs and professional internships.

FMCU students had many opportunities to study abroad and serve in commercial internships throughout Western Europe, North American, and Oceana. Unfortunately, the higher education system in Slovakia had yet to be adequately reformed to allow for these types of activities. Law mandated cohort-based education and prohibited the transfer of “core” courses from other universities. The combination of strict adherence to cohorts and limited transferability of mandated courses made study abroad a logistical challenge.

To address the “study abroad” challenge, members of the FMCU teaching “core” courses agreed to deliver them online to learners unable to attend in person due to geographic constraints, allowing for students to enjoy an international experience, earn credits at western schools, engage in international internships, and complete their degree at FMCU with their cohort. It also allowed the FMCU interested with western education providers, while respecting the laws governing higher education in Slovakia.

Benefits of Activity

It is difficult to underestimate the impact of study abroad programs for learners and societies that had been historically isolated. In the case of FMCU the isolation had shifted from political ideology during the Soviet era, to one of economics and legacy policy. Overcoming the administrative (policy) constraints using online learning liberated some of the following benefits:

  1. Enhanced curricular flexibility and richness allowing learners to take electives on the ground during their study abroad experience, while taking core courses online through FMCU.
  2. Allowed for the formation of relationships between foreign universities and the FMCU, enhancing opportunities for further exchanges, including faculty exchanges.
  3. Illustrated the real benefits of online learning to local administration creating some urgency for investment in appropriate infrastructure.
  4. Provides opportunities for individual learners to extend the study abroad idea to professional internships, and eventually to continuing and lifelong learning.

Success Factors

There are a number of factors that we believe helped the “makeshift” online supported study abroad program work:

  1. We had very “high quality” learners who appreciated the value of studying at outstanding schools (including Cornell, NYU, London School of Economics, University of Chicago, etc.).
  2. There was support from the Department Chair level in MIS, and enthusiasm among selected faculty (no faculty member was forced to teach online).
  3. In the mid- and late-90s, there was a lot of interest in business education in the East and a lot of interest in partnering from the West, so our learners had options to study at well respected universities and had access to financial support through host institutions.

Organizational Readiness

In this case, I think that “Organizational Readiness” was a combination of passive interest in circumventing the State policies, and experience with international partnerships.

  1. Creatively working around rules is a common cultural feature of post-Soviet society.
  2. The FMCU had established relationships with numerous international universities and understood the benefits of having their learners study at select universities.
  3. The FMCU actively recruited Western faculty and provided them as much latitude as possible, enabling some creative problem solving.

Exit & Risk Mitigation Strategies

The risks here were very low and benefits quite high. There was no formal exit strategy or continuity plan, although there probably should have been one. For example:

  1. There should have been a faculty development program to ensure that future faculty should support learners online.
  2. Development of formal policy and guidelines that support online learning.