Helsinki, 1 March, 2004
The Finnish Virtual University: Connections with the Bologna Process
In order to strengthen the position of Finnish universities in the European Higher Education Area, Finland is reforming its university degree structure and drawing up an international strategy for the entire Finnish higher education system.
Degree structures are currently evolving in line with the Bologna Declaration, making Finnish degrees compatible with the ECTS. The two-cycle Bachelor-Master degree structure will be fully operational in Finnish universities in August 2005.
"The entire Finnish university system is being transformed by the Bologna process and the degree structure reform. This is a promising opportunity for the virtual university - one that should be resolutely grasped" declares Antti Auer, co-ordinator of the virtual university project at the University of Jyväskylä.
The Master's Programme as an Opportunity
"The degree structure reform will bring fundamental changes to the university curriculum. For example, students' degree studies will no longer necessarily be a continuum from enrolment to Master's degree, in terms of time, contents and organization. Many new Master's programmes are emerging, which will attract students from different subjects, disciplines and educational backgrounds. These new Master's programmes are often quite specialized - focusing, for example, on international development co-operation, mobile technology or electronic photojournalism."
"This intensive specialization raises an obvious demand for networking in educational provision, which is at the core of the virtual university activities. The necessary competence for such specialized Master's programmes is not necessarily to be found at one department, but it is flexibly combined from resources in the national expert networks, and often even international ones."
"The students enter the programmes at different stages of their lives, often with extensive work experience. Even though Mater's studies usually focus on providing students with academic proficiencies, some programmes may also emphasize enhancing students' professional skills. Specialized Master's programmes are often international, both in terms of language of instruction and the students' countries of origin. These factors highlight the importance of independence from the constraints of time and place, which is one of the strengths of online studies. Students are increasingly less committed to working on campus, and to following the academic calendar in their studies."
"The Master's programmes have the potential to become international spearheads for the Finnish Virtual University and the entire university system in the field of education. The international interest is not in online mass education, but in advanced programmes that combine research and education", Auer concludes.
"In fact, the virtual university should focus more on European co-operation and international activities in general", states Auer.
The Quality of Education
"The question of whether online education is better, equally good, or merely as substitute for real education can provide an endless source for academic speculation, but it should not be a major issue in evaluating the quality of education", claims Auer. "Moreover, the virtual university should not be evaluated separately from the quality and effectiveness of universities as a whole. What should be evaluated is the use of information and communication technologies, in terms of its extent, its collaborativity, its contextual integration and the level of networking achieved. What is at issue is the overall quality of the activities, and the way in which technology is used to provide qualitatively new and innovative solutions."
"The virtual university, on its part, needs to foster and reinforce the essence of the university. Turoff[*] warns the universities from responding to the competition by turning into distributors of "canned" courses, or electronic correspondence schools. The focus needs to be on interaction and the enhancement of expertise. This leads to the conclusion that the virtual university cannot be a means for immediate cost savings, if the aim is to improve educational quality; quality is highly dependent on which operating model we choose."
"Thus, we might consider abandoning the term "virtual university" altogether, and preferably speak of the "network of Finnish universities". Turoff concludes "The goal for distance education is as an institution should be to eliminate itself". Following Turoff, one can say that the aim of the virtual university as an institution is to make itself redundant. The future lies in a virtually-operating university system", according to Auer.
[*] Turoff, M. (1999): Education, Commerce, Communications: The Era of Competition. WebNet Journal. 1(1), 22-31. www.aace.org/pubs/webnet/vlnol/turoff.pdf
First published in FVU Newsletter; January-February 2004 www.VirtualUniversity.fi