Potsdam’s digital university

Potsdams digitale Universität

The University of Potsdam is pursuing two new network projects with a view to establishing a digital European university.

Author: Klaus Lüber

In early March 2020, the Eurasia Higher Education Summit (EURIE) was held in Istanbul. Those attending included a delegation from the universities of Potsdam, Paris Nanterre, Pécs from Hungary and Cagliari from Italy, who came to present the EDUC – European Digital UniverCity higher education network. In 2019, a total of six universities from Germany, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary had joined forces to create the alliance with a view to implementing the idea – developed by the EU – of a cross-border European university. “Many visitors to the summit found it somewhat confusing at first to read the word Europe emblazoned above our booth. Normally they would expect to see the name of a specific country,” recalls EDUC project manager Dr. Katja Jung from the University of Potsdam, which heads up the consortium. “This opened my eyes once again to just how revolutionary this whole undertaking is.”

By standardising degree courses we have created an important basis for greater mobility

This is no exaggeration. EDUC, as the project’s mission statement outlines, has no lesser objective than to establish a fully-integrated European university with students, researchers and administrative staff learning and working at different universities, regardless of size, language and subject orientation. The idea is that this should be achieved as far as possible without any administrative, cultural or social hurdles, and thus entirely in keeping with the concept of an expanded Bologna process, as Jung explains. “Of course, by standardising degree courses and qualifications we have created an important basis for greater student mobility,” says Jung. “However, what does not work well as yet is the harmonised recognition of academic credits – even though this was one of the core objectives of the Bologna reforms.”

Focusing on digitisation

This is one of the areas that the EDUC network, which is one of 17 alliances to receive funding until the autumn of 2022 within the framework of the EU’s “European Universities Initiative” programme, is keen to address. And it intends to do so by means of digitisation: as the name European Digital UniverCity already indicates, digitisation is the network’s thematic focus. “In the future, students should have the opportunity to get credits obtained during a semester abroad added automatically via a digital platform rather than having to undergo the laborious process of involving the university’s administration department.” Such “digital services”, which form one of the three main goals set out by the university alliance, also include helping to make a European student ID a reality. Proof of student status, canteen visits, access to the library, use of local public transport – all of this is to be arranged centrally via a chip card for students on a semester abroad. “During the funding period, we want to create a test case within our network to work out what can and should be covered by such services. And to think about where the data could be stored,” says Jung.

Another important topic is to be virtual teaching, the objective being to interlink the teaching activities pursued by the individual network participants to an increasing extent and consequently to establish “virtual mobility”, for example by creating international peer learning groups to work on specific course modules. “In ten years, we hope that our European alliance will enable students to determine the period, place and content of their degree courses largely themselves,” explains Professor Florian Schweigert, Vice President for International Affairs, Alumni and Fundraising at the University of Potsdam. This, he adds, will bring about a new quality of collaboration in teaching and research.

EDUC thrives thanks to the diversity of its partners‘ competencies and specialist fields

It is doubtless an advantage in this context that the University of Potsdam is also heavily involved in another project devoted to the opportunities that digitisation can offer in higher education. In 2018, the “Digital Education Action Plan” of the European Commission led to the “Online Pedagogical Resources for European Universities” (OpenU) research network. Its aim is to establish a common digital infrastructure with a view to digitally enhancing teaching, learning, cooperation and mobility, while at the same time dismantling borders and advancing the internationalisation of European higher education institutions by digital means. Its funders include the DAAD, which additionally supports the University of Potsdam within the framework of Germany’s national programme to accompany the EU’s “European Universities Initiative”.

Pooling competencies

The EDUC network is based on longstanding teaching and research cooperation between the universities, which share a strong international research profile and regional engagement. The idea is to pool the competencies of the universities. “Masaryk University in the Czech town of Brno has expertise in barrier-free mobility for students, Hungary’s Pécs University maintains intensive relations with regional companies, while the Italian University of Cagliari has experience in how to involve students to a greater extent in research,” summarises Professor Sonia Lehman-Frisch, Vice President for International Affairs at the University of Paris Nanterre. She explains that her own university has specialised in digital teaching, while the University Rennes I is known for developing virtual learning scenarios. “EDUC thrives thanks to the diversity of its partners’ competencies and specialist fields,” says Lehman-Frisch. The network encompasses 160,000 students and 20,000 teaching, technological and administrative staff.

Florian Schweigert’s position is clear as regards the core competence of the University of Potsdam in the network: “No matter how young the University of Potsdam may be, we are certainly ‘old hands’ when it comes to digitisation. Thanks to various past projects, we have solutions and knowledge for establishing a common digital infrastructure and can now successfully contribute this expertise to the alliance.” He explains that digitisation is rightly a core topic for the alliance, as well as the engine that drives it: “We firmly believe that digitisation is indispensable if we are to improve the flexibility and quality of teaching and learning, effectively connect people and services, and realise innovative mobility scenarios.”