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Luca Alexa ErdeiInstitute of Research on Adult Education and Knowledge Management, ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary

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Marcin RojekFaculty of Educational Sciences, University of Lodz, Poland

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Joanna LeekFaculty of Educational Sciences, University of Lodz, Poland

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Abstract

Virtual exchange practices have been developed at universities for several years; however, the academic importance of VE has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic (Garcés & O'Dowd, 2020; Oswal, Palmer & Koris, 2021). As a result of the restrictions concerning physical mobility, VE has become a ‘first aid kit’ (Reiffenrath, de Louw & Haug, 2020) to continue students' international cooperation. However, at present, there is little research about the nature of students' VE practices during the pandemic COVID-19, particularly in relation to the functions of VE. Thus, the purpose of this study is to understand the characteristics of the special VE actions undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic and to map out the educational functions and their prevalence through focus group interviews involving students who study at five different universities in Europe.

The article introduces the term ‘emergency-mode’ VE programmes that combine activities of traditional VEs with tailor-made solutions to accommodate the challenges posed by the pandemic. The analysis shows new directions of VE in terms of its educational functions, identifying 1) developmental, 2) social, 3) instrumental, 4) emancipatory, 5) self-reflectional, 6) motivational, as well as 7) occupational functions. The article also presents the prevalence of these functions in the specific learning environments created due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abstract

Virtual exchange practices have been developed at universities for several years; however, the academic importance of VE has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic (Garcés & O'Dowd, 2020; Oswal, Palmer & Koris, 2021). As a result of the restrictions concerning physical mobility, VE has become a ‘first aid kit’ (Reiffenrath, de Louw & Haug, 2020) to continue students' international cooperation. However, at present, there is little research about the nature of students' VE practices during the pandemic COVID-19, particularly in relation to the functions of VE. Thus, the purpose of this study is to understand the characteristics of the special VE actions undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic and to map out the educational functions and their prevalence through focus group interviews involving students who study at five different universities in Europe.

The article introduces the term ‘emergency-mode’ VE programmes that combine activities of traditional VEs with tailor-made solutions to accommodate the challenges posed by the pandemic. The analysis shows new directions of VE in terms of its educational functions, identifying 1) developmental, 2) social, 3) instrumental, 4) emancipatory, 5) self-reflectional, 6) motivational, as well as 7) occupational functions. The article also presents the prevalence of these functions in the specific learning environments created due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Introduction

Virtual exchange practices have been developed at universities for several years; however, the academic importance of VE has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic (Garcés & O’Dowd, 2020; Oswal, Palmer, & Koris, 2021). As a result of the restrictions concerning physical mobility, VE has become a 'first aid kit’ (Reiffenrath, de Louw, & Haug, 2020) to continue students' international cooperation. However, at present, there is little research about the nature of students' VE practices during the pandemic COVID-19, particularly in relation to the functions of VE (e.g., EVOLVE Project Team, 2020; Helm & Velden, 2021; O'Dowd, 2021). Thus, the purpose of this study is to understand the characteristics of the special VE actions undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic and to map out the educational functions and their prevalence through focus group interviews involving 78 students who study at 5 different universities in Europe.

Conceptual background

In order to conceptualise our research, the article briefly reviews relevant concepts and theories of internationalisation of higher education (HE), the characteristics of international virtual exchange (VE) programmes, as well as theories relevant to educational functions.

Internationalisation of higher education

Internationalisation is considered as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education” (Knight, 2003, p. 2), whereas it can also be defined as “a commitment, confirmed through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education” (Hudzik, 2011, p. 7). The processes undertaken as part of the internationalisation agenda of HEIs need to be understood in their particular historical, geographical, cultural, and linguistic context (Luijten-Lub, Van Der Wende, & Huisman, 2005); thus, rationales for internationalisation vary dramatically according to the diverse factors at an organisational, intra-organisational and environmental level (Seeber, Cattaneo, Huisman, & Paleari, 2016). These rationales may be (1) income generation, (2) student and staff development through which the international and intercultural understanding of students and staff is enhanced, (3) the establishment of strategic alliances, (4) as well as the production of research and the furtherment of knowledge (Seeber et al., 2016). Following the multiple rationales presented, HE internationalisation occurs in different forms, such as research collaboration, joint degree programmes and foreign elements in local programmes; nevertheless, traditional student and staff mobility and emerging forms of ICT-led international collaborative programmes are also dominantly present at the international HE scene (Beelen & Jones, 2015; Tran & Marginson, 2018).

Internationalisation is therefore present in the different missions, processes, and actions of HEIs, representing a great complexity; however, categorisation attempts have been made to systematically define the areas of internationalisation within HEIs. Traditionally internationalisation refers to activities that are undertaken either at a secondary or ‘host’ institution and therefore can be called activities of internationalisation abroad (IA) or at the primary or ‘home’ institution that supports the implementation of the internationalisation at home agenda (IaH) (Knight, 2012). While the former category entails actions such as the international mobility of students, academics, staff, and even programmes or services across national or regional borders (Clarke, Flaherty, Wright, & McMillen, 2009; Erdei & Káplár-Kodácsy, 2020; Kumpikaite & Duoba, 2011; Nilsson & Ripmeester, 2016; OECD, 2004; Smith & Mitry, 2008), the latter category refers to the “purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments” (Beelen & Jones, 2015, p. 69). IaH is therefore connected to the internationalisation of the curriculum, the T&L activities and support services that provide room for not only a small, privileged group but to a wider set of HEI citizens to benefit from an international, intercultural learning without physical relocation (Leask, 2004).

Nevertheless, in light of the recent changes in HE, the continuous emergence of ICT-led technologies enables masses of students to gain educational benefits from such institutions that are not in their immediate surroundings, yet they provide room for real-time interaction of international students from all across the globe. Thus, new categorisation attempts have emerged that try to reflect the diversity and complexity of all international activities that are being implemented in the HEIs worldwide. As part of this initiative, Mittelmeier, Rienties, Gunter, and Raghuram (2021) argued for the need for wide-spreading the concept of internationalisation at a distance (IaD) that was introduced by Ramanau (2016). Based on Mittelmeier et al. (2021), “all forms of education across borders where students, their respective staff, and institutional provisions are separated by geographical distance and supported by technology” (p. 4) qualify to be categorised as part of the IaD agenda. However, its scope is more comprehensive than that of those initiatives that fall into the IaH scope, as IaD involves “a broader intended audience than simply ‘home’ students, given the physical distance between students and their corresponding institutions, staff, or peers” (Mittelmeier et al., 2021, p. 5). IaD activities, therefore, create a bridge between local and international students regardless of their institutional affiliation and physical location, therefore Virtual Exchange (VE) can be defined as one of the core initiatives of IaD in our understanding. The distinction between these categories of internationalisation of HE is presented in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Main approaches towards internationalisation of higher education institutions (Source: own study, based on Beelen & Jones, 2015; Knight, 2003; Mittelmeier et al., 2021)

Citation: Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation 2023; 10.1556/2059.2022.00070

International virtual exchange programmes, therefore, can be identified as the flagship initiatives of internationalisation at a distance agenda. However, it is quite ambiguous in the literature what activities qualify to be named as VE; thus, the features and criteria of these programmes need to be discussed in detail.

Features of virtual exchange programmes

For the purpose of this study, the definition of VE provided by the European Commission is adopted; thus, VE is defined as a technology-enabled, real-time, facilitated learning activity that involves people-to-people dialogues sustained over extended period of time aiming to support the experience sharing, networking, and collaboration of participants in order to increase their mutual intercultural understanding as opposed to content-driven education (European Commission, 2020). It is important to highlight that VE actions in HEIs are not independent from the official curriculum of the participating students; they are in some way integrated into the formal learning of students that are academically recognised by the home institution (European Commission, 2020). VE provides HE students a digital platform for an intercultural learning experience with the purpose of “democratising access to international, transdisciplinary and multicultural study experience, now reserved to a relatively small minority of students, contributing thereby to the social cohesion” (Montes, Gea, Dondi, & Salandin, 2011, p. 8).

Even though there is not a widely accepted framework by scholars and practitioners that would list the most important features and characteristics of VE programmes, it is essential to delineate the range of criteria and activities that set the basis for the interpretation of VE programs in HEI. Based on the available literature on VE, numerous criteria shall be met concerning digitally mediated learning activities to be called as VEs (Erdei & Káplár-Kodácsy, 2020, pp. 59–61). The list of criteria is summarised in Table 1.

Table 1.

Criteria of virtual exchange programmes (Source: Erdei & Káplár-Kodácsy, 2020, pp. 59–61)

Criteria to be fulfilled by VE programmes
1Activities organised between two or more universities in a multi-campus scheme (Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019; Tereseviciene, Volungeviciene, & Dauksiene, 2015)
2Synchronous and asynchronous communication (Andone, Vert, Frydenberg, & Vasiu, 2018; Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019)
3Internet-connected ICT tools that are readily accessible and low cost to participating students (Andone et al., 2018; Bijnens, Boussemaere, Rajagopal, Beeck, & Van Petegem, 2006; De Castro, Dyba, Cortez, & PeBenito, 2019; Kayumova, 2016; Montes et al., 2011; Valtins & Muracova, 2019; Vriens, Van Petegem, Op De Beeck, & Achten, 2010)
4Sustained over a shorter or longer period of time (Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019)
5Virtual border crossing between regions, countries, cultures, languages, and disciplines (Vriens et al., 2010)
6Student participation in the activity while being enrolled and obtaining credit at the ‘home’ academic institution (De Castro et al., 2019)
7Student engagement in highly interactive, shared problem-solving exercises, collaborative learning, and projects with international peers (De Castro et al., 2019; Vriens et al., 2010)
8Multicultural exchange as a key objective to produce added value (Montes et al., 2011) to gain intercultural experiences (European Commission, 2020; Vriens et al., 2010)
9Support services and activities, e.g., technical support, orientation day (Maček & Ritonija, 2016)
10Variety of international educational formats or pedagogies (Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019)
11Close collaboration and mutually confident relationship between international faculty and students (Montes et al., 2011)
12Strategic use of a wide range of learning tools and technologies of the participating HEIs (Kayumova, 2016)
13Student evaluation and grading by the own in-country faculty, which allows for learning objectives to be distinct between student groups (De Castro et al., 2019)
14Joint choice of the subject to be offered through VE (Montes et al., 2011)
15Joint learning resources (Montes et al., 2011)
16Joint planning and selection of communication tools adequate for the planned T&L activities (Maček & Ritonija, 2016)
17Joint titles and task descriptions (Montes et al., 2011)
18Involvement of supporting staff, including tutors, for enhancement of student performance (Maček & Ritonija, 2016)

Based on Table 1, VEs are collaborative, ICT-mediated, faculty-facilitated, transnational learning activities that involve the exchange of ideas through engaging students in medium- or long-term intercultural dialogues. VEs also tend to build on international faculty collaboration from different academic institutions located in different countries through co-creation, co-teaching and co-managing an entire course or a designated module. Nevertheless, reviewing the definitions and approaches towards VE in the literature, these criteria seem to be more advisable than essential condition for calling certain programmes VEs (De Castro et al., 2019; Maček & Ritonija, 2016; Montes et al., 2011).

Virtual exchange is, therefore, an innovative practice of internationalisation that shall follow a number of criteria in order to support students in the development of their professional, language, personal or social competences, as well as to facilitate their intercultural dialogues and socialisation in a multicultural environment (Erdei & Káplár-Kodácsy, 2020). VE involves activities in a virtual learning environment; therefore, the HEIs engage students in an international and intercultural exchange that performs numerous educational functions.

Educational functions and structural functionalism

In our study, theories of educational functions are understood in the context of the internationalisation of HEIs. Merton's theory of educational functions (Merton, 1968) distinguishes between manifest or planned and latent or attained functions of education. In our study, we refer to educational functions in relation to the policy of education that can be considered from the perspective of educational plans. Manifest or planned functions are those that are intended, planned, recognised, assumed by people and which they expect educational institutions to fulfil, as opposed to latent or attained functions that are unrecognized, unintended lessons that students gather during their learning experience (Merton, 1968; Saxe, 1970). Educational HEIs, therefore, are dedicated to performing manifest functions such as socialisation, transmission of culture, social placement, social control and cultural innovation (Ballantine, Stuber, & Everitt, 2021; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015), whereas they serve as social arenas that could latently support networking, courtship, group work as well as the political and social integration of students (Griffiths & Keirns, 2015).

For the identification of educational functions of VE programmes, we adapted Parsons' AGIL theory (1970) which has been valuable to identify different functions that can prevail in such an emergency that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic in all fields of education. Parsons (1970) viewed society as a system and argued that any social system has four basic functional prerequisites: (A) adaptation – the capacity of society or social system to interact with the environment, (G) goal attainment - the capability to make decisions and set goals for the future, (I) integration harmonization values and norms to be solid and sufficiently convergent and (L) latency or latent pattern maintenance focuses on maintaining the integrative elements of society or its system. Our study views VE at the HE level as a social system with its main actors: university students. These students set certain functions for VE.

Research context

The current study builds on the research carried out within the framework of the How Long is Too Long? (HLiTL) project between 2019 and 2022.1 The HLiTL research and development project primarily focused on enabling higher education leaders to adapt and improve their mobility strategies and fostering mobility schemes with the significant impact on students' key competences. The project consortium thus conducted desk research and primary data collection in the first phase and created institutional and policy recommendations for relevant stakeholder groups in the second phase based on the data collected in Phase 1. The project, therefore, provided the framework for conducting surveys and interviews that focused on the mobility and VE experiences of both students and faculty. Nonetheless, the original scope of the planned data collection intertwined with the circumstances of the pandemic resulted in a slight shift of the focus of the interviews; thus, data relevant to the VE virtual exchange practices, particularly during COVID-19, were collected that induced the current study.

Research questions and methods

The purpose of this qualitative study is to scope the educational functions of VE in times of the COVID-19 pandemic and their perceived effectiveness from the perspective of 78 international students studying at 5 universities in Europe (Germany, Portugal, France, Hungary, and Poland). Having identified the research gap, the current study seeks to answer the following research questions:

What characterises the international learning activities that can be referred to as virtual exchange programmes in times of the COVID-19 pandemic?

What kind of educational functions do virtual exchange programmes perform, and how do they prevail in the ‘emergency mode’ of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The research was conducted using a qualitative research approach between October 2020 and January 2021. Focus group interview was used as the core method for data collection (Creswell & Creswell, 2018) that supported the participating students to share and be inspired by other participants' thoughts; hence it allowed the consortium to seek a great variety of opinions on the subject of the research (Leek & Rojek, 2021). Having identified the suitable research methods, the development of the research tool, an interview protocol was carried out with the involvement of the HLiTL consortium partners. The interview protocol focused on the international learning experience of students before and during the pandemic and the students' narratives on their lived experiences, either being combined with physical relocation or being purely virtual. The interview series were quality assured and governed centrally by the research team of the University of Lodz; however, data collection was organised locally with the involvement of the local project participants at 5 HEIs in Europe (Germany, Portugal, France, Hungary, and Poland).

In the course of the research, we used non-probabilistic sampling methods, such as purposive sampling, in order to reach the target groups. An important criterion for selection was to involve students reachable through the project consortium, including those who (1) were official students of the partner HEIs and participated in a VE at another institution during the pandemic, (2) those students who were registered as incoming exchange students at the consortium member institutions or (3) those who were associated with the NGO partners of the project. Another selection criterion was to involve students with a virtual exchange or physical mobility experience that was undertaken maximum 18 months before the interviews were conducted (Leek & Rojek, 2021).

The sample, therefore, included 78 HE students with an international experience from 10 countries (12 home universities) who participated in either an entirely virtual exchange or a physical mobility action in a European University (9 host countries) or outside the EU (1 host country). It is important to highlight that 54 interviewees (68% of the interviewed students) were involved in international virtual exchange activities during the pandemic; thus, the current data analysis focuses on their reflections. Also, necessary to denote that 10 interviewees (approximately 15% of the students involved in the interview series) were undertaking the virtual learning experience combined with physical mobility during the pandemic. This unusual practice emerged during the pandemic as several countries and universities did not restrict their students to physically relocating thanks to preliminarily funded mobility action (generally financed through Erasmus+); yet the classes at the receiving institutions were exclusively held online (Leek & Rojek, 2021).

Interviews were carried out primarily in digital settings, using Microsoft Teams or Zoom software. As a result, a total of 16 focus group interviews were conducted; the number of interviews was equally distributed among the HEI partners of the consortium, while only a reduced number of interviews was conducted by those project partner institutions. Each interview involved 3 to 6 students who answered the questions in English because of the international composition of the interviewee groups. The online interviews lasted from 45 to 75 min each was videorecorded. The video recordings were used to produce transcriptions for data analysis, strictly adhering to the research ethics guidelines of the participating institutions (Leek & Rojek, 2021).

Building on the interview transcriptions of the focus group interviews, qualitative content analysis method was applied for data analysis purposes. The transcriptions were coded in the Atlas.ti software in line with the main research questions that also functioned as pre-defined, deductive elements. In the process of content analysis, three coding steps were taken (Neuman, 2014). First, an open coding was conducted in order to create the preliminary analytic categories and organise the data under the deductive codes (Neuman, 2014). These initial codes provided the ground for the second step of data analysis, namely axial coding, which supports the organisation of codes into greater analytical categories by grouping and linking them within the main deductive units (Neuman, 2014). The process of data collection, processing and analysis can be seen in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Process of data collection, processing, and analysis (Source: own study)

Citation: Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation 2023; 10.1556/2059.2022.00070

Findings

As part of the data analysis, the study focuses on unfolding the interviewed students' narratives regarding their international experiences that were undertaken in 2020–2021 in order to understand what characterises VE programmes in the unique times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the study insists on identifying those manifest and latent educational functions that the VE programmes fulfil under the specific circumstances of the pandemic. Here the overall aim of our analysis was to outline inductive codes that had a larger number of reoccurrences.

Characteristics of virtual exchange programmes in times of the COVID-19 pandemic

Our first research question (RQ1) concentrates on the characteristics of the various international experiences of students in order to understand whether the international learning activities referred to by the interviewees can be identified as VE under specific conditions set up as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

Focus group interview (F) participants unanimously reported that their international learning experiences during the pandemic involved disciplinary or interdisciplinary classes at the receiving HEIs that were accessible through virtual learning environments, focused on a specific subject and involved some real-time, synchronous learning activities as well (F1–F16). Nevertheless, the sessions provided opportunities only to a varying extent for the exchange of ideas, thoughts, and experiences of the international participants for learning purposes. Whereas most of the students reportedly had multiple possibilities to collaborate actively and share ideas with their peers, some students also denoted that their participation in the online courses at the host institution completely hindered their connection to the peers; thus, they experienced a rather content-based lecture involving a lot of students (F1, F3, F4, F11–F12, F16).

“We had synchronous classes through an online platform that they managed. And I had other classes which were normal lectures, except the teacher was online lecturing and there was no [active student] participation at all just normal lecture through Teams.” (F16)

As the vast majority of the interviewed students originally planned to carry out physical mobility, a general way of reflecting on their overall experiences was that they compared that to either a previous mobility they were involved in or an envisaged mobility period that reflected their lived experience or assumptions towards a physical mobility period (F1–F12; F14; F16). In this context, their international collaboration in times of the pandemic was seen as a ‘forced practice’ that could not provide the expected learning environment and experience to students. On the contrary, it was also seen as an alternative opportunity to gain at least some international experience and not entirely miss out on being in such setting (F4).

“For me when I went abroad, it was for the culture for the language, for learning new things, to see different things. I think this is the purpose of the mobility. But you can't do everything [in a VE] you do outside the class, as this situation doesn't allow you to do anything of that like in a physical mobility.” (F1)

Students also regularly reported their ambiguity towards the methods and approaches applied by lecturers in the virtual setting. Given the pandemic circumstances and the introduction of the aforementioned ‘forced practices’, the courses had to be quickly adapted to the online environment; thus, these virtual exchanges differed in essence from those regular ones that are purposefully planned to be delivered as a virtual exchange (F1–F4, F7–F13, F15–F16).

“So definitely my experience has been really challenging and I feel like there's an opportunity to change the way we learn and what I see is that not everyone has made that change. So instead of like taking this opportunity to make classes a little bit more dynamic or have more activities or change the way we're learning, I think we're just trying to do the same we were doing it before, but doing it in front of a computer, which I think is kind of wasting this opportunity. So I think that the teaching and learning activities are not really adjusted to this new environment.” (F1)

Interestingly, the vast majority of student reflections show that their foreseen participation in physical mobility was strongly associated with their assumption that physical immersion in a different culture results in in-depth intercultural learning, whereas their participation in the forced virtual classes was not expected by them to bring the same benefits (F1-7, F 9–13, F15-16). Even though their expectations were not as high regarding the intercultural outcomes of their learning as for the planned physical mobility, students had the impression that they could occasionally experience the intercultural facet of their actual virtual learning. Some students also reported that the intercultural aspect could not prevail in the virtual environment due to the learning activities not reflecting on and exploiting enough the intercultural diversity of the students in the virtual learning space. The intercultural component of these special virtual exchange programs was, therefore, less prominent than it was expected by the students (F4, F7).

“It is learning with others, but you are completely missing the cultural immersion subject and real understanding of the other culture will not be possible.” (F4)

“You get the opinions and learn from people that you otherwise wouldn't and get other perspectives and things. But, and now I'm thinking about Erasmus, you also lose the physical part and the part of meeting other people and other nationalities and learning about their costumes and habits and that sort of thing. So, I still think it's a good thing, even though it's digital.” (F15)

The above phenomenon is even more reflected in the narratives of a small group of interviewed students (10 students) who had a unique learning experience due to being able to physically relocate to their host country while participating in the online courses, similarly to their peers who attended classes from a distance. These students explicitly separated the outcomes of their international and intercultural learning experience deriving from their physical stay in the host country from other benefits of participating in the virtual classes (F1, F3-5, F11, F13).

“There might be a second lockdown, so I'm living right now in a dormitory and it’s like a little city for international students (we are like 12,000 people here in 40 dormitories next to each other), so I have quite an international experience. I think I had made the best out of it, but without that it wouldn't be so good, I would not learn from other cultures that much.” (F8)

When interviewing students on the specific experience within the international learning environment, they pointed out that group work, especially in the forms of project work during and between classes was an important way to collaborate and communicate with the international peers (F3–F15). Their coursework was also officially graded and recognised by their home institutions based on the transcript of records (F2, F6, F8–F9), thus they were similar to those VE programmes that are initiated as part of the HE institutions' regular international agenda. Last, the interviewed students also had positive experiences with accessing different student services, such as seeking information from the registrar's office, using library databases, or even participating at virtual social events or sport sessions provided by the host university and the student associations (F3, F5, F13). International students, therefore, benefitted from not just the in-class activities, but the overall university experience in the virtual environment that enabled them to take advantage of the different functions VEs can perform.

Functions of virtual exchanges in times of the pandemic

Our second research question (RQ2) focuses on the different educational functions that virtual exchange programmes perform and their perceived efficacy in the ‘emergency mode’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.

First of all, the aforementioned VEs provided participating students with the opportunity to develop their intercultural competences through the exchanges with students from various cultures (F2–F4; F7; F13; F17). Students were also able to develop their foreign language skills through communicating during classes (F1–F2, F11, F13, F15), yet there were less possibilities to communicate in between classes that hindered the learning of everyday expressions (F15).

“I think it was a very positive experience and having the possibility of learning digitally with a faculty that it's not our faculty, it is very enriching. We get in contact with a different language, with the view of a different country, with a system of education of a different country. […] So if we have the opportunity to do an Erasmus program, even though it is a digital experience, still it is an opportunity of doing something different, and we can learn from it.” (F13)

Intercultural communication skills were reportedly developed that were essential for efficient international collaboration and regular group work (F1, F3–F4, F7, F10, F16). Nevertheless, the collaboration within these programmes were occasionally characterised by low level of interaction (F4–F5) and organisational difficulties (F13–F4, F7) that resulted in problems of understanding each other. Students' perceptions regarding the usefulness of these collaborations therefore greatly varied among the students. Interviewees furthermore highlighted that the participation in the VE programmes enhanced their organisational, IT and presentation skills (F1–F2, F5).

It is also important to denote that the VE programmes in question supported the development of the subject-specific knowledge of students, as they provided different perspectives on the subjects by the lecturers of the host institution (F1–F2), while students could also take advantage of the class recordings and the search function available in the virtual environment (F5, F16). Students therefore could not just develop their professional competences but define their own learning objectives better and prioritise classes that were contributing more to their personalised learning trajectories (F14–F15). This provided the background for students to develop and personalise new learning strategies (F1, F4, F13).

“For me so definitely was the ability to personalize my learning, so chose what I want to learn and if I wanted to learn more, I was able to. Because I have all the things available to me at any time, that was definitely the most enriching thing, I was like being able to learn what I wanted.” (F13)

The special VEs in question therefore contributed to the self-directed learning of students (F9) that resulted in greater autonomy (F4, F16), higher levels of flexibility, adaptability, and better coping mechanisms (F1–F3, F9) as well as enhanced accountability for their own learning paths (F16). Students also reported their development in self-, time- and task-management (F9, F14, F16) combined with more efficient problem-solving and critical thinking skills (F5, F15). Some students remarked that the high level of autonomous learning throughout these VEs provided them a great opportunity to grow personally and professionally in which they received sufficient support from the lecturers via personalised consultations (F7, F9, F14). Yet a smaller group of interviewees expressed their feeling of being left alone in the learning process without clear directions and instructions that was also more difficult due to the inability to physically meet with peers (F5, F7). VEs therefore were seen as efficient means to change the mindset of participating students (F1) and understand the different life situations of students and lecturers as well (F5).

“It made me appreciate way more of the work that our professors do. It made me see that it's not as easy as it sounds. But more specifically, as a student, I'd say it made me more accountable for my actions. So if I didn't have someone conducting my learning progress, I'd have to do it myself, so I became much more independent in that sense.” (F16)

Even though the interviewees reported multiple opportunities for development, they were highly critical of the possibilities to socialise and build professional or personal relationships with the other class attendees (F1, F3–F5, F7–F9, F13–F16). The interviewed students generally missed the chances to actively collaborate with their peers, what was hindered by the technological and organisational difficulties that emerged during the classes (F8, F14). One central issue repeatedly reported was that students participating in the classes could not see each other as the majority of the students did not turn on their cameras, thus they could not feel the sense of belonging to an (international) group that somewhat alienated them from each other even before starting the collaboration (F1, F3–F5, F7–F8, F13–F16). The majority of students therefore felt that it was difficult to make friends and maintain social interactions via the VE platforms (F3, F7, F14, F16), there were not enough possibilities to communicate and collaborate inside and outside the classes (F1, F3–F5, F7–F9, F13–F16), thus it was hard to socialise within the international student team (F4, F5, F7, F15).

“My [international experience] was completely online from the beginning, and so what comes to my mind is the challenges of how to engage in the conversation, how to engage in a class or in a discussion when you don't see the people. […] you don't have any contact with them apart from what you see through the screen. If there's any sort of connection because at, in my experience not everyone is willing to put their camera on or participate.” (F9)

Other interviewees highlighted that the lack of opportunities to physically meet their classmates hindered the teams' productivity as completing tasks required more time, whereas there were not any possibilities to celebrate important moments in person e.g., after a successful presentation or project submission (F8, F14). Students therefore had the feeling of being disconnected, isolated that impacted the way students behaved with others online and generated further estrangement (F3, F9). One of the reasons why students might have felt this – beyond the obvious circumstances deriving from the lockdown – that the interviewees' concepts of what an international exchange was differed in essences from the experience they had; students interconnected the physical relocation and the international aspect, thus their virtual class participation was not seen as intriguing and inviting to socialise and exchange as it could have been during a regular mobility programme (F2–F4, F5, F8, F13). On the contrary, some students were pleased to at least have a chance to be connected (F1, F3) and called it an easy thing to do (F1, F15).

“Definitely something that I personally was looking forward to from this experience before I knew it was going to be everything online was the social part and the interaction with people. And it's definitely been a little bit disappointing to find that due to the online situation, I haven't been able to have these type of interactions with my peers, and I'm not sure if it's due to the type of lectures that I have which haven't kind of facilitate that interaction, but definitely, I don't really know any of my classmates, or maybe a few of them only.” (F8)

Small group discussions (via breakout rooms), group work and projects during and between classes were mentioned as important instruments for triggering collaboration that contributed to have a growing sense of belonging to an international community (F5, F7). Furthermore, social events where students could meet outside the classes were organised by the universities, student associations and the students themselves. Nevertheless, the former events usually had lower level of participation, as the students spent a significant time in front of the camera and did not seek for these kind of virtual meeting opportunities (F5, F8).

“Also community matters here, they try to organize fun things online, we have a book club, screening of short films, but the participation is very low, because we spend too much time anyway in front of the computer.” (F5)

As mentioned earlier, the special VEs under review were important means to provide an alternative learning experience to those students who could not participate in a preplanned mobility programme. The universities therefore organised VEs and all related services in practical, flexible ways to substitute the originally planned activities, e.g., developed, and mainstreamed online platforms for classes and for managing administrative activities, information, library, guidance, and counselling services as well as sport and social events (F1–F2, F7, F9, F13–F15). However, given the short period of time for the universities to introduce all the services, students experienced some inconveniences in their online administrative procedures, e.g., hardship of accessing learning platforms or getting email feedbacks on time regarding their course registration procedures at the host institution (F9, F13, F15). VEs also granted access to multiple websites, databases, and online resources (F5–F7), and helped students to be more comfortable and confident searching for information in parallel with or during their involvement in the international activities (F1, F7, F14). Virtual environment therefore became the primary platform of gaining the envisaged international learning experience.

“Now we have to kind of learning to treat online spaces as if there would be like real, physical spaces. I think that was a big thing for me personally, because every time I talked on the phone with a person, I was like [thinking that] this doesn't count as a meeting, but now it kind of does.” (F7)

VE activities were also interpreted by interviewees as an inclusive way for all students, regardless of their background, to become part of an international and intercultural community (F2, F4). VEs therefore could effectively serve those groups of students who could not have travelled abroad even regardless of the pandemic situation.

The VE activities were also seen as important means that enabled students to deliberate their thoughts (F5), encounter the feeling of independence (F7), as well as experience freedom from study obligations and prescribed daily routines (F11, F13). VEs moreover created an international online environment where some students could feel encouraged and empowered to act self-effectively (F7), while they also thought that they were all in the ‘same shoes’ so that they could share the same reality and rely on each other if necessary (F9).

“I feel like a lot of support from the teacher side, probably because they also know that it's hard to be here digitally while we are in Erasmus, because we should go out and we should live our life and have a nice experience. But I think this is also another kind of way of experience how to make the best out of our digital work. So I think I became like more courageous, empowered that I am able to do this, even if I don't know anybody by my own, still yes, I can do everything.” (F5)

Above others, participation in VE programmes supported students in reflecting on their own ways of thinking and acting in their immediate or wider international community (F2–F4, F7, F9, F13–F16). The interviewees reported that participation in VEs helped them to realise the importance of being more emphatic, open-minded, and patient with others (F7, F9, F13), whereas it also highlighted the importance of accepting the differences, the own capabilities, and limits (F2).

“Learning in this international environment has sort of added that there is a need for acceptance in the learning process. [The discussions] made me realise that the things that you might think are just fine and normal to say, might not be. You know that accepting someone else from other cultural background is important and you should definitely take your time before you confront anyone, because you never know where you might hurt someone.” (F2)

“I think I became like more open in accepting myself and accepting my ideas even if they are not the best in the world, even if it's not what they want to hear, but just put all the thoughts out.” (F7)

Based on the student narratives, the VE experience also shed light on the importance of being self-conscious, determined, and self-confident (F2, F4, F7, F9, F15) and take more responsibility for their own actions (F7, F15). Interviewees also used the VEs to review their own mechanisms that enable them to deal with distraction or procrastination (F3, F7) and to be more productive, organised, and participative in various learning activities (F2–F3, F7). Some students furthermore highlighted the importance of acknowledging their own vulnerability (F3) that was seen an important step towards personal development (F4, F13–F14).

“At the beginning I might have been hiding behind the camera and you still find a lot of people that are not putting cameras during the meetings. And now I'm actively putting the camera, like getting out of the comfort zone and show myself a little bit more vulnerable. It's like, you know, it's we're all in the same space and same boxes. So let's just get out there and try to make this as less painful as it can be.” (F13)

VEs were also identified as efficient ways to motivate students to exchange ideas in an international environment and to make plans about going abroad afterwards (F1–F4, F7, F10, F12). Interviewees also reported a number of curricular activities – including participation at regular online classes and multiple voluntary ones that were chosen based on personal interest (F5, F6–F9, F13) – and extracurricular activities – e.g., online workshops, conferences, and MOOC courses (F12, F13) – that triggered their own interest and willingness to study further. The students therefore reported that VEs extended their professional horizons, as well as enabled them to be more dedicated to grow personally and professionally in their own field of studies (F1, F3–F5, F9, F13, F16).

VEs therefore were an important means to motivate students in their professional and personal advancement, however, the particular situation due to the lockdown and the subsequent ‘forced participation’ in the VEs also negatively impacted the general motivation of students in terms of attending the classes and participating in the discussions. The interviewees reported to be lazier in the online environment (F1), less assertive and proactive in discussions (F4) and less able to concentrate (F13) than in their general in-person classes. Some students even reported to have fallen asleep during classes (F16) which indicates that the majority of students were less intrigued by the opportunity to connect to their classes online.

“I really like to speak and I'm very active person. So I would be always asking questions, and through the computer, in an online experience I don't know, I just kind of lose that fire in me and I don't have as much energy as I would have in a [regular] class environment. So that has changed me.” (F13)

However, other students stated that they found the participation at VEs a good opportunity to seek for new information and being involved in new international projects (F13), therefore they did not feel a high level of separation and loneliness (F9, F15–F16), whereas some interviewees reported to have felt less ashamed of expressing their own views in the online environment and described themselves braver than before (F3, F7).

“If I hear something during the class, I can just go on the internet and look up for the information. And then I can say something with the certainty that I know [the answer] and in class it wouldn't be that easy. And I believe I got braver to participate in class when it's online.” (F3)

Based on the student narratives, the classes and extracurricular activities furthermore provided them with the opportunity to start networking and building partnerships across national boundaries and cultures (F5). These experiences were perceived as a great support to future graduates working efficiently in an international environment (F2; F13) and also prepared them to deal with those challenges that are posed by the international work settings, e.g., harmonising schedules virtually across time zones, acknowledging the differences in the work cultures, and communicating clearly and efficiently in a multilingual group (F2; F6; F13).

“It showed me how to collaborate with others in a digital environment, especially in an international environment, because it's really challenging… [but] paying attention to these differences is very important, and I believe that this will help me a lot in future, in the working environment.” (F13)

Students also highlighted the online interface of the VE as an important asset that prepares them to collaborate more efficiently with others through digital means, while it also opened new perspectives for students to start searching for completely remote jobs and distance education opportunities where online collaboration across national boundaries is indispensable (F2, F7, F15–F16).

“I feel like it opened the perspectives of work abroad or to perform tasks abroad. For example, in my case, I applied for an online internship abroad, while I was still doing online studies. […] I think what I gained was the idea of the perspectives that I can still be here in my country for work and attend classes in multiple places.” (F15)

Nevertheless, a small group of students participating in these VEs were less ambitious due to the fact that they were originally expected to have a physical mobility experience, therefore there was slightly less emphasis on the future orientation and possible career aspects deriving from the international experience (F2–F4, F8).

Discussion

The analysis revealed that international virtual exchange programmes operate in a unique way and perform various educational functions within the pandemic circumstances.

‘Emergency-mode’ virtual exchange programmes

Based on the data analysis, students' interpretation of their virtual learning experience during the pandemic is mostly in line with the definition used in the Erasmus + Virtual Exchange project (European Commission, 2020), as the majority of students had an online platform to learn about a specific topic, to interact across borders, and to exchange ideas that safeguarded their opportunity to learn in an international environment without physical mobility, thus their classroom activities were aiming to create a learning experience that can be defined as VE. Based on the results, students' original plans did not encounter to gain a VE experience; however, given the travel restrictions, general lockdowns actions in numerous countries and the closedown of the university premises thanks to the pandemic, virtually mediated classes were introduced as an ‘emergency mode’ solution to international students. These virtual classes, therefore, could provide an alternative to students continuing their studies at a host institution without withdrawing completely from the international experience that was likely because of the circumstances. Even though these activities were not originally and intentionally planned to be carried out as VEs from neither the providers' nor the beneficiaries' points of view, students experienced virtually mediated international exchange programmes can be called ‘emergency mode’ VEs. Nevertheless, it is essential to highlight that these special VEs could not explicitly articulate the foreseen increase in intercultural understanding among the intended learning outcomes (ILO); therefore, in case of future application of this particular VE type, the relevant ILOs shall be purposefully targeted when designing the class and applying various pedagogical and methodological solutions to take full advantage of the multicultural student population in the virtual learning environment.

Taking a closer look at the possible set of criteria for VE activities, results show that the formal learning activities of students at their host institutions were digital or online, involved communication with peers from diverse international settings regularly or occasionally during the entire semester. These reflections are in line with the beforementioned criteria of VE (Erdei & Káplár-Kodácsy, 2020), being a digitally mediated intercultural learning experience for students from multiple institutional and national backgrounds that provided primarily synchronous learning during a medium- or long period of time (Andone et al., 2018; Bijnens et al., 2006; De Castro et al., 2019; Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019; Kayumova, 2016; Montes et al., 2011; Tereseviciene et al., 2015; Valtins & Muracova, 2019; Vriens et al., 2010).

Results also reflected the possibilities to work across borders (Montes et al., 2011), as students were occasionally assigned to collaborate mainly between synchronous classes in international teams for group presentations or larger-scale team assignments that supported the interactive, intercultural exchange of students (Montes et al., 2011; Vriens et al., 2010). As the interviewees were officially enrolled in various HEIs, they also encountered a formalised recognition of their studies through the issued transcripts of records, which is an important feature of VEs in general (De Castro et al., 2019). According to the interview results, students even experienced the digital shift of the majority of support services and thus were able to manage their study-related activities (e.g. online registration and library services) efficiently, as suggested for regular VE activities by Maček and Ritonija (2016).

Even though the above set of criteria seems to be met, those characteristics that are more connected to the joint nature of these actions were mainly missing based on the outcomes of the interviews, as neither of the universities provided a joint curriculum and delivery of classes, nor involved lecturers from the sending and host HEIs (cf. De Castro et al., 2019; Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019; Kayumova, 2016; Maček & Ritonija, 2016; Montes et al., 2011). However, the international constitution of the student body that was present online, as well as the original T&L activities that had been planned to take their diversity into account, were shifted to the virtual environment to ensure that the programmes could function as special VEs.

In conclusion, the international experience which the interviewees reflected upon can be defined as a particular type of virtual exchange programme, to be called hereinafter ‘emergency mode’ VE. These initiatives fulfil a set of criteria that seem to be essential for VE programmes to be running (Erdei & Káplár-Kodácsy, 2020) but differs in essence from those VEs that are pedagogically and methodologically planned to be as such from the initial phase of the curriculum design.

Educational functions of ‘emergency-more’ VEs in a nutshell

As the aforementioned activities represent a particular type of VE programmes, they also perform numerous special educational functions (Merton, 1968), including manifest functions, such as 1) developmental, 2) social, and 3) instrumental, whereas they perform latent functions, including 4) emancipatory, 5) self-reflectional, 6) motivational and 7) occupational functions.

Based on the interviewees' reflections, students intentionally participated at these VE programmes to develop both professionally and personally, thus a strong developmental function of ‘emergency mode’ VEs can be identified in line with the general functions of education (Ballantine et al., 2021; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015). These special VEs therefore stimulate the development of students by enabling the development of knowledge, skills, and competences that are unattainable locally.

The findings also showed that VEs represent such social arenas that allow participants to develop relationship with others across borders, understand the various perspectives and frames of references, and by accepting and respecting them, students become part of a wider international community of students (Ballantine et al., 2021; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015). Nevertheless, interviewees rarely could take full advantage of the social function of VEs, since they often felt isolated without having enough means to be connected with their fellow students both in and outside of classes. This phenomenon was particularly remarkable due to the emergency shift of classes into the virtual environment, as teaching methodologies and learning activities had to be quickly adapted to the new realities posed by the pandemic, therefore universities could not always take into account the social aspect of VEs.

Virtual exchanges furthermore provide alternative solutions to difficulties especially related to the digital shift of activities due to the pandemic (e.g., online-only use of libraries). The interviewed students expected to receive practical support both during their learning and in the support services from the host institutions as a result of the special environment they had to encounter, which requirement was fulfilled in the majority of the cases. VEs therefore play a manifest instrumental role in times of the pandemic (Merton, 1968).

Even though several educational functions were explicitly expected by the VE participants, other functions were attainable to students without their manifest intention (Merton, 1968). As a result of the data analysis, we can first identify the emancipatory function of ‘emergency-mode’ VEs that support expanding the feeling of freedom and the possibility of self-determination while empowering students to act self-efficiently under pandemic restrictions.

The special VEs in question also serve as a unique means for self-reflection of students that allows better understanding of the students' own abilities, dispositions, strengths, and weaknesses (Ballantine et al., 2021; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015). The self-reflective function supported interviewees indirectly to assess their own situation and role in the international environment, and thus take a more active part in the collaboration and community building virtually. This is of particular importance since the socialisation function of ‘emergency-mode’ VEs could not be fully exploited by students, however, the reflections strongly contributed to the increase of their dedication, willingness, and motivation to operate these special VE activities as key platforms for socialisation.

The unintended motivational function is also an important feature of the special VEs presented earlier, as they provide a source of motivation for personal and professional growth, pursuing interests, which in the future can transform into a lifestyle based on learning (Ballantine et al., 2021; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015). Nevertheless, these motivational factors can be identified as latent, as the participation in the VE itself designates students' motivation that unintendedly becomes an added incentive itself to carry on further studies or pursue a carrier in the international labour market.

Strongly connected to the motivational functions, these special types of VEs also perform occupational functions that enable students to professionalise and enter the labour market with relevant and valuable experiences, since VEs seek to prepare students for further studies or work after university graduation (Ballantine et al., 2021; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015). Nevertheless, students' participation in these ‘emergency-mode’ VEs were focused on reserving at least a bit of the envisaged international experience and less on the long-term orientation and sustainability of the outcomes.

Conclusions

International virtual exchange is gaining popularity as an innovative approach to providing international education to students, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Colpaert (2020), there is now a dramatic growth of interest in the pedagogical activity of connecting students in structured online intercultural collaboration in order to develop their foreign language, intercultural and digital competences.

In recent years, approaches to international VE have evolved in different contexts, directions, and different areas of HE, and these approaches have had at times, very diverse organisational structures and pedagogical objectives. However, little research has been conducted so far on the main functionalities of this unique educational practice in the pandemic context, thus this article provided an overview of the different functions of pandemic-time VEs at selected European universities. The analysis therefore shows new directions of VE in terms of the identified educational functions and presents the success of these functions in VE environments that combine activity types of traditional VEs (Altbach & Knight, 2007; Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley, 2009) with tailor-made solutions to accommodate to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Based on the data, several courses initially supposed to be carried out in a face-to-face format with physically mobile students were transformed into so-called ‘emergency mode’ VE programmes. They represent a special types of VE with such methodological solutions that were forced to be in place to substitute the teaching and learning activities of the original courses in the virtual learning environment. Based on the students' narratives, the research found that these unique VEs perform multiple functions, however, they cannot fully prevail due to the specific circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Emergency-mode’ VEs, therefore, need to be considered as special types of VEs, acknowledging their limitations, yet their added value, and the lessons learned from the design and implementation of these programmes shall be systematically collected, analysed, and codified. The outcomes can support regular virtual exchange programmes that are to be designed and operated by the HEIs within the European Higher Education Area, whereas they can also be used to inform future institutional international agendas and the corresponding action plans to propose adequate steps for implementing virtual exchanges within regular and unpredictable circumstances.

Funding information

Funding provided by the European Commission, “How Long is Too Long?” Erasmus+ KA2 Strategic Partnership project, 2019-1-FR01-KA203-062506.

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1

The project is funded by the European Commission under the Erasmus + KA2 Strategic Partnership initiative. Project number is 2019-1-FR01-KA203-062506.

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  • Tran, L. T., & Marginson, S. (2018). Internationalisation of Vietnamese higher education: Possibilities, challenges and implications. Internationalisation in Vietnamese Higher Education, 51, 253261. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-78492-2_14.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Valtins, K., & Muracova, N. (2019). Virtual mobility for students, going from distance learning to live participation. Periodicals of Engineering and Natural Sciences, 7(1), 222227. https://doi.org/10.21533/pen.v7i1.373.

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Senior editors

Editor(s)-in-Chief: Helga DORNER

Associate Editors 

  • Csíkos, Csaba (Eötvös Lorand University, Hungary)
  • Csizér, Kata (Eötvös Lorand University, Hungary)
  • Dorner, Helga (Central European University, Hungary)

 

Editorial Board

  • Basseches, Michael (Suffolk University, USA)
  • Billett, Stephen (Griffith University, Australia)
  • Cakmakci, Gültekin (Hacettepe University, Turkey)
  • Damsa, Crina (University of Oslo,Norway)
  • Dörnyei, Zoltán (Nottingham University, UK)
  • Endedijk, Maaike (University of Twente, The Netherlands)
  • Fejes, Andreas (Linköping University, Sweden)
  • Guimaraes, Paula (University of Lisbon, Portugal)
  • Halász, Gábor (Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary)
  • Hansman, Catherine A. (Cleveland State University, USA)
  • Kroeber, Edith (Stuttgart University, Germany)
  • Kumar, Swapna (University of Florida, USA)
  • MacDonald, Ronald (University of Prince Edward Island, Canada)
  • Marsick, Victoria J. (Columbia University, USA)
  • Martensson, Katarina (Lund University, Sweden)
  • Matei, Liviu (Central European University, Hungary)
  • Matyja, Malgorzata (Wroclaw University of Economics, Poland)
  • Mercer, Sarah (University of Graz, Austria)
  • Nichols, Gill (University of Surrey, UK)
  • Nokkala, Terhi (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland)
  • Ostrouch-Kaminska (Uniwersytet Warminsko-Mazurski, Poland)
  • Pusztai, Gabriella (University of Debrecen, Hungary)
  • Ramesal, Ana (Barcelona University, Spain)
  • Reischmann, Jost (Bamberg University, Germany)
  • Rösken-Winter, Bettina (Humboldt, Germany)
  • Ryan, Stephen (Waseda University, Japan)
  • Török, Erika (Pallasz Athéné University, Hungary)
  • Wach-Kakolewicz, Anna (Poznan University of Economics and Business, Poland)
  • Watkins, Karen E. (University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia)

 

 

 

Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation
Editorial Office
Eötvös Loránd University
Faculty of Education and Psychology
Institute of Research on Adult Education and Knowledge Management
Address: 1075 Budapest, Kazinczy u. 23-27. HUNGARY

E-mail: jalki@ppk.elte.hu

2020  
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Days from submission to acceptance 130
Days from acceptance to publication 222

 

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Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation
Publication Model Gold Open Access
Submission Fee none
Article Processing Charge none
Subscription Information Gold Open Access

Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation
Language English
Size A4
Year of
Foundation
2016
Volumes
per Year
1
Issues
per Year
2
Founder Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem
Founder's
Address
H-1053 Budapest, Hungary Egyetem tér 1-3.
Publisher Akadémiai Kiadó
Publisher's
Address
H-1117 Budapest, Hungary 1516 Budapest, PO Box 245.
Responsible
Publisher
Chief Executive Officer, Akadémiai Kiadó
ISSN 2631-1348 (Online)

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