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The whole world on a screen: vir­tual ex­change at the HNU

07.06.2021, Dia­logues :

Necessity is the mother of invention: Because COVID-19  thwarted plans for international exchange last year,  the HNU came up with a model for digital study abroad. Studying at a distance from home – a stopgap solution or a concept with a future?
We had a chat about virtual exchange: Lilia Briel, a staff member at the HNU's International Office (IO), and Soukaina Errajae from Morocco, a virtual exchange student in the 2020/21 winter semester, talk about their experiences with the digital semester abroad from two perspectives.


Spring 2020: crisis management and crisis communication in the HNU International Office

When the big wide world suddenly shrank to a small screen in spring 2020, for some students this meant not only campus abstinence and lectures by zoom, but also: the end of the dream of the planned semester abroad. "In March, the new incoming students had just arrived at the HNU," recalls Lilia Briel, "and we had to cancel the orientation weeks. For us, that first meant a lot of crisis management and, of course, crisis communication for our foreign students – after all, the local news coverage, which at that time was overflowing daily with new information, was almost exclusively in German."

Early on, the university management decided that there would be no regular student exchanges in the 2020/21 winter semester, neither incoming nor outgoing. "At the beginning, I thought, oh, this decision is coming early. Maybe it will get better towards winter after all?", says the IO employee. In fact, however, it turned out to be the right decision – and gave the International Office at the HNU the necessary planning security to cancel stays in good time. "In this way, we were able to avoid students having to make advance financial payments, whether in the form of accommodation or visas, and being left with the costs. As a result, the international exchange came to a standstill for the time being – with a few exceptions, such as the double-degree students from the HNU partner university in Oulu (Finland). "That's when four students arrived," Lilia Briel recounts. "But in Europe it was still a bit easier than with the rest of the world.


For the international idea: translating the stay abroad into the virtual world

 "COVID-19 should not lead to everyone closing themselves off, to no intercultural dialogue taking place at all. And we also wanted to give HNU students who might not have been able to go abroad the opportunity to experience foreign countries at home through international student groups," says Lilia Briel. No sooner said than done: the IO staff threw themselves into planning a virtual summer semester. "We felt that a good part of the benefits that experience abroad brings can also be achieved digitally: for example, acquiring digital skills and collaborating across borders, even when you're not in the same place," explains Lilia Briel, who trained as an intercultural trainer. Via Zoom, the IO clarified in advance with some HNU partner universities whether there was a general interest in digital formats. "Curiously, this was something we had never done before – that is, simply meeting with partner universities around the world for online meetings," she says. A small side effect of crisis management: exploring new ways of communicating – many universities are only getting to grips with digital tools like Zoom through and thanks to COVID-19. 

 IO-staff member Lilia Briel (opens enlarged image)
Lilia Briel

Lilia Briel (opens in a new window) is a staff member in the International Office at the HNU. She works as coordinator for European exchange students and as project coordinator "Internationalisation 2.0".


We look forward to seeing the campus filled with life and students from all over the world again. Some experiences and, above all, personal encounters do get lost in the virtual world.

Lilia Briel

Marketing challenge: promoting unique selling points beyond regional conditions

The first and perhaps biggest challenge in planning the new concept: How do you promote the digital edition of a format that actually thrives on local exchange? "We can usually always advertise a lot to potential incoming students with local circumstances," explains Lilia Briel, "Neu-Ulm is a small, safe city in an economically strong region, you can find everything, the distances are short, the rents are affordable, the HNU has a great, modern campus – there are simply a lot of physical arguments that we can score with." All of the things that make the university and the location so attractive are not so easy to put forward in a virtual exchange at first glance. "Translating our unique selling points in such a way that they can be used as arguments in a digital context was not that easy," says the IO employee.

Following HNU lectures on the beach? Digital exchange offers a lot of flexibility

The strong practical relevance of the lectures, the practical experience of the HNU professors and the individual support in small groups therefore came into sharper focus. Under the motto "Boost your CV", the benefits that a digital stay abroad can also bring to one's CV were advertised: digital skills, the ability to work under unfamiliar circumstances, intercultural skills and language skills, international contacts - and flexibility: "That was an important point for us in the marketing, to convey to the students that the digital stay also gives them creative freedom - even in their home country they don't have to sit in their student dormitory, but can perhaps follow HNU lectures on the beach". And: "It was virtually the offer of a last-minute opportunity to gain international experience despite COVID-19".

A Di­gital Jour­ney from Mo­rocco to HNU: An Ex­change Stu­dent Re­ports

[1] Why did you decide to do a virtual exchange semester – and why at the HNU? What were your initial plans before COVID-19?

Before Covid-19, I was planning to go to Germany for a master’s program after my graduation in my home country. Unfortunately, my graduation has got delayed for one semester because of the pandemic, and I had a lot of free time at home. Therefore, I started to search for programs for the following year and accidently came across the virtual semester offered by the HNU, and I am so glad that I took part in it.

[3] After all, intercultural experiences tend to be tied to physical exchanges – what kind of virtual experiences have you been able to have here?

What I regret the most is that I didn’t have much contact with my classmates. However, in the German course, we used to have some conversations to present ourselves and talk about our countries and cultural background. I think it was interesting and I loved that.

[5] What are your further plans after the exchange at the HNU in terms of international experience or activities?

I still have the plan to go to the Germany for a full master’s program.

[2] What did your everyday study life look like in the online exchange? How did you network and exchange ideas?

We used to have lectures in Zoom. The way professors explain their courses was clear, and it was comfortable for me as a student to receive the content of the course via that platform and to ask questions as well. We sometimes had internet problems, but the professors understood this and we had the possibility to contact them anytime in Moodle.

[4] How did you experience your exchange overall? What particularly stuck in your mind, what surprised you?

I am very satisfied of how my exchange semester went. The professors have respect for time. Also, they are so helping as they always respond to my questions and they welcome every participation. I would like to thank all the teachers for their efforts.
For me this experience didn’t give me the impression of distance learning since I was in contact with all my teachers at all times.

Soukaina Errajae took part in the digital exchange at the HNU from Morocco in the winter semester 2020/21. In the interview, she reports on her experiences during her stay.


Porträtfoto von Soukaina Errajae
Soukaina Errajae


Time-shifting, time pressure, and digital socializing: rethinking for the digital context.

Normally, the IO has about half a year's lead time for planning a semester abroad. Students apply for the winter semester between March and May, and orientation weeks begin at the end of September. As early as February, HNU professors are asked for courses that can be included in the course schedule for international students. The new virtual semester had to be launched under much more time pressure: Starting in June 2020, the IO staff put the new concept in place, established new processes, and developed a customized workflow for the application platform. Added to this was the fact that the academic year in the partner countries is partly timed differently and the winter semester is scheduled earlier – and that, of course, the time difference also has to be taken into account when planning courses. "We then asked our faculties directly about possible courses, announced them to our partners in August, and the application deadline was in September, with the semester starting on October 5," says Lilia Briel. "Of course, very pragmatic questions also arose, such as: Does our Moodle access work from anywhere in the world? Are there problems accessing our system from Canada, for example? But it all worked. The technology cooperated!". After clarifying the bureaucratic hurdles – from the Erasmus+ Learning Agreement to health insurance, enrollment and semester fees to the topic of scholarships and Erasmus formalities – the program was finally ready, in a somewhat slimmed-down version than usual, because: "In the online context, we all know that you can't run a program as extensive as in a face-to-face setting – the participants tire more quickly, their concentration wanes earlier.


Intercultural skills can also be taught digitally

One of Lilia Briel's tasks is to teach intercultural skills to HNU's exchange students in intercultural training sessions and thus to make them aware of what culture actually means. "For example, it's about the fact that in Germany a lot of value is placed on punctuality and structure. In group work, Germans also tend to go straight to the tasks ("task-orientation") – in many other cultures, the focus is first on personal bonding so that people can work together on something at all ("relationship-orientation")." She has already transferred much of this to a virtual setting, in particular to make it possible for students to experience things that they cannot experience on site. Nevertheless, the regular exchange between the HNU and the exchange students themselves should be anchored even more intensively in the future. "I heard very little from the students after the orientation phase, and in some cases I took that as a good sign for a smooth stay," says Lilia Briel. "But for me, the students this semester were really as far away as I've ever seen them. I usually recognize them at the HNU or on the street and see if they are doing well. Now I had less of a feel for how they were doing."


Better digital than not at all? An alternative concept, especially for financially weaker students

Your conclusion on the first virtual semesters abroad? "Beforehand, it seemed more like a stopgap solution, a makeshift alternative to a "real" stay abroad," says Lilia Briel. "If everything is already online anyway, I thought, you might as well follow the lectures at your own university." In retrospect, however, she says that attitude has changed. "I think it's very important to think about what you're comparing this format to. The virtual semester is a different kind of international experience that should not be compared to the normal exchange." Lilia Briel highlights two points in particular: first, the digital format enables more financially constrained partner universities and students to experience abroad. Second, such digital exchange formats can provide a soft introduction to intercultural experiences. "It allows you to approach the topic of experience abroad a little bit, not having the complete culture shock right away." Meanwhile, she definitely sees the virtual semester as a potential second mainstay to post-COVID-19 semesters as well. "A pure translation of analog to virtual offerings, as we have done so far, is of course only partly attractive. In the long term, I would rather focus on smaller, self-contained programs, such as summer or winter schools, temporarily limited projects or guest lectures."



A hybrid exchange model is again planned for the winter semester 2021/22: The HNU welcomes both virtual and on-site exchange students.  Lilia Briel and her colleagues rate the virtual concept as a valuable experience overall, but it does not represent a real alternative for them. Lilia Briel hopes that international activities at the HNU will be possible as usual in the near future – and that students from all over the world will soon be able to cavort on the Wileypark campus again.