The Year The International Summer School went Digital
For the 74th time, the International Summer School at the University of Oslo saw close to 500 students take Bachelor and Master classes in Norwegian language, international peace and development issues. But this time was different, because it was the first time the ISS was completely digitalized. Why? Well, because of the pandemic of course.
In just a few months, what had seemed impossible became a reality. The ISS administration were able to redesign 18 of 23 modules for online learning, and ended up with 12 operating modules for the summer session. Everything from running the classes to the administrative services and social activities had to be carried out online. Furthermore, the turnaround had to be planned and put in place within a span of just three months, with everyone working remotely.
Summing it up: Thanks to a tremendous team effort from administrative staff, faculty members, engaged students and supportive partners, the University of Oslo’s first ever digital summer school was a success. I’d like to thank everyone who made this historic summer for the ISS possible!
International and Digital Pedagogy
In addition to the administrative and logistical progress, the ISS had simultaneously to rethink its university pedagogy, which has always centered around the “international classroom”. How can the ISS provide something special, personally engaging and challenging to students who couldn’t even be in the same room together? The strength of the international classroom is exactly that – coming together as mutual strangers in a foreign country to exchange experiences and perspectives in learning. How could this elusive element be brought into a virtual setting?
Other pedagogical elements for consideration were focused on optimal formats and guidelines within e-learning. The ISS on the whole decided to use the “flipped classroom”-approach in a virtual international setting, in order to make sure the time spent together online would be less lecture-based and more discussion-based for active student engagement. One of the pitfalls of online learning can be its passive nature, so working to actively engage students was key. This technique allowed students to asynchronically devote themselves to self-study with readings and pre-recorded lectures whenever it suited them, and in that way prepare for class time.
Therefore, we were really happy to see the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our students at the end of the summer. One of them commented in their final evaluation that although their course was demanding, it was also very stimulating: “The class activities encouraged student engagement. I have never attended a course that involved as much engagement,” they said.
Why not simply cancel the summer school, as many others have chosen to do this year? For us, there were three main factors of value for overhauling and redesigning the entire enterprise for a digital summer session.
There’s a value for the global society in terms of educating people in the subjects that have always been relevant for the ISS, namely peace, cultural exchange and international goodwill. This element seems ever more important in our current times. Secondly, there’s a value at individual level: for the students who undergo demanding and challenging courses that provide them with university credit and personal growth in addition to an increased awareness and interaction with an international community . The third is the institutional value of upholding the ISS also during difficult times. We don’t know how long the effects of the pandemic might last, and we wanted to change with the times, all the while maintaining our core values and ideals.
Diversity and Outreach
In an interesting turn of events, digitalizing the ISS also proved to diversify our student body in a different way than before. Although the ISS since its initial years and through extensive scholarship programs has worked to ensure diversity in terms of nationality, gender and economic backgrounds, the digital format unexpectedly lowered several thresholds for students around the world.
For example, this year marks the first time that students from the USA were not the largest nationality represented in the student body. Instead, students from Pakistan constituted the largest group, many of them attending Norwegian language classes.
Since the University of Oslo and ISS this year additionally provided all classes free of charge for our admitted students as a global contribution to academic solidarity during a difficult year, we see that some of the regular barriers such as financial issues or getting a visa in time could be bypassed. We see that the digital universe has increased our school’s global outreach. In that sense, it is an equalizer and represents very interesting opportunities for us.
Sarah Gooma from Egypt was a student in the Masters course International Development Studies, and in a video interview expressed appreciation for the digital format. Even though she received a scholarship from the ISS, the digital format permitted her to continue her work in Egypt and sustain her income level. Furthermore, in spite of the online format, she says it has been an adventure for her, and she hopes one day to see her classmates «in real life.»
The ISS is looking into various scenarios and options for the year and years ahead. For 2021, we will most likely land on a blended solution (both on-campus and digital). We are now also looking at expanding our course offerings, as well as redesigning the admissions process and deadlines.
One thing is certain: Online summer courses will most likely become an exciting, lasting addition to our academic portfolio also in the future. We will also take important lessons learnt from ISS 2020 with us to even further enhance the quality and content of our institution.