1. Background detail about the initiative
- Title of the initiative described by the case study: The Network for Intercultural Competence to facilitate Entrepreneurship (NICE)
- Contributor of the case study: Sara Pittarello – UNICollaboration
- Key informant: Randall Reinhard – University of Edinburgh; Paula Ovelar-Oviedo – University of Edinburgh
- Data sources used for the case study:
- URL of initiative: https://www.nice-eu.org/
- University behind the initiative:
The original partner institutions forming the NICE consortium include: University of Edinburgh (leading partner), University of Amsterdam, Lund University, University of Padova, University of Salamanca, University College Dublin, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi, University of Göttingen
2. Introduction to the case: brief history and goals of the initiative
History, goals, and approach
The Network for Intercultural Competence to facilitate Entrepreneurship (NICE) is a blended exchange programme, consisting of an introductory course on intercultural competence and entrepreneurship centred around solving a real-world problem, aimed at students from all disciplines and study levels. NICE began as an Erasmus+ KA203 Strategic Partnership project that received funding from the European Commission for the period 2017-2020.
The program was developed by the NICE project consortium led by the University of Edinburgh and including the University of Amsterdam, University College Dublin, the University of Göttingen, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi, Lund University, the University of Padova, and the University of Salamanca.
The NICE program aims to help students from different cultures learn how to use shared digital workspaces and practice working effectively in a virtual team, abilities that are essential in today’s climate of remote working and virtual collaboration. Many aspects of the NICE program include actions identified by the EU Europe 2020 Strategy to promote youth employability and improve skills that employers are looking for. Course content aims to empower students with self-efficacy, effective team working and leadership skills, and a sense of global citizenship and belonging.
The globalisation of the labour market is creating a need for employees that have intercultural competencies and are confident and able to work in an international setting. The structures of culture and communication that influence our behaviours are complex; the NICE program is designed to help students develop skills to identify how these structures influence their own lives and, consequently, how to work with people from other cultures in a positive and productive manner. And by supporting students to develop their entrepreneurial skills, NICE also helps to shape creative and innovative risk-takers who can plan and manage projects to achieve success.
For the virtual element, NICE students complete seven online modules, each with a topic in intercultural competence and entrepreneurship, as they work in their intercultural teams towards developing a solution to their preferred Global Challenge. Each module requires students to complete individual work in their own time, meet virtually with their team to complete group work, and attend an online session as a team with a dialogue facilitator to discuss progress and milestones and clarify any misunderstandings.
For the physical element, the summer school incorporates interactive sessions with lecturers and entrepreneurs, student group work, team pitches, and a cultural and social program to foster a sense of community. It is designed to build on the knowledge students acquired from the online program, as well as provide a chance to apply their newly developed intercultural competencies. It is important to note that due to COVID-19, the 2020 and 2021 summer schools were transitioned into a virtual format that was composed of short, interactive workshops led by subject experts, team pitches, and drop-in sessions with business advisers.
20 students are selected from each partner university to participate in the VE, 10 of whom can apply and are selected to participate in the summer school. Adjustments may take place so as to ensure that the total number of students is reached in the whole consortium, enabling universities who have more students interested in the project to benefit from the places remaining available from another institution who has selected fewer students than the maximum number allowed per partner.
3. Key aspects
Unique selling points
The NICE program is innovative in its approach by offering a formalised, transnational training opportunity that incorporates advanced learning technologies to foster intercultural competence, as well as other transversal and entrepreneurship skills.
The program’s flexibility means that students can choose to pursue a totally virtual exchange and participate solely in the online modules or continue with a blended learning program and apply for the Summer School. If they wish to receive credits for their work, then they can take part in the NICE SLICC (Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses), only run in conjunction with the overall NICE course and hence not a standalone program. SLICCs (Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses) offer a reflective learning and assessment framework for students to gain academic credit for experiential learning. SLICCs are not compulsory for NICE students. The concept was developed by Professor Simon Riley and Dr. Gavin McCabe of the University of Edinburgh, building on previous work with Professor Ian Pirie.
The program is also an opportunity for students who may not otherwise be able to participate in a semester- (or year-) long, traditional physical exchange, to take part in a short mobility experience. Students who are carers, or part-time workers, or have other commitments that would not allow them to take part in traditional mobility programs, are especially drawn to the NICE program, as the physical aspect (summer school) is only one week. Therefore, NICE attracts a more diverse student cohort than a traditional exchange, thus widening participation.
NICE has also proved to be innovative in a way that was unplanned, by providing students with the virtual communication and collaboration skills that have become necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The students who participated in the NICE program for 2020 were very aware that the program is front-loaded with virtual content, so during the height of the lockdown in many European countries, where many universities and lecturers were scrambling to convert in-person content to virtual content, the NICE program was a stable, unchanging element for participating students. They continued to meet with their teams and work on their Global Challenges.
Mechanisms for integration and accreditation
The NICE program is also innovative in the way that it has developed a mechanism for providing credit to students undertaking a virtual exchange program, through the NICE SLICC.
SLICCs enable students to gain credit for self-directed learning. A SLICC is an elective-type course largely undertaken independently of university supervision. Further information on how these courses are implemented by staff and experienced by students can be found at the University of Edinburgh SLICC website: https://www.ed.ac.uk/employability/sliccs.
The NICE SLICC is a self-designed, experiential learning assignment, where students reflect on their experience of working within a transnational team to address a Global Challenge. The course is based on the creation of an e-portfolio, which is a space for students to provide evidence of their learning. As a supplementary and optional component of the NICE program, the NICE SLICC adds an extra layer of virtual learning to the NICE experience. This course requires students to demonstrate the development of their skills and understanding in terms of critical analysis, application, reflection, recognition, and development of their skills and mindsets, and evaluation within a defined context of their learning experience. Unlike the online modules, which require group work and interpersonal communication, in the NICE SLICC students are encouraged to reflect on their individual learning goals. Undertaking the NICE SLICC enables students to create a learning experience which is unique to them and their own academic and professional aspirations while demonstrating their learning and academic achievement against defined learning outcomes.
The steps for a student undertaking a NICE SLICC are as follows:
- Identify your team’s Global Challenge and consider ways in which you can shape your learning experience around it.
- Write your draft proposal and submit it to your tutor for approval.
- Self-direct and manage your own learning experience.
- Actively and regularly reflect upon and document your experience with evidence, and use that as a basis for writing your self-critical ‘Interim Reflective Report’, then your ‘Final Reflective Report’.
- Formatively self-assess and submit your ‘Final Reflective Report’ for summative assessment by your tutor.
Each SLICC student is assigned a tutor who provides feedback on the student’s proposal and interim report and grades their final reflective report. The University of Edinburgh provides formal accreditation and awards 10 ECTS credits to each individual participant on successful completion of their NICE SLICC.
The NICE partners have also begun to explore how to incorporate reflective learning within their own institutions, with the University of Amsterdam creating a course that is based on the core concepts of the NICE SLICC and reflective learning. University College Dublin had to adapt the NICE SLICC for their own students, due to its schedule conflicting with the accreditation process at Edinburgh. Their virtual course, based on the SLICC framework, was offered by the Innovation Academy which is a part of UCD (https://www.
- insert the course in their career as elective credits and the mark contributes to their final degree mark;
- get the credits as “extra credits”, i.e. additional to the credits required to obtain their degree and the mark does not count for the final degree mark;
- not get the credits and only follow the VE component of NICE (the NICE modules).
In order to obtain recognition, students must conclude all NICE modules and write and submit an individual assignment at the end of the modules, which is assessed based on: clarity, relevance, analysis, interconnections, self-criticism. The assignment consists in a Reflective Learning activity so as to demonstrate acquired skills and competences / progress in the learning process. This requires a teacher to be responsible for the course at the University of Padova; in addition, the international dimension of the course gets lost as the course is recognised as a course delivered by the University of Padova. 6 ECTS credits are awarded upon completion of the assignments. Various university units are currently working to make sure that the international dimension of the VE experience is recognised for Padova students.
Tools/technology used to implement the initiative
The NICE online modules take place on the NICE platform (https://course.nice-eu.org/), where students can share their comments and files with each other. Student groups are also encouraged to set up their own communication channels, such as a WhatsApp group, to discuss the modules and work on their Global Challenge between facilitated sessions. The facilitated sessions can take place through any virtual video conferencing tool, such as MS Teams, Zoom, or Skype. It is up to the group members and their facilitator to decide which virtual communication platform works best for them.
The NICE SLICC is housed on the learning journey platform PebblePad, which allows students to access resources, collect evidence of their learning, and submit their reflective report. It also allows tutors to view those reports and reflective material to provide feedback that is accessible to students within the platform.
As part of the longitudinal study of student participants, all NICE alumni from 2019 and 2020 were surveyed to gauge how they felt about the project. Among other things, these students were asked to specify what they were hoping to get out of their experience on the NICE program. Results varied, but there was very strong emphasis on building intercultural competence (IC) through multicultural teamwork and collaboration, as well as developing entrepreneurship (ENT) skills through working on a problem. Some students also noted their desire to participate in a unique experience to strengthen their CV. These students were then asked if they felt like they had succeeded in achieving these goals, to which 87% responded that they had.
Students were next asked if their participation in NICE had helped them either in securing employment or furthering their education (through another course of study etc.). Many noted mentioning their experience with NICE on their CV and in applications and interviews. Several stated that completing the NICE program, directly aided them in securing various internships/traineeships or jobs. Another student commented that NICE opened up the possibility to consider new paths for their professional career.
On the academic side, several students noted that they were directly affected by their participation in the NICE program: one was enabled to decide on a major in diversity management, another was encouraged to include a minor in entrepreneurship to their degree, and two students mentioned that they were planning to incorporate ideas they developed during their work on NICE into their undergraduate theses.
They were then encouraged to reflect more broadly on how their participation in NICE has affected them. Many responded that their IC has improved significantly. Others commented that they are already implementing lessons learned from the ENT content into realistic business plans that they are developing. Yet others appreciated the opportunity to tackle a global issue by focussing on a realistic solution. Students also reported a variety of personal benefits gained from the program, including improved language skills, increased confidence, and leadership experience.
Sustainability and scaling-up
The NICE program has been continued beyond its EU-funded period with 6 of the original consortium members in 2021, and it was also opened to students from the U21, UNA Europa, EPICUR, and ENLIGHT university alliances. The goal is to open up the network even more widely in 2022 and beyond by actively seeking new partners to join. Any new partner participating in the program will join through an existing relationship with one of the original NICE consortium members. The original partner will act as a mentor to the new partner, providing advice on the recruitment, application, and selection process, as well as providing ad hoc support for the facilitators and administrators working on the program for the first time.
Funding model. Who is providing the financial resources (if any) required for the development and subsequent functioning of the VE initiative?
From 2017 to 2020, EU funding covered the costs of resource development, program administration, and also student travel and accommodation for the in-person summer school (2019 only). Going forward, there is no financial contribution required from partners to participate in the NICE program, but each partner must invest a significant amount of staff time and effort.
One of the major challenges identified for the post-funding phase of NICE is sourcing and recruiting facilitators. In 2020 NICE could also benefit from E+VE qualified facilitators to facilitate its online sessions. Afterwards, to increase the project sustainability, students who have previously participated in NICE have been encouraged to serve as facilitators themselves. Recruiting facilitators from previous participants substantially reduces the resources required from each partner and therefore increases the likelihood that NICE will be perpetuated into the foreseeable future. Project partners, led by the Universities of Amsterdam and Göttingen, are also working on ways to make the facilitator training and recognition even more robust in order to continue quality engagement.
It has also been recognised that a physical summer school will require significant budgetary resources, and several solutions to this challenge have been discussed, including partnering with an existing summer school and soliciting corporate sponsorship.
4. Lessons Learnt and Transferability Opportunities
Challenges overcome and lessons learned
A non-standard course length means deadlines can conflict with students’ other courses; prioritising flexibility is essential in overcoming this challenge. It is important that groups are able to set their own facilitation schedule, including how much time they would like to spend working on each module.
Because many of the participating students do not receive credits for the NICE program, some find it difficult to stay motivated which can lead to drop-outs, which in turn affects the dynamics of the remaining student groups. The facilitator plays a large role in keeping the group motivated, and putting students in groups of 6 or 7 can be a good way to limit the break-up of groups. Even if 2-3 students drop out of a group, there are still enough remaining to have a successful group experience.
Unfortunately, holding the Summer School in person at the University of Salamanca in July 2020 as originally planned was impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the consortium decided to transition to a fully virtual event. The staff originally scheduled to provide teaching and training were able to convert to virtual sessions, focusing on building skills and developing the learning that students had already completed through the modules. Student teams were also able to present their Global Challenge solutions. While it was disappointing for the students to lose a travel opportunity to Salamanca, the feedback received about the Summer School was incredibly positive, with many students saying that they would have wanted more sessions that ran for longer. In 2021 the Summer School was fully virtual again, which allowed us to improve on its design. Though the plan is on holding an in-person summer school again as soon as it is safe to do so, experiences in 2020 and 2021 have shown that NICE can be successful as a fully virtual course.