The most cost-effective internationalization method

Let’s have a look at something completely different.

By law, Finnish universities have a requirement to offer international experience to students. There are many ways we try to fulfill this requirement: international lecturers, networked courses with collaborating universities across the globe, exchange programs, and many other types of work. But since 2006, Haaga-Helia and a handful of other universities have maintained an International Seminar for students, hosted in one participating institution every year, and concentrating on students working together on real (if small) challenges.

In 2006, my boss and his colleague handed me an idea for an international seminar, and trustfully left it in my hands to make it happen. So, we devised a very loose structure for the week, gave it a topic “How to be an IT Professional?” and invited Danish, Maltese, American, and Spanish colleagues to come over with their students. Our school provided a home team of students to help manage the practicalities, and also, to give the visiting students something to do in the evening too.

Students getting ready for today's work
Students getting ready for today’s work

Every school has one day to run. They can pick any topic they find interesting, and the topics have indeed ranged far and wide – from Arduino robots monitoring the winter status of beehives, to Blender, to Java, to Big Data… we’ve seen it all. In fact, you can monitor how your bees are doing over winter by recording the hum in the hive, then analysing the data you have amassed. It was one of the eyebrow-raising presentations. Games design has appeared frequently, and it’s always a pleasure to go and do the next year’s seminar because there’s no way to tell what you will learn.

I will make the claim that this is the most cost-effective way to do international stuff with students. If you’re the home team, all you need to do is to supply the location, lunch tickets, and one (or two) social events for the evenings. Ah, and the faculty dinner. But for the price of that, you get to expose your home team of 15-20 students to an intensive week of problem-solving in English, with the archetypal working methods of Danes, Spaniards, Swiss, and Finns all on the team.

Learning Google Cardboard virtual reality
Learning Google Cardboard virtual reality

If you come in for the week, you pay for air fare, accommodation, and per diems for the teachers. This year, in Madrid, this came to 3,300 Euros. Due to budget constraints, we only came with one teacher and three students, but the Swiss compensated by bringing 12 students. As it happens, we have made a survey of the seminars for the students since 2007, and on a scale of 0 to 5, the general grade has never been below 4.5, and for some areas we ask about (co-operation, international aspects, learning outcomes) we have usually ranked in the 4.8 range. The students really appreciate getting first hand experience in leading a team to research something they know but the others in the team don’t, and to get to learn something they haven’t touched at all.

The seminar poster
The seminar poster

And then there is the networking aspect. I have heard of students arranging to go see each other over the summer break, and starting Facebook groups to stay in touch and to work on something they learned during the seminar, and more. In 2006, on Monday evening at the first seminar, we booked the Helsinki pub tram Spårakoff for two hours, and issued two beer tickets to every student (it’s good they are all over 18). I told the driver to pass by every landmark in Helsinki where the tram tracks will take us, and the Finns explained all of the sights to their teams. I had hand-picked the home team, and included one very shy girl in the team, who said she loathed speaking English. By the time the tram had run for an hour, and she had her first beer, she came over to tell me how much she enjoyed being in the seminar and telling her team of Helsinki.

That’s very valuable. It’s invaluable, actually.

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