Screenshot of Zoom call of the deans from all eight business schools participating in the ECOL network Academic leaders from eight partner schools meet virtually to coordinate the formation of the European Common Online Learning network.

Adaptation Through Collaboration

Eight schools across Europe are creating a joint online curriculum to make international exposure more widely accessible to their undergraduate students.

COVID-19 taught higher education institutions many lessons, not the least of which was this: The international mobility of their students and faculty is not a given. Most business schools work diligently to give their students the intercultural skills they need to succeed in a global workplace. But what happens when all planes are grounded due to national pandemic lockdowns and students cannot travel?

Even when countries began lifting their travel bans, many educators began asking different, albeit related, questions: How can we give students international experiences if we want to reduce our school’s travel-related carbon footprint? What if students are not financially able to study abroad?

As one answer to these complex questions, eight European universities and business schools recently announced their formation of the European Common Online Learning (ECOL) network, as a way to expand international educational opportunities for their students. Through the ECOL initiative, the schools plan to build on the innovations in online education they developed during the pandemic. They will create a joint online curriculum that draws on each of their different educational approaches.

Administrators plan to use this collaboration as a springboard to facilitate innovation and accelerate digital transformation in higher education. Over time, their goal is to expand this network in alignment with the European Union’s principles of innovation, digitalization, sustainability, and inclusion.

The network’s founding members include the Aalto University School of Business in Finland, Bocconi University in Italy, Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, Esade Business School in Spain, HEC Paris in France, the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and the Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria.

“COVID-19 forced us to adapt and reinvent ourselves in order to guarantee the best educational experience possible for our students,” says Josep Franch, dean of Esade Business School, in a joint press release. “Our aim is to offer an outstanding remote learning experience, which can be compared with the excellence of campus-based international experiences. It is a collective effort in our commitment as European institutions to being more inclusive, sustainable, and competitive in the global arena.”

Building a Learning Network

Starting in the 2021–22 academic year, each ECOL partner will offer two to six undergraduate online courses in which seven to 14 spots will be reserved for students from partner schools. The rest of the seats will be reserved for the offering institution’s own students. These electives will cover a range of topics, including accounting, finance, digitalization, international business, strategic management, and social impact.

Each ECOL member university will be responsible for choosing which of its courses to open to the network, depending on which courses its administrators believe are most relevant. These courses will incorporate lectures and seminar discussions, and many will include real-life team projects in which students will work on international business dilemmas submitted by multinational companies. Delivered in synchronous formats, courses will be designed to develop students’ teamwork, technical, interpersonal, and intercultural skills.

However, each course in the network should fulfill the following criteria: It must be a for-credit elective, taught in English, designed to be delivered online, cover a topic related to international business and economics, and reflect the academic specialization of the host institution. Ideally, each ECOL course will focus on the cultural and business context of the host institution’s country and offer perspectives that cannot be found in courses at the other partner universities.

Because the number of spots in ECOL courses is limited, some partners will allow their students to take only one elective from a partner school, so that they can open up this travel- and financial-neutral international experience to as many students as possible. However, other partners will allow their students to take more than one elective, especially from ECOL schools offering courses worth fewer credits.

After the initiative’s pilot phase, the ECOL partners hope to expand the number of seats and courses available to students across the network.

The Other Side of Competition

The need to offer a wider range of flexible international study options was made especially clear during the pandemic, when international travel was brought to a halt, Franch emphasizes. “International experience is a key piece of the puzzle of a great CV, and employers appreciate it more and more."

For the partners, these online experiences will not take the place of physical study abroad and student exchanges. ECOL’s multinational common curriculum is designed to deliver international and intercultural experiences even to those students who might not be physically or financially able to travel to another country—essentially placing these students on a more even playing field. 

In addition, the partners hope that these courses not only will expose their students to teaching and learning styles at the other universities, but also allow lecturers to learn from each other and share expertise and innovations across the network. The schools’ long-term objective is “to set up a ‘free zone,’ where students are guided to receive a multicultural, multicampus, high-quality international education,” says Franch. “It is very clear that cooperation is the other side of the coin of competition. ECOL will be a strong demonstration of it.”


Tricia Bisoux of AACSB InsightsTricia Bisoux is an editor with AACSB Insights.