- VirtualDutch is an inter-institutional collaborative teaching programme with UCL’s Dutch department acting as the lead institution and also involving the Dutch sections of departments of Modern European or Germanic languages at the universities of Sheffield, Cambridge and Nottingham (from 2001–2004 also Hull). Its main aims are to create shared electronic resources for teaching and learning, and to develop ICT-supported forms of inter-institutional collaboration in teaching and learning. The programme started in 2001, mainly in response to two developments, firstly the declining interest in modern languages in the UK which is affecting all modern languages, but the lesser-taught languages like Dutch in particular, and secondly, the development of modern learning technologies. Confronted with diminishing resources and threats of discontinuation of language programmes caused by the former, VirtualDutch tries to bundle existing resources and expertise to overcome the crisis by taking advantage of the latter development.
- Of course external and strategic considerations were only one factor behind the development of VirtualDutch. By sharing resources and expertise amongst the participating institutions, the initiative has also brought more breadth and depth to the curriculum. Using learning technologies as a main strategy to achieve this was a deliberate choice. VirtualDutch was partly born out of the belief that today’s communication technology can no longer be ignored in an academic curriculum. As Hermans (2002) writes, the programme “is a determined attempt to exploit these new possibilities and provide our students with a forward-looking and vigorous learning environment in the process.” Students benefit from the encounter with a wide range of learning environments, from classroom contact to multimedia language instruction in a Virtual Learning Environment and web-based autonomous learning with the self-study-packs. They also feel part of a larger Dutch studies community in the UK, especially when they collaborate in joint teaching projects.
- From 2001–2004, initial funding for VirtualDutch was provided by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML), which drew on HEFCE funding to support collaborative learning and teaching initiatives. Ongoing project-based funds are provided by the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Union, the joint Flemish-Dutch equivalent of the British Council). Additional funding has come from UCL’s Executive Sub-Committee on Innovations in Teaching Learning and Assessment (ESCILTA), and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in London (2004–2009).
- Evidence of Excellence: All individual subprojects are tested and evaluated. The VirtualDutch programme as a whole has been monitored by two external evaluators, one appointed by UCML, the other by the Dutch Language Union. Student response is fully documented and has been overwhelmingly positive. A pedagogic evaluation of the electronic study packs was carried out in 2003 with the support of UCL’s Executive Sub-Committee for Innovation in Learning, Teaching and Assessment (ESCILTA). The HEFCE Annual Review 2002/03, Realising a Vision of Higher Education (September 2003) notes under ‘Excellent learning and teaching’: “‘All in all I wish all the lessons were like this’ – was one student’s comment on an innovative collaborative teaching project for first years studying Dutch society and culture at University College London and the Universities of Sheffield and Hull. The project included videoconferencing sessions between the three institutions, interaction through a web-based discussion board and chatrooms, as well as course materials.”
- Portal: In preparation for delivering full distance-education courses in the future, in 2007 a new portal for VirtualDutch was developed, with a view to providing better access for end-users (i.e. learners and teachers of Dutch) to the various individual learning resources and to integrating them within a seamless environment, together with external resources like the quality-controlled web resources of the Intute Subject Gateway and a directory of RSS feeds, audio and video podcasts from Dutch and Belgian newspapers, broadcasting stations and educational institutions. All resources are accessible by an advanced meta-search engine, also including two bibliographical databases on Dutch literature in English translation and on Studies in English on Dutch history and literature. The domain name of the portal site <http://www.dutch.ac.uk/> has been chosen in analogy to the Institute for Historical Research’s address <http://www.history.ac.uk>, with a view to becoming the portal for Dutch Studies as academic subject in the UK.
- Perspective: Collaborative teaching and learning has successfully been embedded into the curriculum of the four universities participating in VirtualDutch. In line with HEFCE’s e-learning strategy, UCL’s strategic statement on e-learning and the Dutch department’s own Teaching and Learning Strategy, the next step will be to offer a Postgraduate Certificate by Distance Learning in Dutch Cultural Studies from 2009/10 onwards by UCL, with teaching input from colleagues at the University of Sheffield. It is the first step to offering a fully modular and purely distance-based PgCert/Dipl/MA in Dutch Cultural Studies programme. It is envisaged to broaden this programme to a fully shared inter-institutional degree programme (UCL/Sheffield) in coming years.
- The proposed Open Educational Resource on early modern Dutch history does not form part of the certificate programme from the outset – the focus of which will be on the contemporary period – but it is envisaged to extend the distance programme’s temporal coverage in future instances, in which case the proposed OER will be used as a central teaching and learning resource. In any event, the teaching and learning resources created as part of this project will remain freely available as Open Educational Resource on the VirtualDutch portal site and via the JorumOpen repository.