Virtual Seminars: Creating New Opportunities for Universities

Bieke Schreurs, Sally Reynolds, Kamakshi Rajagopal


Universities nowadays have a mission to provide knowledge not only to their on-campus students but also beyond the "walls" of the institution. Lectures or seminars that have relevance for a wider audience and that go beyond the campus boundaries are often held in public and are open to all citizens. What we are seeing in many universities is a strong desire to open up the campus, to break down the barriers that have traditionally kept out those not directly involved in full time courses and to invite the citizens in to share the academic richness of the modern-day university. This paper is based on the VENUS Handbook, an output of just such an endeavour on the part of a group of European Universities working together in the VENUS Project which was supported under the European Commission's eLearning programme (DG Education and Culture). During the lifetime of the project, the VENUS partners organised seminars focused on issues that are relevant for European Society today. These seminars were delivered virtually and simultaneously at all European locations by means of videoconferencing and live streaming. Each lecture was followed by the interactive discussions at all participating sites as well as online. This paper is intended as a way to share the experience we gained in this project with others interested in setting up similar activities. Today's university is a very different place than the traditional university of even 20 years ago. European Universities in particular are facing many challenges and significant change is underway, much of it taking place as a result of higher education reform linked to the Bologna Process and the planned implementation of the European Higher Education Area. Considerable pressure is being applied to the university to contribute more significantly to the knowledge economy and to make available learning opportunities for all citizens. In the Trends V report published by the European University Association, this point is emphasised: Institutions need to develop their capacity to respond strategically to the lifelong learning agenda, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the structural changes and tools that have been developed through the Bologna process.

The ways in which universities are opening their campuses to local citizens are manifold and diverse, and a cursory look at the public web site of almost any European University nowadays reveals the many different ways in which such access is being achieved. Public conferences on topical issues represent one approach, often linked to research and teaching themes within the university, the hosting of cultural events another. The contribution of speakers and experts to debates and discussions taking place in the public media is yet another, with many universities consciously vying with one another to "field" their experts in an effort to emphasise their own particular expertise and achievements.

Universities are not only opening up their borders to local citizens, internationalization is also high on the agenda of all educational institutions. New media and ICT have made it possible to involve citizens from virtually anywhere and universities are increasingly seeing their role within a far wider regional and national context than in the past. Not only can the modern-day university open its physical gates and invite citizens in to listen and partake of academic discussion and debate, but with the support of technology, this opening up can be taken a step further, placing the notion of a university clearly in the virtual world.

This paper is based on the VENUS Handbook, an output of just such an endeavour on the part of a group of European Universities working together in the VENUS Project which was supported under the European Commission's eLearning programme (DG Education and Culture). During the lifetime of the project, the VENUS partners organised seminars focused on issues that are relevant for European Society today. This paper is intended as a way to share the experience we gained in this project with others interested in setting up similar activities.

A typology

Before we start talking about the organisation of virtual seminars, it is important to make clear what we mean by this. In our search for a typology we want to follow the conclusions of the Re.ViCa project, in which we conclude that there are a lot of variables involved defining the concept of virtual learning activities. Depending on the context, the target group, the different goals and the technology involved a slightly different definition can be formulated. Such a typology is not a once and for all result. Technology changes constantly, and so do educational concepts and settings. A typology must take such changes into account and the present product should therefore be considered as a typology that will be changed in future.

In this paper we want to state that a virtual seminar is a form of Virtual Mobility.

"Virtual Mobility is a form of learning which consists of virtual components through a fully ICT supported learning environment that includes cross-border collaboration with people from different backgrounds and cultures working and studying together, having, as its main purpose, the enhancement of intercultural understanding and the exchange of knowledge".1

Based on this broad definition four main types of Virtual Mobility activities are identified. The typology is mainly based on the type of activity and the circumstances in which the Virtual Mobility activity takes place:

  • A whole virtual study programme: Hereby an entire virtual study programme is offered at one higher education institute, giving students from different countries the chance to take this programme without having to go abroad for a whole academic year2.
  • A virtual student placement: Student placements are organised between a higher education institute and a company (sometimes in a different country). In the virtual equivalent students are using ICT to support their internship, giving them a real-life experience in a corporate setting without the necessity to move from the campus to the company or to relocate to another country for a certain period of time, and providing them with a practical preparation for new ways of working through (international) collaborative team work.3
  • Virtual support activities to physical exchange: Virtual Mobility enables both better preparation and follow-up of students who participate in physical exchange programs. Preparatory activities could include student selection at a distance through video- or web conferencing (for checking social and language skills) and on-line language and cultural integration courses. Follow-up activities will help students to keep in touch with their peers, scattered around the world, to finish their common research work and/or paper work. They could also take on the form of a so-called 'Virtual Alumni' organisation, to foster life-long friendships and networks.4
  • A virtual course or seminar: Learners in a higher education institute engage in Virtual Mobility for a single course (as part of a whole study programme) or a seminar (series) and the rest of their learning activities take place face-to-face in a traditional way.5

Virtual Seminars

Opening up opportunities for citizens to partake of public lectures given by University staff is one increasingly popular means of ensuring access to the wider community and large numbers of European Universities now offer such lectures as either single, high profile events, or as part of a systematic public service addressed to the wider community. In the University of London for example, staff members are invited themselves to indicate if they would like specific lectures made available to the public. In addition, there are a number of initiatives underway offering lectures either in the form of downloadable and on-demand events from universities or live streamed events featuring university lecturers giving traditional lectures online. Admittedly, many of these initiatives originated in the US, but there is an increased incidence of these offers in Europe helped by the availability of tools to make the job of posting such lectures online infinitely easier. In this paper, we will focus on a particular model of Virtual learning activity: a virtual seminar.

The notion of a virtual is used in our context to describe the idea of a seminar - the bringing together of a group of people to find out more about and discuss a specific subject - that takes place virtually - in virtual space as opposed to face-to-face. It is an attractive idea that provides the university with a mechanism whereby they can combine any one of a number of settings and approaches in order to achieve the openness and access demanded of practically all universities nowadays.

Organising Virtual Seminars: A Phased Model for Setting up Educational Activities

The VENUS model, tailored to setting up an educational activity providing virtual seminars, was made up of four phases:

  • Phase 1 = Defining the Goals
  • Phase 2 = Planning
  • Phase 3 = Delivery
  • Phase 4 = Follow-up
Figure 1. The VENUS Phased Approach

Source: The Venus Handbook

The goal-setting phase is the basis upon which the decision is taken as to whether it is worthwhile to go ahead or not with a project. In the case of VENUS, this was dependent on a European Commission (EC) decision to approve funding for the project. The key elements of this phase are what kind of content the team wishes to deliver, for whom it is intended and what is the added value for the participants, as well as for the organisers and the different stakeholders. In the planning, delivery and follow-up phases, the project team operated with two kinds of activities: those which are clearly adding value and those which enabled the value creating activities to occur. In seminars of the type proposed by the VENUS consortium, when internationalising the existing content of learning activities to both students in other higher education institutes as well as to citizens, the content is strongly linked to curriculum development. The learning design, often called the pedagogical approach, leads to a certain kind of instructional design, fitting to the needs of the audience but also to the limitations of the setting: what kind of technology is in use, what are the time constraints of the participants, what are the overall local circumstances in each participating site, which includes cultural and language issues.

In this paper we will focus on two value creating activities: the choice of the pedagogical model and the choice of technology.

Pedagogy approach
The pedagogical model selected for the VENUS activities took into account certain abstract concepts related to the learning and teaching process. The following section introduces two models into which most of the VENUS learning arrangements fit. These models, the Participation Model and the Acquisition Model were introduced by Anna Sfard. In the Participation Model, the focus of the activities is on how to encourage the learner to learn from a community and to contribute to it. In the Acquisition Model the focus is on the acquisition of pre-specified knowledge and to develop predetermined concepts. In the following table various features of these models adopted from the work of Collis and Moonen are summarised.

Table 1. Description of the models selected for the VENUS activities

  Participation Model Acquisition Model
Key Definition of Learning Learning as participation, the process of becoming a member of a community Learning as knowledge acquisition and concept development
Key Words Apprenticeship, situatedness, contextuality, cultural embeddedness, discourse, communication, social constructivism, co-operative learning Knowledge, concept, misconception, meaning, fact, contents, acquisition, construction, internalization, transmission, attainment, accumulation
Emphasis on The evolving bonds between the individual and others; the dialectic nature of the learning interaction: the whole and the parts affect and inform each other The individual mind and what goes into it; the 'inward' movement of knowledge
Ideal Mutuality, community building Individualised learning
Role of Instructor Facilitator, mentor, expert participant, preserver of practice/discourse Delivering, conveying, facilitating, clarifying
Source: The Venus Handbook

The main message of Sfard is that it is not about choosing one model but about balancing both models, as there is space for both of them. For the VENUS Seminar Series, a blended teaching approach was used with face-to-face tutoring at each partner institution by a local moderator (as well as a content expert in the particular domain of the seminar) together with the virtual presence of guest lecturers from the partner institutions via videoconferencing and online tools. The seminars were built in a format that stimulated preparatory and follow-up activities and that contained both internationally and regionally networked elements.

Technology Management
When organizing virtual seminars, the choice of technology is crucial. It influences the learning outcomes and the learning experience. In the frame of the VENUS project we attempted to provide a similar style of teaching or training for learners at a distance to that provided in conventional classroom learning. In this view we followed the concept of Telepresence and we introduce the various technologies which can be used to support telepresence. We only sum-up the technology choices we made, but if you like a comparative study of these technologies to help you find a solution that suits the requirements of your specific situation, we would like to recommend the VENUS Handbook.

One form of distance learning, which has emerged in groups of universities and/or large companies has been based around the use of videoconferencing to dispersed groups of learners. Typically, this involves providing so called "tele-lectures". This method can be characterised as an attempt to provide a similar style of teaching or training for learners at a distance to that provided in conventional classroom learning.

This method has some specific uses:
  • where there is a need to reach scattered groups of staff on a trans-national or global basis e.g. small groups of staff working for multinational companies;
  • where organisations are providing joint learning initiatives across national boundaries;
  • where large numbers need to be reached and other options are not viable.
The presence of the lecturer obviously translates into the talking head on a (TV or computer) screen, speaking live (synchronous, same time) to an audience that is remotely present (different place) as groups or individuals. Telepresence refers to a set of technologies, which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location. Synchronous telepresence technologies are becoming more and more part of our everyday life, as bandwidth is generally increasing and communication tools like Skype6 or Messenger7 are becoming easily and freely available.

The organisational model chosen for the VENUS Seminar Series is based on a telepresence model. The decision to opt for a telepresence model of video based group conferencing does not imply a qualitative assessment of the model as being superior: the many different models and teaching and learning methodologies using ICT are considered equally valid. However, given the circumstances faced by the project team, it was agreed that it best suited our needs allowing for as natural as possible interaction between lecturer and participants where the emphasis was on the (tele- or pseudo-)presence of an expert within a group of participants.

The aim was to connect groups of participants across borders with strong local support, to enable participation from the participant's own desktop, if required by providing streaming and the possibility to participate in chat sessions, to ask the expert challenging questions, and even to provide the possibility to come back to the presentation and discussion later by making available recordings of the live sessions.

To achieve these objectives and come up with a final approach, we had to take into account somewhat opposing concepts; these were virtual vs. real activities, passive, receptive participants vs. (inter)active participants, and local vs. European/international dimensions. Each seminar of the VENUS series consisted of 3 main parts:
  • Interactive preparatory activities: these were run virtually following different instructional design models and supported by different technologies;
  • Seminar delivery: A presentation from an internationally recognised top expert was delivered virtually (using videoconferencing and live streaming,) and distributed to other partners in the network backed up with interaction possibilities. The topic was presented from a European perspective. In addition, the topic was discussed locally by participants in each region. Then a debate took place between all partner sites based on the main conclusions of each region. The videoconferencing sessions were recorded and were available afterwards to all interested;
  • Interactive follow-up activities: These were run virtually following different instructional design models and supported by different technologies.
Technically, there are two sides to the VENUS Seminars: on the one side there is the contribution or server side, where the lecture takes place physically, from where the content is distributed to the participating sites and where the various modes of interactivity are implemented and operated. The other side of the technical organization is at the participant's side, the client or receiver side. The word receiver is used in the widest sense here as these sites were also partially contributing during the interactive parts of the seminar.


The VENUS Seminar Series model provide promising scenarios for future activities: an interesting and novel global topic, a mixture of local and international activities and the extent to which participants can participate in a flexible way according to their interest and available time.

  • It was relatively easy to recruit prominent experts for a defined subject area, since the overall time slot to be allocated to such a presentation within a seminar is significantly shorter without travelling time. The presence of well-known experts gave the VENUS activities a higher degree of authenticity leading to a more positive overall impression and higher learner motivation.
  • It was possible to include students and citizens from all over Europe in the audience who otherwise could not have invested the time and effort to come to the central location. The inclusion of people from outside the VENUS partner universities led to richer and more holistic discussions during the events.
  • The presence of groups at several locations at the same time that were connected live via videoconferencing made it possible to include country-specific aspects in the discussion. This live connection laid the ground for comparative and cross-cultural perspectives in the discussions, which provided significant added value, notably in one of the VENUS Seminars, when the future of European integration was the theme being discussed.
In VENUS, once the somewhat high costs associated with the international videoconference setting were met at the beginning, the organisational costs of the events were lower, i.e. the staff costs could be reduced as practices became more fluent. It is clear based on our experience, that once the main actors, i.e. the participants, facilitators, and organisers, have learnt how the structure, technology and organisation works, the focus can be more on interaction and content. This can lead to a far more successful and cost-effective system supporting virtual seminars set up and managed in the way we did for the VENUS project.


  • Benvic Benchmarking of Virtual Campuses:
  • H. Bijnes, M. Boussemaere, K. Rajagopal, I. Op De Beeck, W. Van Petegem (eds.), European Cooperation in Education through Virtual Mobility. A Best-Practice Manual, Leuven, November 2006.
  • K. Bijnens, C. Michielsens, K. Rajagopal, (eds.), Virtual Mobility Manual. How to teach internationally from your own desk, Leuven, December 2006,
  • A. Boonen, H. Bijnens, K. Bijnens, I. Op De Beeck, K. Rajagopal, The Integration of Virtual Mobility Actions in Traditional Higher Education Institutions. [in]: A. Boonen, W. Van Petegem (eds.), European Networking and Learning for the Future. The EuroPACE Approach, Garant, Antwerp-Apeldoorn 2007.
  • B. Collis, J. Moonen, Flexible learning in a digital world: Experiences and Expectations, Kogan Page, London 2001.
  • Communication from the European Commission, COM (2003)449: Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity: An Action Plan 2004-2006; COM (1995)590: White Paper on "Teaching and Learning"Communication from the European Commission, 22.11.05. A New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism,
  • Communication from the European Commission, High Level Group on Multilingualism,
  • Communication from the European Commission, Adult learning: It is never too late to Learn, 18 September 2006.
  • E. Dale, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, Holt, Rihehart and Winston, New York 1962.
  • D. de Kerckhove, L'Europa di qui a cinquant'anni,
  • T.M. Duffy, D.J. Cunningham, Constructivism: implications for the design and delivery of instruction, 1996.
  • J. Duke, Interactive video: implications for education and training, Council for Educational Technology, London 1983.
  • D. Fontana, Psychology for Teachers pub. BPS Books UK, 1981.
  • H. Fraeters, M. Vanbuel & S. Reynolds, Learning about Videoconferencing handbook and training resources, AVNet, Leuven, Belgium
  • C. Young, M. Asensio, Looking through Three .I.s: the Pedagogic Use of streaming Video, [in:] S. Banks, P. Goodyear, V. Hodgson, D. McConnell, (eds), Networked Learning 2002, Sheffield, March 2002.



Bieke Schreurs received the MA degree in Communication Science at the K.U.Leuven, in 2003. She also received the MA degree in Electronic communication at the K.U.Leuven, in 2004, with a thesis on Interactive Movies. In the same year she was a Technical assistant at the unit AVNet-K.U.Leuven. Since January 2005, she is appointed as a research associate at the Unit AVNet and EuroPACE. She is doing research about digital communication tools for international cooperation. Since March 2006 she is also project coordinator of European Research projects around the same topic. She started with the coordination of the VENUS Project and since March 2008 she coordinates the Re.ViCa Project, to review Virtual Campus Initiatives around the world.


Kamakshi Rajagopal received a Masters in Germanic Languages focussing on computer linguistics and an Advanced Masters in Artificial Intelligence (Speech&Language Technology) from K.U. Leuven(BE). She worked as a corpuslinguist at the UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve(BE) on the Learnerscorpus for Dutch as a Foreign Language. In 2005, she joined AVNet-K.U.Leuven as a researcher/project manager working on European-funded projects and piloting new applications of ICT and multimedia in mainstream education. In 2008, she joined IMEC vzw (BE) working on business development (contractual and IP-related issues). Since January 2009, Kamakshi is working on her PhD on technology-enhanced learning for professionals at the Open Universiteit Nederland(NL).


An Irish citizen, Sally has a background in remedial linguistics and has also worked for several years in radio and television in Ireland as a manager, researcher, presenter and producer for local stations and the national radio and television service (RTE). From the early 90's onwards, she became increasingly involved in the field of technology enhanced learning and worked for University College Dublin, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities in Heerlen, EuroPACE 2000 and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Her work during this time was largely related to the management of European projects which included European R&D projects funded under the R&D Framework Programmes as well as projects funded by the EC's Education and Culture Directorate General and the European Space Agency. In 1999, she set up the independent company ATiT,, where she is now joint Managing Director.

Sally leads several projects for ATiT in the area of audio-visual production, research and project management as well as training and consultancy services which are aimed at various clients including the European Commission, the European Space Agency and the World Bank as well as corporate clients. Sally has designed and led a number of training initiatives and is an experienced workshop facilitator in the area of technology enhanced learning including media selection, video production, use of videoconferencing, streaming, costing multimedia production and managing collaborative spaces. She has managed cross-border pilot projects in the area of technology enhanced learning in the school, higher education and in-company training sectors and is an experienced evaluator and researcher. She also works as an evaluator for the European Commission and has evaluated and reviewed projects in FP5, FP6 and FP7. She is also an accomplished author in this field having several publications to her credit largely aimed at users of ICT in education and training.



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1 H. Bijnes, M. Boussemaere, K. Rajagopal, I. Op De Beeck, W. Van Petegem (eds.), European Cooperation in Education through Virtual Mobility. A Best-Practice Manual. Leuven, November 2006, p. 26,

2 Ibidem, p. 33.

3 Ibidem

4 Ibidem, p. 34.

5 Ibidem, p. 29.

6 For further information see [04.06.09].

7 For further information see [04.06.09].