“Bologna digital” – Strengthening European higher education through technology

Christoph Buerglen
2018 03 27


Digitalisation should not be viewed as an additional challenge, but as a powerful means to meet existing challenges for higher education. This is the main argument of the position paper “Bologna Digital”, a joint initiative coordinated by Kiron and supported by several other higher education stakeholders, including Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD)FiBS Research, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) and the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN). It was published online ahead of the EHEA Ministerial Conference in Paris in May 2018, a summit of education and science ministers from the 48 member states of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). “Bologna Digital” provides 17 concrete recommendations. Examples include the provision of online introductory courses, the establishment of standardised processes for the evaluation and recognition of qualifications acquired through different (open) online formats, the development of quality assurance mechanisms for digital teaching and learning, and opportunity for virtual student exchange. This blog post (that has in a similar version previously been published in German on the HFD blog) connects the recommendations of “Bologna Digital” with existing examples of good practice.

"Bologna Digital" provides 17 concrete recommendations.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) Ministerial Conference in Paris in May 2018 will bring together science ministers from 48 member states to discuss the priorities for the future development of the Bologna Process. Many of the challenges already identified in the Sorbonne Declaration 20 years ago, such as increasing access to higher education, common standards for teaching and learning, recognition of qualifications, internationalisation, and international mobility, remain challenges today. “Bologna Digital” argues that digitalisation can help overcome such challenges as a central part of the solution. The position paper is informed by existing discourse on digitalisation and higher education, such as HFD’s “The Digital Turn” and EADTU’s “MOOC Strategies of European Institutions”.

A central insight of “Bologna Digital” is that digitalisation – in the Bologna Process in particular and in higher education in general – has not been ignored in principle. Rather, several good concepts and measures have already been put in place. For instance, the European Commission has suggested that digitalisation can help to overcome challenges in higher education, such as widening access (Inamorato dos Santos, Punie, & Muñoz, 2016), ultimately resulting in the Digital Education Action Plan, presented in January 2018. Higher education institutions, politicians, and a range of other stakeholders have actively contributed to the establishment of digital solutions in a variety of places (c.f. Wannemacher et al., 2016 for Germany). The full potential of digitalisation, however, has not yet unfolded on a systemic level. This is partly due to digitalisation being viewed as an additional challenge, rather than a means to meet existing challenges for higher education. Broad support for and visibility of digitalisation of higher education is often still missing and the immediate contribution of digital solutions to overcome existing higher education challenges is often concealed. “Bologna Digital” thus proposes recommendations in seven areas relevant to the further development of the Bologna Process.

Opening up Higher Education / Widening participation

The challenge of achieving a student population that fully reflects the diversity in our societies is frequently discussed within the context of the Bologna Process as the “Social Dimension”. It is about raising aspirations of potential students, facilitating second chance routes into higher education, and providing specific support to students to assure student success. This involves, in particular, effective forms of information, advice, and guidance for learners as well as offering special bridging courses to account for a diversity of educational routes into higher education (Orr et al., 2017).

The EU project “PL4SD – Peer Learning for the Social Dimension” identified numerous examples for successful guidance and support of students in the European Higher Education Area. However, the main two challenges were 1) the difficulty in reaching those most in need of support and 2) limitations of financial and personnel resources to increase the coverage of such programs. Better use of digital tools in learning environments can offer personalised education options according to diverse prior knowledge and personal needs, as well as provide better individual guidance during study progress.

Bridging courses have been developed in several countries to help students with different educational and cultural backgrounds reach a common level of knowledge before starting their studies. A best practice example is the Online Mathematics Bridging Course OMB+, a cooperation of several German higher education institutions.

Digital higher education introductory courses have further been developed specifically for refugees following their arrival in large numbers to Europe in 2015. Kiron Open Higher Education has been at the forefront of these developments with their MOOC-based online curricula for study preparation in different study tracks. Other examples of digital preparation courses are the ones offered by oncampus GmbH from Lübeck, particularly the course fit4uni to prepare students for higher education in Germany.


  1. Higher education institutions are encouraged to consider making induction courses for their study programmes available online (e.g. through MOOCs), including adequate support mechanisms, allowing new students to be better informed and better prepared for their studies.
  2. Governments and the EU are invited to provide funding for such digital solutions to open up higher education and to help ensure study success for non-traditional learners.

Recognition of non-formal (digital) learning

Simplifying and scaling recognition of learning at different and flexible locations of learning (both formal and non-formal) remains a challenge. This issue is particularly relevant for the recognition of prior learning (RPL) throughout the educational biography of lifelong learners, inside and outside of formal study programmes. When higher education providers recognise and build on the increasing learning opportunities throughout the digital environment, they can put learners on new learning pathways into and through higher education, which are more responsive to learners’ needs and labour market requirements.

The past years have brought considerable progress for the recognition of knowledge, skills, and competences mostly acquired in non-digital settings in the European Higher Education Area (European Commission / EACEA / Eurydice, 2015). In Germany, the “ANKOM – Übergänge von der beruflichen in die hochschulische Bildung” (“Credit of vocational competences towards higher education study programmes”) initiative of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) outlined potential processes and established guidelines for such recognition.

The recognition of competencies obtained in non-formal digital learning environments (recognition of prior digital learning) has lagged behind that of non-digital prior learning. Higher education institutions remain sceptical that the learning outcomes are comparable to those in formal higher education and cite the lack of standardised and transparent quality assurance standards for (open) online courses. The need to establish such standardised and transparent standards to enable higher education institutions to recognise non-formal online qualifications has recently been highlighted by the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (Themengruppe Curriculum Design & Qualitätsentwicklung, 2016) and others.


  1. Higher education institutions are encouraged to develop and publish procedures (steps to take) for the assessment and recognition of prior (digital) learning achieved through different forms of (open) online education building upon quality assurance to be done by MOOC providers. This can also facilitate the gradual integration of non-traditional learners into full programmes of study and allow for more flexible student journeys.
  2. Higher education institutions are invited to publish a list of MOOCs and micro-credentials, which they can accept as part of their degree programmes and to accordingly develop transparent digital recognition management solutions.

Admission process

Whilst most programmes of study are announced online on university and college websites and on dedicated studyportals, the process of admission into higher education programmes is in many EHEA countries still a lengthy paper-based process. Paper-based admission processes often lack transparency and cause delays and frustration, especially among international students. Digitalisation of processes and student records can facilitate reform and improvement and reduce efforts and costs at the institutional level. However, digitalisation will only be successful if data protection and data security are considered. The principles outlined in the Groningen Declaration could serve as the basis for the development and standardisation of systems dealing with digital student data.

Examples of good practice within the EHEA are the different digital services of the Dutch Education Executive Agency (Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs/DUO) or the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), a UK-based organisation, which provides an online application process for British universities.

The EMREX project is a potential solution for the international transfer of digital student data between different higher education institutions. The project spans five European countries and is supported by public higher education stakeholders and institutions and aims to increase the transparency, quality and reliability of student data.


  1. Higher education institutions are encouraged to discontinue paper-based admission processes and expand the use of electronic student data in order to inform, secure and speed up recognition and admission processes, based on the principles laid down in the Groningen Declaration.
  2. Governments and the EU are invited to support the establishment and networking of centralised (national) electronic depositories of student data (in line with the principles laid down in the Groningen Declaration) and implement adequate measures to ensure a high level of data security and protection.
  3. The EU Student Card proposed by the European Commission should be considered a (virtual)Lifelong Learning Card facilitating admission decisions on a much wider scale.

Teaching and learning

Teaching and learning is the essence of higher education; various Ministerial Communiqués call for a student-centred approach to learning. This approach fosters the motivation of learners and the relevance of learning to learners’ own context (their current life, their future profession, etc.) and it is more reflective of how learning occurs outside of the institutional setting. It enables the student to experiment with and exercise self-determined learning. The call for this type of learning is not new, but it is seen as difficult to offer on a large scale and in an institutional setting. It requires learning materials to be developed which go beyond knowledge transition as well as demands new skills of teachers. Utilising open educational resources (OER) and peer-learning networks are two examples of how digital solutions help overcome this challenge. European-wide initiatives could be explored as a central resource and serve as examples for national solutions.

A student-centred approach to learning hence calls for increased institutional support of digital learning environments and the acceptance of OER. Increased cooperation of higher education institutions is a vital success factor and central to facilitate positive spillover effects (institutions learn from others’ best practices) and to jointly guarantee high quality standards of digital educational resources.

The Personalised Learning Consortium supports US higher education institutions that experiment with adaptive digital learning environments to establish innovative methods of student support and study success. The University of Derby (UK) supports its students with personalised feedback for assessments, an initiative recognised and rewarded with a gold award by the 2017 Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The University of Edinburgh provides a collaborative digital learning platform for both its students and teaching staff that offers open educational resources that can be shared and refined. Its digitalisation strategy provides additional information on planned measures across the university.


  1. Higher education institutions are encouraged to consider making the use of digitally-enhanced learning environments an important institutional strategy in order to enhance the learning experience and success of all learners they serve.
  2. Higher education institutions are encouraged to collaborate in developing digitally- enhanced learning environments (e.g. making use of and further developing open educational resources) to ensure peer learning and quality improvements between higher education institutions.
  3. Governments and the EU are invited to provide funding to higher education institutions and other stakeholders to support teaching staff’s pedagogical innovations.
  4. Stakeholders are invited to explore the idea of creating a Europe-wide platform for digital higher education and enhanced cooperation (one-stop-shop).

Degrees and qualifications

During the development of the Bologna Process, the common programme has led to agreement on four cycles of study (short-cycles, Bachelor, Master and Doctoral programmes) and to the wide use of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) to award credit points for learning progression. Increasing diversity of provision in and widening access to higher education lead to two additional questions: Should qualifications awarded at the end of a study programme be the main form of credential, or should more focus be given to smaller units of learning, which would promote more flexible forms of study progress? Are these qualifications a comprehensive and fair record of what is learned during higher education study? In particular, the second question is related to the issue of how higher education outcomes can be better formulated for their use in the labour market, where employers are increasingly interested in the acquisition of transversal soft-skills alongside formal qualifications.

Higher education institutions could use digital solutions to document, recognise, and award alternative credentials. Such digital solutions focus on digital open badges and other portfolio innovations. They can be used to increase the visibility of (soft) skills and other competencies acquired during one’s studies but also for documenting prior qualifications that are ultimately combined with  formal study qualifications. The range of different credentials can further be combined and integrated with micro-credentials and potentially better serve labour market needs.


  1. Higher education institutions are encouraged to make use of digital solutions (e.g. digital badges) to ensure a more detailed documentation of the knowledge, skills, competences and experience gained by students during their learning progress.
  2. The EU is encouraged to continue working with governments and stakeholders on envisioning and implementing European-wide solutions, with high acceptance in the labour market (e.g. Europass reform)

Internationalisation and mobility

The internationalisation and mobility of students and staff within the EHEA is a key route to a person’s formation as a global citizen and to improving social cohesion between populations of different nations. The Erasmus programme and various national initiatives have been highly effective in supporting physical movement of students and staff within the European region. However, this is only one element of internationalisation, especially when one considers that only a fraction of each nation’s students and staff take part in such programmes – and non-traditional students are least likely to be internationally mobile (Orr, 2012). Good internationalisation strategies depend on close cooperation between sending and hosting institutions. Additionally, initiatives must be implemented to support ‘internationalisation at home’ for all students and staff in higher education. Digital technologies can play a role in promoting virtual connections between citizens through collaborative online or blended-learning programmes and courses. They can also help students better prepare for their studies abroad and experience the academic culture at their host institution even before physically going there. This is particularly relevant considering the higher dropout levels for international students at the Bachelor level (Burkhart & Kercher, 2014).

In January 2018, the European Commission started the pilot phase of the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange program to address some of the above concerns. In cooperation with youth organisations and higher education institutions, it aims to facilitate intercultural exchange between citizens in Europe and the Southern Mediterranean between the ages of 18 and 30. Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange is implemented by a consortium consisting of the Anna Lindh Foundation, UNIMED, Sharing Perspectives Foundation, Soliya, UNICollaboration, Kiron Open Higher Education, and Migration Matters. As part of the pilot, the consortium will implement online courses for a mix of students from European higher education institutions as well as young people who are not (yet) engaged in formal learning.

As part of the INTEGRAL² project, RWTH Aachen University has opened some of their MOOCs at Bachelor level for Erasmus students. The aim is to give them the opportunity of a complementary online program, in addition to the traditional lectures attended at Aachen. This allows them to catch up on material missed in lectures and to study in their own time. MOOCs, such as the one produced for international business, would allow international students to get an overview of the basic theories, models, and principles of business studies before arriving in Germany.


  1. Higher education institutions are encouraged to make better use of virtual exchange opportunities as an addition to physical exchange programmes for students and staff.
  2. Higher education institutions are encouraged to consider making induction courses for their study programmes available online (e.g. through MOOCs), allowing international students to be better informed and better prepared for their on-campus studies abroad.

Quality assurance

Improving the quality of teaching and learning for all students in higher education has been a central challenge for institutions and policy-makers. Its importance has been formally acknowledged by the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4), “Quality Education”.  Digital solutions offer new forms of learning and new modes of learning delivery. However, they also present new challenges to existing quality assurance procedures. The European Standards and Guidelines (EGS), produced in the Bologna process, should be a framework establishing transparency and trust. These standards should now be revised to account for digital learning and teaching scenarios while retaining the transparency and trust of the existing guidelines.

Witthaus et al. (2016) have summarised the factors to judge the quality of MOOCs and thereby facilitate recognition by higher education institutions for the European Commission. The authors created a traffic light model so that MOOC providers can easily and transparently inform about quality standards of different courses. Similarly, the partner institutions of the MOOC platform OpenupEd, coordinated by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, have established a common framework for MOOC quality. Based on this framework, they have further developed quality standards for MOOCs. To guarantee a standardised evaluation of its MOOC-based curricula, Kiron Open Higher Education has produced MOOklets as a novel and transparent quality instrument, in addition to its general quality assurance measures.


  1. Stakeholders and public authorities (EHEA, EU) are encouraged to work together and identify a set of quality criteria (rubrics) and quality indicators that would help higher education institutions, students and accreditors gauge the quality and relevance of online learning provisions and alternative learning credentials.
  2. Governments and the EHEA are encouraged to review current quality assurance measures and to extend these to include appropriate procedures for new forms of (online) lifelong learning. In this context, governments and stakeholders could encourage the creation of one or more dedicated European agencies, focusing on assessing digital lifelong learning offerings, e.g. MOOCs.


With the position paper “Bologna Digital”, the authors hope to generate discussion ahead of the EHEA summit in May 2018. In particular, they want to outline concrete next steps that make digitalisation part of a sustainable solution for existing higher education challenges. You can contact the authors directly or join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #BolognaDigital.


About the position paper “Bologna Digital”The position paper was developed by Dr. Dominic Orr, Peter van der Hijden, Florian Rampelt, Ronny Röwert, and Dr. Renata Suter and coordinated by Kiron Open Higher Education. It has been discussed and disseminated in different draft versions among stakeholders in the higher education sector since December 2017 including the continuous collection of examples of good practice. The publication argues for an increased focus on digitalisation in the Bologna process and aims to inform the EHEA Summit on May 24, 2018 in Paris. It is supported by the Bertelsmann FoundationHochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD), the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU)Groningen Declaration Network (GDN), and the Research Institute for Economics of Education and Social Affairs (FiBS).