Erasmus Going Digital: looking back at 2020… and anticipating a very transformative 2021

Erasmus Going Digital: looking back at 2020… and anticipating a very transformative 2021

2020 was a terrible year

2020 was a truly challenging and difficult year for many. With respect to the new Erasmus+ programme, the past year did not allow us to achieve the expected progress towards ensuring digital workflows, mainly due to the lack of funding and the subsequent inability to continue the work planned for Erasmus Without Paper. The disruption of the EWP services to all European Universities was avoided thanks to the dedication of the EUF and its universities that have maintained the network infrastructure with their own resources.

A more serious issue affects the Erasmus Dashboard, which in 2020 should have seen the start of a full rebuild to ensure it can continue to scale under the huge pressure it is currently subject to. Its increasing levels of technical debt are a key risk we will need to negotiate very carefully in 2021.

Back in the summer of 2020 we were forced to shut down our support lines to fellow International Relation Officers. This was one of the most troubling moments of the past year as it happened precisely at a time when such support was most needed. However, it would have been impossible for the EUF and its universities to upkeep both the technical infrastructure and helpdesk services accessible to thousands of higher education institutions in the absence of any external support.

2020 was a great year

And yet, for all of the difficulties noted above, 2020 was also a year where some extremely important steps were taken towards the digitisation of Erasmus+. The highlights are:

  1. In March 2020, the Inter-Institutional Agreement Manager was launched, following a shoestring development process. The testing that was carried out until October 2020 revealed a satisfaction rate of 76%, based on feedback from almost 500 IROs. Several improvements have been introduced after the end of the testing phase, including a “primitive EWP mode” which enables data exchanges with MobilityOnline clients, who have until recently been excluded from renewing their IIAs due to limitations in SOP’s technical implementation.
  2. In September 2020, after extensive consultations with the higher education and identity management communities, the European Student Identifier specifications were published. This is a key deliverable of the MyAcademicID project, which plays a central role in ensuring the solidity of a digital Erasmus programme and that was since deployed in several student-facing digital tools.
  3. In October 2020, the renewed Online Learning Agreement (OLA) was launched, following a complete rebuild of the core source code which dated from 2014. The new OLA is much more secure and robust, and work is already under way to deploy the templates that will apply to the next programme.
  4. In December 2020, the new Erasmus+ mobile App was launched, yet again featuring a completely redesigned engine and user interface. The original version of the App proved a huge success, with close to 100,000 downloads, but no updates had been carried out since early 2018, so this is very much a case of being back on track. The new Erasmus+ mobile App is expected to play a key role in the programme, essentially acting as a single point of entry for students to find relevant information, guidance and electronic services.
Looking ahead to 2021

The year ahead will bring us the start of the new Erasmus+ programme, and with it the generalised usage of electronic data exchanges through EWP. In the course of 2021, Learning Agreements and Inter-Institutional Agreements should be prepared and renewed digitally, finally bringing to fruition efforts that date all the way back to 2013/2014. These are the 2021 developments we are looking forward to the most:

  1. A renewed emphasis on interoperability: in early 2021, updated APIs for exchanging Learning Agreements and Inter-Institutional Agreements (IIA) will be published, helping to ensure full compliance with the new programme. These APIs have been developed in record time and will be used by all institutions connecting to the EWP network, either through in-house systems or third-party providers.
  2. No more Factsheets! 2021 should also be the year when colleagues from International Relation Offices stop wasting time updating and circulating Factsheets, at least among Erasmus+ partners. The deployment of digital Inter-Institutional Agreements will mean each university just needs to update its general details once, and all changes are then automatically propagated to their partners and seamlessly updated – precisely the kind of radical efficiency gains EWP was built to deliver!
  3. A more student-centred digital Erasmus: in the beginning of the 2021/2022 academic year, the new Erasmus+ mobile App will be expanded further, making it possible for universities to offer their students the ability to apply for studies abroad directly through their smartphones. Improvements elsewhere will allow students to display their digital European Student Cards in their Erasmus+ App, see their courses directly in the OLA and even sign it with a click of a button. To make the new programme as user-friendly as possible we will also make sure students never have to memorise their European Student Identifier, which will be safely transmitted by eduGAIN whenever they authenticate in an Erasmus+ online service.
  4. A more resilient EWP Network: in addition to all the work that is being done on updating the APIs, the EWP Network is scheduled for several important upgrades in 2021. Thanks to the European Digital Student Service Infrastructure project, a new feature is being designed to put the configuration of the network at the fingertips of International Relation Offices, allowing them to manage their EWP settings in such a way that ensures their institutions are correctly represented in the Network. New entry processes and API validators will also make it easier to welcome new universities and providers.

As of today, more than 3000 higher education institutions are already connected either to the EWP Network or to the Erasmus Dashboard – that’s more than 75% of the higher education institutions that are involved in Erasmus+ for study exchanges. This high level of involvement would not have been possible without the continued efforts of the European Commission and the Digital Officers from all programme countries, whom we thank for their outstanding efforts and support.

We are also indebted to the EUF international relation officers who inspired the digitisation of the programme, as well as to the IT teams from several of our member universities, who tirelessly ensured the availability of EWP even in the absence of EU funding. The following universities in particular ought to be credited for:

  • University of Warsaw, for ensuring the continued availability of the EWP Network
  • University of Porto, for ensuring the continued availability of the Erasmus Dashboard
  • Ghent University, for the constant and careful monitoring of the EWP infrastructure
  • Eötvös Loránd University for the Erasmus+ mobile App coordination
  • Aristotle University of Thessaloniki for the coordination of the European Digital Student Service Infrastructure.

Here’s to an outstanding 2021, and to more decisive steps in the modernisation of European Higher Education!