South-West University Neofit Rilski
South-West University Neofit Rilski

Aurora Alliance Capacity Development Support (CDS) Awareness Raising and Training event at SWU

Learning and engaging communities for societal impact” is a core principle in the AURORA Universities Alliance. The ambition is to use the academic excellence of the AURORA partner universities to drive societal change through research and education. With its Capacity Development Support (CDS) Programme, the AURORA alliance expands its vision supporting universities in Central-Eastern Europe and Neighboring Countries to develop their institutional capacity for academic excellence and societal relevance (

The CDS Awareness Raising and Training events play a central role in strengthening the capacity of the Aurora associate partner universities in key innovative domains of internationalization and social engagement. They are also important for networking purposes towards the establishment of regional hubs for sharing best practices emerging from the experiences of the Aurora Alliance and the broader CDS Network.

The 2nd CDS Awareness Raising and Training event was hosted by South-West University ‘Neofit Rilski’ (SWU) in Bulgaria on 5-6 October 2021. It was organized in collaboration with the Aurora CDS Task Team at Palacky University (UP) and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). The central theme of the event was: “Transforming Higher Education through Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) and Community Service Learning (CSL)”. The two-day training event took place in hybrid format: online via Zoom and face-to-face at South-West University Centre in Bachinovo. The event was open to academic and non-academic staff of the Associate university partners and members of the broader CDS Network involved in teaching, students’ mobility, internationalization of study programmes and university social engagement. The training sessions were video-recorded and made available together with all training materials through the AURORA-CDS virtual catalogue (

Training on Community Service Learning (CSL)

The CSL training was held on the 5th October. It was attended in person by 9 SWU staff members and online by 29 participants from University of Tetova in Northern Macedonia, Karazin National University in Ukraine, Pavol Jozef Safarik University in Slovakia and Fan Noli University in Albania. The guest speakers for this session are listed below.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) – Athena Institute: Marjolein Zweekhorst, Professor and Chair – Innovation and Education in the health and life Sciences; Sarju Sing Rai, Postdoctoral Researcher & Lecturer; and Evert van Grol, Junior lecturer.

Palacky University (UP): Dr. Nataša Matulayová, Assistant professor, Department of Christian Social Work

The CSL and co-creation concepts had already been introduced in the 1st CDS training in March 2021. In this 2nd training, the guest speakers from the VU provided a more in-depth description of CSL and its implementation based on both theory and practice. As part of the state-of the-art presentation on CSL, the AURORA Service Learning toolbox was introduced and its components explained in detail with practical tips. The trainers gave also concrete examples of how to design a course with CSL and some of the CSL pilot studies undertaken by their students. Furthermore, Prof. Marjolein Zweekhorst invited the CDS partners to join the AURORA Co-creation training hybrid workshop that will be hosted by the Athena Institute (VU) on 3rd to 5th February 2022. Finally, the colleague from Palacky University shared additional experiences and practical tips on how to implement CSL in practice using social work as entry point.

Participants engaged in group reflection sessions and plenary discussions aimed at sharing their experiences and contextualizing their CSL knowledge ( The following questions were used to stimulate and guide the discussion:

  • Would CSL be useful in your context? If not, why?
  • What would be the benefit of using CSL in your context?
  • What would be the obstacles/challenges of using CSL?
  • What strategies/ideas can you think of to integrate CSL?

A number of valuable lessons and take home messages raised from the discussion. Some key points are reported below:

  • CSL is more than social work / volunteerism. It has academic foundations. “Service-learning is a form of experiential education; a collaborative teaching and learning strategy designed to promote academic enhancement, personal growth, and civic engagement.” (Clayton & Ash, 2004);
  • CSL can be embedded in existing activities such as course practicals, field internships, social work and volunteerism or any other practical forms of project-based learning;
  • Doing CSL has multiple benefits: increases the social responsibility of the universities; deepens the connections with the local communities; stimulates networking in the local communities; helps addressing local challenges; expands students practical skills and applied knowledge thus increasing their employability in the labour market; allows lecturers to provide evidence-based teaching and conduct research/publish on subjects relevant for the local context. CSL makes academia more attractive, innovative and up to date with the dynamic local realities and stakeholders needs/challenges;
  • Raise awareness about CSL within your own university to make other colleagues fully understand its benefits. Organise a workshop about project-based learning and introduce CSL concepts to teachers and staff;
  • Not all courses/disciplines should apply CSL. In subjects like Mathematics or Statistics integrating CSL may not be straightforward but it is still possible;
  • Potential obstacles to CSL are: lack of experience and competences among lecturers, lack of practical/experiential learning in courses, poorly developed project-based learning and volunteering activities, inter-generational differences, limited financial resources, limited number of local partners willing to collaborate due to lack of financial incentives.
  • Starting a CSL course can be very challenging. In some cases, it would be more appropriate to start small, for instance by inviting local stakeholders as guest speakers in your courses, and gradually build up the experience and expertise necessary to run a full-fledged CSL course. The advice is to team up with and learn from other universities with more CSL experience.


Training on Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL)

The COIL training was held on the 6th October. It was attended in person by 29 SWU staff members and online by 21 participants from the same universities participating in the CSL training. A representative of the University of Naples Federico II in Italy also joined this session. The guest speakers for this session are listed below.

University Rovira i Virgili (URV): Marina Casals Sala, Director of International Relations; John Style, Vice-rector for Internationalization; and Marina Vives, Internationalization at Home Coordinator.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU): Sabine Allain-Sainte-Rose, AURORA Programme Director

COIL was a new concept for the great majority of the participants. The trainers used a step-wise and interactive approach to build progressively the participants’ knowledge on the topic. In the first part of the training, participants received a general introduction to COIL and Virtual Mobility (what is it; terminology and definitions; elements and characteristics). Then, emphasis was given to the institutional context for COIL and what key factors play a role (internationalization abroad and at home; intercultural communication; soft skills for the 21st century among others). Participants brainstormed in small groups on the benefits of COIL for teachers, students and institutions and shared their insights in plenary.  The second part of the training was more hands-on. Trainers from URV and VU shared practical COIL experiences and best practices. Guidance was also offered on how to structure COIL from both an institutional and academic perspective. Finally, the training concluded with practical advice on when to do a COIL; how and where to find a partner; tools for cooperation; pedagogical styles; and use of surveys. These concrete suggestions were deemed very useful by all participants since they had no or limited COIL experience.

Participants engaged in group reflection sessions and plenary discussions aimed at sharing their experiences and contextualizing their COIL knowledge (; The following questions were used to stimulate and guide the discussion:

  • Why do you think COIL would be beneficial for Students/ Academics/ Institutions?
  • What problems/difficulties you or your institution would face when implementing COIL?
  • What do you think are the most important issues to discuss when designing a COIL activity?
  • What could make a COIL activity succeed?
  • Several lessons and take home messages were drawn from this training session. The key points are summarised below:
    • The English language should not be a barrier to using COIL. There are several ways to deal with language differences and fluency among students (see examples in URV presentation);
    • Though the lack of IT support and equipment can be serious obstacles to COIL, technical and IT challenges (also in relation to synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning modalities due to different time zones) can be addressed (see examples in URV presentation);
    • The premise of doing COIL is to seek for complementarity of implementation in terms of multi- and inter-disciplinarity, competences and skills;
    • Intercultural awareness should be explicitly considered as one of the learning outcomes in COIL;
    • A bottom-up approach to COIL is viable. Start small with a pilot; gain experience and share it with others; raise the interest of other colleagues (within department, inter-faculty, inter-university).  Once you have built the in-house capacity, you can bring the COIL experience to an international level in the framework of joint degrees with other partner universities;

    COIL works even better when the grassroot approach described above is complemented with a top-down approach. In fact, the support from the University Board and the high-management level is a key enabling factor to embed COIL in the existing academic system. For this reason, it is essential to feed the right information and know-how to the relevant decision-makers at faculty and rectorate level.

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