The ERASMUS + Experience

I first became aware of the Erasmus programme (EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) as a CPD option for staff, was when I hosted a week long visit to the University of Edinburgh for a Learning Technologist from University College Cork in Ireland in January 2015 (in fact it was only in 2014/15 scheme was extended to non-academic staff). Our department also had a visitor last summer, a Learning Technologist from an Italian University. I always enjoy meeting visitors – I love hearing about their work and learning about the institution where they work. These conversations are always inspiring and help me to see my institution with fresh eyes.

On the 29th of August 2017 I went to an event at the University of Edinburgh (where I work) called “Go Abroad – Staff opportunities” to find out more about participating. The ERASMUS scheme offers funding for week-long training visits for professional services staff –  within Europe you could apply to spend time at any institution and I discovered that there was also an extended scheme for visits outside Europe, through the International Credit Mobility programme, to spend time with specific partner institutions.

Applying

I was really excited by the opportunity this scheme offered and started thinking about my role and interests and possible destinations to identify a suitable match. In September 2017 (after discussing this with my line manger) I submitted my application to visit the University of Virginia.  I am currently running a scheme at the University of Edinburgh to support staff undertaking their Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology (CMALT) a professional development opportunity for staff working with learning technology. I proposed to make this visit to explore Institutional approaches to Staff Development for IT staff (specifically learning technology) and to make connections with others working in this area.

Planning

As I didn’t know anyone at UVa I was matched with my host through the Go Abroad scheme contacts for both institutions. John Alexander from UVa very kindly agreed to host me in his department SHANTI Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives. John was equally inspired by the possibilities of a study visit and applied to make a visit to the University of Edinburgh in June 2018 (more about this in a later post).

To coordinate my visit John & I initially used email and later set up a shared google doc – I sent John some information about my work and interests and he contacted relevant people and set up meetings for me. This meant I had a good idea of the shape of my week of activities before I arrived.

Arriving

Virginia viewed out of a plane window
Virginia viewed out of a plane window.

This was my first visit to the US, so this section will not be relevant to seasoned travelers! As it was my first visit and I’m a UK Citizen before I went I need to apply for an ESTA as part of the Visa waiver Program.

In order to make it to my destination the day before my visit started, I left home in Edinburgh early on the Sunday morning, flew direct to Newark then to Washington DC, then to Charlottesville. Three flights in the one day was a lot, and I’ve since discovered that there are some direct flights from Edinburgh to Washington DC – so I’d recommend taking a good look at options before you book.

I was allocated the window seat on all my flights, which was great for the short trips with a view – but very cramped for the long haul flight – so I’d avoid this if possible when travelling again.

Accommodation

The Lorna Sundberg International Centre
The Lorna Sundberg International Centre

I was very lucky to have been able to book a room in the beautiful Lorna Sundberg Center  which was on the edge of the campus. This was suggested by my contact in the International office at UVA , along with other options such as the campus hotel.

I was attracted to the centre with it’s friendly feel and self catering facilities it seemed like a ‘home from home’, it is used for cultural activities and is has a number of rooms that can be booked by international visitors. During my time there I met people from Japan and France, most of whom were making longer visits, 6 weeks to a few months. It was great being able to cook for myself and to relax in the quiet library and study spaces and to sit out on the Veranda. I even found time to do some drawings.

A felt pen drawing of the View from the Veranda at the Lorna Sudberg Centre
The View from the Veranda at the Lorna Sundberg Centre

 

Making the most of the trip

While its really exciting to get the chance to go on this trip, it did take place in addition to my usual work and required me to plan my activities carefully to allow for me to be out of the office for a week. So it was hard to find time to devote to preparing for the trip before I went (hence the booking three flights rather than looking at alternatives!).  Ideally I would suggest spending more time on this. Also, despite putting in an application in November it takes time to put the contacts in place with the other institution and to finalise the visit dates.  By the time this is all in place it was about six weeks before I was due to travel – so time was of the essence!

This was my first trip of this distance so it was also my first experience of jet lag – which surprised me by hitting me much harder than I expected. The 5 hour difference doesn’t seem that much on paper but in practice really knocked my body clock I was surprised when I found myself slurring during a late afternoon meeting on my first day (fortunately the people I was meeting were very understanding). Don’t over schedule your activities and allow some time between meetings for ‘processing’ and adjusting.

I also took time to get my bearings around the campus. I would find my way to the right building, then take 15 minutes trying to find the entrance (yes, this really happened – twice!). I was late for a couple of meetings which anyone who know me will know is unusual as I tend to be habitually early. I took my paper map everywhere, used google maps to estimate journey times and then doubled them. I’d sussed the layout of the main campus by my final day.

Tips if you are considering making an training visit

Preparation – Think about what you will say when you meet people, how you will describe your work and what questions are you interested in asking? there is defiantly room for going off topic and seeing where the conversation leads, but most of the people I met has squeezed an hour to meet into a busy day and its good to make the most of this.  One person I was meeting got in contact in advance to ask me more about my areas of interest and we had a quick pre-chat by email and our resulting meeting was really constructive. If I were to do this again I’d write a couple of paragraphs introducing myself and give this to my host, or send this to people  before we met.

Go with a question. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with everything that’s going on in another institution. I found it really helpful to focus on one main thing during my visit – for me it was how does UVa approach to Staff Development for IT staff (specifically learning technology).

Travelling is exhausting – don’t overestimate what you will be capable of when you arrive. This is not like walking into an institution you know well – its disconcerting and takes energy getting to know a new place.

Saying Thank You- I took a gift from my institution for my host and small gifts for people I met with. It would have been useful to have remembered to bring thank you cards but after some exploring I was able to buy these on campus.

Follow up afterwards, I’ve not been great as this (yet) but I do mean to follow up with everyone who was kind enough to take time to speak to me to thank them and to share the outputs from my visit.

Innovations in Pedagogy Summit, UVa – Wednesday 2nd May 2018

A photo of my name badge and the programme for the Innovations In Pedagogy Summit UVa
Innovations In Pedagogy Summit UVa

I attended a conference “Innovations in Pedagogy Summit”  at the University of Virginia as part of an ERASMUS training visit to the University of Virginia. This is an annual conference for UVa staff organised by the Center for Teaching for Teaching Excellence. The theme was “Creating Inclusive Classrooms: Shifting from Thinking to Doing”.  The welcome by Archie Holmes Jr (Vice Provost for Academic Affairs) framed the day by defining ‘Critical Inclusive Teaching’ as “…deliberately cultivating a learning environment where all students are treated equitably, have equal access to learning, and feel welcome, valued and supported in their learning.”

Newcomb Hall - a red brick building against a clear blu esky
Newcomb Hall
A slide titled: Critical Inclusive Teaching
Critical Inclusive Teaching – on the left is Michael Palmer Director of the Centre for Teaching Excellence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The keynote presentation for this was a theatrical performance ” 7 into 15″

by the the University of Michigan’s CRLT Players.

We watched a cast of students actors performing scenarios around experiences of inclusion. This was framed by an excellent facilitator who set groud rules for our participation (see below)  and got us to work through a series of reflective exercises around each piece.

Invitations to Interaction

  • Share responsibility for including all voices in the discussion.
  • Do not ask others to act as a spokesperson. (for a particular group)
  • Listen carefully even if you disagree.
  • You are encouraged to hold each other accountable.
  • Work to be open to feedback.
  • Engage in self-care.

This was really powerful, the students were excellent performers and there was something much more real about watching the scenarios acted out by students who could ‘be’ the characters they are playing.

I felt myself reacting personally to watching the young woman’s contribution being casually belittled by a well meaning professor. ‘Oh’ I thought ‘That’s how is happens’ – I recognise that.

In another sketch – a young man was asked by his German language teacher to say a sentence about who he loved – when he referred to the person loved as ‘he’ – the teacher corrected the gender to ‘she’. But the student hadn’t made a mistake.

I vividly remember the sketch in which an Asian man expresses his inner dialogue when confronted with engaging with the aggressive discussion style of a US tutorial.

It was very moving and thought provoking watching a young Black man reacting to the barrage of ‘microagressions’ – ranging from misplaced humour to outright abuse he received over a period of time.

There was something very different about watching real people perform than there might have been from hearing the scenarios read out or watching videos. Having the student performers in the room was an  important part of this experience.

It was also interesting for me to be an outsider in that event – not knowing the rest of the participants made it a great deal easier, and some of it was uncomfortable. It must have been very intense to be part of for the UVa staff.  I don’t think I’ve attended anything at my own institution that has addressed homophobia, sexism or racism in such a direct way.

 

A circle of people sit across the room as I look down at the Tree of Contemplative Practices
Tree of Contemplative Practices – (see the full image online).

Contemplative Practices for Building Inclusive Classrooms

Juliet Trail, Zaida Villanueva Garcis, Ran Zhao, Fred Maus

I walked into the room to find the chairs arranged in a wide circle – which is a change from many of the front facing sessions that I’ve attended at conferences. At this session we experienced three contemplative practices and discussed how these could be used in teaching. For the first was an activity we were invited to stand up and to pass a coin round a group from the backs of hands in silence. We were asked to be aware of our bodies and to consider how we felt as the coin neared us, during the hand over and as it moved on. (for me: nervous anticipation, fear of embarrassment if I dropped the coin, followed by relief as it moved on).  It was interesting to draw my attention to my feelings (stronger than I’d anticipated for a straightforward activity) and to feel connected to this larger group – particularly relevant as I was a visitor.

We then had a meditation session while listening to music – which was less successful for me as I was very self-conscious (and a wee bit bored – but I do struggle a bit with slowing down). The third activity was about practicing compassion to myself and others – meditating with my hand on my heart being aware of the flow of breath – in for me – out for others.  At the end of the session we were encouraged to write down our reflections about the experience and then to think about how this approach could be used in practice.  This is interesting to me as I personally value contemplative practices like mindful meditation and yoga but have never considered using them in my own teaching context. I left the session feeling grounded and energised so my experience as a participant was good. It leaves me thinking about how and where I could use this technique in my own teaching?

Contemplative Sciences Center University of Virginia 

Rows of Orange lunch boxes lined up on a table
Box Lunches

Excellent “box lunches” were provided in bright orange (UVa colour) boxes. These were both delicious and highly practical, as you could eat them inside or outside in the sunshine.

Writing Across the Disciplines: Reflective Writing Bridges Between Differences

John Alexander, SHANTI, University of Virginia

My final session was also a practical, an interactive writing session with John Alexander who was my host for my visit to UVa. Here is how he described his approach in using reflective writing with his students:

“Reflective writing is transformative for my students, bolstering agency and more holistic and intuitive growth and creativity. And when that writing is done in a blog accessible to everyone in the class, the ferment of the learning community accelerates. Process-oriented writing expands and deepens connections both to self and others, which works effectively for students from all schools and disciplines and in working across differences. This has significant implications for students’ meaning-making and identity formation since it welcomes them where they are in their individual development. This practical approach nurtures authentic presence and deep listening.”

As a group we wrote short reflective pieces of writing to prompts John provided.

We started with a 5 minute writing prompt: Write about something that is currently meaningful to you.  What does it feel like in your body mind and spirit to do that activity?

We then discussed the process of our writing as a group. Highlights of the discussion  for me were:

‘writing is generative – the writing takes you to your ideas’

‘I write to feel – for me it’s part of resilience’ – to be in touch with emotions

The next writing prompt was:

Writing Prompt – How would you apply what you have learned here to your own writing or teaching practice or both?

We then discussed as a group what we had written:

Everyone thought it was important to get people used to writing in the first person (especially in academia).

The prompts used are important,  they are like the focal point of a meditation. A few interesting options:

  • What touched you?
  • What surprised you?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How do you hope to be different by the end of this session?
  • Prompts that are not task oriented.

Reflection is transformative in several ways, it opens a door for us to be more in touch with ourselves and with others.

Observations

This conferences was really well structured and paced, running from registration at 8 am and closing at 2.30 pm. The sessions I attended were well structured and interactive, and plenty of time was allowed for the the sessions and for networking at registration and lunch. It was a pleasure to take part as I  write this a couple of months after I attended I realise how much of it has stayed with me.