Erasmus Teaching Mobility: Why miss out?

Introduction

Anyone reading this piece will realize that I would hardly be writing this if I were not in favour of teaching mobility. Similarly, logic suggests that you would be unlikely to be reading it if not faintly interested in teaching mobility. My first question is about how we can encourage student mobility if we turn a blind eye to the opportunity to get involved in teaching mobility.

Teaching mobility: the all-time doddle?

Those who see student exchanges or academic years abroad as years ‘out’ probably also see teaching mobility as ‘gadding about’. But far from being a doddle or rest cure, a teaching exchange actually entails extra work. It involves finding or establishing a link with a partner institution and coordinating with colleagues there in advance – agreeing the how, when and where of the visit schedule and delivery of classes (fortunately, other institutions tend to be less constrained by their teaching programmes than Brookes). Additionally, one must plot the best itinerary to one’s destination, set a budget and book travel and accommodation in advance to secure cheap fares and acceptable hotel rates. The latter task is not helped by exchange rate vagaries (but one can opt to take an advance in euros).  

On the home front, we have to cater to the needs of our classes during our absence. This means either consulting students about possible times to deliver classes pre-departure or arranging a swap with an amenable colleague who covers the same specialties. To do this, the colleague needs to keep a tally of hours owed, and the teacher going abroad must be prepared to step in and return the favour for their colleague at the time that he or she requires. Needless to say, the greater a teacher’s teaching load, the more hours they will have to make up, and the more complicated the process of extrication.

Nor must we forget the marking that has to be done pre-departure, and that more will probably build up during even a brief absence (admittedly more quickly in some subject areas than others). In order to minimise the risk of being confronted with insuperable IT incompatibilities, it is wise to write and send Powerpoint presentations and handouts in advance. Both before leaving and upon return one must attend to the documentation required by Rosa Eadle and her team. Despite their attempts to simplify such procedural matters, the various forms do not complete themselves. Sorting out the dreaded receipts on return is, frankly, not much fun. Follow-up emails to the exchange partner institution must be written, and future events may need to be planned (about which more later). From the above, you will probably ask how I have the nerve to recommend participating in teaching mobility, and may be deciding that surely you should spare yourself the bother.

The challenges inherent in receiving colleagues from exchange partner institutions

Before focusing on the benefits of going on exchange, I offer a few thoughts about the rewards and challenges of receiving colleagues on teaching mobility from abroad. As mentioned, slotting visiting lecturers into our provision is invariably harder than it is for them to accommodate us. That said, semesters are more amenable to this arrangement than were terms. This is because semesters are longer with proportionately fewer weeks given over to assessment. Receiving colleagues involves matching the visitor’s research interests with student needs and, importantly, attending to the visitor’s expectations. The reduction of the minimum number of contact hours on teaching mobility from eight to five has made life easier in this respect. Not only are we responsible for identifying fewer teaching opportunities, but the reduction also makes it easier to ‘police’ this. I refer here to the fact that we are victims of our location. Oxford being a desirable destination, we are at the mercy of ‘teaching mobility tourists’ whose dedication to their contact hours might just take second place to other interests. Being aware of this helps one establish the ground rules in good time.

The rewards of receiving colleagues from exchange partner institutions

Witnessing visitors’ reactions to aspects of our experience that we take for granted can refresh our view of the world. In this way, merely receiving visitors can open minds to other ways of being and doing and promote dialogue. It may enhance awareness of the conditions in the home university of exchange students coming to Brookes. It may also enable Brookes to give more appropriate preparation to our students going out on exchange. We lag way behind in all aspects of internationalisation, and hosting colleagues from other countries may build bridges and encourage staff and students to think seriously about undertaking an exchange themselves.

So what are the rewards of undertaking a teaching mobility exchange?

Even a short stay working in another institution in another country opens our eyes to the conditions normally experienced by students coming to us from that country and alerts us to some of their expectations. Such expectations can lead students to be confused by the ethos of enquiry and debate in UK institutions, and by the requirement to challenge the words of authorities on a given subject. Some exchange students are amazed at the size of seminar groups, and some have difficulties understanding and adjusting to small group teaching (with the occasional exchange student assuming that the individual can dominate the discussion to the exclusion of other students). By the same token, our own mobility experience raises our awareness of what lies ahead for our students when they study in other countries and cultures, and the adjustments they may need to make to while there, and upon return.

Stepping outside and operating in a different context may provide teachers a stimulating ‘change of gear’. Released from our tight schedules, we may be able to dramatically improve our practice and come to revalue our skills and knowledge. It can be illuminating to teach students who respond differently from our students here at Brookes. The experience may lead us to reconsider and adjust the methods and content of our teaching. In any case, we are likely to return invigorated, having reflected and regained our perspective, knowing that we want to introduce changes to the delivery of our modules (and knowing how and why), and feeling affirmed in what we are doing.

Furthermore, knowing that students in Country A are accustomed to different methods of delivery is not the same as seeing expressions of disbelief cross the faces of 500 students when it begins to dawn on them that the lecture you are delivering is not meant as a dictation. In other words, operating in a different system, living that reality, may lead us to see the practices and values of our own institution in a different light. Hearing from colleagues returning from teaching mobility in Country B about their experience of students there may shed light on our experience of teaching international students or exchange students from that same country at Brookes.

One worrying aperçu is the attitude in some institutions that exchange students should be given pass marks whatever level they achieved. The line is also taken that, as exchange students, they need no feedback because their work is not serious. Such views, even if in the minority, clearly fly in the face of any aspirations to comparability of learning experience.

Final observations

Overall, experience with both inbound and outbound teaching mobility suggests we can feel proud of the respect with which we treat our students and the care we offer with regards to their progress and welfare. Moreover, valuing our own approach may lead us to strive to improve it. If seeing our own institution in a different light is positive, so is visiting our students while they are on exchange and seeing them coping in their new environment.

More than anything, both receiving teaching mobility visits and undertaking them can lead to other forms of collaboration. From my own experience, which I would regard as representative, I can cite collaboration in teaching, conference planning, funding bids, conference papers, publications, and teaching materials with an international dimension. I have noted other benefits, including enhanced student engagement, an invitation to speak at a graduation, and the development of opportunities for student work placements, internships, and post-graduate study and employment.

The aforementioned benefits suggest that we cannot afford not to explore the opportunities open to us, and that it would be in the interest of higher education in general to take all possible steps to promote teaching mobility. All too often, the prospect of undertaking teaching mobility is perceived as an extra chore. If teaching mobility were built into the workload and seen positively in Personal Development Review, it is not inconceivable that the culture might change and there might even be a scramble to take part!

Biography

Hilary Rollin was Field Chair of Spanish Studies and the Minor in Spanish at Oxford Brookes University. As a Brookes Fellow in Teaching and Learning, she did her fellowship project on interculturality. Other areas on which she has published include: gender equality in the workplace, aspects of contemporary Spain, entrepreneurship and pedagogy.

For Information on Erasmus Teaching Mobility, contact Rosa Eadle 01865 484394

Posted in Perspective

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