In May of this year I visited the Technical University of Berlin, working alongside staff in the InnoCampus department on the Erasmus staff mobility exchange programme. InnoCampus is a team of around 20 staff, a mix of academics and support staff, who develop e-learning and IT systems which are used by the rest of the university. They are at the forefront of innovation, piloting systems such as a student portal and timetabling system, Moodle and lecture capture. They are responsible for handing over these systems to the IT support teams once they are developed, piloted and documented. What’s interesting is the overlap between academic and professional roles: the heads of the department are both academics, researching and lecturing on computer programming and social media, and project managers. City’s International Office were really helpful setting up my visit and giving advice.
During my two week visit I attended several meetings with members of the department about their work and mine, and shadowed the support teams to find out about their day to day work. I also met with people from several other departments to get a broader sense of the educational technology support at the university. For example I visited ZEWK, the Zentraleinrichtung Wissenschaftliche Weiterbildung und Kooperation or Centre for Academic Training and Cooperation. ZEWK produce training resources and guides for academics wishing to use social media or educational technology in their teaching, and employ a team of trained students who work with individual lecturers to integrate technology into their courses. There is no requirement for academics to use technology in their teaching and are free to try different approaches and then either adopt them or drop them. They have a website of good practice examples at goodpractice.zewk.tu-berlin.de.
Some areas of educational technology provision compare favourably to what we have at City and in other areas our systems are further developed. TU Berlin’s MyDESK platform is a fantastic student portal which creates a personalised timetable for each student showing their lectures, tutorials and lab sessions, which can be viewed in online or synced with a mobile device. This was probably the most impressive single project I saw at InnoCampus, although it is just one example of their approach to devoting high-level academic research (and brainpower!) to student support and educational development. Talking with members of the department and other staff at the university I reflected on staff development opportunities such as the MA Academic Practice, and educational technology initiatives such as lecture capture, which are more developed at City. During the first week I attended a meeting on the university’s approach to guidance and policy (die Nützungsbedingungen), data protection (die Datenschutz) and copyright (das Urheberrecht) around lecture recordings. Many of the same issues and question marks which we confront are also faced in Germany.
Alongside wanting to find out more about how educational technology is done at other universities, for me a major reason for organising the trip was the opportunity to experience another country in an everyday way, and immerse myself in another language and culture. Having never travelled or lived abroad, it was a (very short) opportunity to experience what it would be like to live and work in another country – very different from the experience you get on holiday. Overall this was a great experience although not without its difficulties, such as immersion in the German language which was completely exhausting, especially towards the end of the day. On the other hand the university campus provided a perfect base for experiencing life at the university and a good source of free wifi, cheap coffee and an ideal place for working and meeting people. A perfect reminder of the need for open, informal learning spaces!
Aside from work Berlin is, as many people say, a fantastic city with many different characters and something for everyone. I had visited Berlin several times before but not the Wilmersdorf-Charlottenburg area in the West where the TU Berlin is located. It’s a quiet, calm residential district but only half an hour’s walk to the centre of the City. The abiding impressions I have of the city of Berlin itself are the cheap, but good and diverse, food, and the deep-voiced Berlin dialect.
I would whole-heartedly recommend the Erasmus exchange programme. Although it was a challenge balancing my own work commitments and the desire to want to experience as much as possible of the host department’s work, and the city itself, it was worth it. Seeing how things are done in another country allows you to reflect on things in a way you cannot do when you meet with colleagues from other UK institutions, because you know less about the context and are less able to shrug off different ways of doing things by thinking, “Ah, well of course they do that because they…” The biggest hurdle is finding someone who is willing to host your visit; this needs to be an individual within a specific department at an ERASMUS member institution. There are no agencies or offices which can help you find a host, so it needs careful research to find a suitable partner. Finding a point in the year when you will be able to get away, but when there will still be enough for you to see and share at your host’s institution, is also tricky. These issues aside, it is an experience which will stick with me for a while and which I would recommend to anyone.