In November 2019, I was fortunate to spend four days visiting Utrecht University in the Netherlands, thanks to the Erasmus+ funding initiative, administered here at Bath by the International Relations Office. The aim of my visit was to share experiences and good practice, as well as explore common goals and strategy with the Centre for Learning & Teaching’s counterpart at Utrecht – the Centre for Academic Teaching.
As a Project Officer in the Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT), I look after the University’s Teaching Awards, manage funding initiatives such as the Teaching Development Fund, and plan and run a busy events and communications programme. I see keeping in touch with developments in learning and teaching elsewhere as an essential part of the job. I remain forever curious as to how other HE institutions go about supporting teaching innovation. How are their initiatives funded? How is teaching excellence recognised and rewarded elsewhere? What are the most effective ways to engage with time-starved academics? After I came across a blog by Loretta Gibson about a visit she made to a Finnish university, facilitated by the International Relations Office (IRO), my curiosity got the better of me.
I began my Erasmus+ application by focusing on my motivation: to explore professional practice in supporting learning and teaching in a non-UK context. I read around the educational systems of several European countries, searching for a research-intensive university faced with similar challenges to those facing us here at Bath. I contacted Dr Mirjam Bok, who heads up the Centre for Academic Teaching (CAT) at Utrecht University and the result was an invitation to job shadow Rik Vangangelt and Sarah Gresnigt, who both work on project and educational development in CAT.
In mid-November 2019, I stepped off the train at Utrecht with just enough time to negotiate the public transport system to get to my first meeting – one of the Special Interest Groups or SIGs organised by CAT. Utrecht has over a dozen covering a range of themes – this one was devoted to exploring interdisciplinarity. The room was packed and the discussion lively; some SIGs can have up to 100 members. So began my exploration of a world that seemed remarkably familiar in some ways and yet so very different in others.
"... whilst the practicalities and processes may differ, many of our activities were based on a common purpose and vision."
During my time at Utrecht, I was able to have conversations with most of the CAT team, thanks to the warm welcome and well-thought-through programme offered by my hosts. During our meetings, we explored a wide range of learning and teaching issues and activities, discovering that, whilst the practicalities and processes may differ, many of our activities were based on a common purpose and vision.
One of the most striking was a shared focus on community for those engaged in learning and teaching. Building such a community – whether as an online presence or a physical ‘hub’ – means that staff can come together to meet, share experiences and knowledge, and be inspired to organise joint projects and innovate together. Community building is about more than just collaboration – it can also come through recognising and celebrating educational excellence and best practice (for example, through annual Teaching Awards and an annual learning and teaching conference) as well as offering incentives to encourage sustainable innovation that has an impact on the wider university community of students and academics.
I returned to my office with a full notebook, a couple of PowerPoint presentations delivered to the CAT team in Utrecht and the CLT, a greater understanding of the value of going beyond one’s boundaries – beyond Bath – and a renewed sense of purpose.
Sue Watts, Centre for Learning & Teaching