Keep together but keep the distance!

It’s always lovely to get letters, but maybe even more so in the current situation. Below you’ll find a message from the Jutland peninsula in Denmark. It’s written by Flemming Olesen who works in the international office of Aarhus TECH, a partner of both Gradia Jyväskylä and Lyseo Upper Secondary School.

Flemming’s work space at home

Dear colleagues,

Hope that you all are well and healthy. And that you don’t find it too difficult cooping with the challenges the Corona pandemic has caused.

My name is Flemming Olesen and I’m the International Coordinator at Aarhus Tech in Denmark.

On the evening Wednesday 11 March our Prime Minister announced that Denmark would be closed down with effect from Monday 15 March. From Tuesday 14 April our community very, very slowly is beginning to open up again. Only a very small part of our students have been allowed to return to school – only the students who have a craftsmanship exam are allowed. The rest of our students will be taught online until 10 May but we don’t know yet if the period will be extended.

With two days to prepare, we started online teaching on 15 March. We are using Zoom as platform. We had three major problems in the beginning. The first one was technical – To have Zoom installed, make it work in a stable manner, learn how to use it, guide the students through the technical challenges,  etc. The second one was to move online as many theoretical lessons as possible so the students could be taught online and postpone as many practical lessons as possible – an additional challenge is that after six weeks of online teaching it becomes really difficult to find relevant materials. And the third one was to find out how to teach online.

We were totally unprepared for this. And my guess is that approximately 90% of the teachers have limited or no experience in teaching online. So we actually built the bridge while we were walking on it. Of course there were complaints in the beginning – both from students and teachers. But most of them accepted the situation very fast and found solutions to the problems.

During this period we have gained a lot of experience – both possibilities and limits of online teaching. And my expectations for what we can use these experiences for in the future are that the inclusion of online teaching will become a completely natural part of teaching planning.

It was extremely hectic in the international department. We had two days to get 15 Scottish students back to Scotland and two Dutch students back to Holland. And we had to get two students home from GRADIA and three students home from Lycée Monge in Chambery. But we managed, half past seven on the Friday evening all students were back home.

I’m convinced that we will not go back to business as usual when the CORONA virus has loosened its grip on Europe and the rest of the world. But exactly what influence this crisis will have on the international work is hard to say. There will be a lot of questions and very few answers.

I have been working from home for almost one and a half month now. To ensure some sort of daily rhythm or routine I start working at 8 o’clock every day. The content of my work is the same as usual – telephone calls, e-mails, meetings (Skype, Teams, Zoom) but of course there is no planning of mobilities. I haven’t had any larger problems in handling my work tasks. But now I really missing contact with my colleagues. Both professionally but especially the social side – the short chat in the corridor, the coffee break, etc. Another thing that I find particularly stressful is the uncertainty; When will this end? Will there be a wave 2 or 3 or 4? What will be the new normal after this?

One positive aspect is that we really have found out how to use different platforms for virtual meetings. We have also found out the limits but especially to ask ourselves if it is absolutely to meet face to face. The annual EMEU meeting in October is postponed but in one way or another we will plan a virtual meeting. It will be a large challenge because we usually are approximately 80 participants. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be exiting to have that experience.

Take good care of your selves.

Keep together by keeping the distance!

All the best from Denmark,

Flemming

More information about Aarhus TECH https://aarhustech.dk/english/students

More information about EMEU http://em-eu.eu/

The show will go on, just the rules have changed

Ave Paasikivi in her new office.

Ave Paasikivi from Kuresaare Ametikool in Estonia is working away from the office like most of us these days. ” I actually like it quite a lot! As Kuressaare is the corona epicentre of Estonia I moved at the very beginning to our summer cottage which is on a small island called Vilsandi. It’s the first spring I have the possibility to witness the spring arriving in full.” For Kuresaare college staf there have been busy weeks and very busy weeks. The biggest challenge has been to stay inside and work even when the weather has been good and the work load smaller. “We are allowed to work at our own pace – so I can work in the mornings and evenings and enjoy the day outside. I do, however, miss my office equipment – the printer and the copy machine 😃. So probably one day I have to go back to the office…” Right now the decision is that those who can work from home will do it till end of this school year. “My best tip for remote working is to create your own daily routine and follow it. Otherwise, keep a positive mind and try to enjoy the coming of spring.” Ave also appreciates her supportive friends and colleagues who have made it easier to make the best out of this unexpected situation.

Kuresaare Ametikool switched to distance learning on 16 March and it has gone surprisingly well. The school year had been planned in such a way most of the practical lessons were more or less already over and they are finding providing more theoretical studies from the distance fairly easy. “Our school is using Office 365 and it’s facilities mostly, but of course every teacher has their own favourite tools, too. “ In some curricula there have been lot of online learning already before. The situation has been challenging for some students as Kuresaare college also has a lot of adult students who have children and work. “It’s been pretty hard to handle children, work and school work for them, but by now things have more of less settled, I believe, ” says Ave. “And of course it has been hard also for some teachers who maybe had less experience in using digital tools. We’ve also learned that online teaching needs very clear planning as well.” Kuresaare Ametikool have also provided both students and staff with computers and technical support.

“We still have some courses which have to finish their practical work at the school, so we hope that we can start limited contact lessons from 18 May.” Another challenge is how to manage the company placements as most companies are closed. “We hope that things are going to be better soon and everybody is able to do their placements by autumn.” Right now they are hoping that all groups who should graduate this term, could do so by the end of June.

“Last week we had the traditional Health Week at the school so we published training, cooking and psychology videos on our Facebook page and those were really popular.” What they have learned from this experience is that actually everything is possible and maybe for some courses they will use more distance learning even when things are back to normal.

“I really hope that there will be no long term impact for our international activities. We just have to learn how to live with this new reality.”  Kuresaare college had to cancel almost 30 student and staff mobilities for this spring term but everyone of them still want to go as soon as it’s possible. “I also had to bring back more than 20 students from abroad earlier than planned, which is really pity – but I hope at least some can go back and continue at a later date.”

And finally Ave would like to remind us to “be healthy, be positive, the show will go on, just the rules have changed. ” 😀

Greetings from the Netherlands

In this series of blog posts checking how our partners are doing, we have landed in the Netherlands. Marit den Ouden is a relatively new coordinator working in the International Office of Deltion College located in Zwolle. Deltion College is a member of the Dutch Alliance and through the TDA also a member of the Network of Networks like Gradia.

Marit with the view from her home office.

“We fully switched to distance learning on the 16 March when our government announced that the schools had to be closed.” Deltion had started with the introduction of distance learning on a small scale already 5 years ago so they managed to do the switch relatively quickly. Some of the experts in distance learning had anticipated the situation already before 16 March and had captured their thoughts and vision in a memo. Immediately after the government announcement the distance learning task force started their work. “Already in the first week after 16 March they provided training for our staff and all kinds of materials for our use,” says Marit from her home office. The materials were put on the Deltion College intranet and they were used by quite many people. Two weeks ago all Deltion teachers got a paper magazine delivered at their homes with all kinds of tools and information about distance learning. At the moment of this interview, the Deltion task force is already preparing for the next school year.

There were of course some challenges as well. “Some teams did their own “thing”, a bit outside the general frames which were set by the college 😉 In such a big college as ours – around 19.000 students and 1.400 staff this is hard to prevent.” This resulted in some extra ‘follow-up’ work for the task force. “Our experience is that teachers don’t easily ask questions even though we try to facilitate direct, easy contacts with our experts.”   

Marit reflects back to the beginning of remote learning; “I think that we were relatively well prepared. We already had experts and experience on distance learning at Deltion. And we already had blended coaches in the teams. There was a lot of energy and positive spirit to act and go for it together.” She also believes that this experience will lead to permanent changes. “Distance learning will get a more permanent place in our vision on education. We expect that we might keep providing distance learning to our students in the future on a structural basis, for example one day a week. And we might do more appointments and visits – like apprenticeship visits – ‘at distance’. “

At the moment of the Corona outbreak Deltion College had more than 150 students abroad for an internship. So the first task was to get all these students home safely. Also there were many international study projects (both for students and staff) planned which had to be cancelled. And the students who were in Zwolle at that moment for their internship had to go back home.

Deltion College is expecting the crisis to have an impact on the international activities both in the mid and long term. “It will give an extra boost to activities within the spectrum of ‘internationalisation at home’ and our vision to deal more consciously with travel in the perspective of climate change.” Marit says that they expect that in the mid term the number of mobilities will drop because the impact on travel possibilities, the safety issues and because the impact of Corona on certain sectors will probably last quite long. “But it is good to put things in perspective. Also internship opportunities within our country will be affected for a while. The importance of internationalisation will increase even more, but the activities to achieve internationalisation might undergo some shifts.

“On personal-level, I think I’m basically a quite flexible person, when it comes to adapting to different circumstances. It is my passion to be open towards other cultures, national contexts and perspectives and discovering the underlying reason behind differences and similarities. And stimulating others in this ‘compassion’.”

However, Marit does confess that she misses the personal contacts a lot. She has also noticed, like so many of us, that digital meetings are more energy draining than physical meetings. “So at the end of a day full of Teams meetings I usually feel a bit in a daze. It is good to see that colleagues stay in good contact and we often use our camera which feels much more personal than only hearing each other’s voice. It is heart warming to see how much we support each other, both national and international partners.” Marit is holding regular video meetings with her international partners and is expecting this method of cooperating to stay permanently.

On a final note, Marit recommends starting your work day – if possible in your country/region – with a walk for about an hour. “This will give you a lot of positive energy for the rest of the day. ”

More information about The Dutch Alliance https://www.dutchalliance.nl/

Time for reflection

Carmen Romero wears many ‘hats’. She’s a teacher, head of department and international coordinator at one of Gradia’s partners in the Basque country, CIFP Construccion Bizkaia in Bilbao. Like many others, their college switched to distance learning on 13 March.

“Overall, changing to distance learning was expected to be a big challenge for all the teachers and students, but the response and reaction has been really good, better than we expected”, Carmen says in her new home office (= dinner table). Most of CIFP Bizkaia’s students are following the classes and making the tasks and jobs that teachers ask them to deliver. Meet is used for video conferences and, in the beginning, they also used Zoom. All the teachers are willing to help students and attend to their needs even outside of their “regular” timetable. Possibly an advantage of being an small organization. Learning and teaching are progressing relatively well under the circumstances and this way of working will continue, at least, until 15 May.

“The biggest challenge has been to transfer the tasks that should have been done at the college workshops for tasks that can be done at home.” Many of the technical skills of construction trade can’t be developed at home, so teachers have come up with different challenges in which the students can combine creativity, technical knowledge, measurements and budgeting. For example, the 2nd year students of interior work have to “set up” their own company and make a proposal for refurbishing their own houses. The task includes making the drawings, searching for materials and explaining how they should be used, taking measurements, budgeting and explaining which professions are needed to perform the work as well as make a work plan for the whole project.

“Initially we worried about the access to the Internet from home, but fortunately most of our students had it.” For those who didn’t (only two of them), the college loaned each of them a computer with a key for the Internet. All the schools in the Basque Country had the order to do it, being provided Internet keys if necessary.

Essential tools for remote working:
laptop, headset, colleagues via an online tool and coffee.

“None of us were prepared for this situation.” It has been a completely new way of working for our schools which are still very much based on in-person interaction and classes. But due to the willpower of the teachers we are dealing with it beyond anything we could have imagined. According to Carmen, it’s unlikely that this experience will change the way their college operates in the future. “Basically because, as I have mentioned earlier, our specific field implies the need of being at the workshops to gain the skills and competences.”

The coronavirus situation has of course had an impact on the college’s international activities. “The first impact happened when Italy closed their borders. Seven of our students were prepared to make their internships in companies there and, after waiting for two weeks to see the progress of the (at that moment) limited epidemic, they had to unpack their luggage and stay at home.” The second wave of events happened when three CIFP students who were in Finland at the time the state of alarm started in Spain and there was a mad dash to bring them back home quickly. “I became 10 years older in only 24 hours!”, Carmen recalls.

The third impact has been that the college has had to ask for change of duration of their Erasmus+ funding so that they could use the grants at a later date, if possible. The future of mobility activities depends greatly on the medical developments: ” While the vaccine is not yet available and there are no effective medical treatments for this virus, I don’t think we are willing to risk sending the students or teachers abroad. It feels like the most appropriate approach at the moment.” Carmen remains optimistic and thinks that, as all whole scientific community all over the world is working to find a solution, it will come earlier than we can even imagine.

Under Spain’s state of emergency regulations, citizens can only go out alone to buy food, seek medical care, for emergencies or to work in essential industries.  Despite staying indoors for weeks, Carmen says she’s coping very well. “As everyone here, I miss leaving my home, going out, seeing others in person.” But, at the same time, not having to invest time in going to the work place has meant that there is time left over to do other things. “I try to be dressed as if I were going to school every day. It can sound superficial but I’m sure that to spend the whole day wearing leggings and an old t-shirt makes you, how I could say it, feel scruffy and, consequentely, can make you feel unhappy after several weeks inside the home. But anyway, I just want to go out 🙂 “ , Carmen adds. She believes that the current changes to the way of living will continue while there is a medical solution. “When it comes, we will work and behave as we have always done. Spanish people, “genetically”, need close physical contact.”

And finally Carmen would like to remind us all that “many persons are suffering terribly with this pandemic. Some of our friends have lost their mother, father or other relatives; some of our acquaintances have died. It’s a good time to reflect on how we behave with our family, friends, schoolmates or neighbours. It’s a time to rethink our priorities and to be grateful for all we have, for the life we enjoy and it’s time to “send into permanent exile” the complaints and the selfishness.”


CIFP Construccion Bizkaia is a member of EMEU network http://em-eu.eu/

Navigating uncertain times

During the past weeks, the coronavirus has cast an uncertainty over everyday life across the whole world. Unlike in most previous occasions of disruption, where the uncertainty has been more geographically limited, this time Gradia and its’ partners all over the world have been “in the same boat”, dealing with very similar issues and challenges. Therefore, maybe some of the solutions can also be the same?

GBS St. Gallen from Switzerland and Gradia have a long history of cooperation including working together in innoVET network on digitalisation of learning, teaching and processes. Daniel Kehl, Principal of GBS St. Gallen and Karin Haltner from their International Office report that their college was closed on 16 March and they have all been working from home since then. In general working and studying remotely seems to be progressing very well thanks to various digital tools, such as Teams, Skype and WhatsApp.

 The switch to distance learning was done in two phases, says Daniel Kehl. Phase 1 or the preparation phase took place over five days between 16- 20 March. Phase 2 or the actual implementation started on 23 March and is still ongoing. “The whole process went amazingly well. Both the teachers and the apprentices were very well prepared and highly motivated. A big challenge for some teachers was to have to make up for the lack of digital know-how in a very short time.” The speed of switching to distance learning and lack of “physical”, personal contact were also complicating factors. They also soon noticed that preparing online lessons is very time-consuming .

According to Principal Kehl, GBS St. Gallen was relatively ready to make the jump into the world of distance learning and teaching. “The fact that we are in the middle of the process of changing our classes to “digital classes” (bring your own device) we were actually pretty well prepared. However, we were really surprised at the speed of implementation. But everyone pulled together and helped each other to solve problems and challenges.”

There’s a strong feeling in GBS St. Gallen that this experience will permanently change the way in which the college operates. “We understand more about various e-learning tools. The way in which we teach may be more varied and therefore, the learning experiences will also more enriched.” Once they return back to the college, there is a plan to prepare a survey to find out what kind of permanent changes the staff and students want to implement.

Like everyone else, unfortunately GBS St. Gallen had to cancel or postpone all planned international mobility activities with immediate effect. “We are very much hoping that there will be no long-term impact on our international mobility.” In the meanwhile, GBS St. Gallen wants to continue the work started within innoVET network and share their experiences in distance learning with their partners abroad.

Although transitioning to remote working has gone surprisingly well, the social aspects of working life are difficult to transfer to the digital world. “I feel it’s unfortunate that due to the social distancing the interpersonal part of working life is somewhat lacking but we try to compensate this with online coffee breaks or aperitifs”, Karin Haltner says. “The Swiss Federal Council decided last week that the college may be reopened on 8 June, but let’s see what happens….”

More information about innoVET network https://innovet.cloud/about/

and Jaana Virtanen (at)gradia.fi

GBS St. Gallen https://www.gbssg.ch/