Much like most things, international project co-operation has also changed shape as the Covid-19 pandemic has swept through the world and introduced the concept of “the new normal”. While force majeure or an unforeseeable, unexpected event had previously been buried among the many clauses of project agreements, it suddenly leapt to the forefront of many minds in the spring of 2020. Already by the autumn of the same year, clauses about the usage of funding in extraordinary circumstances were added to the project agreement.
Autumn 2021 has seen the slow return to work according to original project plans. Groups from Moldova and Albania have visited the Brahea Centre at the University of Turku for training, and our staff has participated in project meetings abroad. One of the first transnational project meetings (TNPs) organised during the pandemic was the ECHOO PLAY project meeting in Potenza, Italy in early November of 2021.
As unbelievable as the mere idea of international travel in the current global situation felt, the sheer number of concrete actions required to organise the trip caused even more bewilderment. Gathering all the necessary paperwork and information about new travel requirements such as international vaccination passports required preparation and submitting detailed information about the passenger’s current location and travel route for the digital passenger locator form of the destination country did not happen in the blink of an eye. Of course, all of these are a critical part of travel during the pandemic and without them international meetings would not be possible at all.
The changed state of the world was also visible in the increased attention paid to hand washing and cleaning as well as in the number of masks one could see at the airports and on the street. At the project meeting, typical Italian air kisses were not exchanged when greeting co-workers. A vaccination passport, and sometimes a temperature check using an infrared thermometer, were required to enter workplaces, restaurants, other public venues, and transportation. Among the many surreal experiences of the trip were the understandable, but unusual, empty streets of Rome and the closure of restaurants at what would usually be a common Italian dinner time.
The pandemic: a major change for project activities
Travel has been and still is a natural part of international project co-operation. However, the pandemic has created a more established practice of using online and hybrid models as an alternative for travel. These virtual meetings have joined traditional project meetings as a regular option in international co-operation. In practice, this has led to an increase in the number of meetings, but also to longer meetings, and to the better acknowledgment of the differences in time zones between participating countries. This requires more planning, co-operation skills, and flexibility from the participants.
New policies have been created gradually, with the best of them remaining in use and paving way for new experiments and ideas. Those conference platforms that best meet the needs of the varied participating consortia in usability, reliability, and features have solidified their place in use. A positive fact has been that despite the difficulties, projects have in no way stopped or stalled. If anything, the pandemic has been a driving force pushing organisations to develop new, innovative solutions for co-operation.
While the pandemic is still ongoing, instead of despair there is a sense of faith in co-operation and the belief that it will endure the hardships and come out on the other side stronger than ever.
Answering challenges created by digital technology
The Brahea Centre at the University of Turku has a long tradition of developing online and technology enhanced learning (TEL). Brahea Centre, then called the Centre for Extended Studies, had a TEL development unit already 30 years ago. Since then projects related to educational technology have formed a major part of the centre’s operation, and as such, its international project co-operation.
This, among many other factors, has allowed the rapid move fully into remote work in international projects to happen smoothly and flexibly, perhaps more so than in many workplaces that have had less experience with it. From technology to work policies, not to mention pedagogical models for teaching and mentoring, were all ready to go at Brahea Centre.
While working online has gone without major challenges, it has not been easy for all individuals. The reasons for this vary from a perceived gap in technological skills to issues related to the remote office – i.e. the home – functioning simultaneously as a place of work but also as a school and a nursery for the children. Acting as a double agent for working and family life, the change of location has resulted in some entertaining situations when kids, pets, or partners make their meeting debut in the background and create unintended comic relief. Largely everything has run smoothly and the challenges have created opportunities for learning and developing new skills. We can count on the fact that when the next pandemic hits the world, we will be much wiser.
Sparking long term co-operation and competence partnerships
Projects have a beginning and an end but international co-operation is not bound to any single project. Instead co-operation can bear fruit that yields joy and benefits for years or even decades. When preparing new projects, it is important to have a team that works well together and where partners have trust in each other and everyone’s competence. Projects create partnership and competence clusters that live on and continue working together in varying groupings. New projects are also often planned with partners that were previously easy to work with. This brings extra strength to teams and allows participants to gain new knowledge from new partners.
ECHOO PLAY (European Career Help and Occupational Orientation Play), the project mentioned earlier in this blog, is an excellent example of long-term co-operation in international projects. The Erasmus+ project started at the end of 2020. The staff of the project is a collection of European colleagues from different consortia who have already worked together on previous projects. Their home organisations are located in France, Iceland, Italy and Finland. The focus of the ECHOO PLAY project is on presenting and spreading knowledge about utilising gamification and creativity in career planning in vocational education and guidance. At the heart of the project is the development of an educational board game for career planning and guidance.
Enriching development work with internationality
Participating in international projects in higher education is one of the central areas of work at the Brahea Centre. The themes of the projects are related to, among others, the development of teaching and learning environments, entrepreneurship education, sustainability, quality assurance of education, and acknowledging diversity in education and mentoring. One of the best things about projects is the participants’ shared understanding that through joint development work the project consortium can become more than the sum of its parts.
The international educational projects at the Brahea Centre are largely carried out with funding from the European Union. The projects are linked to themes that are central to the strategies of the University of Turku and the Brahea Centre. Because of this, they benefit not only the project consortium, European co-operation, or a target country outside Europe, but also the university’s own development work. At its best, international co-operation enriches all partners by facilitating sharing of knowledge, experiences and intercultural dialogue.
Heli Brander is a planning officer and a project manager at the Brahea Centre. Her project specialities are teaching and learning environment development and service business.
Matti Lappalainen is a senior planning officer at the Brahea Centre. He works in projects related to higher education. His specialities are educational development and quality assurance.
The authors are involved in the following international projects related to higher education
- THE BIG GAME: Immersive and Multidisciplinary STEM Learning through A Cooperative Story-Driven Digital Game
- ECHOO PLAY: European Career Help and Occupational Orientation Play
- KUTEL: Kazakh Universities to foster quality assurance processes in Technology Enhanced Learning
- SMILE: Social Meaning Impact through LLL universities in Europe
- STUNED: Standards Teaching in University Education
- UNI-TEL: Modernization and Internationalization of Iranian HEI’s via collaborative TEL-based curriculum development in engineering and STEM