Lessons Learned (Part 1)

A while ago I posted that here there is just not enough time in the day, and I found that to be true throughout my trip to Edinburgh — and even upon returning home. So I post this as “Part 1” of an unknown number of future posts, because although I’ve been home for 7 days now, I continue to have thoughts I’m processing, and experiences that I want to share with you.

As I’ve mentioned, week one of my visit to the University of Edinburgh was very student-centered, having spent many hours with students at the various Festival of Creative Learning events. Most of the events in fact seemed to have been created and run by students, and I was able to be a part of several that allowed me to learn more about their experiences at the university. Not a scientific sample, to be sure, as it seems that many students faced with a week without classes apparently take a “Ski Week” rather than stick around Edinburgh and participate  in the FoCL. So students are students, it seems.

Week two, however, was very staff-oriented. I met mainly with staff of the Student Disability Service office and discussed a wide range of topics, including IT accessibility, assistive technology, the development of the accessible and inclusive learning policy, the screening process for students with disabilities, implementation of accommodations in the classroom, and of course, budgets and funding.

It was very interesting to me how many similar challenges we face at out institutions, even when we also have many differences. For example, although we have very different governmental structures above us, we still have several layers creating policy and providing funding. Here in the U.S., UMD is part of the Maryland University System, and has state guidelines and policies to follow, as well as those established at the federal level. At the U of E, there are Scottish laws, UK laws, and EU policy and regulations. There are major differences, however, in how those governmental structures support accessibility across society. So that was a major eye-opener for me, to see how much the concept of making everyday things accessible to citizens is expected in Scotland, I will venture to say throughout much of the EU. For example, when I went to the local shop to buy something  for my stuffy nose, I found that the packing of all the over-the-counter cold medicines included Braille. Yes, all, in every store:

Accessible Braille packaging of over the counter cold medicine

Access Gallery at Stirling CAstle allows everyone to make the most of their visit to the historic castleIt’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in the U.S., and even more so given the current political climate. Meanwhile, while visiting Stirling Castle, I stumbled onto the “Access Gallery,” with a sign stating “We are committed to equal access and have designed this gallery to allow everyone to make the most of visiting this historic building.”

Inside the Gallery, there were a variety of accessible displays and exhibits, including a video which offered captions and a British Sign Language interpreter.

It’s just a totally different mindset to include these things, which certainly added to the total cost of the exhibit. Captioning is not cheap, and neither is hiring a Sign Language interpreter. But the return on investment for these things is that more people will come to the Castle (which has an entry fee), to learn about thCaptioned video at Stirling Castlee history of Scotland. Not to mention: It is the right thing to do.

So as I continue to process what I learned on this visit to the University of Edinburgh, I find myself thinking again and again: “What would it be like to have this kind of support and acceptance of the very basic concept of accessibility throughout society?”

There are still many challenges faced by my colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, so I don’t mean to paint a perfect picture.  In my next post I’ll describe more of what we shared with  each other about those challenges, and where we can go moving forward. I truly think that this international visit sparked some ideas for both myself and the many folks I met with in Edinburgh. As I mentioned, this is Part 1 of an unknown number of posts. I still have lots to process. 🙂






When the network goes down ….

My day yesterday ended sooner than I expected (officially that is) when the network went down. I was scheduled to have a tour of the Main Library assistive technology, but the IT (or “IS” here) folks were in a bit of crisis mode, so that wasn’t going to happen as planned. However, my hosts here are so accommodating that they came up with plan B, which was to have someone else give me a tour of the assistive technology spaces available for students — and staff. The technology for students was very similar to what we have at UMD: JAWS screen reader, Dragon software, scanners, and magnifying screens. These were located in rooms that I think our students would envy: there are 17 rooms across the campus — I’ll have to double check that figure. The ones in the Main Library are spacious and airy, whereas our main library assistive technology study carrels are pretty dim and closed in. The Main Library here was renovated in 2013, so maybe we can hope for more light and air in our next renovation of McKeldin Library? We can hope!

One of the most unusual things in the tour for me was the support for Faculty with disabilities. There is a process in place here for faculty and staff to get easily get assistance with assistive technology — for either a long-term or short-term need. They said they only have about 2 people per semesters contact them for help in this area, but I wonder if faculty knew more about these technologies (or just ergonomic mice or keyboards) they might be more apt to request them on loan, and possibly get their department to purchase them after trying out several and landing on the right type.

Courtyard of the Old College, University of Edinburgh, ScotlandThis morning I attended a Disability Awareness Training, held at the Old College. It was a really interesting training that was being held for staff mostly from the IS department, and some from other departments. It was perfect for me, because the presenters covered a lot of basic law and regulation that I was not familiar with, as they are UK or Scotland based requirements.  We all face so many of the same challenges, but the protections from discrimination are much broader here and protect many more people than what we have in the U.S. There are 9 protected categories under the Equality Act of 2013, with disability being one. The protections against discrimination are equally wide, with 6 different types of discrimination being identified as prohibited. The University is required to follow these regulations, and much like our regulations in the U.S., there is often some confusion on what is required  and how one should “do the right thing.”

It’s also been very interesting to compare the systems for putting accommodations (called adjustments here) into place for the students. Students with disabilities here have something called a “Learning Profile,” which lists all the the accommodations they are to receive. The Learning Profile is online in a program that talks to the student information system, so it is available to instructors. This isn’t area in which I’m an expert at my university, so I feel I need to do some more learning when I get back. However, I do not think that we have this level of information so readily available to instructors. I know we have improved the system so that when instructors see their class roster in Testudo, our registration system, students with accommodations are flagged. I know we are looking at improvements to our LMS Canvas that will make extension of time easier to implement.  But I also  know that mainly our process — and that of most universities in the U.S. — is for the student to personally hand their Letter of Accommodation to each of their instructors. That’s not part of the process here, although there are other steps where the student needs to be involved.

I have a lot to process yet, and a lot to learn when I get back!

When there’s not enough time in the day (Part 1)

You know it’s been a successful trip when there is never enough time in the day. Every day on this trip has been full and interesting, no matter where I have been. And I have been to some places. Since my last post, I have been on a tour of historic places near Edinburgh that appear in popular culture, to a playground in Glasgow, and a weekend away to visit my cousin on her sheep farm.

“Camelot, tis a silly place.”

If you recognise that line you’re undoubtedly a Monty Python fan. Specifically a fan of “The Holy Grail.” On Thursday I joined a group touring several historic spots that have also appeared in popular culture. The first stop was Doune Castle, which is where said Monty Python movie was filmed (as well as the tv show “Outlander.”)

Doune CAstle, Scotland

Although the draw here was the popular culture angle, you end up learning quite a lot about the castle, the former residents, and life in a castle, through an excellent audio tour that is done by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. You go your own pace, and room by room listen as he describes the purpose of that room, how it would have looked when the original residents lived there, and other interesting facts about life during that time period. Some of the rooms were up steep circular stone staircases, some were down uneven stone steps. It was all freezing cold, as you can see there was snow on the ground, and it was quite chilly in general. Some of the rooms had huge fireplaces, but I cannot (or, “cannae,” as they would say here) imagine ever being comfortable living here, not matter how big the fire in the fireplace was.

The tour also went to Rosslyn Chapel, which appears in the end of the film “The DaVinci Code,” as well as the Temple Kirk, which is not in any specific work but is associated with the Knights of the Templar, circa 12th century. (“Kirk” is Scots for church.) The entire thing was organized by students, specifically the students who belong to the “Late Antique and Medieval Postgradudate Society.” Now, I enjoy literature and I enjoy history, but I would have been completely intimidated to join up with a bunch of students under that banner in any other circumstance. Yet here we all were, our group leaders, and 14 participants all traveling around together to learn about these sites. The group leaders told us about the significance of the sites as we visited them, and successfully created a very open and welcoming atmosphere to a group that included computer science students, visiting Japanese students,  and myself, as well as students of history.  The trip was designed so that anyone could learn, no matter what your background. All you needed was an interest.

Next up, I’ll tell you about Friday, when I helped out with a volunteer group that is helping a community in Glasgow to build a playground for the neighborhood. And eventually I hope to get caught up enough to tell you about my day today!

Day Three and Time to Catch Up

So. I thought I would post every day here, but by the time I got back to my hotel room last night I was so wiped out that I just couldn’t bring myself to make sense. I guess I thought I was over my jet lag — hey, what’s 5 hours, anyway? But I really needed to get a good night’s sleep last night, and boy did I. So now I’ll try to catch you up on the last two days.

Peter Higgins on stage at TEDx University of EdinburghOn Tuesday, I attended the TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh conference. The theme of the conference was “It starts with passion …” and the speakers were a wide variety of ages and interests. but all had great stories to tell. One of the most engaging was Pete Higgins, pictured here. He spoke about his passion about the environment and sustainability, and the importance of getting beyond the rhetoric about it all. I liked the quote he displayed from Sir Patrick Geddes, pictured here, but I also liked the modern version that Higgins gave us: #ByLeavesWeLive.  Don’t be overwhelmed, but remember that we need trees when you take that extra paper towel. When you leave the tap running. When you leave the lights burning and no one is home.  We’ve become so far removed from nature that it can be hard to remember, but from nature we all came, and from nature we will all return.

Imagine: he was just one of 9 speakers! You can see why I was so tired when I got back to my room — a lot to process!  The conference ran all day, from 10 am til 5 pm. It was student organized, and they did a fantastic job. It was held in a massive old church, and was a packed house of mostly students. Other speakers talked about their moment of discovery for their own passion: a graphic designer; a 21-year old explorer (really!);  a man who fell into a project to help women in remote areas access to health care; a writer who  started an organization that helps girls become the first in their families to finish secondary education; and an engaging young woman just starting out as a youth mentor.

I’m not  sure when the videos will be up on their site, but you should check out the TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh website.


One thing you must know about Edinburgh is that it is very easy to get around either by bus or by walking. Walking can be a challenge at first because many of the streets change their names as you’re walking along, so you might be on S. Clerk Street and then you look up and see you are now walking on Nicholson street, which turns into South Bridge followed by … North Bridge. But after  few days of walking to the same general areas, and my handy little laminated “Streetwise Edinburgh” map, I can get to most places as long as I can keep my bearings. The castle over there, Arthur’s Seat over there. Also, I bought a weekly bus pass and there are tons of buses that run up the road from my hotel to the downtown area. Oh — here’s my hotel:

massonhouseMaybe it doesn’t look like much from the outside — not when compared to the castles and grand buildings of this city. But it’s former student housing, after all,  that has been converted into a hotel and owned by the University. I’m here for two weeks and it appealed to me because it includes breakfast in the price, it has a restaurant here if I want to stay in for dinner, and it has a little kitchenette down the hall with a fridge and a microwave, so if I really just want to tuck in to my room, I can. The room is small, but if you’ve traveled to Europe you know that’s not unusual. The bed is very comfortable, I have a desk to sit at, wifi, and it has been pretty quiet at night. Also, it is right on Dalkeith Road, which has tons of buses so it’s very convenient. If you’re considering visiting Edinburgh, I highly recommend checking out Edinburgh First, which has several properties. If you come in the summer,  you can also stay in actual student housing — don’t laugh! I did that once in Dublin and stayed at Trinity College right in the heart of things — very cheaply.

Back to today … I started the day by visiting the U.S. Consulate. No, this is not my standard traveling agenda, but there’s a backstory. My cousin lives up the street from the Consulate, and he met the woman who is the current Principal Officer at a “meet the neighbors” event. Well, she was very interested to know that his grandfather (my great uncle), was the U.S. Consul in Edinburgh for many years, including throughout World War II.  So they have stayed in contact, and she told him to please let any friends or family visiting here to stop by for a visit — so I did!

She was extremely nice, and was very interested to learn about my grant from UMD and what we are doing in advancing the accessibility of our teaching. I gave her one of our 3D printed Testudo’s, but could not take a picture because it turns out I couldn’t even take my phone into the building. I had to leave my phone, charger, and laptop with the guard after going through the metal detector. So you will just have to know that a tiny Testudo now lives behind this door:


After that, I hoofed it over to George Square, for a talk on Equality and Diversity in the workplace given by a young man who works for Transport For London (TFL) and has started a program called OutBound. It is essentially a networking and support system that he developed for both staff  of TFL as well as the riding public. It was very interesting to talk to the other attendees about a variety of topics such as having established policies in place so that employees — and their managers — know where to turn for answers. Or, at the very least, who to ask for help if there is no clear policy or answer. I think every large organization struggles with this kind of problem, andI don’t know that the current climate of politics will bring any positive change in the near future. But it was wonderful to talk with so many other people all the way over here, working towards the same goals of inclusivity and diversity.

Well, tomorrow is another day, and I still have my expenses spreadsheet to fill in for the day. Tomorrow looks to be a long but interesting day: I will be spending it with members of the Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society, exploring interactions between popular culture and heritage! More to come!

Baked Goods … and MATH?

That’s right — my first session at the Festival of Creative Learning is entitled “Mathematical Bake-off: Understanding Mathematics by Baking.” Math and I have had a rocky relationship for basically my entire life. I have often wondered, if it had been taught differently to me, would I have understood math better? Would I still feel that panicky feeling when suddenly presented with the need to do an “easy” problem in my head? Because understanding the concept of “number sense” sadly has not actually given me … number sense. How I would love to have the fluid understanding of numbers in the same way that I feel comfortable with words!

This is just the kind of activity that includes all types of learners, thinking about the subject in a non-intimidating and fun way — and I cannot wait to tell you how it goes!


Welcome to 2017

A new year, a new adventure

Almost exactly 12 months ago, I got the idea to apply for the Global Partnerships Grant at the University of Maryland with a proposal to travel to the University of Edinburgh to share ideas on Accessible and Inclusive Learning.  So, a few things have happened since I was awarded the grant, namely Brexit in the U.K., and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.  How all of this will affect the future of education, disability rights, and international affairs is anyone’s guess.  But what I do know is that I share a dedication to increasing awareness of learning diversity, and the importance of supporting faculty and staff in this effort, with the good folks at the University of Edinburgh, who have been so gracious to agree to host me for two weeks starting in late February 2017.

I did a lot of initial planning when I was awarded the grant in April 2016. Then there was kind of a lull in activity as I waited for schedules to be developed. And all of a sudden it’s just 25 days from today that I’ll be boarding a plane from Baltimore to Edinburgh (with a quick stop in London Heathrow)! On Monday February 20 I’ll begin attending the Festival of Creative Learning, a week-long event of experiential and innovative learning activities.  (Learn more about it at their own blog, Festival of Creative Learning.) Then, I’ll spend another week meeting with faculty and staff and learning more about how students are supported at the University of Edinburgh and share some of the initiatives we’re working on at the University of Maryland.

I’m excited to be staying at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, in Masson House, which is owned by the University. I have been to Edinburgh before — many years ago. I imagine much has changed in the city, and also that much remains the same. If you don’t know much about Scotland, you might not know that although it is part of the U.K. it is also fiercely independent. It is generally more liberal on social issues than its southern neighbor, England, and it has a long history of interaction with European nations albeit mostly because it was siding with them against the English. (This is a terribly brief summary — actual historians please take no offense!)  I’m particularly excited to be meeting with and learning from the folks at the Institute Academic Development, who support the University with “Information on mainstreaming common learning adjustments, guidance on inclusive and accessible learning, and supporting multicultural learning.”

I’ll be writing again before I embark on this trip, and hope to document every day when I am in Edinburgh. I hope you enjoying following along, and feel free to leave your comments and questions!