Lessons Learned (Part 2)

Before too much more time gets away from me and I forget, I wanted to share some very practical things that I learned on this trip.

First, on blogging. I never did figure out the best time to sit down and write up my experiences while I was on this trip, so I’m afraid I don’t have advice for anyone undertaking this same experience, other than: be aware that your mind will be full and you will need time to process. I thought I’d have plenty of time in the evenings after dinner to write some posts here, but there were several factors that made that difficult on a regular basis. In my earliest days, I often had to get ready for my upcoming day by spending time on google maps and by reading up on where and who I was meeting with in the morning. After dinner was also my only chance to get in touch with folks back home, either by catching up on emails or by doing a live Google Hangout. Usually by the time I was done with all that, I was ready to collapse into bed. I’m a person who needs some time to process things, and I always felt I needed more time to process before the next day’s events came upon me. Also, a 5 hour time difference doesn’t seem so bad but … it will wear you down for a few days.

Study areas in the Main Library at the University of Edinburgh
My hosts setup an account for me to get online, but I was happy to find that when I was on campus I could log into Eduroam on my phone and not use my personal data plan to check emails.

Second, getting on line. I didn’t even think about Eduroam until I looked at my phone one beautiful sunny morning while standing outside the Main Library. I figured I could check my email very quickly before my first meeting and not use up too much data. What a pleasant surprise to see Eduroam pop up as an available network! As a UMD member, you can log into Eduroam using your university id and password, so any time I was on the University of Edinburgh campus, I used this network and did not have to use up my personal data plan.

Speaking of data plans, I have Verizon wireless, residential, and email. I don’t know anyone who is thrilled with their service providers and Verizon has been minimally painful to me and their coverage has been excellent, so I stick with them. I did my research, and set up an international phone & data plan for my time in Scotland, and thought I was good to go. And I was, except for the fact that Verizon.net email will not work from an ip address from the United Kingdom. Yup, you read that right.  I had read through the entire Verizon website on setting up international calling plans, and nowhere did it ever mention anything about email. So imagine my surprise when I tried to log in one morning and got the generic and useless error message: “There was a problem with your username or password. Please try again.”  I tried again. And again. I tried to reset my password. Again. Finally I got on an ichat with an agent who right away said the issue was with my logging in from the UK. I even tried using a vpn, and he said, yeah, no, that won’t work either. Sorry.

Fortunately, I had no problems with my gmail account, which is what the University of Maryland uses. But I had been communicating with all my family using my personal Verizon account, so I had to send a message out to them all that we had to message each other with this gmail account. So just to repeat, you cannot log in to your Verizon email from the UK. I don’t know about other countries (it worked for me last year in Anguilla, which honestly, seems a little more sketchy given some recent banking practices there …), but save yourself some grief and look into it before you leave the US if you use Verizon email, and make alternate plans.

Next, packing.  Last year I purchased a soft backpack from the RickSteves.com website, which served me well holding enough clothes for a 4-day conference in Denver, with room to spare. So on this trip I took that full of clothes that I planned out could mix and match. I took way too many warm clothes that I never wore, but such is the dilemma when you travel anywhere in February.

walking app shows 6.0 miles and 15,252 steps
A typical day of walking in Edinburgh

Whatever you do, make sure you have at least one pair of really comfortable shoes. Edinburgh is a very walkable city — in fact sometimes it’s just easier to walk if you know where you’re going than to take the buses which sometimes wind around. Although I got a weekly bus pass and did often use it, it also was not unusual for me to walk many miles in a day just going from one meeting to another, or one event to another, or to explore in my free time. It was not at all unusual for me to check my walking app at the end of the day and see that I had walked 4, 5, 6, or even 7 miles in a day — without really realizing it.

Timbuk2 laptop bag was perfect for everyday useI also took a messenger-style laptop bag. I had planned to carry both things on to the plane, but when I got to BWI airport early on Saturday morning and realized I was wayyyy early, I decided to check with the British Air counter and see if they could check my backpack through to Edinburgh. They could, and so I ended up just carrying on my laptop bag in which I also had some essentials (saline for my contact lenses, toothbrush, etc.). Once I landed in Edinburgh it was easy to through the backpack over my shoulders and catch the Tram downtown, and then a taxi to the hotel. However, I realized I wanted to bring a lot of things back for family and friends, and I ended up getting a very good deal on a large suitcase on wheels at “T.K. MAXX,” (which is just like our “T.J. MAXX” in the States).  I always wanted one of those suitcases, and it was on clearance.  🙂 For everyday use, I loved having the messenger bag, but a backpack would have been fine, too. I hesitated to bring a backpack, just like I hesitated to wear sneakers, thinking both would flag me as “American.”  Clearly, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Europe. Everyone wears backpacks and sneakers. But, still, I do like the Timbuk2 bag, and it was easy to carry my MacBook Air everywhere I went, as well as papers, etc. I also pack a cloth tote bag, because shops charge 5 pence for a  plastic bag. That adds up, and also, I do not need to be collecting plastic shopping bags in my hotel room. So I brought along a cloth bag that rolls up very small when not in use, and just carried it everywhere I went, so that if I popped into the Tesco or Sainsbury’s for some tea bags or other provisions I could pull it out and save some money (and the environment).

Also, keep a folder for receipts. Maybe this is obvious, but on a long trip like this it’s very easy to set aside a small slip of paper and then lose it. I also kept a spreadsheet of my daily expenses so that once I got back to Maryland I could account for everything. When you apply for the grant, you allocate money for airfare and other transportation, hotel, and meals, and you want to be sure you’re accurate when you turn in your expense reimbursement form.

Maryland brand chocolate chip cookies, sold in Scotland
Sometimes the familiar is actually very different.

Lastly, take some time to enjoy your host country. I stayed on 4 extra days, and I still didn’t get to do everything I thought I would before I left. But looking back I do feel that I appreciated each and every day I was there, and I tried to be very “mindful” of my experiences.  So I didn’t get to every historic site on my list, but at the places I did visit, I really stopped and looked around. I lit a candle for my mother at Rosslyn Chapel after my visit during the Festival of Creative Learning, because she would have loved the carvings and the stories behind them. Build some time into each day to experience the culture of where you are — as a white woman in Scotland (with a last name Johnston, no less), I fit in pretty well as far as physical appearances. But looks can be deceiving.

Sue Johnston stands under a sign that reads Johnston Terrace
Be sure to build in time to walk around your host city. You never know what you will find.

Or at least different. Be aware of the similar and the different. Take time to reflect. That’s easy to do in Scotland over tea (or usually coffee, in my case). But truly, it’s very easy to feel rushed, to feel that you need to always be heading for the next meeting or checking your email. But part of this grant experience requires that you understand the culture of the country you’re visiting, and you won’t get that from only sitting in meetings. You need to get out and meet people on the streets and in cafes. Have lunch or dinner with your hosts if you can, and get a more informal feeling for their institution, their positions, their experiences. It also may be your chance to try a falafel taco, or haggis. You just never know.

Stop, breath, look around. Learn and enjoy.


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 2)

I want to continue to catch up, because so much happens every day that I don’t want to forget a thing. In my last post I caught you up to Thursday. Friday deserves its own post.

Baltic Street Adventure Playground badgeFriday was a much longer day than I expected, but I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I signed on for the last day of the week’s effort at cladding the playhouse at the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock, Glasgow. In the morning, I met the students who are part of Civic Soup, “an Edinburgh-based collective set up in 2016 by six recent architecture and cultural management graduates.” As part of the Festival of Creative Learning, they arranged for a week of volunteers to travel to Glasgow, which is about an hour and a half from Edinburgh, to help finish putting the siding on a playhouse. I had a wonderful time getting to know the students on the ride out there, and they filled me on the history of the playground and their involvement in it. I think they enjoyed my presence as well, as I got many questions about the current political climate, as well as life in the U.S. in general.

It was really interesting to me to hear their ideas about architecture and society, and to get a better understanding of why they got involved with this playground. The brief backstory (I’m sure I’m leaving out pertinent facts, so apologies to any Civic Soup-ers reading this) is: In 2014, Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games.  It was a huge event, and they needed somewhere to park their buses. Long story short — a playground in the Dalmarnock neighborhood was paved over to make a very large parking lot. Many community members and organizations got together to address the lack of play space for the children in the area, and the playground was born. For more information please do visit the Baltic Street Playground website.

On Fridaybalticstreet3, I did what I could to help attach battens to the side of the playhouse so that the actual siding could go on. Such a simple task, but as I’ve mentioned before I have a bit of a math phobia, so imagine my face when asked to measure out distances to drill in screw — in metrics. Not to worry, my team leader Laura let me do the drilling and our other team member, Kyoko (I hope I got that right) from Japan, did an excellent job with measuring — and  drilling, and sawing, both of which it turns out she had never done before.  That’s her sawing in the picture.

weegirlsBaltic Street Playground is kid-centered. They are very involved in the design and it was clear to me that it was a much needed place for them to run around and, well, be “kids.” At about 3 o’clock a few of them started showing up, and they were so excited to swing on the tire swing, run up and down the small grassy berms, and be free and safe. They eventually came over to see what we were all up to with the playhouse, and I learned that they had painted the designs on the laminate that was to be installed on the sides. They even got involved (a little bit) in the installation, learning how to use a power drill.

This was a really great example of people coming together for one common goal. When the kids showed up, so did a few parents, and it was clear how important this space is to them, as well. They were all very appreciative of us coming to lend a hand, but it’s clear that they are also all very involved in making this space work. There is a small building with an office, a kitchen and a loo, and I admit that by late afternoon I spent more than a few minutes there getting a cup of tea and chatting with a few of the mothers. They were so friendly and pleasant, I don’t really think they will blame any future broken thing in the kitchen on “that American lady who was here” like they said they would probably do.  As the afternoon wore on it got drizzly and chilly, but there was still work to be done. Soon a fire had been lit in a firepit, and the kids were roasting marshmallows and gathering sticks for the rest of us so we could join in the sticky fun.


This was such a full and wonderful day. I learned so much about the Architecture program these students were in, the history of this area of Glasgow,  the people of Glasgow, and even that a handsaw is called a “fox tail saw” in Germany. This is a project that is totally inclusive — no matter what your skills or abilities, you are welcome to come help design and build or to play and learn. Thank you to my Batten Team mates!balticstreet2

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!