Outcomes of a teacher exchange: from the Grand Tour to our Erasmus+ project funding

At the dawn of the modern era, young gentlemen and gentle women of wealth and privilege in England, with the hope of a prosperous future, were sent on the Grand Tour of Europe. Travelling, seeing places of interest and the cradle of western civilisation belonged to the education of the future generation. To follow in the footsteps of this esteemed tradition, with a more customised interest in mind, students on my course of English for architecture and urban planning have been re-inventing the Grand Tour for the 21st century classroom.

Young students of architecture had the chance to take a virtual grand tour of European cities on the course, for a number of years, through their presentations of the outstanding achievements of city planning and urban development. One recurrent city on the itinerary of the virtual tour was Barcelona. This Spanish city, as I’ve learnt from my students, is an emblem of human scale urban development and regeneration of impoverished neighbourhoods using the impetus of the 1992 Olympic Games.

Before witnessing the presentations of the architecture students, I had not known about the great achievements of Spanish urban planning at all. I had yet to visit Barcelona. The seed of interest in Spanish city planning my students planted in my mind, however, had grown into a plan, a plan for an Erasmus teaching exchange.

In Zaragoza I found new inspirations

I was determined to find a colleague in Spain who would be interested in how we teach English for Specific Purposes courses in Finland. Someone who would be willing to exchange experiences and ideas, and to learn from each other’s practices. Having been inspired by Oulu’s intention of bidding for the European Capital of Culture (which in those days was only a faint idea whispered in the corridors in the urban planning department), I started looking into the possibility of finding a university teacher in the Spanish city that had indeed already won the European Capital of Culture accolade, Zaragoza. My idea was that we could bring together students of architecture from Zaragoza and Oulu, who could then mutually recreate the experience of the 18th century young people taking the Grand Tour, but in a wholly virtual space.

It was a long shot. But by sheer luck, and perseverance of course, I found a colleague at Zaragoza University who had been thinking along the same lines: the ESP course would be so much more interesting if we could inject some real-life experience into the classroom.

When I contacted Pilar Gonzalez Vera at the English Department of the University of Zaragoza and explained to her that I’d be able to come and visit on an Erasmus teacher exchange, and I wished to create some kind of cooperation in ESP for students of engineering and architecture, her response was swift, positive and encouraging.

My first visit to the University of Zaragoza took place in 2015. Besides the memorable experience of flying into Barcelona, having the chance of seeing in reality what my students had been talking about in their presentations, then experiencing the high-speed AVE train to Zaragoza, and seeing how this once rich Renaissance city found rebirth through the European Capital of Culture initiative, I found one of the most amazing professional contacts I’ve ever had. I visited the university of Zaragoza, met my colleague, fulfilled the contractual teaching and benchmarking duties of the Erasmus grant, and found that THERE IS SO MUCH MORE to an Erasmus teacher exchange than one could ever imagine.

Having explained to each other what we do in our courses, we identified the possibility of extending this amazing experience to our students. I left Zaragoza with wonderful memories and brave aspirations: we can, surely, share all this with our students!

Learning English at university is much more than learning new words

Five years have passed, as have lots of talks with colleagues here in Oulu and abroad, and here we are: we have done it! The initial version of student collaboration was extended with the help of an extremely experienced colleague from Languages and Communication, Suzy McAnsh, and two young colleagues from the Strategy Unit of our university, Nina Jackson and Niina Marostenmäki, as well as a third European colleague from the Polish University of Technology in Poznań, Katarzyna Sobańska. In April 2020, we submitted a project application and secured a grant from the Erasmus agency for creating an online course for our students – a course inspired by the 18th century idea of exposure to other cultures.

The project is called EntreSTEAM, and it is an Erasmus+ KA203 Strategic Partnerships funded project (2020-2022), which aims to create a new, flexible, and adaptable ESP course to improve working-life abilities and connections for young students. We believe that while searching for solutions of current real-life issues of sustainable future in a virtual team, the course participants will gain an insight into other cultures and a taste of life and work in other countries – all this through English language communication.

Pilar, myself and all the collaborators on this project are working hard to realise our initial dream to re-create the educational experience of the Grand Tour for international teams of students. We do hope that the new online course, which has become all the more topical in this 21st century post-pandemic reality, will give as much fun and valuable experience to students as I had when I first visited Zaragoza in 2015.

Eva Braidwood works as a university teacher of English for Specific Purposes at the Language and Communication, University of Oulu.