Reflections on a Fellowship

... and making your own luck

Reflections on a Fellowship

What would you do with 4 months off your normal education duties to focus on whatever you wanted?  Here I reflect on the opportunities, challenges and outcomes which have resulted from just such an opportunity.

Over the summer I’ve had the privilege of a semester off all teaching duties – my first in over 15 years of teaching at university.  I was afforded this wonderful opportunity as a result of being awarded a Fellowship from the UCD Innovation Academy, where I completed a Professional Postgraduate Diploma in Creativity & Innovation for Education last year.

The opportunity – and making your own luck

On Thursday afternoon, 10th December 2020, I was tidying up emails, when I spotted one drop into my inbox.  I almost ignored it – so glad now that I didn’t! - but on opening it, saw it was a call for applications for a Fellowship programme from the Innovation Academy.  The kicker was the timescale – applications had to be in by the following Monday – and there was an online information session that evening.

Along with a good number of other interested people, I attended the session – thinking – lots of high-powered competition, what chance have I got?  Imposter syndrome was alive and kicking in my head – especially looking at the others on the call. Anyway, I decided – if I don’t even apply, there’s no chance, so let’s throw my hat in the ring.  Who knows, I might get lucky!  Fire up CANVA, pull together a professional-looking set of pages, fingers crossed…

And knock me down with a feather – the following Thursday, after a week trying not to gnaw on my fingernails, I got a very unassuming email with an attachment from the Innovation Academy Director – I’d had been awarded one of the 12 Fellowships!

Suffice it to say that celebrations ensued…

The Fellowship paid for my teaching duties to be handled by someone else, and I was fortunate to be able to propose a colleague who was able to cover for me and who had availability.  Never go to your boss with a problem – always take a solution and pitch it as an opportunity!

Now what do I do?

What’s the old Chinese curse – be careful what you wish for?  Approaching the end of the autumn semester, I found myself suddenly facing into a summer with no students.  No thesis supervision.  No teaching or grading.

Heaven, right?  Well yes, but then I started thinking – I better have something to show for this by the end of the summer, so what on earth am I going to do?  Amazing how a complete lack of constraints can be almost paralysing – too much choice can be a real issue!

Cue a few days of cogitation, mulling and general staring into the middle distance, furrowed brows – you get the idea…

An item that had been on my “want to do sometime” list for years was a podcast.  So that kicked me into action.  A few more days reading articles, watching YouTube videos, checking out different podcast hosting platforms and I eventually just picked one – Podbean - and signed up – I always find that committing to spend a bit of my own money makes things “real” & gets me far more focussed. 

I’d completed the Universal Design for Learning Digital Badge in 2020 and at the time been very impressed with the +1 concept of just making 1 small change in your teaching. So, I decided that my topic would be “Plus One – educators inspiring educators”.  I worked up some graphics and registered a web domain for this at www.plusoneteaching.com – again – making it “real” to force myself to commit.   A few hours of work in WordPress and the website was up. I even ordered a mug with my Plus One project graphic on it to use on the podcast – strange how holding it in my hand made the whole project seem more concrete when it arrived!

My contacts at the Innovation Academy were a natural starting point for interviewees – there really are some amazing educators there, and as I began doing my 1-hour Zoom calls with the first guests I realised just how much this is true. 

Jen Lynch got me started – winner of the 2020 prize for UDL in Ireland, and an amazing educator, then it became a routine – record a Zoom call in the week, process it up on Saturday morning and release.  And it’s great to get a few interviews ahead and have them sitting in their folders waiting to be processed and released.  As I write this, I’ve released 17, with 6 more recorded but yet to be released.  883 downloads in the 4 months I’ve had the podcast up, with listeners in 17 countries and guests drawn from almost as many.  Each episode has been – following best UDL practice of offering choice – audio & video versions.

Every interview I’ve done has been an eye-opener.  There is just so much talent, inspiration and energy out there, which I’ve been so privileged to tap into and hear about.  The educators range across disciplines, institutions and continents.  I’ve talked with teachers, professors, policy-makers, each with fascinating insights, ideas that have left me buzzing. 

And I ask each person to recommend other people I should contact as well – so my network has grown – I track this in a mindmap.

Scope creep…

This was too good to leave as “just” a podcast, so after a few episodes, I added another strand to the Fellowship outputs – creating a book based on the interviews and themes discussed.  Now I should know better as a project management professional that scope creep is the bane of any project.  But this was my project, and deadlines I’d applied to myself were mutable, so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

And talking about scope creep – the book has now turned into a possible series.  Drafting out the structure, I plan to take edited versions of each interview as the first section of the book, with key topics and themes mentioned by guests opened up and discussed more in the second half.  But even after just writing up the first 3 interviews it was clear that I would have to draw a line somewhere in my interviews, as I wasn’t ever going to get the first volume out this year otherwise!  A natural break came in August when there was a few weeks pause in the release cadence for holidays.  16 episodes released – I made an executive decision – that would be Season 1 done, and these interviews would form the basis for volume 1 of what hopefully will be a series – of at least 2 volumes anyway!

Now I should stress that there is no one breathing down my neck for outcomes here – these are all self-imposed.  My own plan had been to get the podcast and book done by the end of September, but the project has taken on a life of its own and become so engrossing that I’ve extended my internal deadline to the end of the year – which I’ll need now to get the book written up and released.

Other outcomes

One of the great benefits of embarking on a journey such as this Fellowship are the unexpected opportunities that emerge. 

Soon after starting the podcast, I came across a call for the Sligo IT CUA Conference: “Climbing the UDL Ladder: Building a Culture of Inclusion in Higher Education” which ran on 26th May 2021.

I submitted a poster presentation, and to my great surprise, this was accepted – another first for me.

Networking is something we all know we should do, but this project has grown my professional network amongst educators both inside and outside of my own university. 

As a result of my interviews, I’m exploring a collaboration with Florida International University through the wonderful Dr. Stephanie Doscher who runs the FIU COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) unit to see if my project management master’s students might collaborate on a project with students at another institution.

After a fascinating discussion both on-air and off with Professor Jackie Carter, we are exploring developing some research around student charity experiential learning projects which may well lead to an academic paper.

What I’ve learned…

So much! 

·      How to put together a podcast – it’s very doable, but each episode editing takes most of a morning, and then another 2 or 3 hours to edit the transcript down for the book (even using Otter.ai to auto-generate the transcripts from the audio tracks from Zoom)

·      That education is alive and kicking – each interview has re-invigorated my graw for learning and teaching, as the educators have shared their own approaches, techniques and stories.

·      That building an international and vibrant professional network is really just a matter of getting out there & making contacts.  Participate in conferences, ask for referrals, and then the podcast provides my guests with some exposure and recognition of their achievements and I get material for the show and also the book(s).

My other big international network is EPALE, the European Adult Learning Network for which I am an Irish Ambassador.  Sharing this and other stories there has also put me in touch with fascinating educators with inspirational stories – I would encourage educators in any field to join – there’s so much going on if you plug into the feeds!  The website is at https://epale.ec.europa.eu/en.

So there you are – a few musings from a busy few months for me.  I’m always happy to discuss anything mentioned here, and of course, if any of you have any suggestions for any educators – yourself included – who might be good on the podcast, please do get in touch at joe.houghton@gmail.com.

Joe Houghton

Asst. Professor & Director, MSc Project Management programmes, UCD Smurfit Graduate School of Business

Management consultant - www.houghton.consulting

2021 UCD Innovation Academy Fellow - www.plusoneteaching.com

EPALE Ambassador - https://epale.ec.europa.eu/en

Dublin, Ireland

Email : joe.houghton@ucd.ie / joe.houghton@gmail.com

Tel: +353 86 384 3670