“Twelve students from our university had already registered when I presented the face-to-face summer school on the topic of ‘Innovation Districts – Discovering the elements that boost knowledge-based economies’ at the start of the semester. When it became clear that it would no longer be feasible, we immediately decided that our goal was to deliver a digital version of the Summer School instead,” Umanzor explained. After all, the students need the credit points, and the project plays an important role when it comes to international networking.
At the beginning, Umanzor had no sophisticated plan on how to organise a digital summer school, but what she did have was the necessary experience, a seasoned team and a great deal of passion for the project. In fact, participation in a Summer School at our university in 2017 was what brought her to Münster in the first place. Back then, Umanzor was accompanying students from the University of La Sabana in Colombia, where she lived and taught, to Münster – where she spent the first eight years of her life. “I realised that I wanted to return to Münster, and applied for a position at the S2BMRC. My application was immediately successful, and since then I have been organising the Summer School myself,” explained the Münsteraner-by-choice.
Normally, between 30 and 50 participants attend the Summer School – this year there were 45. But to the organisers’ great surprise, they received 97 applications this year, and had to conduct a selection procedure for the first time. “To be honest, we found it difficult to fill the course in previous years. I never expected to receive so many applications for the digital programme. The fact that the two-week Summer School was completely free undoubtedly played a positive role,” remarked Umanzor.
The five-strong organisation team held virtual meetings every Friday at 11 am; the to-do list was very long. Besides having to cancel accommodation, a trip to Berlin, and restaurant reservations, they had to “translate” the content of the programme into a digital format. The result was a combination of live streaming offers for online use and elements for independent study offline. “Not only the video conferences were important to us, but also the virtual classroom, which enabled us to record and document everything. This is where we set tasks, compiled reading lists, answered questions, chatted and, of course, ‘messed around’ in social chat,” Umanzor admitted.
Social interaction played a much bigger role than in face-to-face classes. How can you create a basis of trust, a relaxed atmosphere and a bond between all participants, representing eleven different nations and eight universities, if they are only able to see each other on a screen? This was where creativity coach Joshua Mahaney came in. He kicked off each morning with a 30-minute creative unit. The students danced, painted and laughed – but there was always a link to the thematic content. The aim to vitalise them and to create a positive atmosphere. To achieve this goal throughout the day, three rules for cooperation were in place: “Be present, check in, be open-minded”. “What we meant by this was: 1) Look in the camera and stay focused, 2) When you go online, symbolically say ‘cheers’ to everyone and state your name, and 3) Be open-minded to other people’s ideas. We noticed that these rituals helped the group dynamics a lot, and went down well with all participants. We certainly received an incredible amount of positive feedback from them. In fact, after my brother Eduardo Umanzor gave a virtual closing concert on the last evening of the programme, the students were very sad that the programme was over,” the organiser explained.
For Umanzor, the Summer School is not only a project that is close to her heart and that brought her back to her home country – it is also an important issue for the future. For example, she has already received several enquiries from colleagues regarding her Summer School; she also gave a virtual lecture to 500 interested individuals at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), the country’s largest university.
“I am, of course, delighted that our programme is seen as a positive example and that we were able to deliver a high-quality Summer School. When asked about my ‘secret recipe’, I like to say that it’s similar to the way I cook. I look to see what resources I have, I am flexible, and I make the best out of it with a lot of intuition. As a consequence, I am already looking forward to the next Summer School and hope that the programme will be to everyone’s ‘taste’ – whether online or offline.”
By Rena Ronge