100 Days at ETH. An interview with Dr. Gerd Kortemeyer
The new Director of LET, the unit for Educational Development and Technology at ETH, has been at his post for 100 days. We sat down with Dr. Gerd Kortemeyer to find out more about him as a person and his first impressions of Switzerland, ETH and his new role.
We have read your official profile of course, but what would you like to tell us about yourself that might not have been in the profile? How do you spend your time outside of work?
At the moment: watching too much TV and communicating with my family back in the States and in Munich. As I am still starting out here, I am usually exhausted at the end of a work day. What I would like to do is spend more time in nature and taking photos – photography has been my hobby ever since the days of darkrooms. I have nice photo gear (Nikon if anybody cares) which currently just sits around collecting dust. In the States, I used to volunteer for homeless charities by documenting fundraising events and doing keepsake portraiture for homeless families. I was also active in our church, taking care of the audiovisual equipment. Lastly, I started a collaboration with a Tanzanian university of science and technology, and I would like to pick that up again when I have more time and energy.
What small things make your day better?
Coffee. Good food. Walking. I am not an athlete, but I like walking long distances in nature or around a beautiful city like Zurich. I like living within walking distance of my workplace and enjoy the time walking to and from work for processing my day.
What do you wish your brain was better at doing?
Sitting in one place and thinking. I am more of a “migrant worker with a laptop.” When I have a big project, I often have to walk around while thinking. I camp out at random desks or coffee shops – I work well on the road traveling, but cannot think well sitting at my desk.
What has been both positive and challenging about your move to Switzerland?
Where do I start with positive impressions; there have been so many. I love how friendly people are. Zurich is both very Swiss and internationally colorful, a large city that feels like a village – just an amazing mixture. And nature is incredible. Even after 100 days in Zurich, every time when I come off Seilbahn Rigiblick and see the panorama, I still go “wow!”.
My greatest challenge is clearly the language! I am not very good with languages, as failed attempts learning French, Russian, and Hebrew prove. Even in English, after 25 years in the USA, I have such a strong German accent that people recognise where I am from after hearing three words. I hope to be able to understand Swiss German more in the foreseeable future.
Tell us about your first impressions of ETH and LET?
Immediate impressions: It’s large and confusing but my colleagues are very welcoming (thank you!) and are clearly educators at heart. They immediately took it upon themselves to spend a lot of time and effort educating me through a whole curriculum of introductions to the wide spectrum of LET’s activities.
How has your understanding of LET deepened over the last few months?
My impressions after 100 days: it’s still large and confusing. No, seriously, the thing I most had to wrap my mind around is the unique “matrix structure” at LET which enables collaboration across the various teams. Many of my colleagues have told me that they enjoy the variety of their tasks and the collaborative spirit that exists here to solve problems. I came to appreciate how people just work together across the different groups. I also appreciate the level of professionalism and expertise; it’s humbling, and I can only hope to be a good enabler.
What is LET good at and you hope will never change?
The work of LET is not easy. Due to the wide spectrum of activities, it is hard to communicate to the outside what we do and what expertise we have. Outside stresses could easily lead to internal problems, but I have the impression that that’s not the case. I am so glad that we seem to have a genuine collaborative spirit, which I hope never changes.
What do you see as areas of great potential?
We need to be out there at ETH and find more ways of working alongside all groups of stakeholders. LET can walk with different groups of stakeholders and facilitate connections between them.
I make the assumption that across the institution all of us deeply care about student learning, or we would work elsewhere. We might disagree how to best accomplish that, but this is where systematic research and gathering of evidence come into play. How? We also deeply care about facts and data, or, again, we would work elsewhere. Fostering the scholarship of teaching and learning is very high on my agenda as is working with faculty and other stakeholders across the institution. LET is a service unit, and this service should include guidance, assistance, and facilitation of educational research within the departments, including the dissemination of those results.
In addition to the strong expertise we have in the science of learning, we have a strong IT group with creative people, and we are dedicated to fostering innovation. The synergy among them enables practical and applied initiatives as well as the implementation of evidence-based solutions and products. We have the right people and are at the right institution to be a global leader in the systemic approach to the development of next generation tools for teaching and learning. These initiatives can include collaborators all across ETH, and in its unique position, LET can facilitate collaboration.
What observations have you been able to make about the field of educational development and technology in Switzerland as compared to the USA?
As you know, I come from a background of physics education research. In the States, Discipline-Based Educational Research (“DBER”) has turned into a “thing.” This “thing” does not really exist in Europe, partly due to a fundamentally different understanding of what university education is about, as well as different understandings of the roles of students and instructors. A lot of what we teach in our workshops in terms of teaching strategies thus far has been imported from the States, and I believe it’s time to develop our own European variety of DBER.
Educational Technology plays in a central role in teaching and learning in the States, as flipped, blended, hybrid, and online teaching venues have become mainstream. Thus, technology platforms have become mission-critical. We are not yet at that point in Europe (online exams being a big exception where we are at the cutting edge), but I would like to work on next-generation platforms to scale our efforts and keep up with the inevitable digitalisation of teaching and learning.