Meet DIS Academic Director, Helle Rytkønen

Congratulations on your new position as the DIS Academic Director! What are your plans and goals under this leadership?

One important goal is to continue to ask what good learning is in a study abroad context. We work with students who come from some of the best universities in the world. We have such dedicated and inspiring faculty at DIS, and I am working with the other Program Directors and the Teaching & Learning Center to provide them with the best possible training and resources, so that they can continue to best engage, challenge, and empower our students.

Another goal is to engage faculty members across disciplines so that we can inspire each other – and to always be in dialogue with our partner universities in the U.S. about their academic expectations.

We are incredibly lucky at DIS to have faculty who are also professionals in the field. How will we see their role develop?

A crucial part of the DIS academic experience is that our students are taught by practitioners who ‘teach what they do.’ For example, students in the Medical Practice & Policy program are taught by doctors at hospitals, while students in the Creative Travel Writing course are taught by professional journalists or authors. We already have a strong tradition of faculty taking students outside of our physical classrooms on field studies to contextualize classroom learning with a ‘real’ environment example. These interactions also happen though practicums and internships in connection to our courses, and we are likely to see an increase in this – in all programs and not just in some.

Our faculty members are instrumental in all these efforts, as they have connections outside of academia from their professional field to share with our students, and can integrate their practical experiences with what they are teaching in the classroom.

Can you tell us about the DIS pedagogical focus?

We strongly believe that the student who can see the relevance of what she does, is more likely to remember what she learned. Similarly, we know from studies that students learn best if they are not just passively receiving information, but are actively engaged in their own learning process. Our faculty members are experienced in designing courses and assignments so that they are hands-on, creative, and experiential; and they’re incredibly good at relating the class material to what we refer to as ‘burning issues,’ important contemporary debates in media and academia, that are complicated, pressing, and unresolved.

In the past year or so, you have been researching the use of technology in the classroom. Can you tell us about that, and what additions we might see in the DIS classroom?

Technology today is potentially revolutionizing education – enabling us to take classes online, allowing us to reconsider what a learning space is, and giving students the chance engage and learn in new ways. Our inquiry therefore goes far beyond additions of technology in classrooms.

This past year, a group of faculty members, the head of IT at DIS, and I have looked specifically at technology as it applies to education abroad. We quickly agreed that any discussions have to start with pedagogy. Which technologies enhance the pedagogical goals we have at DIS? We are not likely to start offering MOOCs (meaning, Massive Open Online Courses) because it’s crucial to our academic model that students are physically here in Europe, but we are very interested in the concept of ‘blended learning’ where the boundary between inside and outside the classroom is blurred.

DIS faculty members will be better supported if they want to ‘flip’ or ‘scramble’ their classroom (recording the lecture for students to watch outside of the classroom, so class time can be spent on hands-on activities, discussions, simulation games, etc.). Similarly, we’re providing a forum for faculty to share their best practices for integrating technology into the learning process.

There will also be changes to some of our existing classrooms. Right now, our classrooms have smart boards and Wi-Fi, but some rooms will be extra technology enhanced (allowing students’ individual laptops to connect to the main monitor, equipping class rooms for game programing, data mining, augmented realities, etc.). We are currently in dialogue with some of our U.S. partner universities about their use of technology and how we might be able to use technology pre- and post-departure.

These are exciting times, and technology gives us a chance to think about teaching and learning in new ways. And while some of our classes function superbly as is, it is exciting to discuss how to ensure that our best pedagogical principles also work with students who are digital natives and at a time where technologies are so pervasive – in education and elsewhere.

Speaking of breaking down the barriers of the traditional classroom, how do you think DIS achieves this now?

Phenomenally, in many areas! The faculty members who have their students pitch a business plan to European entrepreneurs or work with designers to build an actual chair help ensure this, but we are also serious about our tagline ‘Europe as your classroom.’ All students are enrolled in core classes and go on faculty-led course-integrated study tours to a destination in Europe relevant to their topic of study. All students also go on field studies and engage with Danish professionals and students in Copenhagen. In general, it is really interesting to rethink what a learning space is – surely, it can be more than a physical classroom.

At DIS, we talk a lot about students having a holistic learning experience. What does that mean to you?

It means that a student’s learning experience is not limited to the classroom, as I mentioned earlier. It relates to the way students engage academically, both inside and outside the classroom, during academic study tours, practicums, etc. Our Living & Learning Communities are a popular and fairly recent addition to our housing offerings, and they are another great example of this. Students in the Social Justice Living & Learning Community, for example, meet once a week for dinner with a faculty member and visit with Danish activists and talk to them about social justice issues here in Denmark. Hence, every part of the student’s life while abroad, is a part of their learning experience.

How does a study abroad semester at DIS supplement an undergraduate degree from the U.S.?

Every study abroad experience has the potential to be a significant life event because the student is in a new culture and experiences journey of profound self-discovery. Both elements are important to the student’s learning. So while DIS transfers credits and teaches in English – and in that sense, is recognizable to their home institution – a semester at DIS is profoundly different in other ways.

Students immerse in the Danish culture, and we help them navigate, translate, and reflect on it. We do this through a combination of theory and practice, while also being adamant that the student’s learning does NOT end when class is out. For instance, students learn when they live in homestays or in a kollegium with international students. They learn, too, when they join a soccer team or go to the local gym or church. They learn from navigating a new culture – how do you shop? Or greet people? What are the expectations when you come to dinner at a Danish visiting family? Who asks who to dance when you go to a club?

For those of us who have studied abroad ourselves, we have probably experienced it – you become keenly aware of all the otherwise invisible norms and values that have helped to shape you. And knowing yourself and your values, understanding that there are other ways of doing things – that there are many ways to be ‘normal’ – is a profound skill in the global world today. Study abroad adds that to the undergraduate experience.

Tell us about your own experience of being a study abroad student at Berkeley, studying at Stanford and living abroad!

It was the most unlikely of things! I went to study abroad at UC Berkeley and was scheduled to be there for nine months. I ended up staying in the Bay Area for 19 years, so it’s fair to say that my life has been profoundly shaped by study abroad. After two years at Berkeley, I was accepted to Stanford and earned a Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature with a Ph.D. minor in international relations. To this day, I cannot quite believe I was afforded an opportunity to sit for years under a palm tree and read amazing work by professors I then met with later in classrooms. After I graduated, I did post-doc work for a year at the Stanford Center for Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity and was then lucky enough to get a teaching position at Stanford.

Every day at DIS, I draw on my own experience of living and studying abroad, both when I teach and when I work with faculty members on their classes. I remember what it’s like to be homesick, to feel inadequate, or academically insecure – but also to feel empowered and on fire, because so many exciting thoughts and feelings are present. I treasure being a part of an organization, which helps students experience all this – and reflect on their experiences. It may sound lofty and idealistic, but I truly believe a study abroad experience has the ability to profoundly impact an individual both personally and professionally – even if they don’t end up staying abroad for 19 years…

Why did you come back to Copenhagen, and why did you decide to stay?

My visa in the U.S. expired and I had to leave the country for a year. I had known that for a long time and was looking forward to the change. I planned to go back to the U.S., but I was drawn to DIS and feel extremely fortunate that I get to work with ‘my’ students from the U.S. in my native country.

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