The visiting fellow who will not visit

A lecturer will take her sabbatical at Durham without leaving Canberra, writes Hannah Fearn

June 18, 2009

Patricia Easteal, an Australian lecturer, has accepted a "virtual sabbatical" at Durham University in what is believed to be a global first.

Dr Easteal will attend staff meetings taking place in Durham, teach students and turn up to morning coffee breaks, all without ever leaving her home in Canberra.

The arrangement will allow her to work for the British university while still enjoying the sunny climes of the Australian capital.

Dr Easteal, professor of law at the University of Canberra, has accepted a five-month research sabbatical at Durham. She will conduct all her business with staff and students via online tools such as Skype and YouTube.

Although she has never stepped foot in the university, Dr Easteal now holds the title of visiting fellow in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham.

During the sabbatical, she will work with students and academics remotely through virtual coffee breaks, blogs, wikis, as well as teaching through Second Life.

Nicole Westmarland, lecturer in criminal justice at Durham, devised the project with Dr Easteal after the pair collaborated on a book.

"She mentioned that she was on sabbatical, couldn't actually leave Australia and had come up with this pioneering concept of a virtual sabbatical," Dr Westmarland said. "We've got to a stage (technologically) where it's easier to do that."

Dr Easteal said: "I thought about the purposes of the sabbatical, both for the visitor and for the host institution, and had a 'eureka' moment.

"Like so many aspects of academia, why couldn't these be fulfilled through e-technology?"

Dr Easteal took up her post on 1 June. From September, after a period to test the technologies, she will have virtual access to all staff and students.

She will work with Durham until the end of November. "I do feel like a pioneer and am looking forward to five months of trial and error," she said.

Dr Westmarland acknowledged that there was potential for technological hitches, and that the 11-hour time difference between Durham and Canberra could prove problematic. Dr Easteal will have to record some lectures for students and contribute to some staff meetings after the event by watching them online and submitting her comments.

"We're just giving it a go, really. We're not 100 per cent clear that it is even something we want to recommend to others, but we're trialling it as a concept," Dr Westmarland said.

If successful, it is hoped that the virtual sabbatical will help academics who cannot travel, because they are carers or have a disability, to boost their careers by taking up a post at a foreign university.

"International exchange is an important aspect of academic life. These are criteria used by many universities in tenure and promotion decision-making," Dr Easteal said.

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