Active since 2002, Dream College is an exchange project for teachers, trainers and professionals run by a wide network of Finnish special needs vocational learning institutions. This consortium, led by Luovi Vocational College, seeks mainly to make learning environments more physically and socially accessible – especially for students with severe handicaps.
Mari Kontturi, international manager at the college, has more than 10 years’ experience of networks in vocational education and rehabilitation. Successful networks, says Kontturi, need all members to agree on the rules and be fully committed to the network, including freely sharing their know-how and contacts. Management buy-in for the network’s activities is also key. To help matters, each party's duties and responsibilities should be set down in writing.
Sharing may prove tough for institutions that have well-established contacts – it's easier to do this when the whole project is new. And networking can be very useful – making it easier for a smaller body to start a venture in India, for example. In Kontturi's opinion: ‘If individual members use joint funding to manage just their own business, that's not networking. They should at the very least share their experiences with others.’
Kontturi agrees that a network needs an active and committed coordinator to run things and keep everything together. Still, other people have to shoulder their share of responsibility. ‘Meetings are particularly important in the early stages of networking and when there are new members in the network. Later on, videoconferencing, for example, is useful in smaller working groups or for deciding on matters which have been well prepared. Sharing experience on a regular basis is similarly important.’
The Dream College projects have proved a great success. The experts have been able to compare vocational special education in Finland and other European countries, and take home new ideas and methods. And the exchanges have not only improved cooperation between teachers and other staff members but generally given everyone new enthusiasm and support for their everyday work.