Global Connections 2.0 (or are we up to 3.0?)

Steve Volk, April 3, 2017

"Sam_6010," photo by Johanna L., Flickr - Creative Commons

“Sam_6010,” photo by Johanna L., Flickr – Creative Commons

The higher ed press has run a number of articles recently on the ways that institutional collaborations can save money by multiplying scarce resources while providing opportunities for students and faculty not normally available on any single campus.  Susan Palmer, the executive director of the Five Colleges of Ohio (Denison, Kenyon, Ohio Wesleyan, Oberlin, and Wooster), for example, wrote about a number of our collaborations including projects on digital scholarship, faculty planning, curricular coherence,  integrated learning, language enrichment, and others.

Individual faculty have been collaborating with colleagues at other institutions for years, often using readily available and free software (usually Skype) to “bring in” the author of a book the students are currently reading, listening to “on the scene” observations from colleagues living in areas of the world where important events are occurring, or connecting language learners with peers in target language countries.

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. student at Keep Co-op, Oberlin College, 2010 (Photo Amanda Nagy)

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. student at Keep Co-op, Oberlin College, 2010 (Photo Amanda Nagy)

Beyond this, some faculty have put the time and effort (and often blood, sweat and tears) into developing more intensive collaborations across institutions and national borders because the results, in terms of student learning and personal impact as well as the faculty members’ own professional development, can be so significant. At Oberlin, the “American Democracy” project run by emeriti history professors Carol Lasser and Gary Kornblith, comes to mind.  Beginning in 2010. The project consisted of two parallel partnerships, one between Al Quds University (Palestine) and Oberlin College, and the other between Tel Aviv University (Israel) and Oberlin College. Using a common sourcebook of readings, courses on the American democratic experience were taught in tandem at the three institutions. Besides posting reflections on a joint course management site, students from all three institutions “met” via video conferencing and, for a number of summers, in person in Oberlin.

Certainly, technology plays a large role in bringing widespread communities together. Blogs, Skype, Zoom, or other video conferencing tools make connections possible. But when considering a new generation of collaborations, the main factor should not necessarily (or not only) be the availability of the technology that underlies them, as important as this is, but – as with the American Democracy project – the pedagogic outcomes that make the investment of time and effort worthwhile. Simply put, before launching into collaborations which will demand a lot of your time and – often – resources, you need to be clear that what is to be gained in terms of student learning and one’s own professional engagement.

Global Liberal Arts Alliance

As a way of highlighting the work involved, and the impressive results that can be obtained, I’m going to highlight two projects that arose from collaborations between the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) and the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA). You know of the former, so let me explain the GLAA. Founded in 2009, the GLAA is a partnership of American style liberal arts institutions made up of 29 institutions representing 17 countries including Japan, Nigeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Morocco, Ghana, India, and Pakistan, among others.

One of the GLAA’s projects is “Global Course Connections,” which links courses taught in two (or more) GLAA campuses in different countries. For example, Zeinab Abul-Magd (History, Oberlin) linked her course on Borders, Wars, and Displacement in MENA with that of a colleague (Amy Austin Holmes) who was teaching at the American University in Cairo. Julie Brodie at Kenyon connected her Modern Dance and Choreography course with Ana Sanchez’s similarly themed course taught at the American College of Greece. (If you’re interested in applying to the program, you can get more information here.)

Here, I’d like to feature two “Global Course Connections” that were recently reported on by the GLCA/GLAA Consortium on Teaching and Learning. (Full disclosure: I co-direct the Consortium.) Each project underscores the ways that the pedagogies leveraged by these connections made not only resulted in significant student learning and personal growth, but also produced important professional development opportunities and ongoing professional relationships for the faculty involved.

Language Learning: Connecting the U.S. and Bulgaria

When I was learning Spanish, back when the Habsburgs were still running the show in Spain, I was given a pen pal with whom I corresponded. We exchanged maybe two letters each semester which featured scintillating exchanges: Hola, Gustavo. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Vayas a una escuela?  Snore.

With Skype and other free or cheap conferencing software, the world really opened up for language instructors. Here was the opportunity to connect students to their same-age peers in target language countries. A Spanish learner in a U.S. classroom could connect to a student in Buenos Aires and discuss futbol, trends in pop music, or politics while actually seeing each other on a screen.

Diana Stantcheva (left) and Gabriele Dillmann

Diana Stantcheva (left) and Gabriele Dillmann

But those connections still had limitations, as Gabriele Dillmann, Professor of German at Denison University, came to realize.  Dillmann had been connecting her introductory German class with students in Germany, but the linking was not as productive as it could have been. As the students’ conversations were, naturally enough, in German, the German students were often less engaged in a conversation that was only going to have an impact for one set of learners. It was, as Dillmann put it, “simply boring” for them. The students, both native German speakers and native English speakers, kept switching to English when they grew frustrated because the German students were all fluent in English. What was needed, she realized, was a connection between two groups of students in different countries who were both learning German.

Enter Diana Stantcheva, Professor of German at the American University of Bulgaria (AUBG) in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. Using the course connections made possible through the GLAA, they began to think about bringing German learners in an Ohio classroom together with German learners in Bulgaria, learners who were on the same level of language learning, had the same set of interests, the same inhibitions, and, as Dillmann put it, were “on the same power level.” When one person knows a language fluently and the other doesn’t, Dillmann and Stantcheva argued, “there’s a shift that’s not very conducive” to real communication. The connection with AUBG, where a little more than half the students are Bulgarian and the remainder from a variety of countries, was a perfect opportunity to test these understandings.

Two pairs of Denison-AUBG students involved in a German-language learning class

Two pairs of Denison-AUBG students involved in a German-language learning class

If the outcome of the collabortion can be measured by a desire to repeat the project, there’s no question that this has been successful. Since the fall 2013 semester, Dillmann and Stantcheva have taught together nine times. As Dillmann said, “I can’t even imagine teaching a course without Diana anymore.” Using a variety of video conferencing technology (Zoom, Skype) and blogging tools, students are connected asynchronously at the level of the class and synchronously on their own. They are formed into groups of four (2 from each university), and they join up a variety of times over the semester to talk as well as to collaborate in carrying out joint projects.

Both instructors have documented the significant impact of this program particularly in terms of the students’ growing capacity to speak German – but they have also observed a clear improvement in all four language proficiencies (speaking, reading, writing, understanding). And more is learned than the target language. Students come away with enhanced technological and digital skills, including important lessons in digital etiquette across cultural barriers; inter-cultural learning; and collaboration skills as practiced in global environment. In the end, what made a difference in terms of student language learning was, as the instructors put it, that this was “not language production for the sake of language production; it’s language production for the sake of communication.”

As important, particularly when thinking about the sustainability of such projects, both faculty members have used their collaboration to advance their professional careers. Together, they have attended four international conferences and meetings and published three papers with two more forthcoming.  As Dillmann observed, “For me, I must honestly say, it’s probably been my most productive time.”

You can learn more about this collaboration through a short video of a conversation between Dillmann and Stantcheva, as well as the longer (42:00) version. Finally, Dillmann has posted “tons of examples” of their collaboration on her website and invites those who are interested to use everything that is there.

Narratives of Peace, Conflict, and Justice

Dagmar Kusá (left) and Deirdre Johnston

Dagmar Kusá (left) and Deirdre Johnston

The second collaboration engaged three faculty members: Deirdre Johnston, Professor of Communications at Hope College (Holland, Michigan, USA), Dagmar Kusá, Professor of Political Science at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA) (Bratislava, Slovakia), and Rima Rantisi at the American University in Beirut (Lebanon). The three faculty members developed a collaborative course which they titled, “Narratives of Peace, Conflict and Justice: Transitions in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”  Their collaboration was designed to allow students at the three sites to study processes of peace, conflict and justice in their own countries before bringing them to a new setting, South Africa. In particular, students at Hope College examined the history of race and race relations in the U.S., students at BISLA explored the treatment accorded to the Roma population in Europe, and those in Beirut investigated issues of religion and tribe in Lebanon. Visiting South Africa, a country that was largely unknown to the participants, and witnessing the same kinds of conflicts as in the settings they knew and had studied in their own countries, was quite powerful for the students, particularly as they came to realize how pervasive themes of conflict and the desire for justice were in all human societies.

The “Peace, Conflict and Justice” collaborative is a fine example of lesson that you need to put in the time in order to get at the desired results, and that successful collaborations, understood as those that produce significant learning opportunities for the students and important professional development for faculty, take considerable effort — and produce important rewards.  It took the faculty involved more than two years of work and numerous meetings to elaborate a course structure and theme, develop a common syllabus, and decide on joint readings, film work, and assignments. In the end, they agreed to organize the course around three main goals: (1) Student self-awareness, i.e., opening a process which would allow students to reflect on, and be responsible for, one’s own identity; (2) Awareness of the other, including understanding and coping with one’s stereotypes of those defined as other; and (3) Using narrative approaches to understand the process of identity formation and identity conflicts.

The course was structured on the basis of what they called a laddered, “three-dimensional perspective taking” approach. The first stage involved learning about a source of systematic oppression within one’s own national/historical context (as mentioned above:  race in the United States; the Roma community in Slovakia; and religious oppression in Lebanon). Students gathered background on their domestic systems of oppression, which they then had to teach to students from the other two countries. Through this process of teaching to the other students, they learned that those students also had a perspective on their own domestic context which was not necessarily shared by the foreign students.

Students visiting the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa

Students visiting the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa

The second stage involved a circular process of seeing oneself as other, in other words, as being complicit within one’s own domestic context of oppression and see others as also complicit in their own domestic contexts. Finally, the travel to South Africa involved students in the process of learning in a “neutral” area, where they were coming “fresh,” i.e., without a history, into the setting.  This led to the sharing of research ideas and carrying out research on the themes developed in the course.

But perhaps the most important impact of the course came after the students returned home as they reflected not just on what they learned by being in South Africa, but what they could do at home to address systems of oppression in their own domestic settings.

The Impact

As with the language-learning collaboration, this one also had a strong impact on the faculty participants’ professional development. By developing a joint syllabus and course framework, they exposed each other to new literatures, new sources, and new approaches to teaching themes that each had been engaged in for years.

Even more, the impact on the students made all the hard work worth it, according to Johnston and Kusá.  On an intellectual level, the students came to understand the complex ways that systems of oppression operated, how the church in South Africa, for example, could both lend institutional support to apartheid and also fight against it. The students also underwent considerable personal transformations. For many students, the topics covered in the course were very personal, having lived through periods of conflict and violence in their own countries. Their discomfort, in fact, was often quite evident to the instructors. But that discomfort also led to greater learning and a realization of the need to take responsibility for one’s own community. One student contemplating leaving Lebanon, for example, decided that she needed to stay to work for those things she understood were important. The faculty described the casual conversations that absorbed the students while traveling, standing at a bus stop or eating in a restaurant, as particularly powerful. Transitional justice, ethical approaches, communism vs. capitalism; models of urban development: all were themes that the students brought up on their own.

Harvin-JohnstonSarah Harvin, a student at Hope College who was a part of the project, spoke, along with Johnston and Kusá at a recent GLCA gathering in Ann Arbor. For her, the most meaningful (and difficult) aspect of the course was using this laddered approach to learning (studying your own identity, seeing yourself as other, and applying lessons learned in a new context). She talked about how difficult it was to reconcile perspectives within one’s own group in order to be able to explain those perspectives to the other two groups of students, particularly as their topic was the history of race and racism in America. But the process of being in South Africa where all three perspectives (U.S., Slovakian, Lebanese) were constantly engage in grappling with a new, and highly complex environment, was invaluable, giving everyone the experience of seeing that history through three lenses simultaneously.

Harvin reported that she had gone on a Hope College trip to Rwanda two years earlier, but, as it was only with other students from her own college, she was never able to get out of what she called the “Hope bubble.” On this trip, however, Hope students traveled with students from other countries with whom they had build up a level of trust, and who, therefore, had no trouble saying, “wait, stop, hold on. That’s your U.S. perspective talking.” Harvin continued, “That for me was good to hear; it was a check on my privilege as an American, as a person with a U.S. passport.” But at the same time she had to reconcile “that privilege with the experience of being underrepresented [African American] in the U.S.” The questions she was left with, “How do those two experiences co-exist? How do I deal with those two different aspects of identity,” questions which were really at the very foundation of the course, clearly continued to resonate among both students and faculty.

You can see a short video about this collaboration here, and an extended video (26:11) here. Finally, click here to see a slide show the participants put together from their South African trip.


The Global Liberal Arts Alliance course collaborations provide remarkable opportunities to significantly impact student learning as well as one’s own professional development. But I’ll leave you with a third example that has a bit of a “Black Mirror” aspect to it, although I mean that in the kindest of ways. (If you’re not familiar with that British series, follow the above link – and prepare to be disturbed!) I’m going to quote from some promotional materials on “Portals,” since I haven’t seen them in action, to explain what they are:

Portals are gold spaces equipped with immersive audiovisual technology. When you enter a Portal, you come face-to-face with someone in a distant Portal live and full-body, as if in the same room.


OK, so “portals” look like big, gold shipping containers — I told you they were a bit weird — although they are also can come as a set of life-sized screens, or as tents. Confused? The idea is that in these “portals,” of whatever design, you can interact with others who are inside portals around the world; interact in real time and life size. Think of a full body Skype…one that actually works (or so I imagine).

But they aren’t just boxes with technology. The portals come with, and are run by, “portal curators” who program dialogues, classes and events, lead local outreach and provide live language interpretation. Portals (and curators) are based in places like Afghanistan, Cuba, Jordan, Germany, Honduras, India, Iraq (Harsham Refugee IDP Camp in Erbil), Iran, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, Pakistan, Palestine (Gaza Sky Geeks tech incubator in Gaza City), Rwanda, South Korea, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Portal Curators

A few portal curators (Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Berlin, Mexico City, Herat)

The portals can be used to connect classes to study history, link individuals to study language, bring together entrepreneurs to explore start up ideas, join artists to perform together. They can be used to launch global conversations, connect citizens, etc. Now I’m sounding like their press agents, and I haven’t seen what they are capable of doing in person. But check them out yourself at Shared Studios and let me know what you think.

We are obviously in a new age of connection and collaboration which technology makes possible. But, as with all any educational endeavor, it needs to be driven by student learning and what can be gained through the effort, and by faculty engagement, and what is sustainable. The toys one can play with are fun, but not the most important thing.

What collaborations have you been engaged in? What has worked for you? What was important but unsustainable?

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