Sunday, December 2, 2018

When learning gets real

Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Student assignments (essays, group work, reports) are all too often written for an audience of one, namely the teacher, and for the sole purpose of providing a basis for grading. The student will adjust the effort according to the weight of the assignment (number of credits available) and try to meet that particular teacher's criteria. The idea that anyone else might benefit from the assignment or that it should have some real impact outside the confines of the classroom is seldom considered. However, the assignment can be transformed by making it public or better still aimed at a wider audience which can benefit from the findings. Learning can be transformed when the audience is expanded and the results can make a difference. In addition, most employers are looking for evidence of practical experience so let's make sure that assignments are as real as possible.

This is nothing new of course but the potential was reinforced for me during a seminar I attended in Beirut, Lebanon, this week, Skills needed for the twenty first century and their impact on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.The afternoon session featured interesting examples of how learning is enhanced when a course becomes a stage and the results of the students' work benefit a wide and even global audience. Several speakers described how business simulations generate high levels of student engagement and provide a realistic setting for developing decision-making and teamwork skills. This is combined with teaching and plenty of feedback and tutorials from the teachers. Simulations do indeed generate a high level of student commitment but the bar can be raised even higher when you move from simulated activities to real problems in real organisations and let the students interact with professionals in their field. Two examples in particular stood out for me.

Corporate virtual mobility
One way of raising the bar for students is allowing them to do projects for companies and thus develop their skills, gain work experience and learn to collaborate online and meet real deadlines. A great example of university-industry collaboration was from Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK). They had first linked business students with an international company that was interested in breaking into the Middle East market. The students spent 2 months working as marketing consultants for the company, under the supervision of their teachers and were constantly in contact with company representatives. The final product was a marketing survey that was of great practical use for the company whilst the students had been able to put their theoretical knowledge into practice and also gained practical work experience for their CVs. The success of this venture lead to the university linking up with the Spanish-based academic business network, Telanto. Telanto links companies who have problems to solve (challenges) with suitable university classes who can try to find a solution to these challenges. Students work intensively with the company to solve the challenge and the result is beneficial to both sides. In the case of USEK, several students were asked to join an internship programme with the company or even offered full-time employment on graduation. This is a further example of virtual mobility but this time the mobility is with a company rather than a university. Experience of working in virtual international teams to solve problems is extremely attractive in today's job market and I think we will see many more ventures like this in the future.
See slideshow: Teaching Through Real Cases in Collaboration with the Industry, Tina Habib (USEK)

International film festival
Notre Dame University (NDU) in Beirut organises each year an international film festival featuring short films from young film makers under the theme The power of youth. The festival has an impressive international reputation and attracts a wide audience but the most interesting aspect is how the festival is so well integrated into the academic work of the university with students of many disciplines helping to plan, produce and run it. Film students get the chance of international exposure and students from other disciplines are able to get hands-on work experience collaborating with professionals and working to strict deadlines. Workshops and master classes are run by professional film makers as part of the curriculum. Organising the festival is an all-year activity and students are able to weave their way between theory in class and practice in the festival, often working in multi-disciplinary and international teams. See the slideshow: On the ground. The case of NDU International Film Festival, Nicolas Khabbaz (NDU).

Linking theory with real-life practice and solving real problems take learning to a new level. If you then add elements of internationalisation, virtual mobility, problem-solving and collaboration into the mix, the experience becomes so much richer than in a traditional academic setting. Student engagement levels were much higher since they could see that their efforts really made a difference and there was a genuine sense of pride at contributing to a final product that gained public approval.

See all the slideshows from this seminar (including mine!).