Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 1, 2015

Classrooms without borders

UW Bothell lecturer Ursula Valdez uses Facebook, Skype and other social media tools to bring together students in Bothell and Peru

UW Bothell lecturer Ursula Valdez learned social media can be adapted to the classroom for effective teaching and learning.

UW Bothell lecturer Ursula Valdez learned social media can be adapted to the classroom for effective teaching and learning.

In spring 2015, Ursula Valdez, a UW Bothell lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, used readily available technology and social media tools to bring Peru and its people right into her Bothell classroom.

She teamed up with a colleague in Peru to teach the same class in two countries at the same time, creating a dynamic virtual learning community that encouraged students from vastly different backgrounds to work and learn together.

“Working with students who are thousands of miles away is not impossible anymore,” says Valdez, who is encouraging colleagues to consider launching similar classes. “We can be in China, in Egypt, in Peru or in a classroom in Seattle. It doesn’t matter. We can use all the offerings of the modern world to help us make global connections.”

We can be in China, in Egypt, in Peru or in a classroom in Seattle…

Valdez’s class—From the Andes to the Cascades along the Pacific Coast: Environmental issues in Peru and the Pacific Northwest—was taught as an advanced seminar for 10 Bothell students. Valdez designed the class as a collaborative international learning experience, partnering with Dr. Armando Valdes-Velasquez, who taught a parallel class for his 20 students at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in the capital city of Lima. Both classes were taught in English.

“Collaborating with the Peruvian students online was an amazing opportunity that challenged my communication skills and significantly helped to prepare me for working with colleagues internationally,” says Kramer Canup, a UW Bothell student.

“This was an experience that made me realize how small I am in this world,” says fellow student Kanwal Yousuf, “yet there is so much one person can do to make a difference.”

Creating a study abroad experience without leaving home

To make the class a success, Valdez knew she needed students in her classroom and in Peru to engage in deep discussions on environmental issues that affect both their countries. And they had to interact and collaborate with one another to find potential solutions.

Valdez, who received her PhD in biology from UW, and her Peruvian colleague relied on social media tools that are ubiquitous around the globe to bring their classes together. They used Skype to create a single virtual classroom, allowing the students in both countries to make voice calls, chat and message, and also to conduct live video conferences over the internet. These sessions brought the parallel classes together as one, even as they were being held concurrently 5,000 miles apart.

To encourage and enrich further interactions among students outside the classroom, Valdez asked students to use social media tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp, a free instant messaging app for smartphones, which allowed students to talk to one another inside and outside the classroom.

There were communication challenges, for sure, but the efforts paid off in huge ways, says Peruvian co-lecturer Valdes-Velasquez.

“Designing and developing a course that took into account two distinct realities and two languages was a huge challenge,” he says. “And one of the most rewarding initiatives I have been involved in.”

Globally networked learning is possible

The seeds for Valdez’s class were planted a year ago, when she attended a UW Bothell Global Initiatives seminar and heard about the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Fellows program.

The fellowship supports UW faculty and staff from all campuses in developing multicultural learning environments that link UW classes to those at other universities across the globe. Instructors use various communication technologies to engage students from different countries, with lecturers from each country co-teaching and managing course work.

…to create an international and intercultural learning community that broke boundaries.

With COIL, Valdez saw an opportunity. “I kept thinking about how I could bring some of these experiences from my native Peru to my students in Bothell. But I was also thinking about how I could bring the rich history and biodiversity of the Northwest to Peruvian students,” she says. “I wanted to create an international and intercultural learning community that broke boundaries.”

Valdez received a COIL fellowship to develop a collaborative international teaching and learning experience that focused on biodiversity, climate change and other important issues that face the Northwest and Peru. With assistance from Valdes-Velasquez, she spent several months designing her course.

“It was not difficult to find parallels between the two countries,” Valdez says. “Armando and I wanted students from each country to relate to each other’s problems.”

Valdez’s six suggestions for creating parallel classes

1. Find a committed teaching partner and connect with UW resources for support

Support is available for UW faculty and staff who want to pursue teaching globally. The Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Fellows program can guide you on how to successfully carry out globally networked learning, from finding a faculty partner to gathering institutional support and negotiating course content with your teaching partner. Demonstrating her commitment to co-teaching, Valdez used her fellowship funds to bring Valdes-Velasquez to Bothell to help lead classroom discussions for a week, and she traveled to Peru to teach in his class as well. While having global connections was certainly helpful to Valdez—who grew up and studied in Peru and continues to teach there—they are not required.


2. Apply to be a UW COIL Fellow


UW faculty from all three campuses are encouraged to apply for the 2015-16 cohort of UW Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Fellows. Successful applicants will receive $2,000 in funding and individualized support to implement an international collaboration course.

3. Focus tightly on engaging topics that cut across borders

Finding areas of common interest to students in both countries is one of the most important components of any co-taught international class, Valdez says. Working together, Valdez and her teaching partner settled on four major topics for discussion that had parallels in both countries: biodiversity and iconic species of the Pacific Northwest and Peru; use of forest resources and the impact of human activities on habitat loss, conservation and the economy; mountain ecology and climate change; and fisheries and conservation.

4. Collaboration leads to higher engagement

Interaction and collaboration with Peruvian students was highly motivating for her class, Valdez says. It led to higher engagement with class materials and better learning outcomes.

“You begin to see things you didn’t see through the eyes of someone who may live in a very different society compared to yours,” says Yousuf, of UW Bothell. “You get to compare issues that happen around your area to issues that are happening around the world. I learned a lot about why our ecosystem is so important, but most importantly I learned why collaborating and researching with other people from other parts of the world is so important.”

Canup, a fellow student, agreed. “It was a truly unique interdisciplinary experience, with a diverse class structure that always kept me engaged and excited, as the class combined group discussions with students abroad, and outdoor workshops and field trips with professional conservation biologists.”

5. Social media is your friend

There are many ways to communicate across the globe but Valdez settled on Skype, both for its large number of communication features and because it is readily accessible to Peruvians.

So is Facebook, and Valdez decided to create a private group to allow students to share information outside the classroom.

Facebook post

Valdez posted often in a private group in Facebook for both classes to encourage discussions across borders—and got lively responses.

“I never imagined that Facebook would have been such a powerful tool for learning,” says Valdez, who posted often to encourage students to discuss issues.

COIL facilitator Greg Tuke was impressed by the use of Facebook. “It was so clear to me when I read the student Facebook exchanges that they were connecting with each other both from the head and the heart.”

“Anyone can research, then compare and contrast bioregions of the world,” Tuke says. “The information is easy to access. But as these students learned about their local bioregions and how it impacted people they now were getting to know, students started gathering and posting additional information to benefit each other, not just to get a better grade. That is motivated learning at its best.”

Valdez also created a blog for students to share their ideas, and during field trips to Mount Rainier and other Cascade Mountains destinations, she encouraged them to make short videos that could be shared with their Peruvian counterparts.

This diverse array of communication tools made it easier for students to exchange ideas inside and outside the classroom.

“Yes, there were language barriers, technical barriers, but students felt empowered,” says Valdez. “They could talk to one another, exchange ideas and have lively discussions. We used everything we had at our disposal to help them learn together.”

6. Move students to action

Valdez wanted her students to understand that research for research’s sake is not enough. She wanted students to take action that would encourage real change. So, students were asked to write articles and letters to editors and politicians to bring attention to environmental issues. At Bothell, students assembled a display table at the center of campus with information on protecting water quality in Puget Sound, and asked fellow students to sign a petition.

UW Bothell Students Petition to protect water quality in the Puget Sound

UW Bothell students set up an information table to discuss water quality issues in Puget Sound and asked fellow students to sign a petition to protect it.

The Peruvians took similar actions back in Lima. “We were able to do concrete things to solve problems such as writing letters to various authorities, whether the head of state, ministry of environment or fishery, and letters to the editor in magazines,” Peruvian student Romina Najarro says. “It was rewarding to have new ideas for problem solving, as well as cultural exchange among students.”

Beyond moving students to action, the joint classes showed the incredible potential of connecting students around the world.

“Watching my students explore the similarities between the past and current issues in Washington and Peru, engage in heated discussions with their US counterparts, and work jointly to come up with great presentations and great work has led me to believe that the skills to work internationally should be an intrinsic part of our career programs,” Valdes-Velasquez says. “It creates new and enriching opportunities for students and, most importantly, helps create a new kind of professional capable of generating global initiatives and answers to today’s problems.”