Undergraduate student collaborationin international social care researchprojects: an innovative approach.Dr. Mark Garavan & Mr. Hugh Mc BrideMayo Campus (MC), GMITLIN Conference, October 2012
Origins of the initiative:Grew out of an evolving partnership between Mayo Campus (MC), GMIT and University of Applied Sciences, Hogeschool Leeuwarden, Netherlands (NHL).
NHL: a 4 year degree in social work, with aminor elective component in the final year.One minor is in international social care.MC: a ‘3+1’ structure.Level 7 degree after 3 years, Level 8 degreeafter 1 further add-on year.
Initiative agreed during MC lecturerexchange visit to NHL in March 2011, forimplementation in academic year 2011/12.
ConceptMulti-national student teams (Dutch andIrish), who may have never met,working together on student-driven, research-based projectsenabled by the use of ICT and social media.‘Hands-off’ oversight by academics, butstructured context.
In this case, in comparative internationalsocial care.
Expected project outputs:A written report.Presentation at student-conference, to beheld simultaneously in NHL and MC, linkedby live video conference.Presentation to incorporate a film or other‘visual report’ to illustrate research.
Purposes? Intended learning outcomes?Enriched knowledge andunderstanding, with comparativeinternational dimension.Develop research abilities and skills.Develop transferable skills set (for e.g., inteam working, communications, ICT).
Develop critical awareness of inter-culturaldifference, and of the nature and value ofpeer learning.Enriched basis for a long-term career as aprofessional practitioner.
Pioneered as a pilot study: to test feasibility; to better understand process and issues; to contribute to closer links; a learning process for curious academics.Envisaged that initiative be extended toinclude other international partners.
At NHL: an accredited module as part ofinternational social care minor.At MC: an element of CA for year 3, Level7, students (no Level 8 students at that time).Accredited Level 8 module to be developedat MC if pilot successful.
18 students participated: 8 NHL, 10 MC4 teams of 4 or 5 (2 NHL + 2/3 MC)2 lead ‘supervisory’ academics.Commenced in late December 2011, endedMay 2012.
In Dec. 2011, initial introductory exchangeof e-mails by students.In Jan. 2012, formed self-selecting teamsand agreed topics through processes ofspeed-dating and horse-trading.
Each team agreed a methodology for theresearch process, a ‘working contract’.This the first formal requirement to be met.Submitted to lead academics.
The four projects were:Comparative early child-care policies.Early-teenage perspectives on alcohol use.Second-level student attitudes towardshomosexuality (acceptance of homosexualyoungsters).Asylum-seeker care provision.
Good initial enthusiastic start, but serious‘grumbles’ quickly began to emerge – fromboth sets of students.About poor communication, unrealisticexpectations, poor commitment, work ethicand habits etc.Initiative in danger of ‘going off the rails’!
In retrospect, this not surprising.‘Grumbles’ essentially reflecting deep-seated cultural and value differences, thatshape ‘ways of being, thinking and doing’.
Source of difficulties included:Differing: conceptual, socio-political and institutional frameworks; epistemological and pedagogical frameworks; ways of working; modes of social interaction.
Difficulties arising from language (Englishand how we speak it!).Age profile and life-experiences of students.Expectations re work level involved.‘High stakes’ for the students, especially inNHL.
ICT and social media may have contributedto a false sense of ‘we are all the same’,masking cultural and value differences - andreinforcing pre-formed stereotypes andprejudice,obscuring and distorting the complexity ofthe inter-personal and inter-culturalchallenges posed by communication.
Crucial confidence-building interventionpossible during scheduled lecturer exchangevisit in March 2012.Afforded an opportunity to interveneovertly, but also in terms of ‘signalling’.
Mutual trust and confidence engendered bythe established collegial relationshipbetween academics, and their shared senseof ownership and responsibility.
Visit coincided with an international socialcare conference at NHL.MC students active participation by VC.Two MC students on exchange to NHL inApril.Initiative back on track!
Student-conference was very successful.High quality presentations, incorporatingimaginative use of technology, and tight co-ordination to ensure a seamless process.Research reports of a high standard for thelevel.
The work was assessed jointly by NHL (2)and MC (3) academics.Assessment process, culminating in a skypeconference call, also posed some interestingcultural challenges.
Student feedback through formal evaluationsurvey.Very positive and strongly affirmed thevalue of the initiative.
I feel there are very strong learningopportunities – both in working withstrangers and forming strong workingrelationships; and in learning about adifferent culture and different approaches tosocial care work; and also differentapproaches to academic works.(Comment by Irish Student)
It helps me to make my vision bigger andthink more wide about social work.(Comment by Dutch student)
Overall, the initiative considered to havebeen very successful, with hugely positivelearning outcomes, exceeding expectations.A significant and enriching learningexperience for both students and academics.
Will be repeated. Module since validated at Level 8.Model is replicable in other disciplinaryareas.
All the usual challenges inherent in student-driven research-project group work remain,but some added issues,arising from internationaldimension, distance, and reliance ontechnology rather than personal contact.
Critical importance of sensitivity to, andrespect for, cultural and linguistic difference.Need for initial series of ‘framing’seminars/lectures.Students need time to get to know andunderstand and trust each other.
Critical importance of mutualknowledge, inter-personal relationships andgoodwill in fostering internationalcollaboration.Quality of personal relationship, and ofprofessional trust and respect amongcollaborating academics key.
Trust in the students and let them get onwith it.But need for some structure and active‘hands-off’ oversight.Having accredited module important.
In addition to the predicted and assessedlearning outputs, the process gave rise toemergent, unspecified and valuable learningoutcomes,that will resonate over the long-term instudents’ encounter with experience.
Undertaking the project … obliged thestudents to recognize and understandunderlying cultural differences between theNetherlands and Ireland regarding socialwork in terms of language, historicalcontexts, values and methodologies.While this was initially disconcerting for thestudents (and indeed for the academicsalso), this in fact proved the most valuablelearning aspect of the project.(M.Garavan, draft paper with W. Blok, 2012)
Affirmation of the quality:of our students, education, and professionalapproach;of the standards of our programme andaward in international comparison.Building student confidence in themselvesand in our ways of doing things.
Its not about the technology!A key enabler, a critical ‘hygiene’ factor.But technology is not what makes it work.Technology: a siren song forcommunication?
What did make it work serves as anaffirmation of traditional academicvalues, processes and modes of workingtogether.Collegiality and shared ownership;understanding of, and respect for difference;curiosity and openness to the ‘new’;preparation to take risks, confident in one’sknowledge and experience; appropriatesupport and intervention.
Successful innovations require ‘going backto the future’.Involvement of experienced academicshelps.Will get better at anticipating what mightwork, and at dealing with issues that arise.But no template for this.