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An experience of curriculum co-design at UCU: a student-teacher partnership for designing a new course. Part I

One year ago, I posted a question on the Forum on this website, asking if there are colleagues who have been working with students in forms of teacher-student partnership, in particular co-designing together a new course. Albeit none of the colleagues who responded had this experience, they were all very interested in teacher-student partnership. Below I am reporting on the partnership that I created at UCU with the goal of designing a new course in Intercultural Communication.

This is the first of two articles. In this first article I will describe the theoretical and institutional context of this initiative, how I managed to set it up, and what goals and expectations both the students participating and I had for engaging in the partnership. In the second article I will go more in depth on the actual process of the work we did and the outcomes of the experience.

In my vision, if an institution aims at educating students to take up responsibilities in society, it should offer students opportunities of engaging with their education, not only at the level of learning, teaching and assessment, but also in forming a scholarship of teaching and learning, and in curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy. These two latter forms of student engagement, where students act as partners of faculty and staff, can have transformative power for all engaged persons. Moreover, the contribution of students in designing the course helps tuning educational strategies to engage and motivate the new generation of students, which could be beneficial for other courses as well.

I am pursuing a Doctorate of Education at Durham University (UK) with a focus on Intercultural and International Education, and I am using a Participatory Action Research approach my research: I seek to align my teaching with tenets of Education for Global Citizenship by adopting a highly democratic approach. I want to do this by promoting student engagement in constructing their learning environment as a form of community engagement, with a focus on taking responsibilities. The goal is to look at how engaging in theories and practices of Education for Global Citizenship and Intercultural Setting up the co-design partnership and giving students the chance to work with me as equal partners can be seen as a pedagogic intervention to achieve this goal.

I knew that at UCU our colleague Fred Wiegant had organized a semester-long honors seminar some years before, in which a small group of students designed an interdisciplinary course on Evolution. Fred was very positive about the experience, and the course has been included in our curriculum since. With this in mind, I discussed with the Honours coordinator, the Director of Education and the Exam Board of UCU the option of organizing am honors seminar myself. At UCU any honors activity must be taken on top of the 180 ECs that students need to graduate, which proved to be an obstacle in recruiting students. I have been thinking deeply about an effective way to reward student engagement. In the literature about student engagement and teacher-student partnership (think of scholars such as Catherine Bovill, Peter Felten, Alison Cook-Sather, Susan Groundwater-Smith), there are many examples of students who are selected and payed to work with staff both at the level of courses and of programs. However, this wasn’t an option at UCU, but while the intrinsic motivation is very important, I felt that there should be a tangible reward as well, because the internship is extra work that students carry on.

I could agree with the Director of Education that the students who would engage in the co-design partnership would enroll in a short internship for 2,5 ECs, which would be graded as pass/fail only. A pass grade would be issued for participating actively to all sessions and group work, and for handing in a short reflective portfolio. Taking the partnership as pass/fail proved to be a crucial element, as the students didn’t feel the pressure of having to be assessed on something very new to them.

Organization and expectations

I had decided that the group should not be bigger than eight persons, me included. I sent out an open call to all students: they could apply by filling in a form where they stated their background, their motivation for engaging in the partnership, what they would be contributing and what challenges they were expecting. I also invited personally students who were taking courses highly relevant to the topic. I organized a couple of info sessions and met with several students. At the end, seven students and a girl who graduated last year, but wanted to stay involved with the college, applied. One dropped after one week, so the partnership was created with six students (three in their second year and three in their final year), the alumna, who got the official position of teaching assistant (I paid her from the budget of 2000 euro that I got from the Honours coordinator) and me. Our colleague Karin Scager of COLUU would support us, and the two of us, together with the TA, prepared a framework and goals for the partnership and for the first sessions.

The goals we defined for the (internship) partnership are:

  • Critically evaluating the educational aims of our institution related to Global Citizenship in the light of theories and practices in other universities
  • Incorporating student perspectives and goals into the institutional aims for Global Citizenship
  • Defining a subset of learning goals for Intercultural Communication Competence at this institution
  • Giving student the chance to engage in curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy by designing a new course in Critical Intercultural Communication as different-but-equal-partners
  • Creating an opportunity for students to enact their social engagement in a local community to the benefit of their peers

Students would also have the opportunity to present their experience at conferences and journals about Student Engagement.

In the literature on partnership you can read that the benefits of student engagement for both students and staff are for example enhanced teaching and learning practices and an increased engagement with teaching and learning, together with the feeling, for students, of being heard and be able to make a valuable contribution to the teaching and learning environment. Partnership work usually challenges and changes the power-dynamics between teacher (or staff) and students, and this is often seen as a major challenge, not only for teachers who may fear the letting go of some of the ‘power’ that their role entails, but also for students, who may not be up to the amount of responsibility that they are charged with. Other challenges can be time investment, money (or task hours), unsupportive institution or colleagues, fear of not having sufficient experiences and skills. I prepared myself not only by reading extensively, but also by talking to scholars who have been involved and have researched curriculum co-creation.

Key elements for getting started and sustaining teacher-student partnership work are (see Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. and Felten, P. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education: a guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass):

  • ensuring that students participate voluntary, but that they also get rewarded for their work;
  • creating shared aims; value the process and not only the possible outcomes;
  • being patient as things won’t always go according to plan, in particular if it turns out that the expectations of teacher and student do not match after all, and renegotiating goals is necessary;
  • learning from mistakes and adapting;
  • being honest where power imbalances might lie (think for example of institutional constraints in decision making or standardized format or procedures, for example)

My personal goals and expectations

I was very curious to experience how it would be for me to ‘let go’ the power inherent to my role, and if I would find a good balance between steering the discussion of the literature and the translation of the ideas gained into pedagogy as ‘the’ expert on the one hand, and letting the course design develop in a truly bottom-up process where we would negotiate and incorporate everyone’s ideas, even if the outcome would be different from a course that I would design on my own.

Students’ goals and expectations

Together with individual goals, most students expressed goals such as meeting like-minded thinkers in the community to actively discuss about students’ role in global society; reflecting on one’s own intercultural experiences; getting an insight into the learning process from the perspective of course designers and “giving back” something to the college that creates value for other students.

One student wrote: “I believe that my involvement in this course will make me more aware of my limitations as a student as well as encouraging me to think critically about not only my own value system but also about how my own value system reflects my wider experience as a student and as an agent of my own community.”

Another student wrote: “Co-designing a course I think could change my role as a student in the sense that my participation and input are key and challenge me to be involved as much as possible. Contributing to a new course allows me to reflect on what I have learned and experienced during my time at UCU and create from some of that a course that others can benefit and take something from”.

In terms of expected challenges, students mentioned not being familiar with the study field of Intercultural Communication and Intercultural Education; not having formally learned any theory on teaching and learning, nor any theory on communication, time management, and learning to work with a teacher on an equal level, thus changing their perception of teacher and student roles.

The partnership started in March 2017. More in the next article.

Bruni, T. (Tatiana)
11 October 2017

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