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

This is the second part of my report on student engagement in curriculum design at UCU. The premises and background of this experience, as well as the process of setting up a teacher-student partnership are described in Part I.


We had nine 4-hour long sessions from March to June, always in the evening, with some drinks and snack, and a break to have a quick dinner. In the final session we also evaluated together the process and the product of our work.  The first four sessions were very conceptual: students needed to dive into literature in fields unfamiliar to them, and we needed to agree on terms and concepts we would be using.

Our starting point has been to look at what the official documents of the college say about educating for global citizenship and about intercultural communicative competence, and compare the vision of the college with programs in other universities, the UNESCO document on Intercultural Education and literature in the field.  We found that, in comparison to the college documents, in the other documents, in particular those from US and Canada, there is a stronger focus on community engagement and taking action for social justice. The next step was to create our own working definition of Global Citizenship, from which we would derive the intended learning outcome for a course in Intercultural Communication that would fit the curriculum. This is what we wrote:

“A global citizen is someone who feels connected to humanity, is open-minded, and respects diverse views by being critical, empathetic and reflective, of both his own views and standing and of others. The individual also feels responsible for, and engages with issues of global importance.”

In pairs, we studied the literature around Global Citizenship, Cosmopolitanism, Intercultural Communicative Competence and Intercultural Communication;  on decolonizing (Intercultural) education and on non-Western perspectives on Intercultural Communication. Besides dealing with theories and concepts for the content of the course, we also looked at literature on pedagogy, such as how to teach and assess Intercultural Communicative Competence; how to write and assess course learning outcomes, and how to align learning aims, content, activities and assessment in course design. Each pair wrote notes that were uploaded in our shared Google Docs folder as preparation for class discussion.

These first four meetings were so conceptual that students started wondering how we would ever be able to translate the ideas that were generated into a course design. They didn’t convey that to me, but I could read that concern on messages that they sent each other in our WhatsApp group. At this stage Karin Scager (COLUU) and I designed a practical activity that would help students in understanding the different elements of course design, and how those need to be cognitively aligned. In meeting 5 Karin supervised a brainstorm activity that we named “the alignment exercise”: we took 15 minutes to brainstorm on ideas that would fit one of the following four categories: course objectives, content matter, learning activities and assessment methods. We wrote our ideas on strokes of coloured paper, and the strokes for the four categories were laid out on a grid on the floor. Strokes were moved around or discarded if we sensed that they would not fit in with the main ideas. This gave us a full picture of our emerging course framework.

This has been a real turning-point in the experience of students. From this moment on, they felt confident that we would be able to translate conceptual work into pedagogy, and started realizing how content, assignment and assessment should relate to, and help achieve, the stated learning goals of a course.

At this stage we could thus start working on defining the learning outcomes for the new course by brainstorming on possible class activities, reading, community engagement options, assessment types, as well as on fields to draw on from, possible prerequisites and level of the course.

This is a visualization of this stage the student made:

We decided that the course would take a critical perspective on Intercultural Communication, and that it:

should be an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental course, at level 2, open to second and third year students
should adopt a perspective of intercultural communication that focus on power-relations to highlight structural social injustices and their impact on interpersonal communication acts
should be taught in a democratic and interactive way, and students should be active and critical participants
should involve knowledge; experiential learning (both in class through student-taught classes and in the community) and continuous (self-)reflection
should offer students the opportunity to engage with the local society through a community outreach project
should mainly be assessed through peer- and co-assessment.
In the final session, we wrote a draft course outline to be presented to the stakeholders for feedback and approval, and we evaluated the partnership experience together. Over the summer we communicated with each other to finalize the course proposal, which has now been submitted to the Board of Studies. Also, student submitted written reflective essays on their individual experience, which are a great source of information about how they experienced being partners.

Evaluation of the partnership

As we already expected, two major challenges have been my expertise in the discipline and in pedagogy, and the power-relations between teacher and students. Students acknowledged that even if I have been able to create an open and safe space for them to ventilate their ideas and opinions, they somehow still felt intimidated by the disparity in knowledge, and by my (attributed) expert-role. This changed when we started to design the course: from that moment on, they all felt very much in control of the process, and acknowledged that all opinions were equally negotiated and incorporated.

A reflection that I didn’t expect was that some of them felt that this was my project, and that, because of this, I knew already where I wanted to be heading (by choosing the literature for example). It turned out that even if we thought that we discussed our goals extensively, somehow individual expectations differed. From my point of view, I felt that I succeeded in not steering too much, in not claiming the product, so I was quite surprised by this comment. Considering the suggestions mentioned in the first part of this article for starting and sustaining a partnership, a learning point here is, as the student and I discussed, to keep checking expectations throughout the project, and put on the table any doubts or issues people may have. Student also felt that if they would have been the initiators of a project, this aspect would have played a less prominent role. At UCU, we have the honours seminars that I mention in the first article, where students can come up with an interdisciplinary topic of their interest and design a course on that topic that they teach each other. I wonder what other options do we, or could we offer, as UU, to students to initiate bottom-up curricular change and or innovation.

On the other side, we all gained valuable insights and knowledge from this experience, in terms of mutual understanding of the role of teacher and student and how to develop in your role by engaging with the other. It has also been a very entertaining project, where we had some heated discussions and exchanged life stories and experiences. This is a short and by no means exhaustive overview of reflections from the evaluation talks we had:

New perspective on one’s own position as a global citizen:

The importance of involvement in community, and acting on your responsibilities
Realization that you can affect the lives of others;
Pride in the work we accomplished, and the effect it will have on the college and the community;
Seeing citizenship not as an on-off switch, but rather as a lifelong endeavor and process
New perspective on one’s own position as a learner

“Knowledge of what happens beneath the surface of a course” this is empowering
Critical skills, useful for both our roles as citizens and as learners
Being an active participant, rather than passive: becoming “the boss of my own education”
Furthermore, they are proud of the ‘product’ we generated, that is the course design, and they believe that the course will be attractive for several students.

To me, this has been a powerful exercise in participatory pedagogy, and an instrument of reflection on my teaching philosophy and practice, and on how (far I am able) to reflect on, and change them. I also got very interested and active in the field of Student Engagement, by presenting a poster that the student and I created on our collaboration at two conferences of the RAISE Network (Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement). This network, which connects academics, practitioners and student representatives, foster student engagement at all levels. Curriculum co-design is only one of the fields.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to know more, or experiment with curricular co-design yourself.

Bruni, T. (Tatiana)
11 October 2017

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