John Coumbe-Lilley, PhD Program Leader

John Coumbe-Lilley, PhD
Program Leader

I feel course design is to learning in a study abroad experience what oxygen is to the body. I find completing the course design and delivery process during the study abroad program quite different from the regular automated stops on route to the end of the day which makes me feel the learning experience is transient lacking depth and competency development as no sooner have we geun the persiod we are wrapping up and students move on to their next class. The study abroad experience allows me and self selected students to immerse ourselves without distraction into the experience itself. Routines are deliberately interrupted. Automatic thinking and acting are temprarily suspended and a unique focus on learning may be tuned.

As a course leader I have a fantastic opportunity to design a learning experience which might be quite impossible in a regular semester because of the typical expectations, structures, processes and likely outcomes of the regular semester. I am able to conceptualize how to utilize the study abroad experience with course content and instruction to implement a learning experience engaging students in a unique project that could not be repeated in the regular semester. The method I choose to apply to achieve these goals is project based learning (PBL).

Problem Based Learning (Click here for en explanatory video).

PBL is defined as “a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems”.  For the Barcelona 2016 program, students began studying the thematic content the first day of the program 6 weeks ago. Every class I and the three guest faculty delivered (48 contact hours); program excursions (4); 6 content specific mini projects

Buck Institute for Education (2016).

Buck Institute for Education (2016).

(see student bloggers for 2016); 2 extended essays and 3 in-class projects (physical activity, diet, emotional wellbeing) led to the Barcelona project week between June 27-June 30. PBL is often multi subject (movement, mood and the Mediterranean Diet); it is lengthy (this program is 42 days long); iterative (students experienced a recurring learning process) and the projects have been based on reality contending with real world problems (urban density and the traditional Mediterranean way of life is under threat in Barcelona).

I chose a PBL approach for the whole course because it extends the experiential education philosophy of John Dewey and connects to Richard Kolb’s experiential learning model too. PBL not only focuses on content, cooperative and collaborative work PBL requires skill development.PBL also requires a public demonstration of student capability. For the purpose of the barcelona course I chose this blog site and a final presentation to staff, faculty and friends.  I focused on seven skill competencies for students to develop during this program of study each of which would be challenged to grow through a culminating project. The seven skills are oultined below.

  1. Prioritizing
  2. Planning
  3. Identifying
  4. Exploring
  5. Analyzing
  6. Synthesizing
  7. Presenting information

Students received a program outline before  (Click here for Academic Program Outline) preparing them for the academic focus of the study abroad experience and the project work ahead.  I entered into this process aware of the criticisms of PBL including meandering lessons, shallow content enagagement, unfocused group work and free riding in groups. The four ways I dealt with these issues were to 1) plan the course backwards setting learning outcomes and objectives for all the experiences outlined above, 2) apply iterative individual and collective efforts including assessments, 3) me and Arin worked alongside the students and we have completed two in-class visual research methods (VRM) classes and I ran a five hour “expert” VRM program with six students who volunteered to complete the experience (Gina, Michelle, Teadora, Kayla, Jessica and Diana) and 4) I used a variety of jigsaw methods to engage individual students in their personal work and cross designed their role to contribute to others during the task and toward the performance. (Click here Barcelona 2016. Sunrise to Siesta Project to see the outline of the culminating project to see the structures and processes).

What is in it for me?

I have the opportunity to see the course like a day from sunrise (first day of class) to sunset (the last day of class). I work alongside students more closely than I do in the regular semester. I can offer feedback and guidance immediately without either of us having to organize a meeting to do so. I can help build and develop intellectual and social skills through this approach. I feel this approach will have a greater impact on students in the context of a short term study abroad program like the one’s I lead. I enjoy my work more. Yes I find it much harder to do this kind of teaching well compared to presenting and lecturing but it is much more enjoyable and fun. I intended the course to come alive and the city to become an essential component of the experiential learning experience of my students. I feel I achieved this goal and achieved a high level (for me) of teaching proficiency. Finally, I feel a lot of professional and personl satisfaction participating in the short term study abroad through PBL. I feel like I am a teaching professor and not another bus stop on the way through the day.

Limits of doing this kind of thing

You have to have an idea of what the final project should look like before you start. Allowing the final work product to emerge sows confusion and for many students PBL can be a frustrating and confusing experience if you are not well organized and on point with your instructions. You have to be on top of your game! It takes a bit of up front work to know your location and develop your program so that the important elements of content and instrcution are accomodated. Do not “wing it“, you will waste your time and the student’s too! You need to frequently to educate your students about the structures, processes and outcomes expected during the projects. You should prepare to give feedback and guidance to help develop student capability. If you value your energy set up a feedback schedule and stick to it. Feedback helps learning and growth but you can over do it and get burned out (I know, I have done it!) if you are not careful. Finally, if you are intending to get promotion, document what you do! Measures for effectiveness or impact are a bit vague because they are not done by third parties yet. Anecdotal evidence is best, so make sure you show your work and dsiplay your students work publically.

What Does It All Mean?

I am aware there are alternatie approaches to learning and the one I chose (in my view) best fits my capabilities, strengths and helps me remain energetic and enthused as a teaching professor. This means I can help my students to develop how they can critically think about all the content knowing that in the time frame we have, there is no way to engage students in all the content on the subject. Of course there are other ways of doing things but I feel it is up to every instructor to balance the objectives of the course, content and students as they determine which is the best approach to achieve the outcomes of their course. This is what makes every teaching professor special and different and so follows the unique experience students have in a study abroad program designed, led and taught by you!