UMSL and University of the Western Cape collaborative COIL course promotes global citizenship

by | Oct 3, 2022

Graduate students in the College of Education and 370 pre-service South African education students worked together to research classroom interventions and collect data.
Alina Slapac stands with colleagues from the University of Western Cape

UMSL Associate Professor Alina Slapac (back row, second from right) and Karen Collett (back row at right), a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, utilized the Collaborative Online International Learning program to bring together 45 graduate students in the College of Education and 370 pre-service UWC education students. As part of the grant, Slapac also traveled to South Africa this summer to meet with Collett and her colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Alina Slapac)

The free exchange of ideas facilitated by the internet and ever-evolving modern technology have made the world more connected than ever before, and subsequently, it’s never been more important for students to think cross-culturally.

But how can students become global citizens who consider multiple perspectives and think beyond their own backyard?

It’s a challenge Alina Slapac – an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, who was awarded the 2013 Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award, the 2020 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and most recently, the 2022 UMSL Governor’s Excellence in Teaching Award – endeavored to investigate this last spring in her two eight-week, in-sequence online courses “Teacher Action Research I” and “Teacher Action Research Capstone” in the Masters of Education program.

Slapac, originally from Romania, has taught at UMSL for 15 years and has led the graduate-level courses for more than 10 years, but in spring 2022, she introduced a new element to the classes as part of an innovative research and teaching initiative. In 2021, the University of Missouri South African Education Program (UMSAEP) awarded Slapac a grant to collaborate on a project with Karen Collett, a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. Slapac also invited her colleague Sarah Coppersmith, part-time instructor, to join her in this international collaboration and take part with her students from a second section of the same courses.

The trio utilized the Collaborative Online International Learning program, pioneered by the State University of New York COIL Center, to virtually bring together 45 graduate students in the College of Education and 370 pre-service education students in Collett’s introductory research course.

SUNY COIL Center established the model more than 15 years ago. It focuses on connecting professors in different countries, who then develop collaborative projects and discussions as part of their coursework. The projects use online tools to help students explore different cultural perspectives and become globally engaged.

“It’s such an important piece, in particular, for students in the College of Education to expand on their knowledge and have a better understanding of what global citizenship means,” Slapac said. “We need to expose students to these types of courses in different cultural contexts to build communities with compassion and provide them with constant opportunities for self-reflection to raise awareness of their own cultural competencies.”

Slapac and Collett planned and developed the dual COIL course from September to December 2021 and implemented it, along with Coppersmith, from February through May of this year. They identified three objectives for the teaching and research project: curriculum development, scholarship of teaching and learning and building critical citizenship.

Specifically, they aimed to strengthen student and faculty intercultural competencies and research skills, enhance cultural diversity through collaborative learning, develop awareness of global online teaching and critical citizenship and document the collaboration and outcome of the course.

Over the course of 16 weeks, the UMSL students identified a problem of practice, an issue in their classrooms, and designed solutions to those problems. To do so, they researched academic literature on their issue to verse themselves in evidence-based practices, implemented their proposed intervention and collected data for assessment. Interventions ranged from introducing new technological tools to improve student learning to supporting social skill development to aid classroom management.

Because the UWC student group was so large, the students formed groups of 10 and elected two student leaders to confer with UMSL students during synchronous online sessions. Since UWC students were still working toward teacher certification, they prepared literature reviews on the problems of practice and provided a South African perspective on the challenging issues teachers needed to research to improve practice.

“This is what we challenged them to do, to think more deeply of their local cultural challenges and how they would address them,” Slapac explained, noting the UWC students offered unique perspectives on economic and socio-political obstacles teachers faced in their classrooms.

She added that the global connection helped students in both countries see that there are many similarities in educational contexts across the board. Students bonded over common issues like securing proper resources, addressing language barriers to learning and advancing social support for education.

This pilot COIL initiative faced some growing pains: technology issues related to connectivity, conducting class synchronously from two hemispheres, the disparities in class sizes, time zones and access to online data. But Slapac said that the pandemic taught her and Collett to adapt and identify opportunities for learning that support internationalization of the curriculum.

Along the way, they received technology advice from Erin Whitteck, assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Kris Wingo, from the University of Missouri System Office of eLearning. Other technology and research supports were provided by Jingxin Cheng, Slapac’s graduate research assistant. Department Chair of Education Preparation and Leadership April Regester and Dean of the College of Education Ann Taylor strongly supported the COIL initiative, as well.

Collett was supported in her engagement by UWC faculty and university colleagues, namely, the Educational Studies Department Chair Melanie Luckay and the Faculty Dean Rajendra Govender, as well as Professor Umesh Bawa from UWC International Relations.

Rodney Uphoff, Director of the UMSAEP and Elwood Thomas Missouri Endowed Professor of Law, played a key role in encouraging faculty to apply for the exchange grant and in supporting the planning and logistical arrangements to make this exchange possible.

“The pandemic, in a way, made us think more creatively and more intentionally about our classes, and the types of possibilities that we need to provide for our students to stay engaged in their learning experiences,” Slapac said.

The benefits far outweighed a few hinderances, though. Aside from bridging cultures and connecting diverse perspectives, the COIL course provided an opportunity for UMSL students, as in-service teachers, to provide guidance to the UWC students.

“The UMSL students were mentoring because they already had these experiences in the field being teachers,” Slapac said. “Little by little, we saw in 16 weeks how they started becoming an international community of learners. During our synchronous meetings, students commented on the COIL meetings as being ‘fantastic,’ ‘motivating,’ ‘insightful,’ ‘valuable,’ and ‘inspiring.’”

Asked in a follow-up survey about their favorite part regarding the COIL experience, one UMSL graduate student responded: “I enjoyed the challenge to make my curriculum more than what the district gives me and include applications of science concepts as they apply to other parts of the world.”

Another UMSL student appreciated the COIL experience in this way: “I have never had the opportunity to connect professionally with students from another country. I truly enjoyed listening to and learning about their experience. I also found the advice and suggestions they offered valuable. We had a lovely and very rich discussion over Zoom.”

Another UMSL student mentioned her favorite part of COIL: “I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I found it fascinating that experiences were shared despite the fact that we live on opposite sides of the world. The Zoom discussion was eye-opening and inspiring. I enjoyed hearing the perspectives of others and also learning about their experiences.”

UWC students also enjoyed the experience very much. For example, an UWC student reported that she liked, “The interactions, exchange of ideas and sharing of content, connecting with international students, sharing new knowledge as well as working collaboratively.” Another UWC student mentioned her favorite part being: “The opportunity to interact directly with students from different parts of the world and get their experience, based on our group’s representative. It was surprising to learn that they experience the same issues in their classroom as teachers as we do. So, we enjoyed learning about international schools and their experiences.”

Students wished they had more time for discussions and more synchronous meetings, such as this one: “I suppose that we only had a limited time to talk. I was actually not looking forward to doing a two-hour Zoom on a Sunday. However, during the meeting and after, I was disappointed we didn’t have more time.”

As part of the grant, Slapac also traveled to South Africa this summer to meet with Collett and her colleagues. During the two-week trip, she took part in a two-day writing retreat with Collett and colleagues from UWC, Frances Wessels, Gasant Gamiet, Nonhlanhla Shandu-Omukunyi, along with Hege Knudsmoen from Oslo Metropolitan University. They started working on a book chapter related to social justice pedagogy and participatory parity and the internationalization of teacher development. The team also made a presentation about COIL and the key learnings across the three higher education institutions to the UWC College of Education in July.

During her time in Cape Town, Collett also took Slapac on two school visits to Modderdam High School in Bonteheuwel, Cape Town, and Sandalhout Primary school in Delft, where they discussed with teachers and administrators the possibilities of future research partnerships linked to teacher development and the expansion of COIL to collaborations between teachers and schools in the United States and South Africa. Slapac also visited the UWC campus and met with faculty and administrators involved in the UMSAEP program.

“It was so important to meet in person,” Slapac said. “It was unbelievably powerful and empowering for us to be able to see each other in person and talk about COIL – what we learned from each other, what we learned from our students, what we want to do in the future. Being able to sit down and have that time to reflect on our projects was fantastic.”

Travelling to South Africa and visiting the UWC campus gave her insight into the broader teaching and learning context within South African schools and in higher education.

She, Collett and Coppersmith are currently reviewing their data from the COIL course, and they plan to conduct COIL again this spring. Collett has also just received the 2022-2023 UMSAEP grant and will visit St. Louis next summer, continuing the cross-cultural exchange.

Slapac wishes to eventually lead a COIL course during both semesters and expand the program with new international partners, including professional development for UMSL educators interested in virtual exchanges like COIL. She is currently co-editing a new book with Cristina A. Huertas-Abril from the University of Córdoba in Spain, titled “Empowering Global Educators and Encouraging Transnational Learning Through Telecollaboration” and is planning a trip this fall to Spain as an UMSL Global Fellow to meet with Huertas-Abril to strengthen their partnership, work on their book and discuss future COIL endeavors. She will also attend the International Virtual Exchange Conference in Valencia, Spain.

“What I hope, in time, is to have other partners to sustain COIL and continue to internationalize the curriculum,” Slapac said. “I think it’s very, very valuable for students, and for us, to model these pedagogical practices through international collaborations.”

Slapac also commented on the recent COIL resources for UMSL faculty secured by UMSL Global and Executive Director Liane Constantine and her staff, Annie Hyde and Jackie Wilmes.

“I am very grateful for all the support received related to COIL through UMSL Global, Liane Constantine and her staff, and am excited that UMSL joined SUNY COIL Center as an institutional member this fall. This means that faculty interested in virtual international exchanges could take advantage of the resources, webinars, online global classrooms visits, trainings and conferences, and share their expertise in creative ways in their courses with international partners and students. I have just finished a training on COIL DESIGN with my South African partner Karen Collett facilitated by Hope Windle from SUNY COIL Center and we are looking forward to bringing new ideas to our COIL course. I am very joyful for the future COIL initiatives at our institution.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe