Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.
Meredith interviewed Dr Jose Roberto (Robbie) Guevara from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies about his long experience running study tours with students from a range of disciplines and found a positive story about collaboration and deep learning.
RMIT has a commitment to offering students a ‘global passport’ seeking to develop in our students the necessary skills and knowledge to work around the globe. The
potential benefits of student study tours in this context might seem self-explanatory: they can broaden student outlook; enhance employment opportunities; and tie in powerfully with the RMIT Graduate Attribute of ‘Global in outlook and competence’. In order to understand a bit more though, I decided to interview a colleague with long experience running study tours. What I found was that overseas tours can also be an opportunity for students to own their own assessment and develop life-long learning skills.
The most recent tour Robbie led was to the Philippines in 2012 that was conducted together with partner institution Miriam College, to research and reflect on the links between women, migrant workers, and intenational justice issues. The 2012 tour was designed to coincide with the 2012 World Social Forum on Migration in Manila. Robbie has been involved in a number of study tours, taking Melbourne RMIT undergraduate and postgraduate students from a range of disciplines (including International Studies, International Development, Criminal Justice Administration, Social Work, and Environment and Urban Planning) to the Philippines. The tours also involve collaboration with staff members from this wide range of disciplines within the School, and in 2009 with the Ngarara Willim Centre. The 2009 tour included homestays with a local indigineous community; effectively ‘immersions’ in local culture and issues linked to community development.
Over time Robbie has developed a few key themes or principles in designing tours like this one. Given the financial and workload challenges in setting up a study tour (teaching can’t always neatly fit into 12 credit points) he mitigates this with what you might call a ‘bang for your buck’ approach. He looks for opportunities to collaborate with other disciplines areas working with existing university partner institutions to form staff-student partnerships that can begin well before the students leave for the tour and that can endure or develop after their return.
The underlying principle is that of reciprocity, where both institutions achieve positive long-term outcomes, such as when the collaborations foster benefits beyond the immediate tour. This might manifest as a stronger student exchange program or a cross-discipline research partnership.
However, in Robbie’s experience study tours can be more than just about achieving student learning goals or strengthening institutional partnerships. Given the focus on international community development issues, often there are other benefits that happen spontaneously. Past tours have resulted in direct benefits to overseas community groups. In 2009 students helped to establish a scholarship program to support teacher training development for the local indigenous community. This was the need identified by the students.
During the study tour, students are encouraged to reflect on the links between the concepts studied and the lived experiences of the people they meet. The 2012 tour, provided the students with numerous opportunities to critically reflect on the experiences of the Filipino migrant women they met at the Forum and how these micro-experiences helped deepen their understanding of the concepts and drivers of mobility and displacement. This balanced the more academic process of writing analytically on the subject. Hearing migration stories first hand, being exposed to their personal resilience, added complexity and depth to their thinking and writing. Given the nature of cross-cultural challenges (in personal and academic space), Robbie encourages students to read extensively and think about their preconceptions as part of the preparation before the study tour. Ongoing support is provided, but these real life challenges are better preparing students to develop in that dimension of a ‘global outlook’. Feedback from students highlights a confidence and willingness to work in cross-cultural settings upon completion of their degrees.
Students are actively involved in the assessment design and supported to develop their own personalised learning goals. This takes some courage on the part of both students and staff. Tasks include identifying a learning objective or research question informed by the literature but linked to their personal and/or disciplinary background. For example an undergraduate student in Social Work who is also a recent migrant to Australia would frame her learning objective differently to a postgraduate student in International Development with a background in accounting. These personalised learning goals (with the students gathered into learning groups that are set up before the study tour) provide fertile opportunities for cross-disciplinary and context-based learning. This makes it necessary for students to keep a regular reflective journal that does not merely describe but critically reflects on their experiences. In 2012, each of the student groups conducted a formal presentation to staff and students of Miriam College, this provided an achievable and tangible outcome at the end of the study tour. The final piece of assessment involved a synthesis report that weaved the literature and the experiences of the student framed by their personal learning focus.
For Robbie, the depth of the assessment pieces submitted is striking because no two submissions are ever alike. In 2012, students prepared a portfolio of all their submissions (the learning focus question based on the literature, their journal entries and their synthesis report) to help them see their peers’ and their own learning journeys. Often students say that their learning focus questions have changed. By asking them to reflect and explain why their questions have changed, students are able to identify for themselves how the experiences have contributed to new ideas and have resulted in more relevant and focused questions. It’s a way for them to identify what new questions have come up by the end of the study tour which they then have to find answers to after a substantial time for reflection and additional research. This whole process is underpinned by ongoing discussions with the students at different stages of the study tour. The process highlights student ownership of the outcomes and over what they have learned.