An intensive course ‘Development scenarios in Eastern Europe’: Experiences from piloting our WeQ Pedagogy in Tbilisi, Georgia 11-16 May 2015
The pilot course ‘Development scenarios in Eastern Europe’ was organised in collaboration with five universities from three countries: University of Helsinki (Finland), Ilia State University and Tbilisi State University (Georgia), and Belorussian State University and Yanka Kupala State University of Grodno (Belarus).
The course that was organised as part of the Basercan (Baltic sea region and Caucasus) –network, founded by the Master School of Russian and East European Studies of the Aleksanteri Institute (University of Helsinki), and funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and CIMO (Centre for international mobility), gathered together teachers and students from all participating universities.”
The course was designed based on WeQ Pedagogy – an ongoing development project by our Higher Education Unbounded team – stressing collaborative learning and new ways of knowledge production.
The chosen pedagogical approach aimed
- to improve critical thinking and analytical skills
- to enhance research based learning
- to raise awareness of the complexity and contested nature of societal issues
- to direct attention to various possibilities to gain information and to use it innovatively
- to study by interaction and collaboration
Applied methods of the course:
Different forms of group-work were the basis of collaborative learning during the whole course. The students were divided into groups of three to four students already prior to the course. Each group had representatives from all three countries: Finland, Georgia and Belarus. The groups had to come up with a research angle on the course theme. The task was to study this angle throughout the six days intensive course. Teaching methods were varied to facilitate the collaborative learning process.
The course contained six lectures dealing with different aspects of democratisation in the post-communist space. The lectures covered six topics:
The 1st day: 2 lectures: (1) ideological and practical considerations of democracy-autocracy, and (2) affects of social aspects and poverty on democratisation.
The 2nd day: 2 lectures – (3) good governance and corruption, and (4) economic development
The 4th day: 2 lectures – (5) culture and democratisation, and (6) populism
Depending on their own background, students experienced the lectures somewhat differently. Some of them reported that they already knew a lot about the topic of some lectures, however, most of them experienced the lectures as very useful and informative, and especially the topics of the lectures as well chosen and interesting:
“I likes lectures chosen for three aspects: political, economical, and cultural. Each of us could participate in discussion. It was a very good moment in work.” (Student feedback)
“Some of the lectures were really general. I feel they could have been more challenging and more connect to the Eastern Europe.” (Student feedback)
We used a debating method to teach students to switch perspective and to build convincing argumentation to support the position given to them in the assignment. Debating proved a format that produced, at times, heated discussions as the students defended their views. We decided not to use any ‘managed form of debate’ (such as for example the Oxford-style) but let the groups take the discussion where they wanted, within the frame of the topic, and the chosen angles to reflect upon. We had 3 topics:
- nationalism (pro and con)
- solidarity vs. individualism
- integration vs. independence
The compulsory angles were to discuss in each theme:
- historical roots of the problem
- present situation
- future perspectives
The debates were conducted as 1 to 1 group discussion on one topic. The topics were chosen by the groups and miraculously the selection of the topics went really smoothly: each group got what they wanted. Each debate lasted 45 minutes after which the debaters were evaluated by other students – the debate audience. Students’ experienced debates useful and interesting, though to overcome language barriers was for some of them a real challenge.
“I didn’t enjoy debating but clearly it was useful” (Student feedback)
“Debating wasn’t new for me. But it was interesting and in some moments very hot.” (Student feedback)
“I really liked the topics of debates that you proposed.” (Student feedback)
We invented an ‘out of classroom’ type of method where the idea was to make the students aware of the great warehouse of information outside the academia that could be used for research purposes. We invited six NGOs to be interviewed by the six groups of students. According to the speed-dating format each group had about 15 minutes to interview an NGO and then move on to the next NGO. In their interviews, students had to take into consideration the research angle they themselves had chosen to study during the intensive course.
Most of the students experienced possibility to interview NGOs as inspiring and challenging:
“The best part of the whole week. So useful to meet all those NGOs, and ask own questions. I was really pleased about the selection of the NGOs (human rights focus + media etc.) but maybe others would have missed also economic part of view etc..” (Student feedback)
However, if the group had not yet decided their research topic, they felt that they only gathered and received information not so useful for them. Some of them also experienced that it was unclear how to work during the session:
“I think that NGOs event wasn’t very useful / because our group didn’t have the topic chosen, so we couldn’t get the exact information but only wide range of news from which most of them were not useful for us. It would have been better to have one NGO group for each group for an hour.” (Student feedback)
Group work presentations
Student groups worked during the week gathering information from lectures and from material provided to them on the course’s website. They were also encouraged to explore Internet and search all kind of information related to their research topic. During the two last days of course, student groups presented their findings and activated their audience to ask questions and discuss about the findings.
Group work was experienced as the best of the whole course and students reported in their feedback how working in a group was useful, interesting, helped to understand cultural differences. Some of them reported that mainly they preferred to study independently and alone but now though finding it challenging to adjust own way of studying to others, it was beneficial and supported learning:
“It was a nice work, because participants from different countries help to understand cases of each state.” (Student feedback)
“I think that we had really good connection within group. No one was excluded and we did the same job. I think that I was lucky to be in that group.” (Student feedback)
We asked the students to give feedback on the methodological choices applied during the course from the perspective of their learning experience. Students evaluated the teaching methods using a scale from 1 to 5 (1: not interesting and not useful and 5: very interesting and very useful). From the 22 students 17 answered to the query. The results were actually pretty amazing:
- Group-work: 4,58
- Collaborative learning: 4,70
- Debating: 4,64
- NGO speed-dating: 3,70
Looking at these scores further convinced us that we are on the right track with our WeQ Pedagogy. Thus, our development work continues!