UW Information Technology

Provost: Driving global engagement with social media

UW Bothell lecturer uses Facebook, WhatApp, Skype and other social media tools to bring together students 5,000 miles apart

Photo of Ursula Valdez

UW Bothell lecturer Ursula Valdez learned social media can be adapted to the classroom for effective teaching and learning.

This past spring, Ursula Valdez, a UW Bothell lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, broke the mold of a typical classroom with readily available technology and social media tools to bring Peru and its people right into the Bothell campus.

The same class taught in two countries at the same time created a dynamic virtual learning community that encouraged students from vastly different backgrounds to work and learn together.

“Collaborating with the Peruvian students online was an amazing opportunity that challenged my communication skills and significantly helped to prepare me for working with colleagues internationally,” said Kramer Canup, a UW Bothell student.

“This was an experience that made me realize how small I am in this world,” said fellow student Kanwal Yousuf, “yet there is so much one person can do to make a difference.”

We can be in China, in Egypt, in Peru or in a classroom in Seattle…

Valdez’s class—From the Andes to the Cascades along the Pacific Coast: Environmental issues in Peru and the Pacific Northwest—was taught in spring 2015 as an advanced seminar for 10 Bothell students.  Because the class was designed as a collaborative international learning experience, she teamed up with Dr. Armando Valdes-Velasquez, who taught a parallel class for his 20 students at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in the capital city of Lima. Both classes were taught in English.

“Working remotely, and working with students who are thousands of miles away, is not impossible anymore,” said Valdez, who is encouraging colleagues to consider launching similar classes. (Learn how to set up a class like hers.) “We can be in China, in Egypt, in Peru or in a classroom in Seattle. It doesn’t matter. We can use all the offerings of the modern world to help us make global connections.”

Social media rules the classroom—in a good way

Valdez and her Peruvian colleague relied on classroom technologies and social media tools that are ubiquitous around the globe to bring their classes together during lectures, using Skype to create a single virtual classroom. Skype allowed students in both countries to make voice calls, chat and message, and also to conduct live video conferences over the Internet. These sessions brought the parallel classes together even as they were being held concurrently 5,000 miles apart.

To encourage and enrich further interactions among students outside the classroom, Valdez asked students to use social media tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp, a free instant messaging app for smartphones, which allowed students to talk to one another inside and outside the classroom.

Creating a study abroad experience without leaving home

The impetus for this collaborative undertaking across borders came from Valdez’s previous experiences in the field. For the past several years, she has co-led exploration seminars on biodiversity and conservation for UW students in the Peruvian highlands and rainforests, where many of them for the first time saw and heard howler monkeys competing for attention with macaws flying overhead.

These in-the-field opportunities are uniquely enriching but often out of reach for students who can’t afford to travel or have other constraints.

…create an international and intercultural learning community that broke boundaries.

“I kept thinking about how I could bring some of these experiences from my native Peru to my students in Bothell. But I was also thinking about how I could bring the rich history and biodiversity of the Northwest to Peruvian students,” she said. “I wanted to create an international and intercultural learning community that broke boundaries.”

To make the class a success, Valdez knew she needed her students and Valdes-Velasquez’s students to engage in deep discussions on environmental issues that affected both their countries. And they had to interact and collaborate with one another to find potential solutions.

There were communication challenges, for sure, but the efforts paid off in huge ways, said Peruvian co-lecturer Valdes-Velasquez. Both instructors had to sift through a multitude of environmental and social issues in two continents and two countries and find themes that made sense to both courses, and to students with different experiences who were being asked to work together.

“Designing and developing a course that took into account two distinct realities and two languages was a huge challenge and one of the most rewarding initiatives I have been involved in,” he said.

Globally networked learning is possible
The seeds for Valdez’s class were planted a year ago, when she attended a UW Bothell Global Initiatives seminar and heard about the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Fellows program. The fellowship supports UW faculty and staff from all campuses to develop multicultural learning environments that link UW classes to those at other universities across the globe. Instructors use various communication technologies to engage students from different countries, with lecturers from each country co-teaching and managing course work.

It was not difficult to find parallels between the two countries.

Valdez received a COIL fellowship to develop a collaborative international teaching and learning experience that focused on biodiversity, climate change and other important issues that face the Northwest and Peru. With assistance from Valdes-Velasquez, she spent several months designing her course.

“I’m interested in conservation and ecological issues, so this was a natural area for me. And it was not difficult to find parallels between the two countries,” Valdez said. “Armando and I wanted students from each country to relate to each other’s problems.”

Valdez’s suggestions for creating parallel classes

1. Building an international and intercultural learning community requires committed teaching partners

UW faculty and staff have support available to pursue teaching inter-globally. The UW Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Fellows program offers a guide with information on globally networked learning, how to find a faculty partner, how to gather institutional support and, most importantly, how to negotiate course content with your faculty partner. Valdez grew up and studied in Peru, continues to teach there, and has developed strong connections with Peruvian faculty, an important avenue for her in finding a co-lecturer. Demonstrating her commitment to co-teaching, Valdez used her fellowship funds to bring Valdes-Velasquez to Bothell to help lead classroom discussions for a week, and she traveled to Peru to teach in his class as well. While having global connections is not required, they were certainly helpful to Valdez.

Apply to be a UW COIL Fellow: UW faculty from all three campuses are encouraged to apply for the 2015-16 cohort of UW COIL Fellows. Successful applicants will receive $2,000 in funding and individualized support to implement an international collaboration course. Contact Greg Tuke, International Collaboration Facilitator for more information.

2. Focus tightly on engaging class topics that cut across borders

Finding areas of common interest to students in both countries is one of the most important components of any co-taught international class, Valdez said. Working with her teaching partner, they settled on four major topics of discussion that had parallels in both countries, including biodiversity and iconic species of the Pacific Northwest and Peru; use of forest resources and the impact of human activities on habitat loss, conservation and the economy; mountain ecology and climate change; and fisheries and conservation.

3. Collaboration leads to higher engagement

Valdez said interaction and collaboration with Peruvian students was highly motivating for her class, leading to higher engagement with class materials and better learning outcomes.

“You begin to see things you didn’t see through the eyes of someone who may live in a very different society compared to yours,” said Yousuf, of UW Bothell. “You get to compare issues that happen around your area to issues that are happening around the world. I learned a lot about why our ecosystem is so important, but most importantly I learned why collaborating and researching with other people from other parts of the world is so important.”

Canup, a fellow student, agreed. “It was a truly unique interdisciplinary experience, with a diverse class structure that always kept me engaged and excited, as the class combined group discussions with students abroad, and outdoor workshops and field trips with professional conservation biologists.”

4. Social media is your friend

There are many ways to communicate across the globe but Valdez settled on Skype, both for its large number of communication features and because it is readily accessible to Peruvians.

So is Facebook, and Valdez decided to create a private group to allow students to share information outside the classroom.

Facebook post

Valdez posted often in a private group in Facebook for both classes to encourage discussions across borders—and got lively responses.

“I never imagined that Facebook would have been such a powerful tool for learning,” said Valdez, who posted often to encourage discussions among students. And they did, posting stories on climate policies, Seattle’s activists facing off against Arctic drilling, artisanal fishing in Peru and the indiscriminate use of mercury in some industries.

COIL facilitator Tuke was impressed by the use of Facebook. “It was so clear to me when I read the student Facebook exchanges that they were connecting with each other both from the head and the heart.”

“Anyone can research, then compare and contrast bioregions of the world,” Tuke said. “The information is easy to access. But as these students learned about their local bioregions and how it impacted people they now were getting to know, students started gathering and posting additional information to benefit each other, not just to get a better grade. That is motivated learning at its best.”

Valdez also created a blog for students to share their ideas, and during field trips to Mount Rainier and other Cascade Mountains destinations, she encouraged them to make short videos that could be shared with their Peruvian counterparts.

This diverse array of communication tools made it easier for students to exchange ideas inside and outside the classroom.

“Yes, there were language barriers, technical barriers, but students felt empowered,” said Valdez. “They could talk to one another, exchange ideas and have lively discussions. We used everything we had at our disposal to help them learn together.”

5. Move students to action

Valdez wanted her students to understand that research for research’s sake is not enough. She wanted students to talk to others about what they discovered in their classes. So, they were asked to write articles and letters to editors and politicians to bring attention to environmental issues. At Bothell, students assembled a display table at the center of campus with information on protecting water quality in Puget Sound, and asked fellow students to sign a petition.

UW Bothell Students Petition to protect water quality in the Puget Sound

UW Bothell students set up an information table to discuss water quality issues in Puget Sound and asked fellow students to sign a petition to protect it.

The Peruvians took similar actions back in Lima. “It was interesting to talk and share ideas that could lead to discussions to solve problems in conservation that were presented throughout the course,” Romina Najarro said.

“We were able to do concrete things to solve problems such as writing letters to various authorities, whether the head of state, ministry of environment or fishery, and letters to the editor in magazines. It was rewarding to have new ideas for problem solving, as well as cultural exchange among students.”

But the class didn’t just move the students to action. Both, Valdez and Valdes-Velasquez said their joint classes showed the incredible potential of connecting students around the world and they are sharing their stories with other faculty.

“Watching my students explore the similarities between the past and current issues in Washington and Peru, engage in heated discussions with their US counterparts, work jointly with people through the Internet and come up with great presentations and great work has led me to believe that the skills to work internationally should be an intrinsic part of our career programs,” Valdes-Velasquez said. “It creates new and enriching opportunities for the students and most importantly helps create a new kind of professional capable of generating global initiatives and answers to today’s problems.”