Global Problem Solving Consortium Brings the World a Little Closer

Posted: June 5, 2012 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: June 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm

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By Robin Herron

This spring, Mason convened an historic three-day meeting that brought representatives from seven prestigious international universities to the Fairfax Campus for the inaugural conference of the new Global Problem Solving Consortium.

Provost Peter Stearns’ vision to organize the conference was inspired by a U.K. administrator’s comment that universities aren’t doing enough in the global problems arena. “I believe deeply that access to different national or regional perspectives is an important part of the process as well,” Stearns wrote on his blog.

Provost Peter Stearns was inspired to organize the consortium when he heard a U.K. administrator comment that universities aren’t doing enough in the global problems arena. Photo by John Boal Photography

The conference, hosted by Mason’s Office of Global and International Strategies, aimed to develop a number of collaborative educational and research experiences among the participating institutions, which are situated on nearly every continent. University of Brasilia in Brazil, University of Delhi in India, Higher School of Economics in Russia, Istanbul Sehir University in Turkey, Kenyatta University in Kenya, Sejong University in Korea, and Tsinghua University in China all sent representatives to Mason for the meeting.

The universities chosen to join the consortium complement one another, are well-regarded internationally and share Mason’s belief that global problem solving is a worthy focus of institutional action, says Anne Schiller,  vice president for global strategies.

“We’re creating an initiative that will enhance undergraduate students’ education by giving them more direct experience with our partner institutions to help them understand global problems from other cultural perspectives,” explains Schiller.

Outlining Global Problems

Each participating institution was asked to develop and present an abstract on a particular strength of theirs in the area of global problem solving. One of the themes that emerged during the conference is that there are shared problems all over the world: nonnative plant invasions are a problem in Kenya, just as they are in the United States; and watershed issues plague nearly every country.

Representatives from seven international institutions met at Mason to share ideas for collaborative educational and research experiences. Photo by John Boal Photography

Discussions of  global problem areas, which were led by a number of Mason faculty members, inspired interest in developing courses that could be offered by the participating universities and identified areas for collaborative team teaching and research opportunities.

Mason already has an undergraduate global problems and perspectives minor, which is an excellent starting point, says Schiller.

“We’re all trying to maximize our students’ international exposure, and one way to do that is to globally network and nurture deep and multilayered partnerships abroad,” Schiller says. “We want to create opportunities for those students to come to Mason and for our Mason students to go there.” She adds, “We also want to develop an interface between our partners’ university classrooms and our own through globally networked learning.”

Schiller points to an existing example of successful co-teaching between Mason and Russia’s Higher School of Economics (HSE).

Sociology professor John Dale has for several years taught a human rights course that uses real-time videoconferencing technology to link his course with a similar graduate course at HSE. At the conference, he discussed this experience and how networked learning was complemented by an exchange of professors, which helped give students “a more direct, personal exposure to the other side of the dual-taught class.” Professor Steven Barnes, who specializes in the history of the former Soviet Union, is also planning to co-teach with HSE.

Anne Schiller, vice president for global and international strategies, left, listens with students during the closing forum. Photo by John Boal Photography

Other Mason faculty and staff members who led discussions during the conference were Timothy Born, associate dean for student and academic affairs in the College of Science; T. Mills Kelly, director of the Global Affairs Program; Peter Mandaville, director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies; Goodlett McDaniel, associate provost for distance education; Nada Dabbagh, professor of instructional technology; and Vikas Chandhoke, dean of the College of Science.

At the closing forum, Sandra Cheldelin, PhD program director for the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, gave a keynote speech addressing higher education’s role in global problem solving.

“We had nearly 50 students at the presentation, and I received very enthusiastic feedback,” says Schiller, who teaches a course called Introduction to American Cultures. “They were energized by Dr. Cheldelin’s presentation, the provost’s remarks and the sharing that went on afterward with the representatives from the international institutions.”

Laying the Groundwork for Long-Term Partnerships

As a priority outcome of the conference, Mason would like to create at least one globally networked course with each partner institution.

“Globally networked courses provide an international experience because the student will have the opportunity to work with students in another country on a project, or, if they’re working on the same project, comparing how it works in the two contexts,” Schiller says. “The professors can also guest lecture in regular courses, and students learn a lot that way, as well. We hope it will also encourage study abroad.”

And sophisticated technology is not required, Schiller explains. “You can be globally networked using your smartphone.”

Schiller says Mason hopes to create the conditions for international team teaching with one or two of these institutions as early as next year. It can be a bit tricky, since not only do you need a team of faculty from the two schools, but each team needs an instructional designer or someone who can work out the technological details.

As a step in that direction, Mason is participating in a program offered through the Center for Collaborative Online International Learning at the State University of New York. Along with 22 other U.S. universities and 29 international institutions, Mason was invited to send a team — instructional designer Rick Reo, Barnes and Schiller — as fellows to learn about best practices and techniques for online international education, with a focus on low-cost alternatives so countries that don’t have reliable access to the Internet can still be a part of networked learning.

Another desired outcome of the conference is to have short-term faculty exchanges, either for collaborative teaching or research.  “Face-to-face interactions are important as you try to set up these courses and develop a familiarity with one another’s institutions,” Schiller says.

At the end of the conference, Provost Stearns invited the partner institutions to send a student to Mason for an international summer school in 2013, all expenses paid. David Long, director of development for the Provost’s Office, helped secure the funding from the E4 Foundation.

“We will also have our own domestic students, and we’ll be able to house them all together and really begin to realize some of the goals of the conference,” Schiller says.

“Global education is increasingly important.  Americans are starting to go abroad to look for advanced degrees, and there will probably be more of that in future. These partnerships offer more opportunities for our domestic students to see how international education can play a role in their graduate studies, future career and intellectual work.”

Read more about Mason and global education in the Mason Spirit.

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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