This fall I will be linking two of my courses together with a shared theme of Sustainability and a shared project to create a website and/or blog.
The project will be to research and/or communicate about how our own Faculty of Communication and Culture teachers and students learn about, research and serve communities to enhance environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
The two courses are COMS 451: Research in Communication and COMS 463: Advanced Professional and Technical Communication. The links in the previous sentence lead to the course websites that were still under construction at the time of writing this blog. In the upper left-hand corner of each website is a link to its course outline.
In this blog, I describe how I plan to do this. I invite questions, comments, and good advice!
Why I thought of this idea
Each of these courses is designed to have a minor “practice” element. I wanted the students’ experiential learning to be real and open-ended, not just classroom exercises or assignments based on pre-designed case-studies. I and most of our students seem to be very motivated to learn when the audiences and potential benefits of our service-learning can be seen “close to home.”
The university has just recently signed the Talloires Declaration (an official statement made by university administrators of a commitment to environmental sustainability in higher education). Not only our senior administrators, but also many of our students and faculty members are focused on discovering how they can learn about and promote environmental (and economic, and social) “sustainability.”
I therefore chose to form a partnership with the University of Calgary’s Office of Sustainability. Given my experience guiding many on-campus and off-campus CSL (community service learning) projects, I know that a campus-based CSL project can be done much more simply by myself and the students, especially if it involves only 1-3 partners per course that I and they have to deal with.
How this will work
While students are learning about research methods in one course and professional communication theories in the other course, the Coms 451 students (40-45 students) will be doing small research activities on this theme, and the Coms 463 students (25-30 students) will be contributing individual items for a website and/or blog on the theme.
Each course has its own textbook. I am planning to use the Talloires declaration and website as additional required readings in the courses. http://www.ulsf.org/programs_talloires.html The readings fit right in with their required textbooks on research and professional communication — there are documents that engage in research data analysis, and documents that discuss or raise professional communication issues. The research students will critique how the articles present research designs and results, while the professional communication students will focus on how the articles communicate to their audiences and how they could be altered to communicate to a wider public audience and faculty/student audience.
I chose to simplify the community service learning assignments from what I had done in the past. It cuts down on everyone’s work if the students’ involvement does not entail a huge collaborative term project. The project would fit within their “portfolio” assignments. The students’ “sustainability” learning and service can be done as individual assignments under my central coordination, and hopefully with the assistance of a few students in the courses who may choose to become editors/leaders of sub-themes, and whose portfolio assignments would be designed to suit their different editorial leadership roles.
The assignments will be the same for each course, so that “linking” can be done more easily, and so that students see that the two courses are equal in terms of assignments.
10 % October 1 – Essay and Learning Proposal
25 % October 24 – Midterm portfolio
25 % December 5 – Final portfolio – Portfolios are an organized collection of weekly research and writing assignments (due on most Fridays, as posted) in-class writing, supplemented by a student’s reflective commentary and optional revisions. These are graded holistically in two separate installments. Each portfolio is worth 25%.
5% Co-Leading a Creative Class Activity (Activity dates to be scheduled)
25 % Final Exam – scheduled by registrar
10 % Class Participation (Discussion & activities in class and when assigned online; responsible communication and consultation with the Instructor.)
COMS 451 Students may survey or interview COMS 463 students about their knowledge and involvement in Sustainability, in addition to recruiting faculty members and graduate students for interviews. COMS 463 students will use data from COMS 451 students to create communication products, and they will user-test the communication products on COMS 451 students, who will do a small activity or assignment on research communication. The two courses will share the same Blackboard site (our university’s course management system) to share data and drafts with each other.
The students will begin the course knowing that their research & writing would be shared with each other and with staff at the U of C Office of Sustainability during the term. In addition, each student will be asked for their formal consent for the U of C to continue to publish their work on the blog after the courses are over, or to move their work onto areas of the U of C website, and to use their work as data or quoted/cited material in scholarly or public research and communication.
In the spring I contacted the U of C office of Sustainability (O of S) and consulted with them in person regarding a campus-based service-learning partnership. The Office of Sustainability said they would be very interested. The O of S is interested in exploring how specific faculties might move forward on implementing the Talloires declaration. They asked me to forward to them my course outlines and plans once they are drafted.
I am also asking our Faculty’s Communication Manager, Jen Myers, if she has time and interest in guiding the COMS 463 students’ communications. Faculty communication is her mandate, and our course project fits within her mandate. In the past, she has been a guest presenter in COMS 463.
Planning and Approval
I have sent the O of S the course outlines and asked if they would officially become a “partner” for our courses and do a few class visits. I have received an affirmative reply. This gives me the ability to move ahead and write up a Course-based Research Ethics application for the two courses before the term starts.
I have recently received approval from our Faculty’s Dean, Wisdom Tettey, and our Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs, Doug Brent, to go ahead with this plan. In addition to explaining the above, I argued that the possible benefit for our Faculty includes
1) student-driven research and communication that highlights our Faculty’s strengths and potential and makes us aware of our weaknesses or challenges in this area,
2) the possibility of encouraging and affirming some of our faculty members’ efforts in this area by giving them a voice on how they promote/teach “sustainability,”
3) course-relevant experiential learning for our COMS students and
4) our students’ increased awareness of how their university is learning about & supporting “sustainability.”
Risks and costs
There are, of course, some risks and costs. Here are a few, with some of my plans for addressing each.
- We may encounter unforeseen technological challenges with the course management system, Blackboard, and with our website and blog technology. As usual, I will keep in mind a “plan B” and remain flexible, and will advise my students to be patient with and learn from these challenges.
- As usual, there is the potential for research participants to feel a level of annoyance and intrusion. This will be acknowledged in my research ethics application and our research methods. The assignments must be designed so that they are not dependent on recruiting particular participants outside of the pool of 75 students enrolled in these two courses.
- Our courses’ community partners (the O of S and Communications Manager) may not be able to participate in ways I had hoped, for unforeseen reasons. The course needs to be designed so that it can run on very minimal community partner involvement.
- The students may need information & communication support from our Faculty in unforeseen ways. However, I can assist in obtaining information, and our division has a small budget from which I have in the past successfully obtained funds for course-run events.
- As usual, students may not wish to participate in service-learning, for various reasons including a lack of interest in this project. I will be sending them an email in advance of the term beginning so that they are aware of this project. Students can drop or withdraw from the course by the usual deadlines. Still, some students may not be able to drop or withdraw because the courses could be required for their graduation. Even in cases where students are reluctant to engage, the project is fair academic labor. It does not entail any workload over and above the usual requirements for a 3-credit course.
- As a teacher, my workload will be increased. I will engage in the labor of liaison with community partners and will need to take special care in designing assignments and course activities so that they “fit together” in a coherent whole. Whenever a teacher pilots something new there is extra effort involved. I do this innovation knowing that I will not receive any bonus or honorarium, but that I may benefit by being able to publish research on the educational innovation. If this course-linking idea succeeds enough to make replication desirable, future faculty members should be adequately rewarded for their efforts.