A global learning experience

Line Caes, Jocelyn Smith Carter and Lesley McGregor reflect on a student collaboration between the University of Stirling in Scotland and DePaul University in the USA.

International exchanges are common and well supported across UK universities. They typically take the form of students living and studying abroad for a semester or a full year, often in the third year of their undergraduate degree. Students improve their cultural awareness, and explore how their knowledge and skills apply within different settings. But while UK universities have an expansive network of established partner organisations across the world (e.g. the University of Stirling has a partnership with over 70 universities across four continents), the option to move abroad might not be viable to all students. Living overseas can be costly, and may not be feasible for students with caregiving responsibilities or with disabilities. 

To provide a more inclusive approach to international learning opportunities, such as international collaboration and networking skills, DePaul University (Chicago, USA) and the University of Stirling (Scotland, UK) joined efforts to design a new and exciting global learning experience (GLE). In the spring semester of 2020, third year Psychology undergraduate students within the two universities were able to connect with each other without the need to travel anywhere. Here, we share how we approached the GLE activities, providing an example and reflection for others interested in implementing similar teaching experiences. 

Perceptions of mental health

This GLE activity was funded by the Global Learning Experience Programme at DePaul University granted to Dr Jocelyn Carter, in collaboration with Dr Line Caes. The goal of this GLE activity was to virtually connect Scottish and American students in the third year of their Psychology undergraduate programme, to discuss their perceptions of how mental health is portrayed across cultures. 

For students at DePaul University, the GLE activities were built into their course, so the full class of 29 students took part. For students at the University of Stirling, the GLE activity was offered as an optional, extra-curricular activity as part of the Health and Clinical Psychology module (coordinated by Dr McGregor), with 8 students deciding to opt in. Students were split into small groups of 8 to 10 students to facilitate discussions on the similarities and differences in symptom presentation, consequences, and access to resources of mental health conditions between USA and Scotland/UK. 

In a first Zoom meeting, attended by everyone, Dr Carter and Dr Caes introduced the students to the GLE goals and activities. After this general introduction, breakout rooms were set up for the students to introduce themselves within their small groups and start the discussions on normal and abnormal behavioural examples within their culture. Students were also asked to decide on a specific mental health condition they would like to explore further as part of the GLE discussions and activities. 

In their groups, students were given the task of producing a blog to summarise their discussions within a timeframe of two weeks. There was no strict guidance provided to the students on how to organise these discussions across different time zones or how many times to meet. Hence, they had to negotiate roles and task as well as show independence in finding a way to communicate that worked best for their group (i.e., weekly synchronous meetings, WhatsApp discussions, and/or collaborating on written work through Google Docs). For the blog, students were encouraged to illustrate their points by using examples from popular materials in each country such as movies, tv shows, podcasts, blog posts, magazines, and newspapers. This resulted in four excellent blogs, featuring a variety of mental health conditions (linked here from the titles): 

Depression by Calum Burke, Larissa Munson, Matiah Ninalowo, Natasha Oliveira, Mackay Anderson, Ellie Heinzen, Yesenia Silva, Ramona Avramov, and Lindsay Winders 

Autism by Meredith Taylor, Courtney Durand, Madison Weson, Paige Calace, Leigh Choi, Aurora Fiordalisi, Bree Wilson, Cailey Gleeson, and Hannah O’Connor. 

Personality disorders: Paranoid Personality Disorder by Carolyn O’Toole, Magdalena Nowobilski, Agnieszka Malgorzata Szyszko, Eva Scrimger, Sydney Brock, Mae Madrid, Sebastian Nadal, Sophie Rooney, Callista Polasek and Perla Reta Najera.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder by Emma Hackney, Karson Barret, Jack Svoboda, Mahum Ahmed, Maria Alaroker, Jocelyn Rasmijn, Martel Adams, Jessica Hogueisson and Spencer Rice

‘A cool surprise’

After producing the blogs, the groups read each other’s posts and provided comments on the content. As only a small sample of third year Psychology undergraduate students at the University of Stirling (eight out of 181students) were able to take part in the GLE activities, the produced blogs were made available to all third year students enrolled in the Health and Clinical Psychology module and feedback was provided as part of an in-class activity led by Dr Lesley McGregor. In this way, all third year undergraduate students had the opportunity to learn about and contribute their opinions on cultural differences in the portrayal of mental health conditions. 

As a final task, each group produced a video reflecting on their learning experiences through GLE. Through these videos many students shared how they were apprehensive at the start of the GLE, but found it a unique, eye-opening and surprisingly cool experience that was worthwhile to engage with. 

It was a cool surprise to get to learn and collaborate with people at the other side of the world and work with such a diverse group” – DePaul student

“I had no idea we were going to complete a Global Learning Experience component to it, it has never come up in any of my other classes before, especially not an online class. So, I was a little bit confused and maybe, like, concerned about exactly what it would entail. … Everything was very new to me. But I was exciting at the same time. Like, I thought it was a very interesting opportunity and I am really happy that I was able to be a part of it!” – DePaul student

Working with people from America, it was a very valued experience. We got the opportunity to meet new people and speak to new people which we would otherwise not have had the chance too. As well as meet people within our own university that we haven’t actually had the opportunity to meet before either.” – Stirling students

This initial apprehensiveness for this new way of engaging in material and with other students could have explained the rather low uptake of the GLE opportunity by students at the University of Stirling. However, given the overwhelming positive feedback, we would assume more students would be open to engaging with such experiences in the future! 

Eye opening

An overall insight that was shared amongst many students was a new appreciation of the complexity of the difficulties associated with accessing mental health services across very different healthcare systems, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Students not only reflected on how they learned a lot about cultural difference in mental health, but also gained useful transferable skills such as writing a blog, finding relevant citations, and solving communication problems when face to face meetings are not an option.

“It was really eye opening to see the differences in the mental disorders, and you could see the differences from the ways they were diagnosed, … and how it is portrayed in media” – DePaul student

“There were so many different perspectives on the issue at hand, just in regards to small aspects that I would not usually consider. An example of this was when discussing healthcare how this impacts, how the health care systems presence impacts depression … There were also interesting discussions on how the media viewed depression both within and between countries. Which is not something I would have known unless I had been part of this experience. And I wouldn’t have truly appreciated the breath of this issue.” - Stirling student 

The specific abilities and skills that I kinda used was just trying to communicate as well as possible, trying to stay up to date with the group and just be involved in that way. Trying to be a good communicator and also…having open ears and being open minded and listening to … especially people who live in a different country, just really soaking in their information that they can offer and all the knowledge.” – DePaul University 

A valuable approach in changing times

In sum, everyone involved in the GLE activities and discussions was impressed with the outputs and engagement throughout the experience and would like to see more international student collaborations in the future. Despite the challenges of combining an online course with a face-to-face course across two continents, the success of the illustrated activities highlight how GLE could be applied to a range of topics (e.g. cultural difference on combating racism and racial inequality) and adjusted to suit local teaching needs or arrangements. For instance, the first Zoom session was scheduled to only take one hour, but students felt they needed a bit more time to fully engage in the initial discussions within their small groups and agree upon the best way to coordinate future meetings within their group. Allowing more time and providing more guidance on effective ways of international, virtual communication could have avoided some challenges with communications across different time zones. 

We anticipate that a flexible implementation of such global learning experiences might even become more important now, given how the Covid-19 situation has forced UK universities to offer more online teaching. While virtual connections can never replace the real experience of immersing oneself within another culture, including virtual GLE within existing courses offers a valuable, economical, widely scalable and inclusive approach to offer an international context of course materials to every student. Our ambition is to continue and expand upon this successful collaboration by including the GLE activities as a core part, rather than an optional extracurricular activity, of various psychology undergraduate modules, as well as exploring how this collaboration can be expanded to non-psychology courses. 

Line Caes1, Jocelyn Smith Carter2 and Lesley McGregor1

1Division of Psychology, Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling

2Department of Psychology, College of Science and Health, DePaul University

[email protected]

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