In the wake of COVID-19, the landscape of university education has undergone a dramatic shift. Although studying abroad and international trips might be off for the time being, one group of students at the Munk School is going global with their learning from home. Munk One students and fourth-year undergraduate students at the Universidad Católica de La Plata came together to collaborate in a global classroom led by Professor Teresa Kramarz, director of the Munk One program and co-director of the Munk School’s Environmental Governance Lab, and Professor Sebastian Baglioni at the Universidad Católica de La Plata. Together, students joined forces virtually to research the impacts of COVID-19 on Toronto and La Plata.
“The question for me was how to internationalize the domestic classroom,” says Kramarz. “The pandemic is a great opportunity to experiment with this kind of global classrooms pedagogy. It’s an opportunity for virtual classes and technology to enhance, not detract from, learning.” In 2017, with support from a University of Toronto teaching fellowship, Kramarz researched and developed a global classrooms model and knowledge hub with resources for faculty. The goal was to expand the possibilities for international learning in a traditional classroom.
In Kramarz’s Munk One Global Problem-Solving course, those ideas were implemented as the two groups of students came together. Through collaboration in Zoom classes, WhatsApp groups, and connecting over social media, the students worked on comparative policy projects focused on local government responses to COVID-19 through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The comparative aspect of their work lends itself to the goals of a global classroom in an important way: “To be confronted with what is happening around a common experience, but in two different places, is a big eye-opener,” says Baglioni.
Students evaluated and compared the responses in La Plata and Toronto to the effects of the pandemic on small businesses, public transit, prison populations, rural students learning online, and public health testing protocols. As a conclusion to their work together, the students presented at a digital research symposium. Municipal representatives from both La Plata and Toronto, as well as professors from the University of Toronto, attended and gave feedback, creating a lively conversation about policy in both cities.
One of the major components of the Munk One global classroom is the opportunity for students to engage with one another’s knowledge, learning from one another as just as much as they learn from the material they study. “It’s a level of understanding that you can’t get from a textbook,” says Zaiboon Azhar, a Munk One student. “It’s not just about intellectual knowledge, it’s about shaping the way you think about other countries and yourself. The way I perceive issues now is so different.”
The connections and friendships that students forged over the course of the project were just as important. “I learned so much from just talking together —even when our conversation had nothing to do with the project, we were learning,” Ana Meletti, another Munk One student, says. “I learned just as much about Canada and Toronto as I did Argentina!”
Of course, any classroom uniting groups of students across the world is bound to come with difficulties. For Munk One and La Plata students, overcoming the English-Spanish language barrier was a significant challenge, but students described overcoming this and other obstacles together as a unifying experience that built skills. “It was demanding, it was challenging, but we were so happy we did it,” says Baglioni.