Friday, July 5, 2013

Community Collaboratory

How do you encourage college students to get involved in the community?  How do you ignite their potential for collaboration and equip them for a life of civic engagement?  To address these questions, I’ve participated as one of eight instructors in a new experimental course we collectively designed and taught at the University of Minnesota Rochester this past academic year. We’ve called it the Community Collaboratory, or “Co-Lab” for short, as a way of suggesting the content at a glance.  With guidance from the team of instructors, students work in groups with influential members of Rochester organizations, whom we’ve called “community advisors,” to discuss areas of need and draw up at the end of the semester a proposal of practical ideas for collaboration.  Our main purpose is to create and facilitate a reciprocal relationship between the education goals of the university and the specific objectives of community institutions.  We’ve formed this partnership largely with medical organizations because UMR students are majoring in health science.  Co-Lab was an overall success this past semester and is now a required course in the university curriculum, replacing an earlier attempt to integrate service learning into the fourth semester of Spanish.  However, creating a course that could meet the high expectations of the faculty and staff involved, let alone offering the community advisors something worth their time and getting the chancellor's stamp of approval, was no small chore.
The team of volunteer instructors had assembled by the beginning of the fall semester and met in early October to bounce around ideas and think big thoughts.  Here was an opportunity to do something meaningful and different, and with the full backing of the university.  Consequently, we wanted to approach this project with great care, even if the timetable was pressing upon us to offer this course in the spring of 2013.  Fortunately, the faculty and staff who have been a part of Co-Lab are a rather congenial and easy-going bunch, so arriving at a common vision was less problematic than it otherwise could have been.  Our diversity in terms of academic discipline, teaching experience, and personality is both a strength and challenge.  It was a strength precisely because we wanted an interdisciplinary curriculum that considered community involvement from different angles.  The challenge involved finding a curriculum that satisfied academic requirements of the university and also integrated topics, concepts, and skills that we individually thought was important.  It wasn’t lost on us that the credibility of a course about collaboration hinges on the ability of the course designers to collaborate successfully!  In the end, the real challenge stemmed from our ambition to create an innovative interdisciplinary hybrid course that links the university to the wider community.
After the initial meeting, we gathered together on a bi-weekly basis throughout the fall semester to work out the details and put together a syllabus.  We formed breakoff groups to explore different aspects of the course, such as course texts and assignments.  Some of us took on the nuts-and-bolts task of forging a workable syllabus, while others brainstormed ways we could include community organizations.  We explored the theoretical roots of our endeavor by reading relevant scholarly articles on community engagement and related topics and discussing them in our meetings.  We knew that this course would be worth three credits and entail a letter grade, unlike other non-discipline offerings at UMR.  Since the spring schedule would only allow the course to meet for one 75-minute session per week, we needed to find a way to make up the missing credit hours.  We ended up creating a hybrid course: part of the course would occur in the classroom and part online.  The online component mostly consisted of a weekly discussion forum where students address questions from the course texts, post assignments, and sometimes follow up on discussion from class.  We divided the course into three modules, each of which require a major assignment, in addition to the online forum and class activities.  These assignments include participation in a community event with a follow-up report; a narrative on citizenship; a group recommendation for future collaboration; and a presentation. The instructors paired up to plan and teach each weekly session, which I’ll discuss below.  Critical to the course was a mandatory Community Collaboratory Conference about six weeks into the semester where students met in their assigned group with their respective community advisor in a structured discussion format.
We didn’t want this course to be merely about “service learning,” and in fact wanted to forge new terms to avoid these associations.  There’s nothing wrong with service learning, but we wanted to widen the angle and have students make larger connections.  This course was not about volunteering on a short-term basis.  We wanted them to understand the complicated so that they could come out of the course with a knowledge of complex social issues that can enhance or hinder community collaboration as well as a set of communicative, social and research skills to facilitate this work.  To use the well-worn clich√©, we didn’t want to give them a fish but teach them how to fish.  Having the students work in groups and work through these larger issues was particularly important for this first offering of the course.  In subsequent semesters we will recalibrate the curriculum.  For the upcoming fall semester, for instance, students taking the course will not be starting from scratch but building upon the recommendations that last semester’s students presented...

We wanted to do something special for the first session of the semester in order to set the tone and make the course a different experience, so we had the students assemble at the civic theater instead of the classroom and invited both the theater director and the chancellor to speak about opportunities for collaboration in Rochester.  After giving a brief overview of the course and introducing the instructors, we explained the Social Change Wheel to the students (see image) and asked them where they would place themselves on it.