Student teaching STEM using locally-sourced materials in a school in Vietnam (photo courtesy of UTS student Hannah Lemon)

Transdisciplinary community-based WIL in international contexts

UTS course offers 2-4 week international WIL experiences with community-based project partners in Asia.

 

Dr Beate Mueller

Dr Beate Mueller

University of Technology Sydney

A/Professor Susan Oguro

A/Professor Susan Oguro

University of Technology Sydney

Discipline

Institution wide

Model/s of WIL activity

Industry/community based projects

Description of WIL activity

Undergraduate students of all disciplines at UTS participate in 2-4 week international community-based projects in India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Nepal where they collaborate with and learn from community stakeholders to find sustainable human-centred solutions. Students apply their discipline-specific skills and work in transdisciplinary teams while enhancing their cultural awareness and intercultural skills. Local communities and stakeholders benefit from co-created project outcomes and ongoing relationships based on collaboration, mutual learning and respect. Supported throughout all stages of the program, students further learn to reflect on and articulate their learning outcomes to apply their enhanced transferable skills to their careers.

How long has it been operating?

Various programs and destinations have been offered bi-annually in winter and summer semesters since 2016. 

How does the WIL activity demonstrate good practice and/or innovation?

By partnering with organisations engaged long-term with international communities, this WIL activity introduces groups of students to communities where they work together with local stakeholders on understanding their needs. Working with local partners ensures community-based meaningful activities and opportunities for deeper cultural reflection for the students. The WIL activities demonstrate good practice as they are grounded in principles of sustainability, transdisciplinary learning and co-creation through collaborative, empathetic and respectful approaches that are embedded in the learning activities. The WIL programs address and respect local needs and norms while further allowing students to immerse themselves into these communities and experience various forms of livelihood and social life.

These programs are innovative as they bring transdisciplinary teams of students together to identify and work with the communities and locally resourced materials. Previous years have also included programs with students participating from multiple Australian universities to provide efficiencies of scale and increase the human resources available to the local project. Example activities have included students collaborating in teams with local schools and communities on health campaigns and materials, on solutions to implement sustainable tourism and trade, building water irrigation and filtration systems and assisting women develop their micro-businesses. Through UTS’ strong commitment to inclusion and diversity, various internal and external scholarships are sourced to ensure all students have access to these activities.

Who benefits from the WIL activity and how?

Local communities and partners benefit from the co-created and sustainable solutions developed with students to address their needs. Students benefit through applying and developing their discipline-specific knowledge as well as the transferable skills of teamwork, communication, flexibility, project- and problem-based learning, and cultural awareness. Furthermore, students gain insights into the work of global organisations to strengthen their employability learning through feedback they receive from local partners on their solutions, pitches and reports. UTS is strengthened in its commitment to students and employers to provide authentic programs with a social impact, as well as international and professional learning experiences.

How does the activity embed successful evaluation processes?

Partner organisations and local communities evaluate the projects including students’ research and suggestions. Their feedback to students and their ongoing partnership with us is a testament to the positive impact of the activities. UTS conducts ongoing evaluation of the programs for their suitability, student experience and accessibility.

Through coursework assessments, students’ critical evaluation and analysis, reflection and articulation of learning outcomes are evaluated. Students also provide anonymous feedback to the university and partners on their experience. An additional evaluation initiative, currently being introduced, is interviewing former students to establish the medium-term impact of these international WIL experiences on their employability.

“[I learnt] project management and how you’re actually going to get something done. You really have to meet deadlines, [e.g.] get a presentation out, so that short process, is like what you do in your everyday job crammed into a small program and that’s very, very valuable.” (UTS student participant in an ‘Unbound Thailand’ program, 2019)

What are the broader/longer term impacts for stakeholders?

The programs aim for sustainability and social impacts of the projects. Students work with the communities to a point where the project can continue with subsequent student groups or the results can be sustained by local community members.

Feedback [from local community members] has been overwhelmingly positive for great tasting water free from pathogens, agricultural chemical and heavy metal contamination. Furthermore, families are reporting initial declines in common water-borne illnesses” (Nathan Wiltshire, Drishtee Immersion, India)

Through the building of relationships with members of the host communities and with peers, students continue their learning experiences and bring these networks back home. Many students report a new appreciation for international engagement and community work that influences their subsequent professional and academic choices.

How is the WIL activity integrated into curricula?

Students receive credit through the International Internship subject. It uses blended learning modes including online modules and face-to-face seminars. These provide students with reflection activities on their assumptions and stereotypes, and facilitate practicing their skills of listening, communication, teamwork, and adaptability through interactive problem-solving activities. During their sojourns, program providers accompany students and provide instructions on specific projects as well as feedback on students’ learning reports/journals and groups presentations. After their return to UTS, seminars focus on students’ articulation of learnt skills and their application to each students’ professional field through job interview practice and peer feedback.

How is it informed by relevant theoretical or empirical literature, research and/or scholarship?

Community-based programs provide experiential learning that stays with graduates long after academic studies and can form a basis of lifelong learning for employability and social impact. They enhance students’ employability skills, an essential graduate outcome. Developing transferrable skills through ongoing reflection and evaluation of experiences (Oguro & Mueller 2020) provides a key to choosing and securing occupations in which the graduates strive and are successful (Dacre Pool & Sewell 2007). Reciprocity and focusing on community needs are central to community-learning (Sachs and Clark 2017) and sustainable university-partner relationships have mutual benefits vital for course design.

What are the plans for the WIL activity in the future?

We continuously seek to expand our pool of partner organisations to provide students with more opportunities to meaningfully engage with international communities and projects. As equity and accessibility are important principles for UTS, sustainable and accessible programs are especially sought after. In the light of COVID-19, we have established remote programs which will hopefully continue into the future to help widen student participation. Building consortiums with other universities for government funding also will expand student access to such WIL activities.

References

Dacre Pool, L., & Sewell, P. (2007) The key to employability: developing a practical model of graduate employability, Education + Training, 49: 4, pp.277-289.

Oguro, S., & Mueller, B. (2020). Learning abroad and graduate employability: challenges articulating international learning outcomes. In E. Heinrich and R. Bourke (Eds.), Research and Development in Higher Education: Next generation, Higher Education: Challenges, Changes and Opportunities, 42 (pp 85 – 93) https://www.herdsa.org.au/publications/conference-proceedings/research-and-development-higher-education-next-generation-8

Sachs, J. & Clarke, L. (2017) (Eds). Learning through community engagement – Vision and practice in higher education. Dordrecht: Springer.

 

Student and community member explore aspects of identity through visual storytelling (photo courtesy of Nathan Wiltshire, Drishtee Immersion India)

Students pitching their community projects in Thailand for a UN panel on sustainability (photo courtesy of UTS student Patrick Young)