Friday, April 24, 2009

Class: The Final Session

The final session of our seminar on UNESCO at George Washington University was devoted to the students sharing descriptions of their class projects. I thought the projects ranged from very good to wonderful. I will not identify the titles of the projects and their authors to protect student privacy.

The students are asked to submit a brief project proposal at mid semester, and get written faculty feedback from that submission. Most meet with one of the faculty for an hour or two to discuss the project, usually narrowing the scope. We make an effort to assure that each student takes on a UNESCO related project that really interests her/him, and ideally that ties into their work or their career plans. While most projects take the form of an academic paper, they also take the form of project proposals, website designs, manuals, and one in the past was even the plan for a museum exhibition. Most students work alone, but in some cases students work on a joint project.

I admit my thinking about the projects has evolved over time. Certainly each project provides its author with an opportunity to go into depth about a facet of UNESCO. If we succeed in the student's selecting a project in which she/he is really interested and has some relevant background, the experience should be more fun and the product better. I also like for projects to produce useful outputs -- why have that much work go into something that is read only once. We try to get students to think about the methods for producing a project, to think about the audience for their project results, and especially to get away from secondary sources and to actually talk to (interview) people who have practical experience; these are practices that will serve them well in the future. Since most of the students in this course will not be career academics, the project gives them the opportunity to develop a product that will be typical of their professional work product with the supervision of an experienced professional.

The overall design of the course

Since this is the last in the series of postings on the course, I will take the opportunity to reflect a little more on its design.

The nominal objective of the course is to teach students about UNESCO, an organization that is likely to be important to their future careers, and about the way in which the United States relates to UNESCO. For that purpose we seek to combine information about the history of the organization, its programs, its organization, its governance, its staffing, and its processes. Fortunately we have access to people trained in history who have studied UNESCO's history specifically and who have long personal experience with the organization, and they provide a couple of lectures early in the semester.

The students present a half dozen classes, each focusing on a program or subprogram of UNESCO. Together these cover almost all of UNESCO's programs. We started to do this feeling that the students would learn more in preparing their presentations, and that they would better communicate the information that they had accumulated to their fellow students. We discovered that the students are mostly professional teachers and that they are better at teaching than most university faculty and most of our guest faculty. The classroom performance ranges from good to truly outstanding.

I try to help the students to build tools for understanding large, international organizations that will generalize from UNESCO to other organizations with which they may work or interact in the future.

We also scheduled two role playing exercises this semester. The idea in part was to help the students to understand the way in which UNESCO works as a forum for international discussion, and the perception was that by playing the roles they would internalize better the complexity of both the issues being addressed and the processes by which negotiations take place in an international setting.

We were fortunate enough to have a retired senior diplomat come in and share his experience with the oversight of U.S. representation to UNESCO. In addition to the nominal content of the class, this provided an opportunity for the students to get to know and interact with a career professional diplomat. Indeed, during the semester we probably averaged three senior professionals in the classroom for each class. Remember, the roots of the words "professional" and "profess" are related, and I feel there is something important to be gained by giving students the opportunity to interact with really experienced professionals in their chosen fields.

A couple of the classes were specific future exercises, in keeping with the title of the course, "UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century." The exercises also help the students to think prospectively and not just retrospectively, and to address the nature of the organization from still another perspective.

We found the seminar format to be useful, in large part because we had a small class (nine students) who were thoughtful and articulate. It was interesting to see the degree to which the class discussion was driven by a couple of students who were outgoing and inquisitive. I suspect that sharing discussion with fellow students encouraged thoughtful construction of questions and follow-ups.

All and all, I think the class was a success. We will find out more when we get the feedback from the student evaluations.

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