Mathieu Poirier views the willingness to try innovative pedagogical approaches as “one of the rare silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Poirier and his students in the Global Health program in the Faculty of Health’s School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences have taken part in Globally Networked Learning (GNL), collaborating with their counterparts at universities in Germany and Romania with the support of York University’s GNL team and the use of Zoom and similar platforms. GNL is an approach to research, learning and teaching that enables students, faculty and non-academic researchers from different locations around the world to participate in, and collaborate on, knowledge-making processes and concrete research projects.
“There are opportunities for students to go abroad during their university careers, but not all students can do that,” said Poirier. “GNL is a great way of ensuring that every global health student has some exposure to working collaboratively with international teams.”
Poirier teaches a second-year course in global health policy, a mandatory course for all students in the undergraduate Global Health program. Last year, he met Jens Holst, a professor from Fulda University of Applied Science in Germany during Holst’s visit to the Keele Campus and discovered that they taught courses that “were nearly identical.” The two men decided to collaborate; a class from Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania also joined in, offering students another cultural comparison.
The GNL joint endeavour brought the classes from the three universities together for three weekly lectures, one taught by each of the professors. In addition, the students were assigned to groups for a project; they were asked to look at a policy problem related to COVID-19, compare how their countries were handling it and prepare a policy brief on the issue.
Asma Adam and Victoria Cassar, two second-year Global Health students were among those who were part of the GNL experience in Poirier’s class.
“At first, I didn’t think the policy side of global health would interest me,” said Adam, who is focused on health promotion and disease prevention, “but it touches on so many relevant topics and showed me that the world is so much more integrated than you’d think.”
Adam’s project team included a student from Germany.
“We did a presentation on COVID-19 and education, comparing the Canadian and German perspectives,” she said. “We looked at the differences in the system and how each country responded to the pandemic; we compared policies and made recommendations based on the shortcomings we saw.
“Because we were all on Zoom, it was almost no different than working with another York student. Interacting with people from another country is really relevant, since it’s how projects are done internationally. We all agreed that we wished we had more time together and we exchanged contact information so that we can meet up in the future.”
Cassar is very interested in politics and policy and how health policies are developed and was excited to hear the perspectives from other countries. She, too, was in a group with a student from Germany.
“It was good to figure out how to work with other people, especially those with different perspectives,” she said. “It was more of a communal approach and an inclusive perspective, looking at taking care of the whole.
“I really appreciated the GNL opportunity. It improved the way I approach group work and it changed my perspective about how to solve health issues. It was a really positive experience.”
Poirier was very pleased with the results of the GNL and hopes to include it in his course again next fall.
“We try to get the students to connect high-level concepts to real life using case studies, but this brought the experience to another level altogether,” he said. “The students were learning something they cared about with others and were able to use the concepts we learned in their collaborations. It makes the learning stick.”
Approximately a third of each student’s grade was based on the work associated with the GNL experience, so the students “put in a good amount of work,” and so did the faculty.
“In delivering a GNL experience, you need to anticipate the preparation and the ongoing discussions with the partner universities that will be required,” Poirier said, “but I believe strongly in experiential education as a powerful learning tool and I’m always looking for ways to build it into my courses.”
He is currently talking with other universities about working together and will be partnering with York’s Eco-Campus in Costa Rica for a course on the social determinants of health.
“York has a GNL team that offers technical, academic and financial support and helps interested faculty in envisioning what a GNL experience could look like,” Poirier said. “They’re a great partner.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, York International