Globally Networked Learning Virtual Journal Club: An extra-credit project going strong

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Are you interested in learning more about the many advantages of globally networked learning (GNL)? Why not consider joining a free GNL webinar on July 7, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. EDT? The webinar features an exciting GNL opportunity known as the Virtual Journal Club, presented by Assistant Professor Karen Bernhardt-Walther (teaching stream, economics). You can learn more about Bernhardt-Walther’s work using the Virtual Journal Club in the following story. At the webinar, you can also meet the York-GNL team and find out about available funding, supports and mentorship opportunities. Register here: yorku.zoom.us/j/98086572037?pwd=Q1g5YzU0VHoveHhRQmt3N2JvakhrQT09.

On a Thursday morning in January, a group of York University economics students are deeply engaged in discussing economic questions regarding trade, history and geography during their weekly Zoom session with fellow economics students at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, under the guidance of professors Karen Bernhardt-Walther (York) and Matthias Lang (LMU).

Karen Bernhardt-Walther
Karen Bernhardt-Walther

The students’ discussions are based on readings they complete each week and are often a continuation of forum discussions online in Moodle. The topics vary but the students always scrutinize questions of real-world relevance using economic analysis: how to help children succeed; how to limit inequalities and ensure equal opportunities; and what managers in firms do and how that differs across countries.

This co-curricular Virtual Journal Club (VJC) is an example of globally networked learning at its best: an approach to teaching and learning that enables students and faculty based in different locations worldwide to participate and collaborate.

The VJC was initiated by Bernhardt-Walther, an assistant professor of economics in the teaching stream.

“More than ever, during the pandemic we need to reach out and connect internationally,” said Bernhardt-Walther. “There is a risk of lockdowns and travel restrictions narrowing our horizons. Yet, many of the problems we face are global, so building these connections is more important than ever.”

A longtime champion of improving undergraduate education, Bernhardt-Walther – who did her own undergraduate education in Germany – co-created this project to allow students to connect across continents and to give undergraduate economics students a better idea of what economics research and a career in the field might be like.

“Compared with other fields, such as chemistry or psychology, undergraduate students in economics rarely have a chance to experience economic research before they graduate,” explained Bernhardt-Walther. “This likely has a disproportionate impact on students with minority backgrounds who are underrepresented at the graduate level. Even if these students are strong academically, they lack the opportunity to find out that research and graduate studies might be a possibility for them. Without role models or other encouragement, many never consider it.”

Reaching out to her colleagues in Germany, Bernhardt-Walther quickly connected with Lang, who is an associate professor of economics at LMU.

“I was excited right away by this opportunity to connect and offer our students an international exchange experience when all in-person exchanges had been cancelled,” said Lang.

Together they applied for funding from the inaugural Initiative for Virtual Academic Collaboration (IVAC) call run by the German Foreign Exchange Service (DAAD). The York U-LMU Virtual Journal Club was one of five projects with Canadian institutions to receive funding

The funding from York’s GNL initiative and the DAAD-IVAC program – supported by the German Ministry for Research and Education – helped to pay for library subscriptions for eBooks and to hire teaching assistants at LMU. Together, Bernhardt-Walther and Lang created a reading list of books and research papers for the journal club seminar course.

“In the core curriculum, students learn all the standard micro- and macro-economic theories,” said Bernhardt-Walther. “That’s important; students need those foundations. But there is not enough time to showcase the breath of the applicability of economic models. In the VJC, we get to discuss some of those topics. It’s an exciting sampler of what’s out there for students to study in the wider economics universe.”

Recruiting participants, the professors were looking for students who would share their excitement for economics and who were interested in connecting with transatlantic peers. They admitted 10 applicants from each university who fit the bill.

Lang suggests the VJC may have hit a sweet spot, offering social interactions, economic discourse and an international exchange experience. “In the middle of the pandemic, many students felt like lone wolves,” said Lang. “When offered the opportunity to creatively engage in cross-cultural debates of economic questions with students from different countries and across two continents, our students jumped at the chance.”

Given LMU’s academic calendar, the GNL project began in October 2020 and finished at the end of March 2021. The weekly online sessions last 90 minutes. At the beginning of each session, students typically share something personal or cultural such as a favourite musician they enjoy listening to, what they might do on a rainy day or holiday traditions.

“We started this as an ice breaker in the first week to get students to talk,” explained Bernhardt-Walther. “We noticed how much it put students at ease as they discovered some differences and often similar preferences, so we kept the question and had fun with it.”

After the opening, students break into small groups to discuss the week’s topic and reading assignment: whether students are convinced by the arguments presented, why it was (or wasn’t) contentious, where else a similar argument could be applied, but also what worked well in the writing and what it contributed to the field. Each session ends with a wrap up, where Bernhardt-Walther shares a key takeaway message and directs the students to relate lessons learned to their own real-world observation.

Overall, the VJC is a great success.

“We’re getting amazing feedback. We have seen students leveraging their digital competencies into forming relationships across continents,” said Lang. “Pedagogically, it’s been terra nova for me – and very exciting.”

Both partners plan to repeat the VJC during the next academic year. They believe it will be attractive even after the pandemic ends.

“Globally networked learning is an equitable way for students to gain cross-cultural experience. It allows students to participate who might financially or otherwise be constrained to join an international exchange.” – Karen Bernhardt-Walther

Besides the co-curricular VJC, York supports eight other GNL-enhanced courses.

“Globally networked learning has a lot to offer,” said Helen Balderama, York International’s associate director, international partnerships and programs. “GNL collaborations can be single activity with students at a partner university, an entire course or anything in between. Both faculty members and students come away from the experience enriched.”

Balderama encourages interested faculty to contact the University’s GNL project team for additional information (yorkinternational.yorku.ca/gnl-contact).

This article is a collaboration involving Karen Bernhardt-Walther, Matthias Lang and Elaine Smith