Children’s health course tackles SDGs with an assist from globally networked learning

Collaborating with students from Ecuador on a class project was an eye-opening experience for Danielle Legerman, a fourth-year student in York University’s Children, Childhood and Youth Studies (CCY) program and president of the new United Future Teachers’ Association.

“It was the first opportunity I had for globally networked learning (GNL) in university and it was exciting,” said Legerman. “I thought it would be tricky building rapport online with someone across the globe, because it’s always difficult meeting someone new, but we clicked almost instantly, perhaps because we had a common goal (the project).”

Pairing York students with students from Universidad San Francisco de Quito in her course Children’s Health and Quality of Life: A Rights-based Perspective was the work of Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, associate professor in the CCY program, supported by the GNL team within York International.

“This course offers a good opportunity for intercultural dialogue through globally networked learning, because children’s health is affected by decisions made globally and thus wholly affiliated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” van Daalen-Smith said. “In this popular elective in CCY, we look at the social determinants of Canadian children’s health and what creates quality of life in relation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, something that most countries have officially signed.” By enabling discussion about the same issues for children in another country, such as Ecuador, students gain the ability to understand how health is a human right for children.

Supported by the GNL team, van Daalen-Smith was partnered with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, connecting with a professor who was teaching a service-learning course that was focused on giving back to the community.

“They weren’t focused specifically on children’s health, although they were concerned about child poverty, but they were sold by the opportunity to discuss the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a key strategy in service learning in Ecuador. They were excited about the possibility of facilitating intercultural dialogue and meeting students and professors from another country.

United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals infographic
United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals infographic

“We agreed that we’d each do a lecture in each other’s class and have the students work together in groups to explore an SDG of choice in order to understand its relevance to children’s health and children’s rights. It fit perfectly with York’s University Academic Plan, which in part invites faculty, programs and students to find ways to pursue meaningful engagement and impact on the SDGs as a university.”

While van Daalen-Smith taught the social determinants of health, the SDGs and children’s rights to the Ecuadorean students remotely, Universidad San Francisco de Quito Professor Karla Diaz discussed child health inequities in Ecuador with the York students, even bringing them to a simulated village to illustrate how some children in Ecuador live. Meanwhile, the students worked online in groups of two or three to examine an SDG in depth, examining the link between them, children’s health and the social determinants of health in each country.

Over the course of a few weeks, the students spent time conversing and sharing information, discussing the issue and relevant statistics, determining how their chosen SDG affected children. They each were asked to prepare an infographic reflecting the impact of the SDG, whether in their own country or comparing both countries, and they each presented them to their own class.

“The students all wished we could have more synchronous time and, moving forward, I would ensure these synchronous group meetings are scheduled ahead of time in one another’s syllabus,” van Daalen-Smith said. “Our respective courses only overlapped for a few weeks because of different semester start dates, so we only scratched the surface in terms of intercultural discussion, but we saw that the major health threats to children in each country were very different. In Canada, they included injuries, poor mental health, child abuse, poverty, food insecurity, physical inactivity, bullying, vaccine-preventable illness and discrimination. In Ecuador, the concerns were sexual abuse, food insecurity and poverty. What jarred both myself and Dr. Diaz was that in both countries, Indigenous children were faring the worst in terms of health outcomes, quality of life and poverty.”

Legerman’s group focused on reducing inequality (SDG No. 10) and “there was lots to talk about,” she said. “It was great to have an in-depth conversation with a partner across the globe. We realized how many differences there were in our countries’ health policies for kids.”

As she continues on to teachers college in 2022, Legerman plans to look for opportunities to build globally networked learning into the courses that she, herself, teaches.

Her classmate, Iffat Shah, a third-year CCY major, had never heard of GNL before taking this course, but said she hopes there are more opportunities in her future. “It’s a great way to get insight into the rest of the world and learn about the health and rights of children in a part of the world where you’ve never been.”

Shah and her group focused on SDG No. 16, peace and social justice for children, and she enjoyed the research, the discussions with students in Ecuador and learning from her classmates’ presentations on their own SDGs.

“Everyone is used to being online, and it’s great that in my own house, I can see remotely what is happening in other countries,” she said.

“I’m sold, totally sold, on GNL,” said van Daalen-Smith. “When you have two committed professors, students get excited about talking to others around the world. And the SDGs are a perfect fit for globalizing our classrooms at York University.”

She is working on integrating GNL into her upcoming PhD courses in nursing and in gender, feminist and women’s studies this coming year. Van Daalen-Smith and Diaz, her Ecuadorean colleague who is now a friend, are already planning to work together again next summer.

“We’re looking at what we’d do the same and what we’d do differently, while continuing to unpack the SDGs and their relevance for children,” she said. “She’s awesome, and I’m excited about it. What made this all possible was that the level of support we received from the GNL team at York International was second to none. I highly recommend GNL to my colleagues at York and look forward to faculty colleagues reaching out if they are as intrigued with the prospect of GNL as I was. Pedagogically, it is a real game-changer.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributor