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Published April 29, 2021 | Multidisciplinary

Intercollegiate Sustainability Collaboration: Teamwork Beyond Institutional Limits

As a province-wide network, our college system benefits learning professionals who wish to collaborate actively through meaningful initiatives emanating from diverse institutions. The Intercollegiate Sustainability Collaboration is such a project, funded by Entente Canada-Québec (ECQ) where its French title is « Initiatives d’espaces verts dans 4 collèges : améliorer la conscience écologique grâce à l’initiation aux pratiques d’agriculture durable et à l’action des étudiants » [Green space initiatives in 4 colleges: improving ecological awareness thanks to an initiation to sustainable agricultural practices and to student action].

This cross-college collaboration involves teachers and students, along with pedagogical advisors and even gardeners. David Hoida, who leads the project from Vanier's Pedagogical Support and Innovation Office (PSI), filled me in on some of the broad strokes of that work. To learn more about the impact from the ground level, I also sat down with Jessica Burpee, who takes part in it with some geography courses she teaches at John Abbott.

A few years ago, Profweb has described an action-research collaboration on sustainable development. Unsurprisingly, some of the people involved in the current initiative participated in past endeavours.

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries to Solve Wicked Problems

Both Jessica and David emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of this work. Establishing ways for teachers from different departments to work together can have a significant impact all the way through to learners. If we encourage them to develop the collaboration abilities at the core of 21st Century Skills and Digital Competency Framework (not to mention the ICT Profile), what better way is there than to lead by example?

Sustainability issues constitute an obvious case for approaches that combine expertise from a wide array of backgrounds. Taking up climate change as a challenge, any problem-solving approach requires the humility of depending on others for answers to tricky questions. In the planning and policy jargon, scholars apply the term “super wicked problem” to those situations.

Getting Deep in Collaborative Learning

Learning collaborations are inspiring, at any level. From formal peer instruction to casual encounters leading people to learn from one another, any kind of interaction through which people build knowledge is worth our attention as learning professionals. While the Intercollegiate Sustainability Collaboration goes deep into learning partnerships, it does so seamlessly.

For instance, registered students in courses at diverse colleges respond to one another's assignments with “kind and constructive comments” (as described by Burpee). Some of these are remarkably elaborate, contrary to widespread expectations about students barely doing the minimum necessary to get a grade. A classic teaching technique, nothing new. What makes it so inspiring is the overall setup. Part of what learners reveal in their comments on others’ work is a shared responsibility for work on a deep issue: they describe themselves as partners and comment on the importance of environmental issues beyond graded work. Yes, Hoida and others built this collaboration around formal courses. For learners, the curriculum is part of a much broader approach to lifelong learning.

A striking dimension of this collaboration is that student organizations are involved at different levels. Not only can sustainability groups promote their work, but those connections go beyond a given semester. As colleges shift in their social roles, such an involvement by student groups is far from trivial. According to Hoida, the asynchronous nature of the interactions alleviates the pressure felt by some during real-time meetings, making this setup appropriate for more people. In addition, there are sound pedagogical principles behind the “read, reflect, respond” approach.

Enabling Collaboration, Digitally

People involved in this collaboration are appropriating several tools, including a shared platform. We have described Linkr (née NewsActivist) before. Founded by Gabe Flacks (who teaches at Champlain St. Lambert), the organization behind this platform is an example of another type of collaboration: teachers who work with developers to create the tools they need.

As is often the case, the platform itself matters less than people's use of it. In fact, Linkr becomes almost invisible as people use it. Similar interactions between participants could happen through many other tools, many of which may be free to use while lacking in business model transparency. Using Linkr did incur a cost, covered by the grant.

Hoida commented on the fact that a long chain of approval was unnecessary to set things up on Linkr. For many a pedagogical initiative, any reduction in “red tape” can be a significant gain in participants’ motivations. Conversely, something as simple as a requirement to spend time managing students' accounts can kill a well-considered initiative.

In this case, the platform serves learning professionals in their exploration of digital means for joint efforts in learning. Close to sandboxes in computing, use of a separate space where people can experiment is at the very core of this type of teamwork. Bear in mind that such a practice is far from “anything goes”. Officially sanctioned tools (Moodle, for instance) have an important role in our “IT ecosystem”. There are laws, regulations, norms, and standards governing the use of such systems. That said, no platform can serve everyone’s needs and the exploration of alternatives remains an important step in any decision related to technology.

In this case, Hoida needed a way to connect people from diverse campuses. Setting this up in Moodle requires too significant administrative support on the IT side for the scope of this project. Adopting Linkr for this collaboration afforded participants a degree of autonomy appropriate for the type of learning experiences proposed in this context.

Expanding the Scope

How might we open things up based on such open-ended collaborations, built from the ground up? What other “wicked problems” afford such a multidisciplinary, cross-institution approach? What other platforms could serve as sandboxes in parallel with those that IT departments sanction?

If you have ideas in mind for collaborative work, feel free to leave a comment. Hopefully, others might have similar ideas and bridges will be made.

About the Author

Alexandre Enkerli He is a Technopedagogical Advisor at Collecto, where he helps learning professionals make technology appropriate for their contexts, just like he did as a technopédagogue for Vitrine technologie-éducation from 2014 to 2016. Alex comes back to this role after a few in Ottawa (creating cybersecurity learning pathways and a Massive Open Online Learning Experience on public engagement), and in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean for participatory-action research at COlab.

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