Despite quickly transitioning to an online learning environment in March of 2020, students and faculty continually rise to the challenge. Although this remains a tough time for many, the innovations in teaching and collaboration between faculty, students, and the greater academic community, are an unforeseen benefit of this shift. One example of these "silver linings" took place last semester in a third-year political science class (Political science 3130, International Political Economy).
Christopher Kukucha, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge, was actively involved in developing a World Trade Organization simulation across three universities in Alberta, with over 100 student participants. He team-taught this class with professors across all three campuses, including Greg Anderson from the University of Alberta and David Sabiston, and Duane Bratt from Mount Royal University.
When asked how this collegial event came to be, Kukucha reflects on his usual in-class simulation describing it as "pretty loosey-goosey" and a fun project to end the semester. Collaborating with his colleagues across Alberta, Kukucha used the new online medium to his advantage. When speaking about this new idea, he notes, "we all thought we were pretty crazy to even think about that," but bracing for a few hiccups, "we decided why not?" Kukucha adds that the results of this collaboration "totally exceeded expectations."
Second-year political science and physics student Paden Knull, and two friends from the class, stood for Germany's delegation in this simulation. Paden explains the activity as "similar to a Model UN," although on a larger and more heightened scale. The World Trade Organization is an intergovernmental organization that spans more than 150 countries. It provides structure to its member countries, regulating international trade through dispute resolution, trade agreements, policies and conventions. When asked what led him to take this third-year course, Paden remarks, "I didn't really know anything about international political economy, and it seemed like something that especially now would be interesting to analyze and learn more about." The learning did not disappoint.
Work came in phases for this ambitious group. Students were divided into small teams representing different countries and tasked with outlining their delegation's priorities on imports and exports, finding statistics like GDP, and instigating some scholarly conversation. Following the initial collaboration, students began writing position papers detailing their delegation's stance on environmental trade, the focus of this simulation. "Nothing in my university experience has been quite as immersive and hands-on project-wise as having to google translate my way through German energy and agricultural reports to understand the country's output," Paden later added.
Students used the TREND Analytics database, a consortium of legitimate international trade agreements, to get a taste of the depth and calibre of real-world policy. They explored alliances between countries and dug deeper to find whether their represented country is a "leader or laggard" in terms of international trade. They wrote treaty language for the proposed outcome, based on real ministerial documents. After two months of preparation, it was time for the WTO negotiation simulation.
Students learned quickly that international trade agreements have no grounding unless there is a way to dispute them. Sustainability is essential in these negotiations, and so is unanimity. Otherwise, countries would disobey measures or leave the WTO. Professor Kukucha and associates took on the role of mediators in what Kukucha describes as "a ping-pong game" of negotiation, while Paden jokingly describes it as "a chess match with many, many stalemates." Paden mentions that during the simulation, "a lot of students played the part very well, and it was difficult to get policies past countries with alternate views." However, negotiations that would in reality span decades, were boiled down to only two days. Proposing ideas for an agenda, drafting resolutions, voting on treaty language, and finally passing a motion is no easy feat. Kukucha recounts that this activity was "pitched pretty high," and students rose to the occasion, "they were really prepared and really interested. It wouldn't have worked if it weren't for them."
Jokes aside, Paden appreciated this opportunity adding, "The online simulation opened up a lot of doors. We were able to collaborate with political science students from across the province. And that's really what I feel the online medium needs to be about, expanding our boundaries and true collaboration." Paden is excited by the network created with students from other schools and seeing how other students approached this challenge. It gave him a new perspective on where we stand in the greater academic community. Paden learned "about how societies function and govern the way they do."
As a teenager, Paden was a dedicated air cadet with two pilot licenses and a public speaker, competing at the national level. The University of Lethbridge gives you the ability to explore many options, a defining factor in Paden's decision to continue his education at the U of L. When classes shifted to online learning at the end of his first year, Paden, like many, found the shift to be "quite a learning curve" and less than favourable. However, after experiencing this simulation, his online learning perspectives have shifted.
When asked how about his experience overall, Paden is quick to celebrate, expressing that this was "a very insightful class. Professor Kukucha did a great job!" Specific to the project, Paden's newfound enthusiasm shines through, "the way this ran and operated should be the precedent, the ideal option for how online classes should be run," adding that the simulation "really changed my mind on what online could be." Paden also expressed that "if there were ever an option to do something like this, I would jump on it in a heartbeat."
The community on campus is strong, and despite the unique new opportunity, Kukucha is still "not a fan" of online learning. While this process was fantastic and built community, Kukucha still looks forward to returning to in-person classes. Moving forward, the organizers hope to host this event every year, and with luck, "maybe in person down the road."
Innovation can lead to exceptional learning opportunities for our students, even in times of great adversity.