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Canadian-style pedagogy takes roots overseas

Canadian faculty are welcomed in many developing countries for their skill in introducing student-centred learning.


Sometime in the coming months, the first PhD candidates in nursing at Cuba’s Higher Institute of Medical Sciences will defend their dissertations and – fingers crossed – graduate, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of that country’s medical education. On that day, and more than 3,000 km away, Judith Scanlan, associate professor of nursing at the University of Manitoba, will be joining in the celebrations.

The seven would-be graduates, though few in number, are expected to have a profound impact on the future of nursing education in the Caribbean nation. All trained by Dr. Scanlan and her nursing colleagues at U of M, they will go on to educate Cuba’s next generation of doctoral nursing candidates.

The project started, as these things often do, with a chance encounter at an international conference almost two decades ago. After that meeting, nurses from the Havana-based institute of medical sciences asked U of M for help in revamping its graduate nursing program. Dr. Scanlan’s first attempt to visit her Cuban counterparts was scuttled in a typically Canadian fashion: a blinding snowstorm. But, after several more false starts, she received $1 million in funding through the University Partnerships in Cooperation and Development, or UPCD, a program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and administered by CIDA and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

The PhD program in nursing, Cuba’s first, was finally launched in 2005 with an initial group of 12 students (five later transferred to another program or left altogether). In the first year, the students devoted themselves to studying English, which they needed to consult the academic literature, while Dr. Scanlan and her team designed the curriculum. Then the course work got underway, wrapping up in 2009. Since then, students have been researching and writing their dissertations.

Along the way, the Cuban institute established a separate faculty of nursing, and substantial revisions were made to its master’s program. Continuing education workshops were designed and implemented and several research teams established. Just as importantly, the image of nursing changed in the country. “Nursing is seen as a desired profession now,” says Dr. Scanlan proudly.

Dr. Scanlan is one of many Canadian professors involved in curriculum development and faculty training at universities in developing countries. Many of the large projects are funded by CIDA through UPCD; since its launch in 1994, the program has funded about 150. Others are sponsored by Canadian universities, international development organizations and other agencies.

Canadian professors are highly sought-after for their expertise in curriculum development. They are helping to transform postsecondary education in developing countries, often creating graduate programs where none existed. The projects they’re contributing to are in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, and in many disciplines, particularly law, health, science and the environment. Yvon Dandurand, associate vice-president, research and graduate studies, at the University of the Fraser Valley, says that many developing countries have a keen interest in Canadian-style higher education.

“We hear all the time that there is a Canadian perspective, that we approach pedagogy in a slightly different way,” says Dr. Dandurand who co-authored a report on this topic for AUCC, based partly on a survey of UPCD project managers in 2009. The survey showed that more than 2,600 educational programs had been created or strengthened in developing countries, including 220 master’s and 38 doctoral programs. Often, the projects introduced pedagogical changes that had “lasting transformative, social and educational effects,” said the report.

A common innovation introduced by Canadian instructors is a student-centred teaching method where the students are largely responsible for their own learning and the teacher’s role is to facilitate that learning, rather than to impart knowledge. Other methods introduced include inquiry- and problem-based learning exercises, community outreach projects, seminar-style classes, experiential learning and case studies. Alan Wright, vice-provost, teaching and learning, at the University of Windsor who has worked on overseas projects, says, “We’ve come a long way over the last 25 years in terms of our knowledge of pedagogical principles at the university and college level.”

In many developing countries, the prevailing teaching method is the traditional lecture. In Cuba, for example, the nursing students that Dr. Scanlan first met were accustomed to a didactic style of instruction. “Classroom discussions were painful at first, to say the least, because it was entirely foreign to them,” Dr. Scanlan says. But by the end, “they could engage; they could discuss.”

Canada’s ties to the Commonwealth give it an entrée to many countries. Still, change isn’t universally welcomed. In countries where political activism is frowned upon, encouraging critical thinking in students is some-times viewed as subversive, the report notes. And sometimes, the local professors are reluctant to abandon their traditional roles.

“Universities there are no different than universities here. There is always some resistance to doing things differently,” says Dr. Dandurand, who has helped develop criminal justice and criminal law curricula in India and Vietnam. The push for change, he says, is often driven by younger faculty members who may have been exposed to different teaching methods while studying abroad.

On the other hand, Jack Littlepage, director of technology and international development at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies, says he didn’t encounter any opposition while working on a new master’s program in aquaculture at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University. Educators there wanted to offer Western-style curricula and sought Canada’s help, but understandably, he adds, they didn’t want to be told how to do it. When it came to implementing the curriculum, it was viewed more as a general guideline than a hard and fast plan, and was adjusted according to the resources at hand.

The success of the collaboration, he adds, depends on open lines of communication. “I’ve been lucky; I’ve had wonderful people to work with,” says Dr. Littlepage. Even so, establishing a good rapport takes time. “The first year, you don’t accomplish much because that’s normally the year you learn what you can do, what the culture is, and what’s accepted.”

Visiting professors should be aware of cultural differences and variances in teaching styles, adds David Kaufman, professor of education at Simon Fraser University and former director of its Teaching and Learning Centre. If lectures are a high priority in that country, then it’s best to include some, advises Dr. Kaufman, who helped Brazil’s Pontifical Catholic University of Paranà convert its medical curriculum from a lecture-based to a problem-based model. “At the same time, I think it’s our responsibility to open them up to other methods of teaching.” He sees his role principally as that of a facilitator, raising questions that need to be addressed and discussing options.

There are many paths in. Allan Thompson, associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and director of its Centre for Media and Transitional Societies, got involved in faculty training through the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership between Carleton and the National University of Rwanda (the initiative was recently suspended due to a lack of funds, but Professor Thompson hopes to revive it). In 2006, Carleton began sending faculty and veteran reporters to Butare to teach aspiring journalism students. Canadian instructors revised the Rwandan journalism program by introducing more practical and hands-on teaching exercises, a change cheered by students. They developed curricula for a new continuing education institute for working journalists, and staff from Carleton’s Educational Development Centre designed and delivered a teaching certificate program for Rwandan journalists who wanted to teach.

While Rwandan faculty members were “incredibly receptive to any kind of assistance from the outside,” Professor Thompson says that supporting media development in a country where news organizations are subject to political interference was challenging. Even though government officials didn’t try to intervene in the university’s work, some of the program’s Canadian participants openly questioned Carleton’s involvement in a country that doesn’t respect press freedom. Some Rwandan faculty believed, and resented, that their Canadian counterparts were earning North American wages, but Professor Thompson says he “quickly point[ed] out that we are essentially a volunteer organization.”

On the whole, he says, the project was a great success. The ties established through projects like this one often lead to other academic collaborations; Carleton’s Centre for Media and Transitional Societies has sent student interns to other African countries including South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Sierra Leone. Dozens of Canadian journalism students have worked as interns at Rwandan media outlets over the years, and Rwandan students have enrolled in Carleton’s master’s program in journalism. “The existence of this project,” says Professor Thompson, “created a whole hub of activity” that gave Carleton students a sense that their school was “trying to make a difference somewhere else in the world.”

Two-way benefits

When Jamaica’s University of Technology was looking to host a series of faculty training workshops, it turned to a multidisciplinary team of professors from several Canadian universities. Winsome Russell, the university’s associate vice-president, academic management and quality assurance, says the workshops are part of the university’s strategic plan to move to a student-centred teaching model.

“We wanted our students to be more interactive,” Dr. Russell explains. “We wanted our lecturers to be able to infuse technology in teaching.” The workshops, funded by the Caribbean Development Bank, cover topics like student-centred teaching, student learning assessments and the use of technology in teaching. The process has been slow, she adds, because it isn’t easy to get people to change the way they do things.

Dr. Russell was reached at the University of Windsor. She and her colleague, Cynthia Onyefulu, a senior lecturer in the faculty of education and liberal studies, were there to observe how U of Windsor’s Teaching and Learning Centre operates. And Alan Wright, U of Windsor’s vice-provost, teaching and learning, took part in the workshops in Kingston, Jamaica.
Dr. Onyefulu, with a PhD from the University of Alberta, says initiatives like this one are often a two-way street; the workshops help Canadian institutions fulfill their internationalization mandates. “So Jamaicans,” she notes, “are not the only beneficiaries.”

Rosanna Tamburri, a Toronto-based journalist, specializes in higher education policy and is a regular contributor to University Affairs. She spent her early career as a staff reporter in Ottawa for the Wall Street Journal.

Rosanna Tamburri
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