In 2012, Natik worked with the students of the University of Denver in an all virtual service-learning project. Saran Stewart, then one of the students, now a professor at the University of the West Indies, helped craft a case study of the experience for The Applied Anthropologist). Below she shares some important lessons learned.
A few years ago, Natik connected with a graduate class at the University of Denver, with the hopes of serving as a real-world example in exchange for valuable academic analysis of its programs. The catch was that unlike most student collaborations, all communications were to be done virtually, through video chats, emails and electronic documents. No one but the instructor had seen these programs in Guatemala or Mexico.
At the time, I was a doctoral student in the college of education taking an international studies course and thus was able to study both the material and the course’s structure. This was the instructor’s first year teaching the said course, and while it was well designed, it would prove to have room for development. To its benefit, the course gave many opportunities for students to engage freely with the material and to examine the premise of virtual service-learning. Seeing members of Natik on screen and watching them discuss challenges as they were happening was edifying, and a brilliant addition to the course.
Poor internet connection, though, in Chiapas, Mexico was a problem, and it challenged the communication in several sessions. Other challenges seemingly occurred due to distance and privilege differentials. The physical distances between us as students in Colorado and the service programs in Guatemala and Mexico meant that we were able to disconnect with the projects once we left class each day. In addition, by our very presence in a graduate degree program at a private higher education institution, we were privileged both socially and economically. This sense of privilege would often interfere with our recommendations for improvement of the programs in these countries. We were unable to get past questions like, are our theories biased, misdirected, or irrelevant, given the context and distance from the programs.
A key takeaway from the course was that Natik certainly had the will to collaborate in respectful and innovative ways. Helping to write this academic article provided an in-depth look into Natik’s methodology. For example, the article has six authors, and the instructor and lead author insisted that each of the author’s voices be heard; the tedious process of editing became a process of true collaboration, and truthfully, it was rewarding.
As more of the world reorganizes around the Internet, what we can see and do from computers has changed, and our ability to discern the limits and potentials of our new and specious omnipresence will determine how well we influence the world. It is my hope that this article provides a snapshot of a collaborative methodology and the lessons learned about distance and virtual service-learning programs. There is much to be done in this area of development work.
Click here to view the article.