(Photo: Dave Stobbe)

A COIL of FYRE: Collaborative online international learning in a First Year Research Experience class

This class not only crosses disciplinary boundaries across campus, but crosses – in fact, smashes – international lines. It’s Dr. David J. Parkinson’s (PhD) ENG113 course, and it’s a course like few others on campus.

By Merle Massie

Imagine a typical first-year English class from the College of Arts and Science. It has a mix of students from across campus: future scientists and veterinarians, teachers and lawyers, with a sprinkling of engineers, dentists and nurses, a budding historian or two, some policy students and a few who will lead our literary fields.  

Then look closer. Because this class not only crosses disciplinary boundaries across campus, but crosses – in fact, smashes – international lines. It’s Dr. David J. Parkinson’s (PhD) ENG113 course, and it’s a course like few others on campus.  

On paper, ENG113 is Literature and Composition: Reading Narrative, with a straightforward course description: “An introduction to the major forms of narrative literature in English.” But how many ways can you compose and tell a story? What prompts you to tell that story in the first place? A historical or contemporary event? A memory?  How about a picture?  

And then, how will you tell that story? Sure, you could write it. But how else can you compose and tell a story? 

Those are the sorts of question David Parkinson, long known as a campus master teacher with a clear desire to shake things up in his classroom, asks.  

Parkinson vividly pursues internationalization as a core methodology to his teaching and student learning. Along with colleague Lisa Vargo, Parkinson initiated PICT: Project in International Collaborative Teaching, working with Dr. Payel Chattopadhyay Mukherjee of Ahmedabad University in India in 2018.  

In the course, the professors  co-taught students from both universities and shared cultural perspectives on writing drawn from each country. Such an international course allows students to hear and understand cross-cultural views on a wide range of human issues, from household-level events to interaction with the environment to the impact of geography and culture on perception.  

What does everyone understand from a piece of narrative when you come from really different backgrounds? How do you compose a story, and how is it different, when your perspective is different? These kinds of questions, Parkinson argues, make a superbly rich learning environment.  

Parkinson’s interest in internationalization put him front and centre when the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning (GMCTL) began to develop COIL: Collaborative Online International Learning 

COIL is a bit of a matchmaking service, explained Aditi Garg, an educational development specialist at GMCTL. Garg went looking through an informal international network of instructors, and through the process was introduced to Dr. Sara Ruiz Gomez at Universidad San Pablo CEU in Madrid. Dr. Ruiz teaches in media production. The course that became intertwined with Parkinson’s ENG 113 specifically learns about radio and podcasts. Ruiz and Parkinson began talking, and soon realized that the core of their work is in narratives and telling stories: in understanding them, breaking them down, and putting them back together. That became the focus of their COIL collaboration.  

Working together across international lines and different disciplines, took “gumption,” reported Parkinson. Gumption got them off the ground and finding synergies. Then, both put their focus on practical considerations: what project could the students work on together, what separately, and how would they meld? ? Those details, Parkinson noted, took the largest portion of their attention.  

In addition to his commitment to international learning, Parkinson has also been a leading member of the USask FYRE: First Year Research Experience faculty. These faculty embed a research project into their first-year level courses, exposing students to the skills and resources needed to imagine and carry out a research project, alongside senior students who work as research coaches.  

This winter, Parkinson put the two together: FYRE and COIL. FYRE asks students to complete a research project using the research cycle: develop a research question, investigate the question using the tools of the discipline, and share their findings with others beyond the professor. The research experience developed needed skillsets towards developing and arguing a critical paper, a key component of a narrative literature class.  

For the COIL, Parkinson had the USask students go one step further.  

In the COIL model, three items are key: an icebreaker event; a collaborative task, where each student contributes; and reflection activities, where students transform their learning into new ways of thinking and understanding. It’s also crucial to have a pre-COIL and post-COIL survey, to gauge the experience.  

The collaborative task was particularly interesting, as English students generally work alone. Students from both universities chose an image, then worked to build a story around what they saw in the picture. Working collectively to build a narrative with students in Madrid, added a whole new dimension  of cultural interpretation, understanding, and assumptions. 

To support the Madrid students in their own podcast learning and practice, USask students created audio recordings with self-reflections on the FYRE and COIL experiences, with thoughts on narrative, research, and the experiences of teamwork across international and online spaces. 

The students in Madrid were able to use the raw USask student reflection files to develop podcast recordings, working with audio techniques and honing skills in cutting and reshaping to form new narratives.  

It’s one of the strengths of this unique collaboration – students are practicing skillsets of research, reflection and dissemination over and above any specific content learning from classic texts such as Sir Launfal or Oroonoko.  

The whole process produced an amazing class journey across two countries. The Madrid student podcasts are available for listening, and the USask Undergraduate Research Initiative caught up with Dr. Parkinson and Aditi Garg to record our own podcast for the Tales and Trials of Research series.  

At the request of the GMCTL, USask media services conducted interviews with the course instructors and with students, to capture thoughts on what students and course teachers gained from COIL, and where it could go next. These videos will support other USask and international collaborative professors who might want to follow the COIL model.  

[Note: the Undergraduate Research Initiative wishes Dr. David Parkinson all the best as he moves into the next phase of his career: retirement! We will miss you!]