January 6, 2006
Just do it
Education Faculty 'poster child' for global approach
by Geoff McMaster
Aside from of University of Alberta International, it's hard to find anyone on campus who pursues international connections in a more focused way than the Faculty of Education. Last July it opened an office devoted to internationalization, not so much to drive initiatives overseas as to organize and provide resources for work that's been going on for years.
"They definitely have been a real leader on this campus," said Rae McDonald of U of A International. "They have had a very good outward approach. One of the things that gets investment in the world is the development of capacity for education. And from after the Second World War, the U of A has been involved in projects from the education side."
The university's involvement in building education systems in developing countries began in Korea in the 1950s, with more than 800 school administrators training at the U of A. It soon spread to Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s, and China in the late 1970s. The faculty now also has strong links with Africa, Mexico, New Zealand and Mexico.
It doesn't hurt that the faculty has a strong international profile as one of the first education faculties in Canada, and the first to offer doctorates. For several generations, alumni from overseas have returned to positions of leadership in their respective countries.
"So we have unbelievable alumni around the world who are connected," said McDonald, adding that the children of those alumni have been arriving here in large numbers to study, because of the U of A's reputation and the loyalty of its graduates.
Dr. George Richardson, director of Education's new Office of International Initiatives, estimates there are more than 40 faculty members involved in some degree in international work. "The more you delve into it the more you realize there is just an awesome array of talent here," he said.
Not surprisingly, much the faculty's international work is in China, a rapidly transforming society whose economy is poised to become the strongest in the world.
"They realize their traditional approach, which really is knowledge-and-content heavy, wasn't really working in a modern knowledge economy," Richardson said. "What they want to do is move to a teaching style where students are encouraged to engage in inquiry and think critically, rather than simply respond with rote knowledge."
Richardson is involved in a project, along with colleagues at the University of Calgary and Athabasca University, called Agrateam. The team is developing four distance-education courses for 360 high schools in remote areas of Western China. The schools will take advantage of a satellite network donated to the country by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, former owner of Husky Oil.
They are producing curriculum materials for science, English as a second language, student-centred learning and leadership, he says.
"It's a fascinating experiment, a culture change," said Richardson. "We spent a week in the field talking to principals about their concept of leadership and management. The idea is to shift the role of the principal as a managerůmaking them more instructional leaders."
Drs. Jim Parsons, Tara Fenwick and Joe Wu have also been working for a number of years with Hebei province, to provide elementary textbooks for English as a second language. Their textbook is one of 10 officially approved by Beijing for use across China. Wu has provided textbooks for junior high students, and has also been involved in training teachers there in a more student-centred approach.
But in addition to the Chinese connection, the faculty is also striking partnerships in aboriginal education, with a faculty exchange agreement with Massey University in New Zealand "to really take advantage of the best in indigenous scholarship." That link is partly led by Dr. Makere Stewart-Harawira of the Department of Educational Policy Studies, a Maori scholar who joined the U of A in 2004.
In Africa, Dr. Ali Abdi runs three projects: one involves helping the eastern Cape area of South Africa transform its curricula, another in Somalia is helping reconstruct an education system destroyed by civil war, and a citizen education project in Zambia is contributing to "the overall process of democratization in Africa," Abdi said. "It's education for political emancipation. Although there is a democracy in name, there's not much happening for the public. Without education, nothing will move forward."
The faculty is also making headway in Mexico and Bavaria, mainly setting up exchange programs for faculty and school teachers.
A major goal for the future is to increase student participation in exchange programs. The faculty has recently established an arrangement in which students who have completed practicums can get additional experience overseas. Initial talks are underway to establish an exchange agreement with a Korean university.
The aim, says Richardson, is to include some sort of overseas placement for every student who wants it. "For me, that would be a major accomplishment.
"It's the best aspect of globalization," he said. "It can have its problematic aspects and certainly does. But this kind of international exchange, intercultural dialogue, takes advantage of our best abilities and brings forward some of the best work."