By Erin Mikulec, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University, Spring 2016
Back in October, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the ISSOTL Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Although I have participated in this conference in the past, this year’s event was an incredible display of the SoTL work being carried out in universities throughout Australia. In addition, there were also a number of plenary speakers and sessions by scholars from around the world, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, and China. Nonetheless, there were a number of common themes that emerged through plenary sessions, roundtables and paper presentations that made me think of the SoTL work being done at Illinois State University.
For the opening plenary keynote, Dr. Katarina Mårtensson discussed the importance of supporting SoTL at the local level. Dr. Mårtensson discussed three levels of investigation within the area of scholarship, including the purpose of the investigation, by whom conclusions are made, and the extent to which the knowledge is shared. It was in this last category that I was able to make many connections to the SoTL work that is carried out at Illinois State University, and the many ways in which it is supported in order to disseminate this knowledge both locally, for instance our journal Gauisus, this blog, and the annual Teaching and Learning Symposium and beyond, such as the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the SoTL Commons Conference.
Many sessions also focused on internationalization efforts within institutions and their impact on students. These efforts included institutional commitments to promote internationalization through professional development opportunities, small project grants, and collaborative partners and networks outside of the institution. These resources were centralized within their respective universities and made available to faculty interested in starting their own international projects, with the ultimate goal of providing opportunities for student engagement and assessing student learning. There were also several sessions in which faculty had incorporated international perspectives and projects into coursework. One in particular was done at LaTrobe University among business students, who were tasked with opening a new fashion store in Japanese and English markets. This required students to consider both the market potential and cultural differences and similarities in apparel marketing and consumer culture in each location. They did this through interactions with business students in universities in the U.K. and Japan. The researchers used multiple methods of data collection to determine the student learning outcomes, such as reflections, online discussions with peers in Japan and England, and the culminating project that was a video ad campaign to be used in the respective markets. The students reported that at times there was limited communication with their international peers, which made it difficult to obtain all of the information they needed and wanted in order to carry out the assigned tasks. This is consistent with findings of my own research in these areas and the researcher discussed how this might be addressed in future iterations of the project, such as having students research communication styles across cultures as well as working with the cooperating faculty in other institutions to establish clear expectations for the project. Nonetheless, the project, although it had its challenges, was largely a success. It was exciting to hear the instructor present the findings of this project in terms of how it impacted student learning as well as informed her teaching. Again, it was encouraging to see this work kind of work being carried out in institutions around the world and knowing that the same kinds of support for similar endeavors are growing at Illinois State, such as the Go Global with SoTL! Mini-grant program.
Finally, I attended a session that focused on an international grant team that was examining the concept of student leadership. The discussion in this roundtable led to questions such as, what do we mean when we talk about student leadership? Is the goal to develop a small number of student leaders or is it to develop leadership skills in all students? And, finally, what is the role of institutions in developing leadership in university students? The discussion was rich with multiple perspectives that encouraged further discussion and reconstruction of ideas. However, the focus of the discussion was primarily defining student leadership and the role of the institution, and the idea of how to measure the impact of leadership seemed to be a question for the future. Although no definitive answer was found, the discussion yielded even more questions and it made me reflect on the amount of out-of-class learning also taking place at ISU through various students clubs and organizations. We likely need more SoTL research on the student outcomes from such out-of-class experiences.
However, the most powerful aspect of the ISSOTL conference is that it is a forum that fosters and encourages academics to reflect on their teaching, the learning of students, and how this can inform classroom practice. This was made clear through the variety of sessions I attended in which instructors were taking risks with their teaching and reporting the results, empowered by the positive energy of a supportive environment. This made me reflect on an earlier session in which the speakers discussed the need to “reshape” teaching and learning into SoTL in light of the changing role of the modern teaching academic. The emphasis was on the benefits of SoTL for faculty who are experts in their discipline and therefore may not be familiar with educational research practices. Furthermore, the speakers argued that SoTL provides research opportunities for faculty who are in teaching-intensive institutions. However, there is still a need for the support of chairs and deans, and a consistent understanding of the value of SoTL within the institution. These sessions helped to remind me of the importance of SoTL for scholars in disciplines across the university, whether they are in Illinois or Australia.