In this section, Dr. Sastry discusses the challenges of teaching in real-world contexts, the value of motivating students with pressing issues, and what goes into selecting a good partner organization.
Challenges of Teaching in Real-World Contexts
One challenge with real-world teaching experiences is that there is always an asymmetrical relationship. It’s a given that your partners in the organization know so much more about the subject, and that we are going to have a very shallow take on things. So how do you handle the mismatch, given that the organization’s job cannot be solely to teach us about the subject—and that our job is to deliver something that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise? In the case of Sangath, our partner organization during the workshop, we wanted to give them something they wouldn’t have had time or the ability to do without partnering with us.
One way around this is to refine the problem so that it becomes a very specific technical problem that would require a technology or an app to accomplish. But, for this workshop, I wanted something much messier and earlier in the process. For example, maintaining people on their addiction treatment even when there isn't an existing infrastructure. This is an area where you could misstep and come up with ideas that are completely irrelevant, which definitely makes it a challenge.
In contrast to what we do in GlobalHealth Lab, where we actually change how an organization treats patients, for this short intensive course, we weren’t giving our partner organization advice on what exactly to do. Instead, we wanted to fuel their thinking about the problem.
It can be difficult for students to imagine what it’s like to live in rural India and not have a smartphone, constant access to the internet, or a car. A good pre-assignment might have been a set of videos, or first-person accounts that would give a more vivid and emotionally compelling picture of daily life of the patients Sangath was trying to reach.
Since we were tackling issues related to mental health, I wanted them to understand that, from a global perspective, the number of people who don’t have access to mental health care who need it is huge, especially if you look at standard measures of burden of disease. I think it’s motivating for students to realize that what we are looking at are current, existing, pressing challenges.
We don’t have many global approaches to mental health that include a sense of what is scalable in different settings, or what works in different contexts. I think that that's one advantage of having a real world challenge that we could back up with data and context. I think all the students left knowing more about these big issues, which is great because they really should know about them.
Selecting a Partner Organization
When you design a workshop such as this, you recognize there are a lot of moving parts. You need an introduction, context-setting and general information. Then you need to learn about the organization. We provided a bench of experts that the teams were able to draw on, but students also had to interact directly with the organization itself to test, explore and build upon their ideas.
I needed to pick an organization with enough breadth to generate enough different projects, but the scope had to be focused enough so that learning about it would be meaningful. Then, the organization also needed to have bandwidth to work with us. Some of my partners are great organizations, but you might not be able to reach them by phone every day for three days, so we couldn’t have that.
The organization also had to have some presence in the literature and online. It gave the students a hook, and lent a lot of credibility and interest to the problem statement to be able to read published articles as well as the organization's own publications, and to be able to watch a TED Talk—in this case, Vikram Patel’s TED Talk really added a lot. I think you’ve got to go for something that is accessible to the students in those ways.