In this section, Dr. Sastry shares insights and recommendations for educators who may be interested in planning and running a course similar to GlobalHealth Lab.
If you ask my students about what they would change about the course, the first thing they would say is, “This is too much work.” As an instructor, this begs the question of how to manage the workload. How do you pare it back to something manageable without undermining key values and goals? This is an ongoing challenge, particularly because the work cannot be put off. In other courses, you can schedule your workflow and pull that all-nighter when you need to. Not in this course! You cannot fall asleep at the wheel or take the week off.
Another challenge for students and the course team is that situations can vary so much. Students have a very natural tendency to compare. Some projects might seem to be more fun than others.
Sometimes projects are affected by factors outside of our control. For example, Kenya had elections in the spring of 2013, and it meant that traveling there suddenly became unsafe, and we had to cancel a project. That is extremely disappointing for everybody. The projects depend not only on the students and course staff, but also on our hosts. It is a multi-stakeholder management. Sometimes issues onsite such as personnel changes can affect the projects.
I think many of the students are left at the end with a feeling that there is more to do. This is a real challenge because it is not like a problem set that ends when it is handed in. This course only scratches the surface, and knowing that so much lies beyond the scope of the course is a tough feeling to handle. It can leave students with a sense of incompletion that I think is something the instructor has to be aware of and manage. The instructors have that feeling too, so we try to encourage students to turn that into something that actually fuels the work going forward.
Lastly, a course like this is expensive in terms of time and money. We cover the larger student travel costs, but we ask the hosts to see if travel and hotel cost can be shared. Students generally bear the cost of local transport, food, incidentals, and visas; these vary across projects, and you have to manage the students’ expectations in the process as well. Each airfare is several thousand dollars, and we have 48 students. We also have our own travel to visit the sites, scouting investment, and extra staff time for managing the planning. We are reconciling 60 international trips that occur every year, and so we really seek support from our partners. We would like every partner to invest in every project, and we get generous support from MIT Sloan, but we are also seeking outside funding. It is a yearly challenge to figure out how we are going to make it work.
There is definitely a huge administrative burden if you have a lot of variations in settings. Investing a lot in scoping and developing the projects is probably the most important thing, and then being willing to wade into details as the instructor. I am careful not to be too quick to say to the students, “Oh, you solved that problem.” For me, because I get so involved in every project and visit most of them, I really have learned a ton alongside the students, but it does require a real commitment.
Advice for Other Educators
I think that people who teach a course like this have to be willing to accept variance. Some projects are going to be great, and some are not. It is hard to control the quality of the project. You can control it to some extent as the instructor, of course, by shaping the quality of the learning experience. One challenge for the students is that they tend to couple the project and the learning experience in their minds. If they think that they have a good project, they think they have a good learning experience. And if they think they do not have good project, it gets linked in their minds to their learning. As the instructor, you have to try to disentangle the two because you want students to learn regardless of whether the project goes well. Furthermore, what students think is high value is not always what the partners think is high value. For instance, my hosts often disclose that the most valuable project result ends with the students telling the host not to do something, such as “don’t buy that piece of equipment” or “cancel that expansion plan.” Students hate these projects because they spend the whole time trying to figure out how to make something work. They are pretty down about it, but the hosts are ecstatic that they saved on what could have been a bad investment. The instructor of the course needs to be mindful of different perceptions and to ask, “How do I create a learning experience that is decoupled from these subjective assessments that students have?”
Given that project-based courses are proliferating, you may have to contend with people’s assumptions upfront about what this course is about. You may need to really work hard and push for your particular model. For instance, some of our hosts only tend to focus on those two weeks onsite and do not necessarily invest a lot of time pre- and post-trip. They are actually missing at least 50% of the student hours they could be getting. You need to understand what assumptions your partners may have, keep articulating what your model is, and plan for all of those elements that you have built into your course.
Finally, invest in documentation. It is not fun, but having a great archive is so important. At the end of the course, you need data to reflect in a productive way. Your documentation and archiving are important inputs to that. Archiving the 12 projects from the Spring 2013 offering of the course required going through 1800 items in 90 folders! It takes several weeks just to go through all the materials, but we also make sure they are properly organized so we can assess them. Grading gives us one cut, but we are taking another cut to see which of these can be really polished into something that lots of people can use. The archives are so useful. You can create a model portfolio, share it with future students, and increase the quality of their work. You can share it with potential host applicants and set their expectations appropriately. Having this information lets you better interact with your stakeholders and increase quality over time.