Accepted Papers

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How the earth moved: the significance of difference for realising transformative learning in an online course on global citizenship

Anne Hewling & Leah P. Macfadyen
The Open University & The University of British Columbia

How can we help digital-age students make connections between academic knowledge they acquire in their classes, and their roles and responsibilities as members of local and global communities, and have them engage personally and professionally with the practical and ethical complexities of global challenges? In 2005 a group of us at The University of British Columbia launched an online course, ‘Introduction to Global Citizenship’, as one response to these questions. Our aim was to create a forum where students would engage in issues of social and ecological justice through critical thought, moral commitment, and meaningful engagement in their learning and 'coming to know' as global citizens.

Intended as the foundation course of a new Universitas 21 certificate, the course was envisioned as a globally recruiting, globally meaningful interdisciplinary course for undergraduate students wanting to demonstrate a commitment to global ideals and responsibilities. It was developed with input from more than a dozen experts in different aspects of global citizenship from around the world, and the first student cohort was recruited from the Universities of British Columbia (Canada); Melbourne (Australia); and Hong Kong (Macfadyen, 2005). The course was a runaway success and, as described by the graduating students themselves, a life changing experience for those involved:

“This is the first time I have ever had the knowledge I’ve learned in classes at UBC connect with my life and my community. It has held me accountable in ways that I had never thought of and are practical. I feel I can do something now as a global citizen.”
[Student Feedback]

As tutors in this course, we also felt we had experienced something extraordinary, taking us beyond what we had experienced in other comparable courses. This paper is the result of our initial attempts to understand just how ‘the earth had moved’ for our students, to try to ‘capture the (many kinds of) difference’, and to detect a way of using lessons learned to reposition our future online endeavours.

International encounters in virtual spaces

There is a long history of approaching learning and teaching about other cultures, and about global differences, through student and teacher exchange programmes and other endeavours that involve physical displacement at a high financial and time cost to institutions and learners alike (see, for example, Knight, 1996; Macfadyen, 2003). Even semester- or year-long exchange programmes have, however, been limited in the exposure to different cultures, and the degree of global learning, that they could offer. Online learning allows a wider mix of interpersonal and cross-cultural encounters over a shorter time span, and the bonus of access to further multimedia resources.  But does it have the potential to offer students meaningful educational encounters and experiences that might be characterized as “transformative” (Mezirow, 1991)?

Some educational theorists would argue that it does not. From Dewey (1966) to Dreyfus (2001), a range of educational theorists have stressed various aspects of experiential and ‘lived’ encounters which they feel must be included in learners’ experiences of learning in order to ensure change. The embodied ‘real-life encounter’ is often assumed (and sometimes overtly stated) to be critical for effective learning and intellectual development, and for the development of ‘real’ personal relationships that permit ‘perspective transformation’.

We observed, however, that online our students showed real evidence of increased critical awareness of their habitual assumptions about the world; they began to make decisions or consider actions based upon their new understandings of global complexity; and in their feedback they wrote with surprise about the degree to which they felt they had come to know and learn from their virtual international classmates.

Lévy has argued, that 'virtual' is not opposed to 'real' but to 'actual', and that Internet technologies are the inventions that are blurring the actual/virtual distinction. Actuality and virtuality are, he suggests, two modes of reality, and rather than a "disembodying of information", digitalization should be seen as a "virtualization" - a shift between modes of reality (cited in Poster, 2001). As we will demonstrate in this paper, a reconfiguration of understandings of ‘realness’ and embodiment in cyberspace may serve us better in our efforts to understand the potential for powerful learning in virtual learning environments than any simplistic assumptions based on the absence of bodies and shared material spaces of face-to-face (f2f) classrooms.

The role of reflection

Reflection is a key feature of the processes of assimilation and adjustment that learners undergo as they make cross cultural and interdisciplinary connections in the global citizenship program. As one student commented:

‘… the format of the course is not mere learning but it is REFLECTION. You are forced to reflect upon yourself and contextualize the learning experience.’

However, once again, we have found that student reflexive endeavours (observed in extended discussion board exchanges) cannot fully be understood by simple comparison with face-to-face (f2f) classroom reflection. In the restricted social cues environment online, for example, students seemed to involve all others around them in their reflection, ignoring individual differences like age, gender or religious affiliation which f2f we might have expected to raise barriers to interaction. Likewise students were prepared to reveal details of how their personal reflections had developed and lay open personal insecurities in a new way. It seemed that in preference to preconceived assumptions and reactions that offline might have been triggered in response to social or visual cues, online it was the ideas offered by any given participant that were reviewed and deliberated upon.

Moving forward: Investigating differences

We have only just begun our explorations in an attempt to better understand the significance of ‘difference’ in this course, and the ways in which it may contribute to student learning. We are drawing on Burbules’ (2002) proposition that difference is repositioned online, that it does not disappear but is transformed. Our examination of the role of student reflection in transformative learning is informed by theoretical approaches that connect student intellectual development and critical thinking with reflective practice (see, for example, King & Kitchener, 1994).

We are seeking to capture the power and nature of the transformative learning process that we believe we have witnessed. It seems unlikely that this can entirely be achieved by means of direct comparisons between f2f teaching and learning and what we see happening online. In our presentation we will discuss our conclusions to date and offer examples of repositioning and redefinition in practice.



Burbules, N. (2002). Like a Version: Playing with Online Identities. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 34(4), 387-393.

Dewey, J. (1966).  Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Dreyfus, H. L. (2001). On the Internet. London: Routledge.

King, P. M. & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knight, J. (1996) Internationalizing higher education: a shared vision? Ottawa: Canadian Bureau for International Education, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

Macfadyen, L. P. (2003). International Education Online? A Report on Six Canadian Case Studies. Research Report for the Canadian Bureau for International Education, Ottawa.

Macfadyen, L. P. (2005). Global Citizenship: The Course. Pearson College Web Magazine, October 5th, 2005.

Mezirow, Jack. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Poster, M. (2001). What's the Matter with the Internet? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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updated 24 January 2007