Teaching in a Fast-Changing Environment – The Case of Development Studies

By Basile Boulay

Following years of austerity budgets and a fast-growing managerial culture within academia, social sciences and humanities have been under growing pressure for some time.  Simultaneously, the assumptions behind the teaching and research of entire disciplines have been heavily criticized , giving rise to movements -often supported by students- calling for wide academic and curricula reforms. Development Studies, which draws on many fields from social sciences and humanities, is no exception and is undergoing such profound changes.

The academic landscape for Development Studies is changing fast, with a relative decline in the field in its traditional sense, as the recent intent to close the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at School of Advanced Studies of the University of London or the disappearance of ‘International Development’ degrees in some countries reveal. Debates on the validity of ‘development’ as a project, and about its very meaning as a concept are now central to the discipline, together with calls for decolonising curricula and improving awareness of practitioners’ positionality. At the same time however, many degrees in inter- and transdisciplinary subjects are now extremely popular with students, such as environmental or sustainability studies, and bear direct relation to topics and methodological approaches dear to the development community.

In this context, understanding how to move forward with meaningful and up to date teaching is often perceived as a challenge by teaching staff, heightened by the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on higher education. EADI’s 2020 Academic Coordinators Workshop offered a space to coordinators and teaching staff to reflect upon this fast-changing environment, giving the possibility to network and exchange ideas and experiences. This blogpost provides a critical reflection on the outcome of this workshop, which was ran online in November 2020, and gathered participants and speakers from several European Countries and South-Africa.

Online Teaching – Keeping up with Rapid Change

The pandemic has forced most universities to rapidly switch to online teaching in the spring. With several months of experience in online teaching behind them, the workshop was a fruitful place for participants to reflect on what worked well and what still requires improvement. Further, many universities are now considering designing distance-learning programmes running entirely online (as opposed to a regular programme that has moved online following the pandemic).

Navtej K Purewal, who is the convenor of the online Master Programme in International Development at SOAS, provided insights into successfully designing such programmes. Distance-learning requires specific features in terms of pedagogy and assessment methods, among others. Pedagogy needs to be adapted to fit a fully online format, for instance through discussion forums that allow for peer-to-peer learning and exchange. This in turn requires appropriate training for tutors/instructors to ensure inclusivity and smooth use of technologies. Activities, relabelled “e-tivities” in this context, have also evolved, and are often ‘broken down’ into smaller building blocks that are better suited for distance learning. The online dissertation module follows a similar approach in four clearly defined and gradual stages: topic choice, research proposal, writing (part 1) and writing (part 2), followed by submission. Providing time for online one-to-one encounters with students was also seen as crucial, together with the need to cater for different time zones and include activities for community-building.

Many more ideas were exchanged during our World Café focusing on online teaching, such as ways to increase participation from shy and introvert students, or identifying key issues that have not yet been overcome with online solutions (e.g. the need for practical training in the field, as in the case of sustainable agriculture). Participants from different institutions and countries also exchanged tips on assessment formats suited to online teaching, such as portfolio or reflective diaries.

Accreditation – More than a Marketing Tool

Another item on the agenda was a presentation of the International Accreditation Council for Global Development Studies and Research (IAC), an independent accreditation scheme that provides certification for academic programmes in Development Studies. In an increasingly competitive and fragmented academic landscape, accreditations can help institutions raise the profile of their programmes and signal to potential applicants their commitment to modern and ambitious teaching standards. Joost Moenks, Secretary of the Council, offered a presentation on the benefits of an accreditation, together with details on the steps involved in the application process. Important aspects scrutinised by the accreditation committee relate to the degree of inter- or multidisciplinary in the programme, the coherence of its curriculum, the extent to which it is student-focused, and the level and kind of specialisation offered. Several institutions recently decided to apply for an accreditation with IAC, with ongoing assessments in universities in Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Questioning Development Studies

As already mentioned above, development studies is facing important changes, and many in the development community stress the need to define the road ahead for the discipline. Susanne von Itter, EADI’s Executive Secretary, presented the EADI publication on “Building Development Studies for the New Millennium”, which was designed to help answer these important questions in the field.

Her intervention was followed by that of Courtney L. Vegelin, director of the Master and Research Master Programmes in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Courtney offered an honest take on the successes and challenges in adapting the curriculum to reflect changes in the discipline. As key trade-offs from a curriculum setting perspective she gave the example of breadth versus depth. Wanting to cover several methodological approaches to ensure exposure to students may result in a classic case of ‘jack of all trades master of none’, whereby students only gain a basic understanding of competing approaches without possessing a strong expertise in any. General key challenges for the future of curriculum setting in Development Studies were also touched upon, such as students’ demand for the university to embrace the need for decolonising the curriculum.

The decolonisation of knowledge was also a key question in our World Café events, and the topic was approached in the current context of online teaching. Many possible routes to engage with this complex problem were hinted at, for instance compiling new reading lists reflecting diversity of thought from all parts of the globe or including teaching units focusing on the existence of development problems in the Global North (as opposed to development being solely focused on the Global South).

Detlef Müller-Mahn, Professor of Geography at the University of Bonn, also stressed the need to embrace decolonisation of practices and reflexive experiences for students. In the Master programme MSc Geography with specialization in development studies, a fieldtrip to Tanzania is organised. During this trip, students from Bonn are encouraged to do ‘hands on’ research practice and stay for 2 weeks with peers from Tanzania. The university is now also planning to organise a trip for Tanzanian students to Germany to institutionalise the idea that development ‘goes both ways’, rather than simply from ‘North to South’.

Francisco Anacleto Louçã, Convenor of the PhD Program in Development Studies at ISEG (Lisbon University), further reflected on the evolution of Development Studies by explaining how the PhD program at ISEG evolved over time to adapt to societal changes. Coming from a strong tradition of Development Economics, the programme evolved to incorporate many other aspects of and approaches to Development Studies. Institutional adaptation allowed the programme to engage with key contemporary issues such as climate change and unsustainable levels of inequality.

A Friendly Space for Exchange

All in all, EADI’s 2020 Academic Coordinators Workshop was a real success, with strong levels of engagement from participants and speakers, and good use of innovative technologies such as virtual boards to stimulate exchange during our World Café events. While Development Studies is facing challenges, as many other fields, its community is as lively as ever and ready to embrace change to provide students with state-of-the-art teaching.

The next workshop is planned for autumn 2021. Please send us an email if you are interested to be included in the invitation list.

Basile Boulay is Senior Executive at the EADI secretariat and holds a PhD in Development Economics

Image: Kampus Production on Pexels