“Just Looking Around”: Reflecting on Culture in an Online and Project Based Course

Last semester, I taught a virtual class on culture with a student-centered, project-based learning approach. The task for the groups of students was to identify and get to know a community and then identify a problem and propose a solution based on a social innovation concept. They needed to go outside of the classroom, talk to real communities and then identify both problems and solutions with real people. This took place in Bogotá, Colombia, and the task was assigned to students with different backgrounds who were studying psychology or management in a private university. 

While some of the students went looking for the “others” and the “otherness” outside campus, some of the groups—in a very reflective and intuitive way—decided to look around on campus and in the surroundings. One group wanted to work with students that came to study at the University from another region of the country, the pacific coast in Colombia, which has a history of poverty and neglect from the Colombian state. Others wanted to better understand people coming from the islands, known for their enjoyment of life and very lively dances and cultures, while others wanted to talk to the LGTBI community and analyse the quest of students that fight for sexual rights and diversity on campus. All these efforts and ideas developed into very interesting projects with amazing learning outcomes for each group and for the class, but the effort that surprised me personally the most was a group that was interested in getting to know the informal vendors just outside campus better. 

These individuals provide very essential elements in a students’ daily life, like gum, chocolate or soft drinks, but do not have a proper shop to do so. For this group, a very interesting journey began. They decided to sit and observe the vendors’ work and to map their relationships among each other and to other relevant actors. The students first thought the main problem was rain and their lack of shelter or umbrellas (it rains a lot in Bogotá), but then got to thinking that the most important problem was their lack of cohesion as a group and the resulting conflicts that emerged. 

These ideas and proposed solutions were very ethnocentric and it was not until they interviewed a “hero” of this community, a former vendor that now owns a big shop and gives back to the university as a donor, that they could understand that the main challenge for this community is their lack of financial solutions in the long term and their limited cash flow that does not allow for discounted prices of large stocks of products. 

This “carpe diem” approach to life is something relatively common in Colombia, not only among informal vendors but in many aspects of our society. Even now, in times of crisis, this tendency to focus on the short term has horrendous consequences for many that do not have a formal employment or any social security, which is now more evident than ever with the cruel inequality that dominates the country.  The students understood the main challenge for this community but through their journey they got to see the depths and richness of our culture as well as important hazards and danger, and, in looking for the “others,” they could find themselves a little. 

Carolyn Finck is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá (Colombia). You can learn more about Carolyn here and connect with her on LinkedIn.

Read the companion piece, A Columbian Student Based Project on Intercultural Competence, by her student, Helena Pradilla.

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