St. Olaf College | News

Interim off-campus programs go virtual

Screenshot of a video of a virtual tour of Puerto Rico which shows a mural and reads "Tour Arte y Fuego (Privado St. Olaf)" in the top right corner.
Students in Assistant Professor of Spanish Kristina Medina-Vilariño’s Interim course on Puerto Rico explored the country through virtual tours. In this tour, students viewed murals and art.

At St. Olaf College, campus is always a little less busy during Interim, as the one-month January term provides the perfect opportunity for many students to leave the Hill and study abroad. While some students remain on campus to take a course, others embark on an international trip or travel to a new U.S. city to learn with peers and professors. 

However, during the 2021 Interim term, campus was particularly quiet for a different reason. Due to the pandemic, all Interim courses were taught online, leading most students to remain at home after winter break and study remotely. The global pandemic and change to online learning also resulted in the cancellation of all scheduled off-campus Interim programs. 

St. Olaf’s Office of International and Off-Campus Studies (IOS) has had to adapt to many changes in off-campus study programs in the past year, as they faced abrupt cancellations of spring 2020 programs and continued postponement of most fall programs due to COVID-19. Despite these challenges, IOS still aims to provide students with opportunities to learn globally and become immersed in a new culture. With the cancellation of Interim 2021 programs, IOS decided to work with faculty members who had planned to teach off-campus courses in order to adapt the courses to a virtual setting so that students could access global learning from their own homes. 

“At the time that we canceled all Interim programs for January 2021, it was our sincere hope that some of the courses would be converted to virtual course options. We reached out to faculty collectively and, for those expressing some interest, individually to offer administrative support and funding,” says Director of International and Off-Campus Studies Jodi Malmgren. “Our goals were to support faculty to design excellent on-campus global learning opportunities that went beyond a course with international content — St. Olaf already has many of those — to connect students to the place they would have traveled.” 

Transitioning off-campus courses to a virtual setting was not without its challenges. Faculty had to coordinate with their department chairs and associate deans on short notice in order to offer their courses. Fortunately, some faculty members were able to create virtual courses that reflected their original course content while fulfilling departmental needs. 

Photo of an intricately painted orange door in Morocco.
While students in Professor of Biology Anne Walter’s Interim class were unable to travel to Morocco and see sights like this one, they found doors through which to explore water in both Morocco and Minnesota from their own homes.

One of these faculty members was Professor of Biology Anne Walter, who had planned to travel to Morocco during Interim to teach a course on the different ways we view water, its importance for ecosystems and human endeavors, and how humans handle this precious resource. Instead, she pivoted by developing the course Water in Morocco, in Minnesota, which allowed students to compare and contrast local water concerns with Moroccan water issues. Walter used a variety of teaching methods to immerse students in the culture of Morocco and the complexities of water. Students read primary literature by Moroccan authors, learned about global guidelines and goals on water policy, such as the Paris Accords, and engaged with Walter’s own photos and videos from past trips to Morocco. 

“The focus, as it is when we travel, was to integrate people, place — culture, geography, politics — biology, and technology for all of our topics, including sustainable tourism, urban water supply, climate change, and the Rif Mountains or the palm oases,” Walter says. “I took extra care to explain how the monarchy worked, the reach of government into civil society, and the diverse peoples and landscapes. Food came up quite naturally, and a few cooked Moroccan dishes for their families!” 

By the end of the course, students completed their own podcast project on a water issue of their choice, from agricultural systems in Minnesota to fog capture and hammams in Morocco. Walter was incredibly impressed with these presentations, noting the students’ engagement with the virtual content throughout the course. 

“One goal was to help students understand the complexity of the human encounter with water and help them see a path toward reasonable compromises or solutions. The students were from a wide variety of majors, and I wanted them to see how their expertise, or anticipated expertise, would integrate with others towards solutions,” Walter says. “Morocco is a country with few resources, with every sort of water and climate change challenge possible — largest swings in rain patterns, highest temperature rises, over-committed groundwater — and yet, at all levels, Moroccans are trying creative ways to sustain themselves and their water. They are a leader in Africa on climate change and water issues, so we could examine these efforts, and try to understand contextually why they fell short or why they might work in Morocco but not everywhere.” 

Associate Professor of Spanish Kristina Medina-Vilariño also adapted her off-campus course for online learning. Originally, she had planned to teach an academic civic engagement (ACE) course in Puerto Rico over Interim, focusing on the environment and politics of the country. Students were to conduct research in Puerto Rico, participate in radio shows on the island, and study at the Pontifical Catholic University in the city of Ponce. 

To shift the course to a virtual setting, Medina-Vilariño maintained the focus on Puerto Rico while also adding in a comparative aspect with other Caribbean and Latin American nations. The course, titled Narratives of Life in Contemporary Puerto Rico: A Comparative Outlook to and from the Caribbean and Latin America, allowed students to consider the unique political climate of Puerto Rico and how it compared to other areas of Latin America.

A graphic with photos of sites in Puerto Rico and the words "Recorridos Educativos Virtuales Con Isla Caribe."
Assistant Professor of Spanish Kristina Medina-Vilariño partnered with a virtual tour company to provide students a more immersive experience of Puerto Rico during their Interim class. Photo from Isla Caribe.

“Our main goal was to compare the case of Puerto Rico, a rare case in modern history, of a colony of the U.S. that is populated by American citizens by birth yet don’t have the right to vote and don’t have the representation, the political representation like voting representation in Washington,” Medina-Vilariño says. “So the goal was to provide students with a good outlook on the current situation in Puerto Rico, political and cultural, and then make sure that they could identify the elements of Puerto Rican politics and culture that differentiated from other parts of the Caribbean.”

Medina-Vilariño provided students with an immersive experience by working with an organization that gives virtual tours for those interested in the history and culture of Puerto Rico. Each week during Interim, a tour guide led students in a different virtual tour of part of the island. 

“The idea in adapting this course and adding the ‘walking’ tours and the virtual mapping that we did using ArcGIS [an online interactive map tool] with the help of the school was to bring as much of a feeling of being outside, being in Puerto Rico, navigating through the cyberspace and bringing in a lot of other voices from there, as we would have had if we were there, so that students did not feel like they were just trapped in a Zoom meeting with just me and them,” Medina-Vilariño says. 

The idea in adapting this course and adding the ‘walking’ tours and the virtual mapping that we did using ArcGIS [an online interactive map tool] with the help of the school was to bring as much of a feeling of being outside, being in Puerto Rico, navigating through the cyberspace and bringing in a lot of other voices from there, as we would have had if we were there, so that students did not feel like they were just trapped in a Zoom meeting with just me and them.Assistant Professor of Spanish Kristina Medina-Vilariño

For Medina-Vilariño, the most rewarding part about teaching the virtual class was seeing the final projects that students created during the month. Using various online platforms, students created projects related to a specific community in Puerto Rico that also tied to their own academic, personal, and professional interests. For example, one student explored how theater companies in Puerto Rico and the United States adapted to the pandemic. 

In completing the projects, students got to “learn about different online platforms to create culturally relevant projects that were grounded in the communities that they examined and that highlighted the voices coming from those communities. And I think the final projects that they created were a perfect example of that,” Medina-Vilariño says. “That was definitely the best part, especially because many of them took very original approaches.” 

Professor of Psychology Dana Gross shifted her Gender Equality in Norway course to a virtual setting. In the original off-campus course plan, Gross says students were to spend three weeks in Oslo and one in Bergen studying how gender is perceived, constructed, and experienced in contemporary Norway. Planned course topics included parental leave policies and family life; youth development; work roles and employment; and health, wellness, and sexuality. Gross also planned to examine topics related to the LGBTQIA+ experience and gender and sexual minorities, as well as Norway’s Indigenous Sámi and immigrant communities.

The virtual course precluded students from attending guest lectures and site visits in Norway; however, Gross maintained many of the same readings and intended learning outcomes when adapting the course, and incorporated documentary videos and Norwegian websites into class activities. By the end of the course, students completed an integrative research project examining a topic of their choice, ranging from workplace equality to women in Norway’s military to gender stereotypes in young children.

In addition, the virtual format allowed students to explore areas of Norway beyond Oslo and Bergen. In a fun virtual travel assignment, Gross instructed students to plan a weekend trip in a mystery destination in Norway centered around the concept of friluftsliv, or the Nordic concept of outdoor recreation, in relation to an article about wilderness therapy. Students created slideshows about their respective locations and their weekend plans, including images from Google Maps.

Photo of a park in Oslo, Norway with various statues and trees and the sky in the background.
Vigeland Park in Oslo, Norway, was one of the originally planned destinations of Professor of Psychology Dana Gross’s Interim course. Students were still able to study topics surrounding gender equality in Norway, such as parenthood, in their virtual class.

“Adapting to a virtual learning environment required creative thinking about how I could draw on a wide array of digital resources to make our two hours together each day engaging and impactful, but it did not change the basic intended learning outcomes for my course. Specifically, using a psychological and interdisciplinary lens and focusing on Norway, my course was still intended to contribute to students’ understanding of global cultural diversity,” Gross says. 

Adapting to a virtual learning environment required creative thinking about how I could draw on a wide array of digital resources to make our two hours together each day engaging and impactful, but it did not change the basic intended learning outcomes for my course.Professor of Psychology Dana Gross

Throughout the course, Gross met with students in weekly one-on-one meetings in order to get to know them better. This process of community building through a virtual setting, as well as the satisfaction of creating engaging digital activities and assignments, was particularly rewarding for Gross. In addition, students benefited from “opportunities they would not have had otherwise to apply theories and methods from developmental and cross-cultural psychology and interdisciplinary studies to analyze gender equality through human behavior, social relations, and social institutions,” Gross says. 

While the pandemic has limited the ability to travel, it does not have to prevent students from accessing global learning. Malmgren notes that the shift to virtual learning has provided several benefits for students, as they have begun to “understand that global learning does not require movement from place to place.” In addition, there is more opportunity for comparative work between off-campus locations and local issues, as in the case of Walter’s comparisons between water in Morocco and Minnesota. Finally, virtual global learning promotes accessibility and creativity, allowing students to participate without extra payment while encouraging faculty to adapt to new learning experiences. 

Malmgren and IOS continue to provide support to students and faculty interested in off-campus study during the pandemic. “We have put a lot of effort into faculty development opportunities for leaders of off-campus programs,” Malmgren says. “These opportunities have heavily emphasized improving equity and inclusion in off-campus programs. The leaders who participated will bring that learning to future programs — and on-campus global learning courses — they teach, which will benefit future students.”