A Learning Experiment: Four Cameras, an NGO, and a Trip to Cambodia

I may have fallen in love with a new way to learn (or teach, however you look at it). It’s kind of crazy and it threw me out of my comfort zone, but it changed the way I think about teaching. It included four cameras, a non-governmental organization (NGO), and a trip to some of the remotest areas of Cambodia.

If you’re an educator, like me, you’ve probably felt inundated with pedagogy-speak–you know, the water cooler conversations about ways to teach other people stuff that you feel is important. If you’ve had the privilege (or punishment…these can, at times, be painful, even demoralizing conversations), of participating in in such an exchange, you probably are all too familiar with the dichotomy–teaching versus learning.  What is the role of a college faculty member, anyway? Is it to teach…or is it to help someone learn? Is there a difference?

While the obvious answer can often feel like “well, of course, it’s to help someone learn!”–in practice, it isn’t always so easy. If you’ve ever intentionally built in ambiguity into a project or assignment requirement, for example–or if you even ever just answered a question with another question (“well, what do you think is the right way?”)–with the whole goal of providing students space to learn and discover on their own, you know what I mean. Invariably, there’s always some student that gets frustrated and says, “just tell me what to do!” (or some equivalent of that.) If they’re persistent, they’ll even go down the “I’m-paying-you-to-be-the-expert” road; “I can just Google it if you won’t teach me.”  Ironically, for most educators I’ve known, that’s the response we’re looking for. “Yes! Go Google it. That’s a great starting point. Then see where discovery takes you!”

I’ve been teaching at the college level for roughly twelve years now, and I’ve tried it all: lecture, rubrics, discussions, role-playing, interactive media, field trips, sidewalk chalk (quite fun, by the way!), workshops, guest visits, strategic ambiguity, service-learning, you name it. Shoot, I’ve even let students design courses and have their peers assess their own work (if you try that one, prepare for some backlash–then amazing rewards at the end). Admittedly, to some extent, and in the right context and appropriate approach, it all works. In fact, I would argue that variety is the key to successful learning environments and, truthfully, failure in the teaching process is as valuable as failure in the learning process. Ultimately, though, we want to create an environment where students can thrive and where they can learn the most possible in the most rewarding way.

I’ve struggled for years to find the right balance, the right assignment, the right pedagogical approach. I plan to continue to struggle for the rest of my career. It’s part of the excitement of my job–learning how to learn, how to engage with new ideas, how to work with new generations of students, how to adapt to new cultural expectations, and how to position my learning within new socio-political environments.

But it was only recently that I felt like I’ve been a part of one of the greatest learning experiences (not just for my students, but for myself as well) of my career. I don’t say this with braggadocious intent; quite the opposite, actually. I’m quite humbled to have recently been exposed to a whole new type of learning (one that has trended with the Department of Education and is surging nationally: competency-based education and self-directed learning) and a whole new type of program: a hybrid online, low-residency, client-focused, project-based program that positions students to apply theoretical approaches to complex, real-life problems at (roughly) their own pace and schedule. As a faculty member in the program (it’s a master’s of strategic communication program, by the way), I get to explore new ideas with new technologies with students all around the country who collaborate to do amazing things as diverse as developing brand strategies for refugees starting food businesses to creating integrated marketing plans and websites for government programs and non-profits.

So what did I do recently that was so special, so different than what I’ve done in the past? It was a project that required multiple layers of people involved–me, my students, other faculty, and our support staff–to unite with a common purpose. It required us to think outside the box, to try hard things, and to experience things we’d never seen or done before. In short, it was, in my mind, the epitome of what education should be.

THE PROJECT OVERVIEW

As a quick summary, at the completion of my students’ degree program, we lead them on an international trip where we often work with a non-profit organization (typically called a non-governmental organization or NGO) and we do a project related in some way to strategic communication. In the past we’ve worked in Peru with Peruvian Hearts and in South Africa with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. This year, we went to Cambodia, where we worked with Sustainable Cambodia, an organization that works with poverty-stricken villages in remote areas of the country to help communities become self-sustained, growing their own food, building and repairing their own wells, and even establishing revenue sources through farming, mechanics, and other skills.

THE PROJECT SCOPE

In preparations for leaving to Camobodia, a few colleagues and I reached out to Sustainable Cambodia (an organization we researched, loved the mission, and felt comfortable working with) and asked them if they could use any help in strategic messaging, communications, marketing, public relations, or related areas. What did they tell us? Yes! We really could use some films for our website and for our social media outreach and for presentations to potential donorsDo you do that in your program? The truth is, we don’t teach video in the program and we don’t have any faculty members who specialize in it. I had two options at that point. I could have been retreatingly honest and said, “well, none of our faculty teach or have experience with video, per se. Is there another project that would be useful to you?” But to my surprise, that’s not what I said. I told them we could do it. And, then I told them we could make them eight films between 30 seconds and 4 minutes. (Now to be clear, I was honest, and I let them know that our students were new at this, that I didn’t have a great deal of film experience [I didn’t tell them I had very, very little, though] and we would do our best). They were thrilled. It was a mutual partnership–we were getting an amazing learning experience; they were getting free films, footage, and photos.

THE LOCATION

When we first told our students we’d be traveling to remote villages in Cambodia, we admittedly got a few blank stares. Students know that they’ll go on an international trip at the end of the program, but they don’t know where it will be or what they will do until after being in the program for a year. Many do have hopes we’ll announce somewhere more familiar, maybe places like Italy or France or Australia. So Cambodia was a surprise and I wouldn’t be shocked if several even had to grab a map. But this was one of the great qualities of this trip: we were doing something widely unfamiliar in an area of the world with a rich cultural history and a difficult political past. We were going to learn about the country together and we were going to do it while engaging in a film project using equipment and processes most of us knew little about.

THE PREPARATION

A project like this wasn’t easy to pull off. We had to get approval from the College to purchase film equipment, including cameras, tripods, lighting kits, batteries, and travel cases. We had to hire an expert to teach us all (faculty included) how to actually plan, shoot, and edit a film. We had to hold several workshops on filming, on cultural sensitivity, on Cambodian history, and on safety. We bought books for each of the students, First They Killed My Father, and we talked about the challenges the country has faced in the forty years since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. And we had to interact with a client that was in a time zone thirteen hours ahead of us and collaborate through language barriers with their web team, board of directors, in-country program leaders, and marketing team, all while working with them to set up appointments and interviews with the people in the villages.

THE EXPERIENCE

It’s hard to articulate the entirety of the learning experience in a blog post short enough to be readable. But it’s important to recognize that a trip like this harnessed many of the pedagogical approaches mentioned above, with a strong focus on enhancing not only hard skills (like shooting and editing films) but the soft skills of adaptation, creativity, endurance, problem-solving, critical thinking, listening, and building cultural awareness and respect. When we were first dropped off at the headquarters in Pursat, Cambodia, we were exposed to nearly 100 degree temperatures, high humidity, and the warmest welcoming from a group who politely told us we were running late and that they needed to trek us out the villages immediately. Feeling tired and unprepared, we split into four film groups, each with a camera and an interview and storyboard plan, and off we went. And we met the most amazing people with the most interesting and life-changing stories. We captured them as best we could on film, busily going for two days from farm to farm, from village to village, from jungle to jungle, shooting everything we could to tell a story. After two days of this, on the third day we edited the films in our hotels.

THE RESULTS

The films were not perfect. Our students didn’t leave Cambodia as expert videographers or filmakers. But anecdotal evidence and student feedback suggests that this was one of the most rewarding and influential educational experiences they had had, and it wasn’t just because we traveled to another country or because we worked with an international NGO. Embracing the qualities of effective pedagogy, this experience was challenging and it pushed our students to the edge of what they had been learning and it pushed the faculty to the edge of what we knew how to prepare students for. It forced all of us into an environment where we cared deeply not only about the project, but the people, where we knew that the strategic communication skills we had been learning suddenly had immediate value in a context that required all of us to be both physically and mentally exhausted. It was post-lecture, multi-liceracy service learning that required teamwork, critical analysis, creativity, and, literally, physical energy and endurance. But the best part? The students did all  this knowing full well that their lead faculty member and program chair knew about as much as they did (in some cases even less) about shooting and editing film before we all began. And that pushed them to teach each other and not rely on someone else’s expertise, but their own ingenuity.

THE TAKEAWAYS

I recognize that not all programs, or all schools, or even all faculty members are in a position to take students on trips to places like Cambodia. But through this process I’ve come to realize that many projects, assignments, programs, and curricula can be built to offer experiential learning that doesn’t take away from theoretical underpinnings or even liberal arts emphases. And I’ve learned that, while faculty do need to be content experts in a variety of ways, we don’t need to know everything before engaging in a project. In fact, sometimes learning alongside the students makes for an even stronger learning experience. When we force ourselves to think in terms of what the world needs and what our classroom learning offers, there are so many opportunities that push and expand our horizons. As educators, I think we have a responsibility to fight against our own comfort zones and experience the challenges with our students, embracing the idea that learning happens on a case-by-case basis. Sure, we have the fundamental theories at our fingertips, but societal challenges require adaptive, critical approaches with nuanced solutions. What better way to learn that, to learn how the textbook information applies, than to take students and faculty somewhere new, with an organization and people they know little about, and help share a story that has not yet been effectively told?

THE PEOPLE

Without question, the most rewarding component of any educational experience is getting to know people and to hear their stories. Whether you’re in Cambodia or at a local community center, it’s the stories that compel us to want to do more with our education. Here’s a snapshot of some the people whose stories captivated us while we were in Cambodia:


THE FILMS

If you’ve made it this far, you may be curious how the films turned out. While they may not meet the expectations of professionals, that’s not the point. The process of creating the films captured far more than what these films actually say. Nonetheless, here are some of the stories we were able to capture through this process: