Collaborative Learning at LKYSPP: Pushing theory to practice

When people ask me why I joined the Masters in Public Policy (MPP) programme at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), one of the reasons I give is that I want to learn new ways of analyzing and tackling the world’s ‘same-old’ problems. Certainly, the wide range of modules and the various teaching styles of professors have provided many opportunities for students like me to have a rich and meaningful learning experience in the MPP programme.

Seminar-type programs encourage critical thinking and knowledge sharing through class interaction. Memo-writing exercises, presentations and group assignments given through core modules also build up key analytical, communication and leadership skills. In these types of exercises, the learning occurs through the interaction between lecturers and students and among students themselves.

However, learning is sharper when there are clear links between theory and practice. One way by which this can be achieved is by expanding the learning interaction to include an interface with professionals or practitioners in the field. In this way, students can have the opportunity to apply the tools learned in class on real-life cases as well as learn from feedback given by clients. The Policy Analysis Exercise is one example, but there are other teaching methodologies that seek to link learning objectives with skills necessary in the professional arena.

Last semester, students from Assistant Professor Caroline Brassard’s Aid Governance class had the opportunity to participate in a “collaborative learning” process with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF). After ten weeks of learning about development tools and frameworks in aid governance, the class was given a capstone-style final exam where they were asked to advise SIF on how to improve the effectiveness of its international volunteerism programs in India.

This was a new experience for all parties involved. Prof. Brassard shared that “a lot of effort and time” went into designing this teaching tool, especially in building the relationship with SIF. Fortunately, the client was very cooperative and supportive. SIF shared substantial information, such as their country strategy papers, that were used as basis for the analysis asked from students.

However, unlike the usual case assignments, Prof. Brassard ensured that there was an opportunity for some of her students to interact with the client after they had submitted their recommendations in their final exam. Together with Prof. Brassard, six members of the class [Jacob Phelps (NUS Ph.D.), Chinie Canivel (MPP 09/11), Thilanka Silva (MPA 09/10), Vincent Mwape (MPA 09/10), Yugal Joshi (MPA 09/10) and myself] met over lunch with SIF International Volunteerism and Community Partnerships Director Aaron Ng and International Volunteerism Manager Tam Peck Hoon at the BTC Guild House on March 8 to discuss the recommendations put forth through the class.

It was a very pleasant meeting where students, the lecturer and the clients engaged in candid and open discussion on the main questions raised in the exam – narrowing the focus of SIF and choosing a suitable partner in India. Some gave suggestions on how SIF can improve its effectiveness by linking program planning to targets and programs set by the community or country being supported. One example is looking at the Indian government in terms of education as a means by which SIF can focus its efforts on the ground. There were also great ideas on how SIF can attract more volunteers, improve the volunteer experience and provide on-site administrative support.

A main issue that surfaced during the meeting was the centrality of trade-offs faced by international volunteer organizations such as SIF. On one hand, there is a desire to broaden impact; on the other, resources were limited, including volunteers – both in terms of the number of people and man-hours. There is also a tension between the desire to work with a community-based organization that has experience and track record or one that is lacking on those criteria but is working in areas where help is most needed.

The trade-offs discussed are very real and requires strategic choice. This was a key learning point for us students, because it moved us to re-evaluate our recommendations and to gain a better understanding of the complexities involved in implementing aid governance. If it were not for scheduled meetings and classes following the lunch meeting, the dialogue would have extended for much longer as both students and SIF had many questions and insights they wanted to raise.

In the end, SIF assured the group that it would consider the recommendations that were shared. It also expressed the hope of continuing to work with students from the LKYSPP as they were impressed by the depth of analysis of some of the exam papers. Mr. Ng even mentioned that it might be a good idea for some of their staff to enroll in the MPP programme.

This exercise was also equally beneficial for the students. The group was happy to know that their work was useful in a real-world setting and not just the classroom. The dialogue with SIF also gave us students the opportunity to learn whether our recommendations were practical and reflected the needs and constraints of the organization. Apart from providing a good opportunity for constructive criticism for SIF, it also made an impact on the students, since the clients were given a “human” face through face-to-face interaction.

The downside to the exercise is that the opportunity of interaction was limited to a small number of students. But it is also this same reason that made the dialogue a success – since each student had a chance to meaningfully engage with the client.

Prof. Brassard said she hopes to continue to improve on “collaborative learning” techniques and implement similar assignments in future classes. Other faculty members are employing collaborative learning methods in their classes such as study and learning trips, negotiations, case-writing and client-based assignments. There is an interest and a desire from LKYSPP to move towards this method of learning and to provide the students with more ‘real-life’ experiences. It entails additional work for the school, but clearly, the pay-offs are large. It is a win-win-win situation for all parties involved.

With these new developments, students can look forward to more interesting, challenging and exciting learning experiences that can better prepare them for the roles they will take in the professional world.

— by Trissa Manalastas (MPP 08/10)


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