Academics

Innovative faculty enrich learning through global collaboration

Whether the subject is music, medical anthropology or the business of health care, UNC COIL courses connect students with the world.

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Michael Kris misses live music. That’s natural, given that he is a professional musician, a teaching professor of music at Carolina and a music ensemble coach. A world traveler, Kris has played and taught music across the globe, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought playing and traveling to a halt.

An invitation to apply for a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) award gave Kris a chance to create something new as the pandemic stretched into another semester. Kris and other faculty received curriculum development awards to design a COIL module of at least three weeks in partnership with a faculty member at a university in another country. Kris was selected to teach a music ensemble and performance class with friend and colleague Joseph Fort, a lecturer in music at King’s College London, one of Carolina’s strategic global partners.

Last May, as it became clear the pandemic would disrupt international travel through the summer and fall, the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs launched Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World to grow virtual exchanges and COIL activities. Using technology, Carolina students are learning alongside their peers in numerous countries and making valuable scholarly and personal connections.

The COIL pilot began this fall with six partnered courses with institutions in England, Vietnam, Ecuador and Kenya. In addition, a new COIL collaboration between Kenan-Flagler Business School and Sophia University in Japan is supported through an award from the American Council on Education.

“It’s so important to find a way to be together and make music together right now,” Kris said.

Zoom meeting with four smiling people, three men and one woman.

Clockwise from top left: Joseph Fort, King’s College London; Michael Kris, UNC-Chapel Hill; Kristina Arakelyan, London-based composer and pianist; Evan Feldman, music professor, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The program is timely, as the entire world is impacted by COVID-19, by changing political landscapes and by the isolation of lockdowns, Kris said.

During the collaborative class, students from both universities study key musical compositions concerning nationalism, globalism and accessibility to arts, and they work together across the Atlantic Ocean to compose pieces based on their resulting conversations. They are also learning applied improvisation to help play together live. For their final performance, Kristina Arakelyan, a King’s College graduate student, composed a piece called “Protest” specifically for the class to perform together in real time.

“I want them to experience being together, talking, right now in this pandemic,” Kris said. “The internationalization of music is a tool of diplomacy, a tool of bringing out the best in a culture, a tool to bring about accessibility and education to younger people.”

Christian Boletchek, a senior music education major, said he was drawn to the class for the chance to not only play music with students in another country, but also to hear their perspectives during a time of social unrest in the U.S.

Christian Boletchek plays trombone on a Zoom feed from his bedroom.

Christian Boletchek, Carolina senior music education major.

“It’s always good to get outside perspectives in general, but this is an opportunity to get an outside opinion on all of the chaos that’s going on over here, in terms of the election, COVID and the racial tension,” he said. “All of those things, we’ve talked about in context of the class.”

In order to create musical performances, most musicians use an in-ear monitor to play a part, record it and have it mixed together. Though elements of that process were necessary for the class’ final performance, much of the class focused on improvisational skills, which helped the students play together synchronously. Boletchek said a bittersweet part of life during the pandemic is how it has forced music educators, choir directors and band directors to explore new ways of making music. As a future music educator, the experience is teaching him to be creative about curriculum.

“I’m student-teaching at a local high school, and this is the first time anybody can remember not being able to play in class every day. We’re having to come up with something else to fill the time and give the kids a worthwhile experience,” he said.

Cross-cultural health perspectives

As one of Carolina’s new majors, medical anthropology began its first courses within the challenges of the pandemic. For Amanda Thompson, a professor of anthropology and associate professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, the evolution of COVID-19 around the world has been topical for a major that looks cross-culturally at health disparities, health inequalities and the biological and anthropological perspectives of health.

Thompson teamed with colleague Diego Quiroga from Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, another of Carolina’s strategic global partners, to hold a COIL module within the major’s introductory class. Team-teaching a class is something they’d discussed for years and thought they might do within study abroad. The pandemic unexpectedly opened the virtual door to both classrooms as Thompson and Quiroga began to guest lecture in one another’s classes.

“For our COIL class, we’re having the students work in small groups applying one of the big concepts we’ve been talking about — social determinants of health and health inequality — and looking at big-picture theoretical approaches in relation to COVID,” Thompson said. “They’re looking at data and government reports, news reports and dashboards and comparing the situation in North Carolina and in the Southeastern U.S. to the situation in Ecuador and seeing where they might find the same patterns in the different regions.”

Many different factors shape health and disease, Thompson said, from health care policy to socioeconomic status, social context, race and ethnicity. Such factors also shape levels of risk and treatment options. Medical anthropology applies biological, sociocultural and historical approaches to understanding not only health and health care practices, but also people’s ideas about health and disease, and what perspectives are needed to address health issues.

“This comparative perspective is interesting because we can examine how different countries are, what their health care policies have been and how it is affecting people differently. The students will work together, across countries, talking through a framework to understand COVID, and then coming up with solutions — a suggestion, or a policy or an intervention.”

The business of health care

In the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA program, Markus Saba, professor of the practice of marketing and executive in residence at the Center for the Business of Health, is working through the COIL program with Ben Ngoye at Strathmore University Business School in Kenya to have students explore the downstream impact of the pandemic on the business of health care.

“In trying to figure out the best way to have my classes online, I leveraged having lived and worked in other countries,” Saba said. “I’d already had people from all over the world, from Africa and Norway, dial into classes to talk about how their countries are facing COVID and the particular challenges they’re having. Everyone is having the same problems, but in different ways — how do you get food and medicine to people? How do you know a vaccine is safe when it comes out?”

Saba said many of these students will later go to work for pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, hospital systems, digital health care companies and as health care consultants — all industries that will experience great demand as the current circumstances and aftermath of the pandemic play out. He and Ngoye are asking their COIL classes to learn about the other’s cultures and health care systems, evaluate COVID-19’s impact on local health systems and explore the unintended health care consequences of policies and practices aimed at mitigating the effects of the pandemic.

“There are hospitals that have had to furlough providers and staff because no one is coming in to be seen,” Saba said. “Those who have chronic conditions like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, may not be seeking routine care, and these conditions could reach dire straits requiring critical or emergency care. How, as a country, do you manage the ways health care systems are being affected, and how will those systems that face big losses catch up?”

Students are working together to confront a problem in a specific disease state that affects both countries, coming up with business cases for sustainable and cost-effective solutions.

“Everyone is focused on COVID,” he said. “But I wanted them to think about what is not happening in health care as a result of COVID and find solutions to a number of unintended consequences.”

Expanded offerings

UNC’s COIL program already has courses lined up for the spring semester with partners across the globe from Germany, Ireland, Chile, Australia, the Czech Republic and more. Courses are also planned for fall 2021, and the program is set to continue well beyond the pandemic as a barrier-free way for all Carolina students to have access to a global education. The next deadline for faculty to apply for the awards will be in March 2021, and faculty can also apply for support for a graduate student to work with them in the first semester the course is taught.

For Michael Kris, the COIL program is helping him make the most of a difficult time.

“Is our class going to create musical perfection?” Kris asked. “Maybe not. But it’s eye opening to work with those from different countries, to see that the world is interconnected, and realize that we are a global society. From this experience, we’ll have more students being able to say, ‘I am a citizen of a global world.’ They’ll see they have friends in the world to collaborate with or commiserate with. They’ll see they’re not alone.”