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Challenge based learning in the social sciences. Bits and pieces from ECIU Challenge ‘Hitchhikers’ guides, virtual Charons, and the future of cultural objects’

In the former semester Soi and the Department of Sociology hosted an innovative learning initiative as part of the collaboration framework with ECIU, the European Consortium for Innovative Universities. The SOI challenge titled ‘Hitchhikers’ guides, virtual Charons, and the future of cultural objects’ (SOI Challenge3) involved for two months an international team of students in a series of seminars and coaching meetings, guiding them towards the design of a social policy project; these short notes describe its development and main results from the perspective of the challenge organizer.

Challenge based learning is an innovative approach that has been applied extensively in ECIU educational initiatives usually dedicated to technical issues and managerial and organizational matters. The Challenge ‘Hitchhikers’ guides, virtual Charons, and the future of cultural objects’ has been thus a pilot case for setting the agenda of CBL initiatives oriented to social sciences and humanities. At first, there are several traits that suggest an affinity between social sciences and the CBL approach. Both pay attention to societal issues and both are interested in identifying and describing different scales of relevance for social or economic impact of changes and innovations. Societal transformations are indeed complex to analyze and define, however, there is a special approach in social sciences – futures studies – that deals with complexity and uncertainty issues and has established methodological tools to approach them. Future studies are oriented towards analysis and understanding of interdependence among social, economic and political phenomena and their perspective has been adopted by international organizations – EU commission, Unesco – government and think-tank agencies of large corporations to foresigh implications of systemic processes and events. Demographic and ecological change are, for example, two huge transformations that European societies will have to face in the upcoming decades and the SOI Challenge3 was set with the aim of exploring their implications for the preservation and use of Italian and European cultural heritage.

To address these issues, students participating in the SOI Challenge3 – coming from diverse backgrounds (Social Sciences, International Studies, Information Engineering and Humanities) and with different international experience (Italy, Germany, Finland, Russia and Ukraine) – discussed trends about cultural consumption in Europe, lifestyle and economic aspects related to access at museums and participation in cultural events. They also debated how trends may change in the upcoming future, as a result of implications from the intense application of digital technologies and artificial intelligence to cultural production and consumption, and a different composition of the European population (ex. citizens with mixed/non EU cultural background, aging audience). Seminars and inspirational talks with scholars of different disciplines (anthropology, archeology and media studies) presented to students contesting perspectives on cultural heritage preservation and the opportunity to debate the relevance of minority and traditional culture for national identity and historical memory. Diversity of participants stimulated group work and paved the way for ‘solving the challenge’.

Participation into a CBL initiative is also meant to convey experiential knowledge, therefore classes and seminars were integrated with social and participatory activities. Study visits in museums (MUCGT at S. Michele all’Adige, MART in Rovereto) gave the students the opportunity to reflect on the problems that Italian artistic and cultural institutions face everyday, how they interact with their publics and which opportunities are enacted and/or potentially available for the local context. During the coaching sessions the students also exchanged views about cultural objects, their purpose and meaning for social cohesion and human development, envisioning a future scenario for European cultural heritage. Finally,  the students designed a prospective social policy involving cultural heritage, and adopting the perspective of future literacy promoted by Unesco, suggested a new role for museums as agencies of socialization beyond generations and ethnicity.

My experience as CBL organizer and Teamcher was very positive (and tiring, I cannot deny); moreover as a researcher I am also personally stimulated by the interesting results that this type of learning activity can produce when students are supported in exploring and visioning their individual and professional futures. My appeal to colleagues is to try and experiment with CBL, either in their course or as a specific learning activity, and challenging themselves to let the students lead the way!

–  Francesca Odella

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