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Cross-university collaboration in course on social justice

Kareem Usher
Assistant Professor Kareem Usher

“Why didn't I think of this before,” commented Kareem Usher, an assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning Section at the Knowlton School, reflecting on his experience to virtually link his planning class with another Midwestern university this semester.

Anticipating his CRP 6350: The Socially Just City course would be taught differently in autumn 2020 due to COVID-19 protocols, Usher had an idea. He proposed to colleagues at other universities a shared online classroom for those delivering a course on social justice. Jane Rongerude, associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University, accepted the invitation for her Social Justice in Planning course to work collaboratively with Usher's students at Ohio State.

“It opens the classroom. It allows exposure beyond our normal boundaries,” commented Usher on his motivation to adapt his course to pandemic-related circumstances. “I asked myself how can I enhance the learning experience and make it more inclusive for my students.”

"Although there is so much about the pandemic that feels like we are being isolated and shut off from one another, in the class we were actually able to expand our connections to each other and scholars in the field," added Rongerude.

Viewed through the lens of social justice, topics in the virtual classes respond to the current moment, with content divided into modules on incarceration, immigration, and COVID-19. The framework of the collaboratively designed course involves similar student assignments, and class time devoted to virtual panel discussions and outside lecturers. The students from both classes will also interact during a review of their final projects—a video essay that expresses a response to a current social justice issue.

“It’s been very enriching to hear the perspectives of students from another university,” said Usher. “This exchange between the students shows how this model allows perspectives to transcend boundaries, to transcend states and universities. The whole experience has been rewarding and informative.”

Jane Rongerude
Jane Rongerude, associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University.
Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

"Our classes do not meet at the same time and so we have had to be creative at times about how we connect our students to each other, but we have found ways to make it work. It has been a very satisfying experience. We crossed institutions and crossed geographies," reflected Rongerude. 

Usher is eager to pursue similar collaborations in the future. Pointing out that the theories and methodologies embedded in the planning curriculum reach across several disciplines, he proposes sharing a virtual classroom with departments ranging from social work to public health, civil engineering, geography, and political science.

Cross-university collaborations also allow students to connect on issues that are unfolding in real-time nationally and internationally. Usher suggests that if a locale has a unique challenge or solution to a land-use, housing, or public health issue, it could be instructive to develop a class between students from that location and Ohio State students. "As students from another university share their experiences and insights, and speak directly to what is occurring on the ground in their city or region, the conversation that results can help transcend our academic silos," said Usher.

Usher sees the potential of connecting classrooms across universities as an opportunity to redefine higher education and develop the next generation of planners who will tackle such topical issues as racial equity and social justice. "We need to meld ideas together and move in unison,” commented Usher.

from Knowlton School of Architecture