Educating Global Citizens: Technology, Globalization, and Culture


by Mark Rectanus, Professor of German and LCP Co-Director

In February 2016 I was invited to participate in a panel at a workshop on “Educating Citizens for a Globalized World,” sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ISU. I would like to share some of my thoughts from the workshop and “lessons learned” that emerged from my experience in co-teaching a course with colleagues in the College of Engineering and in co-directing the LCP program with Dr. Chad Gasta.

Over ten years ago, Dr. James Bernard (Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center) and I started some e-mail correspondence about a potential course dealing with technology, globalization, and culture that would be targeted to seniors and graduate students and open to students from any major at ISU. Jim and I were concerned about how the next generation of students would meet the challenges and opportunities of living and working globally. From the outset, we believed that it would be important to create a forum in which students could interact with professionals who have extensive experience dealing with the complex issues of globalization. What emerged was a cross-listed and dual-listed (undergraduate and graduate) course – ME/WLC 484/584 “Technology, Globalization, and Culture” – that became a unique collaboration between the departments of Mechanical Engineering and World Languages and Cultures and our two colleges. In order to make the course truly global, we offered an online section for students that fully integrated them into the class through live chat with guest speakers, threaded-discussions, and globalization projects with on-campus students.

Our guest speakers became the centerpiece of the course. They contributed a broad array of perspectives from industry, government, NGOs, and academia. Past speakers have ranged from Robert Reich, to Ray Kurzweil, to fortune 500 CEOs. We also asked faculty colleagues from ISU to share their expertise on global challenges – from climate change, to the internet, to the economics of globalization and its impact on the future of work. Speakers from other universities and from the public sector also addressed a diversity of issues, including media and the status of the Kurds in Turkey, soccer as a global force of economics and culture, or how technology impacts indigenous cultures.

So what are some of the take-aways or lessons learned? During the past decade the course has continued to evolve and thrive. After Jim Bernard retired, I have been fortunate to be able to continue co-teaching the class with Dr. James Oliver, VRAC Director and Professor of Mechanical Engineering. The interdisciplinary collaboration between two faculty members – one in technology and the other in culture has been key. Students discovered that we both brought a wealth of experience and perspectives that were not limited to our respective disciplines, and that we frequently crossed disciplinary and geographic boundaries in our professional and personal lives – and enjoyed doing so. By interacting with us and the guest speakers, the students learned that there are many paths to becoming “global citizens,” and that it is a process – a work in progress. In addition, we learned that there are numerous ISU faculty and a diverse group of alumni who are grappling daily with globalization in their research or work. They were delighted to share their experiences and insights with students and we all learned a good deal from the lively q&a following each presentation in class.

Many of the guest speakers have underscored the critical importance of what some CEOs call “global agility,” or the ability to work in and move across cultures. This not only includes expertise and experience in a professional area, but also experience living and working outside of one’s own culture and speaking multiple languages. Our LCP alumni not only have received excellent positions in a wide range of businesses and industries, they have rich and exciting careers and lives in which their international experience has played a pivotal role. A critical component of global agility is also global mobility, which is increasingly defining how we live and work. In a global context, issues related to mobility and migration also represent some of our greatest challenges – such as complex questions related to Syrian refugees in Germany and the EU, or border politics and migration in the United States. While student mobility per se cannot guarantee a critical consciousness of these issues, experiential learning outside of the student’s own culture and “comfort zone” can provide an opportunity or portal that provides an opportunity for critical engagement, discussion, and learning. Although we have made great strides in increasing opportunities for students to study and learn outside their culture, there is still much work to be done.

We need to explore additional ways to break down the borders between the classroom and the world – turning the classroom inside out as well as bringing the outside in. In the globalization course, we have utilized online learning to include students from across the country, and in some cases, across the world. Online learning, including the recent emergence of MOOCs, will not only continue to globalize learning, but also impact where, when, what, how, and why students learn. Social media is already reshaping this process both in terms of how and what students learn. We need to be able to provide critical frameworks and strategies that will enable us and our students to navigate and renegotiate these challenges. There are some good models in progress, but the role of social media, and the social web is a moving target and much of the emerging terrain in this area remains unexplored or unknown.

Other crucial issues that some of our guest speakers addressed involved ethical choices and corporate social responsibility as they relate to the spread of technologies and how we create sustainable futures. Closely related to issues of social responsibility and sustainability, we have also seen fundamental shifts in redefining global citizenship that have been most visible in forms of activism with a pronounced ethical dimension. Many students are seizing the opportunity to rethink global citizenship through student-led initiatives such as Engineers Without Borders (EWB) or through collaborative projects in developing countries that are organized with faculty. One of our Spanish/LCP alumni, Greg McGrath, is a co-founder of Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability (EOS) International, a non-profit organization started by a group of engineers from ISU in 2008 to promote appropriate technology in Nicaragua and throughout the developing world.

In sum, all of these experiences provide an opportunity to rethink global citizenship with students – as both a right and a responsibility, and as a collaborative and diverse process of critical engagement. Our students tell us that the LCP experience of working and living globally has played an important part in learning how they can participate in and shape the future of global citizenship.