Designing Global Learning Opportunities: An Interview with Mary English and Gail Matthews-DeNatale

Teaching and learning during the Covid-19 global pandemic brought many challenges, but also led to promising innovations in how we design, deliver, and support learning experiences in higher education. On May 5th 2021, The Pandemic Pedagogy Research Symposium brought together an international group of educators to discuss post-pandemic pedagogical opportunities. The conference speakers presented innovative ideas that transcend the emergency shift to remote teaching and learning into sustainable concepts.

In a series of interviews, we take a deep dive into selected pandemic pedagogies.

Northeastern’s Global Challenge, a fully online project-based learning course model (PBL), arose in response to constraints imposed by the pandemic. Northeastern University produced eighteen Global Challenge courses that are structured around complex, real-world problems. Designed for first semester undergraduates, these courses serve an additional purpose of helping first year learners develop intrapersonal academic self-efficacy through self-directed learning and interpersonal collaborative learning capacity through teamwork.

For AACE Review, I talked with Mary English and Gail Matthews-DeNatale at Northeastern University’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research.

Tell us more about the design process behind Northeastern’s Global Challenge.

This initiative, sponsored by the Chancellor’s office, involved partnerships and collaboration across many sectors in the university: faculty whose research agendas served as the source for the challenges, project-based teaching specialists, online learning specialists, academic technologists, and the graduate students who served as course instructors. Each entity had a piece of the puzzle and needed to collaborate and consult with others who had complementary expertise.

The design process took place in three phases: consultation with faculty to define the challenges and curate materials, collaboration between project-based teaching and online learning specialists to devise an online course structure and template that would support project-based learning, and the design of an online training program to orient and prepare graduate students to support student project-based learning in the courses they were assigned to instruct.

Consultation with the faculty took place over the summer of 2020, with courses developed late in the summer. We offered the courses in the fall, spring, and are currently running the third round this summer. The design process continues, because each semester we observe the classes carefully, survey the students, and talk with the instructors about their experience to identify opportunities for course improvement.

What are some of the complex problems that the courses addressed?

All of the challenges were derived from faculty research. Faculty recorded videos in which they told the story of how they came to be personally invested in the problem, for example the life experience that led to their passion and commitment to their work. We wanted the students to grapple with the unresolved questions that are so compelling to faculty, and for this reason each course is organized around a “driving question.” The challenges reflect pressing issues of our time, from health systems to the environment to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and sustainable ecosystems. Sample questions include:

  • What government controls should or should not be in place regarding distribution and production of antibiotics, and how should the government allocate funding toward production of antibiotics and/or research into alternative therapies?
  • Given its long history of racism and racial inequality, what steps need to be taken to bring about racial equality in the United States?
  • How can we build a coalition that works to ensure immigrants have fair and just access to resources and opportunities related to a specific aspect of their life in the Boston area?
  • How can industrial and artisanal fisheries (globally) be designed to simultaneously promote food security, the well-being of fishing communities, and the sustainability of coastal marine ecosystems?

What was your strategy for improving the courses?

As we mentioned above, the Global Challenge courses have now been offered across three semesters. The great thing about online courses is they generate a lot of artifacts that can be examined as evidence to identify opportunities for improvement. Some evidence is a byproduct of coursework, such as online discussions, team reflections, and the final project deliverables such as proposed solutions and presentations. But we also looked at the course analytics to see how students were interacting with the course. We held regular group meetings with the instructors to hear their perspective. Finally, we surveyed the students at the mid-point and end of each semester. We had a lot of data to inform decisions for course improvement.

For example, in spring 2021 we realized that students weren’t accessing the curated collection of resources as much as they needed to. Based on that insight, we renamed the resource module to emphasize the importance of the resources for addressing the challenge and added a resource annotation exercise that helped students familiarize themselves with the resources before they began working on the challenges in teams.

Describe some of the challenges that instructors and students had to adapt to during the online project-based learning experience.

Typically, online courses are organized in weekly modules that include lectures, readings, and discussions. The Global Challenge courses are different. As opposed to a course that includes a final project, in these courses the challenge project is the course.

The Global Challenge course structure follows the project process: becoming oriented to the problem, identifying the things they need to know in order to address the problem, working iteratively as a team with multiple rounds of feedback to articulate a proposal for solving the problem, and showcasing/reflecting on the proposed solutions.

We have dedicated significant thought and time to create a learning environment that helps orient students to the process and value of taking a project-based approach to learning. This included developing and facilitating a multi-week orientation to online teaching and project-based learning that prepares instructors, who are graduate students with expertise related to their course problem, to support students throughout the problem-solving process.

How can other organizations learn from your experience?

There are many, many lessons learned that could be helpful for other organizations. At the course level, one key lesson is that completely online, asynchronous project-based courses that bring together students from around the globe can be highly effective in learning and motivation. However, there are many nuances that must be addressed to create a seamless and supportive learning environment and having the right expertise on the team is key.

At the program level, the success of this initiative hinges on the coordination and synergy of wide-ranging expertise, from research to project-based learning and online learning experience design. It’s important to identify expertise that is essential to the initiative’s success and include people with that expertise at critical junctures. The project-based learning specialist and faculty engaged in multiple rounds of consultation when designing the challenges, and then the project-based learning specialist consulted closely with online learning specialists to develop the courses.

Another, equally important lesson is the importance of evidence-informed iteration. We built in a rich approach to evidence-gathering (e.g., surveys, course observations) and used what we learned to iteratively improve all aspects of the initiative, from the course shells to the orientation program for instructors.

Will you continue the Global Challenge online courses when regular classroom teaching becomes the norm again?

Yes, we are continuing the program and also expanding it in the fall! Northeastern is known for innovation in relation to experiential learning, and we see this as an opportunity to engage undergraduate learners in experiential learning from day one in their first year of college.

If you could design the ideal ‘new normal’ at Northeastern, what would it look like?

Northeastern is a multi-campus, multi-faceted R1 university. Even before the pandemic there was no “normal” approach to teaching and learning. However, Northeastern is deeply committed to experiential learning for all students, from undergraduates through doctoral students. We used the pandemic as an opportunity to increase our offerings for experiential learning across all modalities (in person, hybrid, and online). The Global Challenge initiative was part of that effort. Global Challenge is evolving into a program called Global ConnEXions that flexibly combines virtual and face-to-face experiential learning, empowering students to design solutions to real-world global challenges. You can read more about it at


Mary English is Associate Director in the Design and Integration team at the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research (CATLR). Mary’s area of expertise is project-based learning, and she served as CATLR’s internal project lead for the Global Challenges initiative.  Collaborating with leadership in the Chancellor’s Office, she worked with other CATLR team members, participating faculty and additional stakeholders to conceptualize, build, assess, and iteratively refine the Global Challenge model.

Gail Matthews-DeNatale is Senior Associate Director in the Design and Integration team at CATLR.  In addition to leading CATLR’s Scholarship of Teaching and Learning program, Gail has helped support the Global Challenge initiative’s course development, assessment, and instructor orientation.


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