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COIL Project: Bringing Students from UW and Taiwan Together for An Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Learning Experience

May 28, 2024

This spring, students in Professor Yen-Chu Weng’s course “Environmental Issues in East Asia” participated in an Online International Collaboration Learning (COIL) project with students from Taiwan on evaluating the accessibility of interpretive signs in nature parks. COIL is an approach to foster global competence through development of a multicultural learning environment that links university classes in different countries. Using various communication technologies, students complete shared assignments and projects, with faculty members from each country co-teaching and managing coursework (UW Bothell COIL Initiative).

Professor Weng’s course partnered with Professor Chen-Chen Cheng’s course in Special Education from National Kaohsiung Normal University. Through a five-week collaboration, students from both campuses had joint lectures on the basic design principles for accessible interpretive signs and inclusive communication for people with disabilities. Project teams from each campus conducted field work to observe and analyze interpretive signs in their respective cities – The UW Arboretum and the UW Farm in Seattle and several parks in Kaohsiung and Tainan, two major cities in Southern Taiwan. The culmination of the COIL module was a mini presentation comparing and contrasting the accessibility of interpretive signs in nature parks between Taiwan and Seattle. (See student final presentations here.)

Students were asked to have a specific person with disabilities in mind as the intended park user when they visited the park and conducted the analysis. In addition to physical disabilities (vision, hearing, mobility), invisible differences in abilities such as reading abilities, education level, attention span, neurodivergence, and levels of interest in the subject should also be considered. Students analyzed the accessibility of interpretive signs in the following aspects: physical accessibility, communication accessibility, and multi-modality experience.

There were seven project groups, and each group had a mix of students from Taiwan and from the UW. A total of 70 signs were analyzed. In terms of the purposes of the signs, they varied from maps and directions, environmental education (information on the species, ecology, and environmental science) to park rules and regulations.

Most of the signs were written in a single language (either English or Mandarin Chinese). A few signs in Taiwan had English translations. Only a few signs had braille texts for the visually impaired. Most of the signs were informational and did not allow interactivity. Only a few signs had either QR codes for more information or flip panels that a user could explore more.

The learning objectives of this COIL module are multi-folded, including both an understanding and application of the universal accessibility concepts to analyze interpretive signs in nature parks and cross-cultural competency and reflection.

One UW student shared that: “Analyzing signs in Seattle has truly broadened my appreciation of accessibility from various dimensions… The multi-modality dimension has highlighted the importance of providing information in different formats to cater to various learning styles and sensory preferences. It’s about recognizing that not everyone learns or absorbs information in the same way, so offering a variety of formats like visual, auditory, and tactile ensures inclusivity for all visitors.”

In terms of the cross-cultural collaboration experiences, several UW students shared that: “Collaborating with students from Taiwan was an incredibly enriching experience, one that I’m genuinely grateful for.” “This project allowed me to appreciate the privilege of speaking English as my mother tongue and how that makes it easier to collaborate with not just Americans but people of all identities.” “The COIL project allowed me to further understand how many similarities there are between the daily lives of people throughout the world, although of course differences still exist. When discussing accessibility, many of the same issues arose in both the United States and Taiwan.”

Students in Professor Cheng’s “Communication Training for Students with Disabilities” class also greatly appreciated this rare collaborative international learning experience. The following is Professor Cheng’s observation from her class:

As students in Taiwan seldom encounter people from other countries, one student exclaimed right after her first online meeting with her U.S. partners, “This was my first time talking to a foreigner!” Her eyes shone with amazement that continued through the 5-week project. Learning wise, in addition to having a deeper understanding about the accessibility of interpretive signs in nature park, students from Taiwan experienced first-hand communication breakdowns when they tried to use English, a language they learned in school but did not have a use for in their daily life. While learning how to support students with disabilities to communicate, they now know, to a certain degree, what it felt like to be a person with a “communication need” while attempting to talk to their U.S. partners. A student shared afterwards, “Now I know what multi-modal communication means” as he gestured, mimed, and pointed all at once to make his point.

In a post-COIL project survey, students ranked the following as having the strongest impact on their growth: Learning and understanding other ways of seeing the world, growth in self-awareness, greater understanding of different cultures, and understanding how to interact with people from different cultures.

This COIL project was funded by the UW COIL Fellowship, the Global Innovation Fund, and the East Asia Center Travel Grant. Professor Weng and Professor Cheng will present their work at the North American Association for Environmental Education Conference this November. You can learn more about the project on this website: