Cathy Davidson, Duke's John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, recently singled out the Haiti Lab as an "inspiring example of what higher education aspires to beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower." Since late April, she has written a "series of posts... on changing higher education to change the world" for Co.EXIST, an offshoot of Fast Company magazine. Her second post — "Why Flip The Classroom When We Can Make It Do Cartwheels?" — is largely about the Haiti Lab.
In a "flipped" classroom, digital technology allows students to "do the homework before class, typically reading course materials or watching videos of lectures online." Then, "[c]lass time is spent on individual or small group tutoring" instead of listening to a lecture. Flipping is fine as far as Davidson is concerned, but it "doesn't come close to preparing students for the challenges of today's world and workforce." If, as one study suggests, "65% of today's teens will end up in careers that haven't even been invented yet," it's not enough to teach circumscribed bodies of knowledge. Students need to leave college with "the mental habits, practice, and confidence to know that, in a crisis, [they] can count on [themselves] to learn something new." Thus the "cartwheeled classroom."
According to Davidson, the Haiti Lab stands out first of all as an interdisciplinary structure that leverages courses already offered by the participating professors. "Students still learn content in class but they bring their specialized learning to the Haiti Lab where they work on collaborative, real-world problems as well as on supplementary skills (ranging from Haitian Creole to data visualization and online tool development for public documentation of their work)."
"But the world-spinning really happens in the Haiti Lab's partnerships beyond Duke, such as with a Family Health Ministries' clinic in Leogane, Haiti, that links Duke students with local community health workers. Using Movi for tele-seminars and Blackboard and GoogleDocs for document sharing, the collaboration has also built close ties with Haitian universities trying to maintain their education and research in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.
"The Lab's public WordPress site for a trilingual Haiti digital library is purposely low on graphics and design to enable quicker access by Haitian partners. These international teams collaborated with faculty and students at Sherbrooke University (Quebec) and kids at Baltimore Friends School on archival work as part of the digital Marronnage archive in Saint-Domingue that brings together the scattered documents of the French transatlantic slave trade. One spectacular archival contribution brought joy to Haiti's bleakest moment when Duke doctoral student Julia Gaffield, working in the British Museum, found and identified the only known, extant copy of the 1804 Haitian Declaration of Independence.
That's not all. In 2010, when a cholera outbreak was reported in Haiti, many Haitians insisted the disease had to have been carried to the island by aid workers, because the country had never experienced cholera before. Epidemics are contained by locating their source, rarely a simple matter. It didn't seem possible that this was an original incidence of cholera. The Haiti Lab got busy: medical researchers and historians, teachers and students, Americans and Haitians worked around the clock, scouring newspapers, journals, and ship records all the way back to 1833, documenting it all in a public Cholera Time Map. They discovered several cholera outbreaks throughout the Caribbean, but none in Haiti. With help from the map, global health officials (including from the UN) were able to act swiftly to isolate the source and curtail the impact of the disease on an already devastated country. Jenson and her fellow Haiti Lab professor Victoria Szabo published the findings in the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases."
All of this adds up to an "[e]nergized, connected, engaged, global, informed, dedicated, activist" kind of learning that "not only connects text books and classrooms to the real world, but... also inspires, uplifts, and offers the joy of accomplishment."