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News from an International Scholar: Open Society Institute

The International Scholar awards are part of a “Higher Education initiative” of the Institute. Most scholars work in consultation with university departments in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to help improve the curriculum and teaching.

By Ken Feigenbaum, PhD

What is the International Scholar Program?

I am part of a group of people designated as International Scholars by the Open Society Institute (O.S.I.) which is funded by the Soros Foundation. For the 2008-9 year the foundation funded 47 scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including five in Psychology. The International Scholar awards are part of a “Higher Education initiative” of the Institute. Most scholars work in consultation with university departments in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to help improve the curriculum and teaching. The consultation involves two or three short trips to the department, a conference with other Scholars in the same discipline, and tutoring by way of an Open Society web-site that contains syllabi, reflections, curricula, and research from all the current and returning International Scholars. The award includes funding for travel, project supplies and a small stipend of $2,500 per semester. The longer term goals of the program are improving higher education reform by substituting active for passive learning; improving flexibility in career choices; reducing corruption and bribery in higher education institutions; assisting promising local scholars by promoting their return to the region; helping such scholars with their professional development; and helping reform-minded departments achieve world class academic status.

Challenges in Fulfilling the Mission

The award I received was to travel to the American University in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Fulfilling the goals of the award was and continues to be a challenge – requiring initiative and patience. Although I first was notified of my award in early August of 2008, in a short, two line email, I did not hear from the Department with which I was to be affiliated or from the Open Society Institute until early September. Even then, I was given little information about the Kyrgyz Republic, the city of Bishkek, or the university I was going to consult with. Some of the challenge comes from the structure of the organizations – for example, the Open Society Institute divides their functions-- most of the information comes from their regional offices but finances are handled through their office in Budapest. Thus, O.S.I. arranged my hotel stay but not my travel (and arranging travel to Kyrgyzstan is more complicated than expected!).

First Visit to Kyrgyzstan

I visited the American University in Central Asia for approximately a week in October (Hillary Clinton was present for the inauguration of the University in 1997). The university, supported by grants from the Soros Foundation and other foundations, offers only a Bachelor’s degree. When I visited, the psychology department had six full time faculty. All but one were fairly proficient in English and taught courses in English. The one faculty member who did not speak English was a distinguished professor well known in Central Asia and in Russia, who only speaks Russian. The majority of the faculty had earned either Masters and/or Doctorates in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, or at the Central University of Europe, a graduate school sponsored by the Open Society Institute. The quality of education comes fairly close to the level of an elite undergraduate school liberal arts school in the United States. The psychology department generally follows APA standards for curricula, ethics, and research.

The curricula used in the department seem current with comparable schools in the U.S. All of the syllabi are very detailed (which at times was at odds with my predilection for teaching on a more spontaneous basis). Although the tasks of developing curricula and syllabi seem to have been accomplished, I was not able to observe the quality of the teaching or whether a largely US-based curriculum was appropriate to the context, because my visit coincided with an academic break in the calendar. I am anticipating scheduling my second visit during a period of time when I can observe the classes. Another function of my second trip will be to be a representative of the department at the Kyrgyz State Examination. Students with the equivalent of a solid “B” average or higher write a thesis, and those with lower grades sit for the state exam which is completely dependent upon input from the Department.

The major focus of my consultation was based upon a departmental work plan that I received in early September, 2008. The department wanted to build a “psychological laboratory” from scratch. One challenge was to ascertain the needs of the department – what they meant by a laboratory, and whether it was to be research oriented or to provide experiential events that would illustrate psychological concepts and principles for all of their courses. Determining these definitional questions remains a challenge. When I met with the department in their tiny office we discussed the idea of creating a “virtual laboratory” employing the internet. However, accomplishing this goal was hampered by the still developing infrastructure “a virtual laboratory” would need a fast download time which was not available. An alternative would be to have CDs containing the materials (experiments and demonstrations), but no funds were available for the purchase of any additional equipment or materials.

Moving Forward

In anticipation of my second trip, I have been collecting CDs with instructional material from my colleagues to develop the necessary materials to make a virtual library possible. If psychology is to help its fellow programs around the world, such resources are crucial. The lack of resources should not stand in the way of helping departments strive to world class standards. As I prepare for future visits to Kyrgyzstan, all contributions of teaching materials in CD form are welcome. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail. Ψ