The Upside of a Crisis: Collaborative Teaching and Learning

Nov 23, 2020 9:59:00 AM / by Cara Pizzorusso

Using CAPA's Globally Networked Learning technology, two professors—one in Sydney and the other in Philadelphia—are collaborating and co-teaching a remote course this semester called Economics of Disasters. Blending their individual disciplines in environmental history and economics, they analyze recent and current issues such as Australia's wildfires and COVID-19 with students from all majors.

While there has been a lot of change in all corners of the world this year, there have been some positive changes that have come out of everything that’s happening. One upside of the COVID-19 pandemic in the academic sphere is an opportunity for collaborative teaching and learning.

This semester, Dr. Julia Miller, CAPA’s Director of Academic Affairs in Sydney, is co-teaching a remote course called Economics of Disasters with Ursinus College professor and economist Vera Brusentsev using CAPA’s Globally Networked Learning technology. Economics of Disasters is a course that focuses primarily on natural disasters, and the main message is that environmental crises are the catalyst for behavioral change.


The course was developed a few years ago by Professor Vera Brusentsev. The difference this semester is that Dr. Miller was asked to co-teach the course from Sydney, Australia as a joint initiative between CAPA and Ursinus College, a private liberal arts college in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Miller brings lessons in history to the course with her background as an environmental historian. She also provides an international perspective and presents insight into additional topic areas, including environmental justice.

While many students enrolled in the course are economics majors, others are studying politics, environmental studies, biology, and computer science, among others. The course is appropriate for students who are interested in environmental issues and for anyone wanting to make sense of the current global pandemic. During the course, students will analyze factors such as frequency, cost, and forms of compensation associated with disasters. They’ll also discuss risk management and policies related to compensation and mitigation, drawing upon international best practices.

Australia WildfirePhoto credit to the New York Times for this image from New South Wales on December 31, 2019. The most shocking part is that the photo was captured during the middle of the day.

Economics of Disasters brings light to the multi-faceted knowledge and collaborative approach needed to mitigate environmental problems. In particular, two of the issues being covered this semester are wildfire management and anthropogenic disasters—also known as environmental disasters that stem from human activity. During the wildfire management unit, students examine the fires in Australia that occurred this past summer, as well as the fires currently in California. The class discusses ‘cultural burning’— a traditional but highly debated practice developed by Australia’s native Aboriginal people to regularly burn patches of vegetation in a controlled manner to enhance the health of the land and minimize the risk of future catastrophic fires. For the anthropogenic disasters unit, students connect to examine different countries’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and compare them with the US. To summarize the course in Dr. Miller’s words, “It’s a lesson in how to deal with, more effectively, environmental crises in the present and future, such as wildfire, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.” She also shared, “All of this points to the benefits of inter-disciplinary study and an internationalization of the curriculum. Students can bring their own knowledge set to the course, learn from each other as well as gain an international perspective on problem solving.”

Featured Image_Students Getting work done

So, what do students take away from all of this?

The main take away for the course is that we need a host of different experts to help solve environmental issues as these matters need an interdisciplinary approach. We need experts in social policy, political lobbyists, public health as well as the hard sciences and clear communicators to shift public opinion and then engage political will. An environmental crisis, such as the wildfires, can be seen as an opportunity to enact change because it forces us to consider a wider set of solutions.

—Dr. Miller

The course is taught through synchronous Zoom sessions from Sydney and Philadelphia using Globally Networked Learning technology. While this is Dr. Miller’s first time co-teaching a remote course with CAPA, she has over a decade of experience teaching remote students online as a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. She also co-taught a Macquarie University course with a professor at Northeastern University in Boston in 2005, at a time when having students on opposite ends of the world in a course together was quite novel. Dr. Miller says she finds teaching remotely to be very different from having students in class with her, but over time she has developed many remote learning techniques and finds ways to get to know her students.

We asked Dr. Miller if she hopes to co-teach other courses in the future. She said she is enjoying the collaboration and added, “I would be open to co-teaching courses in the future with professors from other universities in the US. As with the need for a range of experts to solve current day environmental problems, a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching works well too.”


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Topics: International Education, Sydney, Australia