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Measuring the Impact of a UWC Education: Research partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education looks at impact on students and society

Sinéad Collins, Director of Engagement and External Relations, UWCSEA
20 December 2016

In 2015, UWCSEA formed a partnership with researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to investigate the impact of the UWC educational experience on students and society. The study was exploratory, intended to build a general understanding of impact and lead to the design of a more in-depth longitudinal study.

The initial research questions were defined in terms of ethical values, with particular focus on: commitment to care (for self, others and the environment); moral principles, ethical judgement and decision-making; and perceptions, representations and concern for (social) justice. After surveying nearly 1,000 alumni and just under 2,000 students, interviewing more than 50 students and working with UWC-USA, UWC Red Cross Nordic and UWC Waterford Kamhlaba, the researchers have published an exploratory study report. Here are some of the key insights.

Respondents overwhelmingly believe that their experience at UWC had a significant impact on their ethical values and that they incorporate these values into their daily lives.

The vast majority (more than 80%) of UWCSEA respondents feel that they are developing - or have developed - important ethical values, both as defined by respondents themselves in their open-ended responses and as defined through the questions on the survey. In addition, approximately 75% of respondents indicated that UWCSEA either ‘quite a bit’ or ‘very much’ helped to develop their ethical values.

The development of ethical values, even the specific ones that the research questions were concerned with, is only part of the purpose of the UWC mission, which depends on the community transforming these values into action. However, though not sufficient, it is necessary, and can be seen as the first step in the process of developing ethical individuals with a bias for action who can fulfill the UWC mission.

The majority of respondents do believe that their values play out in their daily lives (though this finding particularly suffers from the issue of self-reporting).

There is remarkable consistency between students and alumni across all schools in terms of their belief that their ethical values were developed at UWC, which kind of values were developed and their definitions of what constitutes a ‘better world’.

The correlation between the guided questions (where respondents were selecting from a limited list) and the open-ended questions (where respondents, either in survey or in interview, were inputting their own ideas) showed consistency both within and between responses. In other words, UWC students and alumni have similar views on how UWC impacts  on them and similar definitions of that impact. Perhaps most tellingly, the open-ended question “what would a better world look like to you?” stimulated consistent responses across all schools, regardless of other factors. While there are some methodological flaws that may have resulted in ‘priming’ of respondents, the level of consistency of response points to a very real, unified point of view, which can be directly related to the UWC mission and values.

The commonality of shared ethical values appears to override differences in gender, selection process, scholarship status, educational model or country of origin.

This finding is potentially hugely significant and needs further analysis through a more long-term study to be proven.

It appears that length of time at the school might be a factor influencing impact on students and alumni, with those spending a longer time at the school reporting a more significant impact. It also appears that the number of countries respondents lived in prior to joining a UWC is a factor influencing impact, with students who have lived in more countries reporting a smaller impact  of the UWC experience than those who are living in another country for the first time. These two findings make intuitive sense: that both degree of immersion in a programme and experience prior to a programme would make a difference is sensible.

What was more surprising is that gender, how a student is selected, whether or not they receive financial support, which educational model (K–12 or 11–12) they experience or where they are from, all appear to be negligible in terms of their influence on the impact. There is further exploration to be done here, but at this initial stage, it appears that the power of the UWC experience transcends other factors in terms of lasting impact on the ethical values of students and alumni.

Key experiences contributing to the impact include service experiences, specific conversations that emerge during the academic programme and the experience of being in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

When asked which specific experiences contributed to the impact, respondents repeatedly referred to the service programme, conversations that particular topics stimulate in class (as opposed to academic content per se) and the diversity of the student body. Those who experience boarding talk about the impact of learning to live with people with different backgrounds and expectations from their own. While a causal relationship is far from proven, these areas are worth exploring further to see if it is possible to connect specific experiences with specific impacts. It is also interesting to consider the UWC-specific nature of some of these experiences: are they being replicated in other educational environments?

Impact on society is as yet unclear.

While it appears that UWC students and alumni do have a positive impact on society (the service activities of students alone would suggest a not insignificant contribution), the problems of self- reporting and a lack of control group make it difficult to draw any real conclusions in this area.  For example, when asked whether or not they volunteer, 50% of respondents said they do and 50% said they do not; there is no pattern between respondents who volunteer and those who do not and it is therefore impossible to understand whether or not the UWC experience contributes to this urge to ‘give back’ (and indeed, volunteering is not necessarily the best way to measure ‘giving back’). Equally, the patterns in the sector respondents work in can be more easily traced to their individual background than to their UWC experience. And, of course, there is no necessary relationship between the type of work an individual is engaged in and their impact on society.

The problem of measuring impact on society will need to be carefully considered during the next phase of the study.

What happens next?

The exploratory study has revealed some fascinating insights into the impact of the UWC experience on students and, to some extent, society. It has also provided some key learnings that will feed into the study design of a more long-term study.

The College is currently working on a partnership between the UWC movement and the Harvard Graduate School of Education Good Project to run a longitudinal study. The project, as well as measuring the impact of a UWC education on students and on society, will also contribute to knowledge in this key area of education and ethics.