Collaborative Online International Learning and Research
Converging Fashion, Food, and Technology in Higher Education
In an innovative endeavour, ModaCult – Center for the Study of Fashion and Cultural Production is weaving together the threads of fashion and food. Supported by the EU's Erasmus+ programme and in collaboration with eight partners from six European countries, the "Fashion & Food Synergy for Sustainability" project delves deep into the crossroads of sustainability, communication, and cuttingedge technology. It aims to address the urgent challenges of our contemporary society.
In a world driven by fleeting trends, the fashion and food industries may seem worlds apart. However, beneath the surface lies a remarkable connection that unites them. Picture how it would be if your clothes told a story of ethical sourcing and mindful manufacturing, and this mirrors the artistic and catching images of your food, grown organic and fair-traded.
Sustainability is the cornerstone of both these industries, and this is the kind of present researchers at ModaCult wish to see. They are in fact working on this platform. Emanuela Mora, Director of ModaCult, coordinates the Political and Social Sciences School, an undergraduate programme devoted to the communication management of food and fashion systems (COMMA), where the first seeds of this innovative project was sown.
We asked Silvia Mazzucotelli, a member of the ModaCult research team and co-coordinator of COMMA, about the inspiration for this project. She is an Associate Professor at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, where she works at the Department of Sociology and focuses her research and teaching on the Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes. Over the past 10 years, she has been observing, with her colleagues, a growing interconnection in communication strategies between the fashion and food industries. Intrigued by this phenomenon, Professor Mazzucotelli and her colleagues wanted to take it a step further. By merging research and teaching, they created a pilot project that seamlessly integrates sustainability, communication, and technology.
The “Fashion & Food Synergy for Sustainability” is an Erasmus+ project, co-funded by the European Union and it involves Università Cattolica in Italy, Universidad de Navarra in Spain, Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Uniwersytet Jagiellonski in Poland together with other four non-academic partners: Altromercato in Italy, Steirische Wirtschaftsförderungsgesellschaft in Austria, Acción Laboral in Spain and Envolve Entrepreneurship in Greece.
The project encompasses three primary objectives while providing an interactive digital platform for collaborative learning. First and foremost, it aims to elevate the competencies of undergraduate and graduate university students by adopting a cultural and interdisciplinary approach. This approach equips them with the skills and confidence needed to address what the future holds for the fashion and food industries. Secondly, the project seeks to revise university urses and current teaching methodologies to align with emerging trends in the intersection of fashion and food industries. Thirdly, within these areas, it endeavours to enrich the abilities of the community by sharing knowledge, techniques, and resources through ongoing training programmes.
This initiative saw active participation from a diverse group of students, including those from the three-year degree course in Communication and Society. Specifically, students from both the Italian curriculum Communication and Society and the English curriculum Communication Management for Fashion and Food took part. Additionally, students from ISEM-Fashion Business School at the University of Navarra and students enrolled in the master's programme in Arts and Culture at Radboud University also contributed to this collaborative effort.
Indeed, Professor Mazzucotelli emphasises that an integral component of the pilot project is centred around developing innovative training models. These models consist of a well-balanced combination of in-person sessions, collaborative online lectures, group work and independent study activities - all with the overarching goal of grasping the role of sustainability in the food and fashion industries.
However, just like walking through uncharted territory often brings surprises, this pilot project also had its fair share. Perhaps one of the most interesting events from a tech-disruptive point of view during this project arose from a hurdle, which eventually became symbolic of the essence of the project itself.
What unfolded was that the students were given an individual assignment to write about a topic assigned to them. As the professors started receiving the submitted answers, they noticed something peculiar. Why did a substantial number of students choose the same relatively obscure example from Chile? Did they collaborate on the assignment? What had happened?
As a response, the faculty members were driven to explore avenues for turning the situation into a catalyst for positivity. They sought to harness the unfolding events as an opportunity to foster a broader understanding of the multifaceted applications inherent to this technology. They started by asking ChatGPT to draft the email they sent to the students. The email encouraged those who had submitted work not written by themselves to resubmit it, but this time without relying on any online artificial tools. "Even though it wasn't planned, we then created a separate lesson where we explained the different ways ChatGPT could be utilised, in a fair way, to enhance their studies."
The Professor continued, "We then assigned the students a new task that involved using ChatGPT as their primary source to find a specific piece of information. They were then instructed to compare the results and reflect upon their learning. In this way, they were encouraged to contemplate not only what they had discovered about the topic but also what they had learned about the objectivity and functioning of this tool, ChatGPT."
Even if this is just one example of how artificial intelligence has been increasingly influential both inside and outside of the classroom, by transforming the initial crisis into a learning opportunity, the professors aimed to deepen the students' understanding of ChatGPT and its role in their educational journey. Something that in fact reflected their project itself. A key goal of the pilot project was to leverage the power of existing online tools to enhance the student’s learning journey. Professor Mazzucotelli highlighted the significance of understanding how these tools could be effectively utilised in the development of new teaching methodologies.
The pilot testing phase has achieved results by initially implementing two out of the six planned learning modules. The project's goal is to develop a total of six learning modules by the end of the project. Mazzucotelli points out "The Sustainability Glossary" as a remarkable achievement. This ongoing project has resulted in the creation of a comprehensive online glossary dedicated to sustainability – accessible to everyone. Encompassing not only relevant vocabulary but also cultural practice, this invaluable resource encourages understanding and facilitates informed discussions among students and educators alike.
Looking ahead, Professor Mazzucotelli shared some ideas and thoughts: ModaCult envisions expanding the project's network and expertise by collaborating with additional universities and sustainable professionals. They aim to share knowledge and expertise through diverse channels, including providing access to project materials and delivering thought-provoking guest lectures.
As the pilot project at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore continues to evolve, it stands as an inspiring example for higher education professionals worldwide. Through its seamless integration of sustainability, communication, and technology, students are empowered with the knowledge and awareness to become catalysts for change. By fostering a vibrant community of learning and collaboration – as well as harnessing available tools – the project paves the way for innovative initiatives within higher education, directly addressing society's most pressing challenges.