Below is an interview with Todd Austin: Video Conferencing Lead for LSA-ISS. Todd has worked in videoconferencing since 2004, when he was certified as an Internet 2 Site Coordinator for Videoconferencing. Since joining the ISS team in 2011, Todd has built the Videoconferencing Group from an occasional service to a staff of four who spend all or much of their time on supporting live videoconferencing connections. The team supports connections from locations all over the college with partners in such diverse locations as Haiti, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Myanmar, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and Brazil.
Q: Can you briefly describe how videoconferencing serves as an instructional format at the University of Michigan?
Todd: Faculty who want to connect and share courses with domestic and international partners can do so with the support of videoconferencing. The goal is to arrange the technology such that all sites appear to inhabit the same space. We work hard to minimize the mediation of the technology through thoughtful selection and placement of cameras and microphones, lighting selection, and choice of network connections. We prepare the technology well in advance so that the risk of disruption is minimized, creating a classroom experience that allows for the free and open exchange of ideas.Some courses are taught with domestic partners, most of which belong to the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA). Under the BTAA CourseShare agreement, students register locally but the course is taught somewhere else and the campuses are connected using videoconferencing. This allows students to gain access to material not offered at their institution such as language courses that are less commonly taught. Two big projects Michigan participates in are the Korean Foundation grant eSchool project at the Nam Center for Korean Studies and the Mellon Foundation grant for the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum project (DISC) under the auspices of the Islamic Studies Program. Both groups share culture and history courses with Big 10 partners with from one to three receiving institutions for each course. Courses shared with international partners have faculty teaching at both ends. These courses cover a wide range of topics and subject areas. The goal for international classes is also a bit different. It is about putting the subject matter into an international context and gaining the perspective of the people at the other end—perspective on the subject matter and, ultimately, on one’s self. Students get the opportunity to see the subject matter and themselves through the eyes of others. These connections lead to very interesting conversations and valuable insights which the students report they could not get in another way.
Q: What types of courses lend themselves to this “format?”
Todd: While the courses are often in social science, language, or culture, we have seen a wide variety of subjects beyond these areas. The essential question about whether a course will work well in this format has to do with the goal—what does the connection with the intended international partner bring to the course that enriches the experience of our students. We are also always attentive to the needs of our partners, that their students benefit no less than those at U-M.
For example, there is a course on Community Health Nursing each fall that connects with a nursing school in Leogane, Haiti to study the social determinants of health—how the local environment, local traditions, food, etc. affect the health of the population in a given area. There is a radical difference between the experiences of students in Haiti and the US in terms of resources, infrastructure, belief systems, and medical experience. At the same time, there are many similarities between the communities they study, Leogane and Ypsilanti, in their respective classes. The scale may be different, but many of the challenges they face are similar when mapped to the social determinants of health. The opportunity to learn from their international peers makes the subject very real for U-M students at the School of Nursing, helping them to understand that the experience of the patients for whom they will care in the future may be very much different from their own and they must be prepared to account for this when providing care.
Q: Will instructors need to redesign their entire course?
Todd: Some classes are more easily adapted to this format, and some may take more work. CourseShare classes generally run with minor adaptation. However, we strongly encourage international shared courses to start planning with distant partners well ahead of time, six months or more. Part of this has to do with basic logistics—when do semesters start, when are local holidays, are the courses set to meet at each end at times that overlap despite differences in time zones, etc.
We meet with faculty to provide support and resources as they think through a global pedagogy with their partner, addressing questions such as how many sessions will be connected live between the classrooms, how much of the semester’s course will be shared with the partner, what will be the syllabus for the shared portion of the course, on what projects will the students work jointly with their overseas peers that will enrich their understanding of the material and provide opportunities to gain from the international connection, etc.
We encourage faculty to make the shared elements of the course something that is jointly owned with their partner. Partners may have just a few sessions live together, perhaps as a subunit of a class. Often, partners find that 5-10 sessions will be the right fit, but there’s no right answer here. For various reasons, you may decide that connections will be mostly asynchronous, with no live in-class sessions.
The meat of these courses is in the student-to-student connections, be they in-class discussions or the out-of-class connections and project work. This is where the students really gain from the perspective of their overseas peers.
Q: How does an international connection improve student learning? Can you provide an example of a meaningful connection?
Todd: One example is a Music Education class for future K-12 teachers, partnered with a course for student educators in Germany. The agreed structure has students complete readings before class, and then engage in a common whole-group discussion led by whichever of the two professors is lecturing to the class that day. Then students break into small, cross-institutional groups that are one-on-one or two-on-one to discuss material on a more personal level for one-half hour. The partners then gather together again to debrief as a whole group. After the partners disconnect, there is a final local debrief with only U-M students. Students on both ends gain insights from discussing how the readings apply across different cultures and education systems. In addition, both groups admitted that they would not have examined their own practice of music education in the same way, with such depth and perspective, had they not had to explain and discuss with one another across national boundaries.
Q: How tech savvy does an instructor have to be to videoconference with another school?
Todd: When such courses are held in a LSA space, we handle all the A/V tech— end to end. So, a U-M instructor need not be tech-savvy at all. It's the job of ISS to understand the problems that may arise and to implement the necessary solutions. Those solutions may be straightforward, or they may be rather involved, depending upon the circumstances of the partner.
Some of our partners are very well-equipped, and some are less-well-resourced, such as our partner in Haiti, FSIL. FSIL was working with a standalone USB webcam attached to a laptop with network provided over a 3G cellular link when we first connected. It was, to say the least, quite challenging. Before the next course the following year, the U-M instructor was able to obtain a grant from the President’s Office to pull a fiber line into the school and cover the initial months of a service contract. This new hardwired connection, coupled with a new handheld wired microphone, and acoustic barriers in the room that I built on site during a trip there to assist with the configuration, made a huge difference in the reliability of the connection and greatly improved the ability of all the students to share freely during the class. I would say that this is the extreme end of the complexity scale for these classes. Most lie somewhere between this and a simple setup that requires no special preparation. In fact, I just assisted with testing with our Haitian partners yesterday for the new school year and it went very well. Again, ISS is there with the necessary resources to assist with connecting to partners at just about any location. So don’t let concerns over technology be a barrier to exploring the sharing of a class with a partner in another country.
Q: How do students on different campuses get an equivalent experience and feel part of the same class?
Todd: We are sensitive to the idea that students should receive an equivalent experience. For example, we try not to privilege English and include other languages in the classroom when appropriate. We currently share a class with St. Petersburg, Russia and the instructor allows students to speak in Russian or Arabic when it works best for them. The instructor will then translate into English for those U-M students who require it.
Another goal is to balance the technology experience, and not to hold unreasonable expectations of partners with fewer resources. We also pay a lot of attention to what our partners are getting from us. It’s a two way street and attention is always paid to the benefits gained by the students at both ends when designing the course and agreeing upon the syllabus.
Q: What do you recommend for instructors who would like to share their course with an international partner but don’t know where to start?
Todd: A great place to start is by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started. Messages sent there reach both me and my colleague Philomena Meechan at LSA’s Language Resource Center. We will be very happy to meet to discuss ideas for new projects.
Also, there is an upcoming day-long event, “Engaging The World From Your Classroom” on Thursday November 16 in North Quad 2435 for anyone interested in sharing their class with an international partner or in learning more about this approach, in general. Follow the link http://tinyurl.com/EngagingTheWorld to register. The event will include a morning panel of experienced faculty, catered lunch and faculty poster session at noon, and an afternoon discussion on the design of such courses. We are also in the later stages of establishing a Community of Practice, which will serve as a meeting place and as a resource for those who are interested in this approach to teaching or who have ideas they want to explore and develop with input from experienced faculty and support staff. Contact email@example.com to learn more.
Q: How can instructors register for “Engaging the World From Your Classroom?”
Todd: All parts of the day are open to and appropriate for all interested staff, faculty, and students. Again, the event will be held on Thursday November 16 in North Quad 2435. Please register to assist us with seating and catering at http://tinyurl.com/EngagingTheWorld
Contact Info for Todd
Register for Engaging the World From Your Classroom http://tinyurl.com/EngagingTheWorld .
For more information, contact Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org .