BOGUE: Logging on to class
Collaborative virtual classrooms widen academic possibilities for students
Last spring, the University announced a partnership with Duke University that would allow the University students to take Haitian Creole while Duke students would take advantage of the University’s Tibetan language program. The technology facilitating this interaction was Cisco TelePresence, which allowed students to interact with each other via cameras, microphones, and television screens that project images of the other class. The goal of the partnership was to open up these specialized courses to a larger body of students, giving exposure to rare languages.
As a current student in the program (studying Creole), I’ve been able to witness in person the development of this new initiative. Each day, I sit down in a highly equipped room across from screens that project images of a classroom at Duke, and I learn a new language in concert with students three hours away. The real-time feed allows the professor at Duke to address University students directly: we regularly speak one-on-one with the professor and other students, addressing each other by name through personal microphones and even mimicking some form of eye-contact. Some minor adjustments are necessary, especially during tests when the professor is projected on the screen and therefore can’t be contacted privately — a problem mitigated by the presence of a knowledgeable TA — but on the whole the experience is remarkably similar to being in a traditional classroom. Through the partnership, I have gained access to one of the few centers for Haitian studies in American universities.
But Haitian Creole and Tibet are not intrinsically special. There are thousands of rare languages that could benefit from a setup similar to the Duke-U.Va. partnership. Especially for smaller universities, drumming up enough student interest to merit a program of study in rare languages is rather difficult; opening up the course to more universities, and therefore a wider student body, would allow for universities to start in instructing in rare languages with the promise of sustained interest from students. If only a handful of students at two different universities are interested in a language, they can combine to create a thriving, interactive classroom environment that justifies the investment in a new course of study.
While the program was advertised as a way to protect such languages through continued study, the potential in the virtual classroom setup is enormous. Real-time video conferencing technology promises to break down the traditional divide in higher education that limits a student’s courses to those offered at the university where he or she is enrolled. Such a divide was based purely on pragmatism and convenience; now, technology has reached a level where it can be practical to open a course to students at different institutions. As long as there is sufficient student interest and a willingness from faculty members to take on more classes, almost any course in any field of study could benefit from the collaborative virtual classrooms enabled by TelePresence technology.
Of course, there are real costs associated with setting up such programs. The classrooms necessary to enable such learning must be outfitted with expensive and complex equipment to ensure a seamless experience. It takes time and effort to set up the partnership between two universities, including coordinating class schedules and access to online materials. However, costs are outweighed by synergy of learning that can extend across American universities, allowing students to explore new subjects in tandem with each other and access the resources of multiple different institutions.
What we are seeing with the massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as Politics Prof. Larry Sabato’s new course, “The Kennedy Half-Century,” is similar to the collaborative partnership between the University and Duke. Both are pursuing the same ideal: an inclusive environment of learning that opens up new subjects and professors to students at multiple universities. The MOOCs are the lecture-format version: videotaped instruction from a star professor, open to hundreds of students. The TelePresence classroom is the more intimate setting, reserved for specialist subjects that would interest a small number of students at different universities. Yet the underlying message is the same: conventional learning environments may have drawbacks, especially in that they limit the spread of ideas and knowledge to a single classroom or university. If you’re interested in studying something, don’t let the limitations of your particular university inhibit you. Push for initiatives like the partnership between U.Va and Duke. The future of higher education will depend on our concerted efforts to create an atmosphere of collaborative exploration that spans borders, giving all students a chance to study what they love.
Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.