East Carolina U. Uses Simple Technology to Link Its Students With Peers Overseas

May 07, 2009

Just 1 percent of East Carolina University undergraduates study overseas.

But thanks to a pair of enterprising faculty members, a growing number of students are having international experiences without ever leaving the Greenville, N.C., campus. The university's Global Understanding program uses inexpensive and relatively unsophisticated technology — a low-bandwidth video link and e-mail chat — to connect East Carolina students with counterparts at 23 institutions in 17 countries and five continents.

While other colleges have made use of computer hookups to bring a global perspective into the classroom, the East Carolina model is distinctive in that it links each participating class with partners at several foreign universities, exposing students to multiple points of view. Its low-cost, low-tech approach has allowed the university to build relationships with institutions in less-well-off countries like Namibia and Moldova and to sustain such partnerships even as budget constraints have forced many institutions to curtail their travel, both overseas and out of state.

In just five years, the program has gone from a one-time pilot, hatched over a coffee break, to a mainstay of the university's general-education curriculum. Freshman-level Global Understanding course sections consistently fill up during the first hours of registration, says Rosina C. Chia, assistant vice chancellor for global academic efforts, and other faculty members are adapting the model for use in their own teaching.

"It's really powerful," says Marilyn Sheerer, East Carolina's provost. "It's not a stretch to see how students' perspectives have changed."

The program got its start during a casual conversation between Ms. Chia, then a professor of psychology and interim dean of communications and computer science, and Elmer Poe, who was then interim dean of technology. It would be nice, the two agreed, if there was a way to leverage East Carolina's strength in online and distance education to expand international opportunities for its students.

Within months, in July 2003, the first class, which connected students in North Carolina and at Soochow University in China, was under way.

Although the initial course was part of an intensive summer session, it established the basic model for future Global Understanding offerings: Classes of 15 to 20 students are split in half, and each group is given a series of questions meant to guide conversation. One half discusses the queries, which tend to focus on cultural practices like college life and family structure, as a group via videoconferencing, while the other students engage in one-on-one discussions on the same topics with overseas partners through e-mail. Halfway through the class meeting, the groups switch.

The two approaches give students insights into societal norms and expose them to individual perspectives on topics that are sometimes sensitive, says Mr. Poe, who is now associate vice chancellor for academic outreach. Students are required to write papers with their foreign partners, and the in-class discussions are supplemented by outside readings that provide an academic foundation. For example, students might read anthropological texts and learn about how different societies view the role of the family.

A Complex Model

After the success of the initial class, Mr. Poe and Ms. Chia, with the backing of East Carolina administrators, took time to formally outline the course structure and to enlist instructors and technical-support staff. They also set out to recruit additional foreign universities.

The pilot partner, Soochow University, came about through the connections of Ms. Chia, who is originally from China. But Ms. Chia and Mr. Poe wanted to be more strategic about forming relationships. They reached out to the U.S. Department of State and to foreign governments for guidance and sought to attract institutions from countries and regions that "will be important on the world stage for the next 15, 20, 30 years," Mr. Poe says.

Early on, they decided against organizing the course around a single, bilateral relationship. Instead, each section of it includes East Carolina and three foreign partners. The four institutions are paired for five weeks at a time and then change partners, so that all students get the benefit of learning about three different cultures during the semester.

"We don't want to just go to a country and suck up its culture for the benefit of our students only," Ms. Chia says.

There has been consensus to hold the courses in English, which tends to be the common language among all the partners, Ms. Chia says. But scheduling class times hasn't always come as easily.

To accommodate partners in parts of the world as disparate as Gambia, Malaysia, and Russia, classes sometimes have to be held early in the morning or well into the evening for some institutions. One group of Chinese students, Ms. Chia recalls, came to class in winter coats because the heat in their building had been turned off after dark.

The complex, multipartner model has meant that the Global Understanding program has expanded slowly, Mr. Poe and Ms. Chia acknowledge. The university had a sufficient number of partners to offer seven sections of the course this semester, which means just a fraction of East Carolina's 4,000 freshmen could enroll. They hope to add an additional section this fall.

But Mr. Poe and Ms. Chia say they want to be choosy. Only about one of three possible partners is a good fit; some don't want to make the time commitment, while others are not comfortable with the student-driven style of the course.

Although the course is taught remotely, teams of East Carolina faculty members and technological experts visit each foreign campus to train instructors and to gauge the enthusiasm of university leaders. East Carolina typically signs two-year agreements with the partner institutions and won't go forward unless the project has backing from top administrators, Ms. Chia says.

Some relationships, nevertheless, stumble. After political unrest broke out in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, the government stopped paying faculty members at Osh State University, East Carolina's partner there. Two students took over and led the class until the end of the semester, but the partnership was not continued.

Another reason for the site visit is to assess the level of technological infrastructure and support. Often, it is minimal, and so, while East Carolina holds its classes in an up-to-date "global classroom," Mr. Poe says he and Ms. Chia deliberately use the most basic equipment. The camera and software for videoconferencing cost about $350. Video is transmitted over a simple Internet connection, and East Carolina handles additional technical support. (The university often helps the partner look for outside sources of funds to cover the costs.) Beyond that, each partner needs eight computers so students can chat by e-mail, Mr. Poe says, "but they can be old and decrepit as long as they can get on the Internet."

Still, sufficient bandwidth remains one of the program's biggest challenges, he says.

Internationalizing the Classroom

Back in Greenville, East Carolina officials are seeking to expand the number of introductory Global Understanding courses. One challenge, Ms. Sheerer, university provost says, is that class size must be small, which means additional instructors are needed.

The university is also encouraging faculty members to use the Global Understanding model to internationalize their own upper-level courses. Ms. Chia and Mr. Poe help lead workshops each semester, and several professors have begun connecting with overseas institutions as part of their course design. For example, students in a computer-science course are working in multinational teams on a software-design project, while a Spanish class holds weekly language practice with an English class in Peru.

In Patricia (Patch) Clark's theater education course, students swapped folklore and indigenous children's tales with their counterparts in Peru and Russia. They then adapted some of the foreign stories into short plays that they performed as part of a children's theater troop that visits schools throughout Eastern North Carolina.

Sloane Burke's health-education majors have held discussions with students in Germany and Moldova on issues such as health disparities, infectious disease, and maternal and child health. Ms. Burke, an assistant professor, said coordinating lectures overseas means more work; still, she will use a grant to travel this summer to China, where she hopes to establish a new partnership.

The global nature of the courses creates "a richer learning environment," she says.

And while the Global Understanding project was established to bring an international experience to the East Carolina campus, it has also spurred students who complete the course to go overseas; now about 10 percent of those students subsequently study abroad.