Archive for Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Technology bridges international classes

New program links KU students with worldly peers

October 12, 2004

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Lee Grignon was trying to write a collaborative essay examining theories of democracy.

But all his partner on the project wanted to talk about was President Bush.

"I think he is not smart enough," said the partner, Zumrud Mammadzade.

The conversation might not seem out of the ordinary for a Kansas University class, considering the U.S. presidential election is less than a month away.

What made the exchange unusual was the geography.

Grignon was in a Wescoe Hall classroom, and Mammadzade was in a classroom at Western University in Bacu, Azerbaijan.

The students are part of a State Department-sponsored pilot program that connects U.S. college students with students at universities around the world using video phones and Internet chat rooms. KU is one of 12 U.S. universities participating.

"We need to build global understanding, whether it's for exercising U.S. foreign policy interests or simply building peace and prosperity in the world," said Erik Herron, assistant professor of political science who is teaching the KU class. "I think that's why the State Department is so interested in the program. It's not designed to help people like Americans, it's designed for world citizens to understand the U.S."

Tech troubles

Dubbed the Virtual Classroom Project, the program debuted last year at East Carolina University.

At KU, 15 students in Herron's introduction to comparative politics honors class spent a month working with students at Western University and recently switched to working with students at Osh State University in Kyrgyzstan. They'll also collaborate with students at Mongolian National University.

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Herron dials into a computer network that brings up a video connection to classrooms in the other countries, including Kyrgyzstan where it is 7 p.m. What appears looks something like the video phone footage sent back by news correspondents in Iraq.

Students and professors take turns talking in slow, deliberate speech. Each side has a red flag to wave if it can't understand the audio.

Classes are divided between a lecture by Herron and student discussions, both with the video connection and in chat rooms.

"Unfortunately, because of the technology, it's difficult to engage in full dialogue," Herron said. "Despite all the complications and problems, it's worth it."

Political talk

That's because students are being introduced to cultures few knew much -- if anything -- about.

"I didn't know Azerbaijan even existed before this class," said Grignon, a Brookfield, Wis., freshman.

Meanwhile, students in Azerbaijan have been following developments in the United States closely.

"A great amount of students oppose the Iraq policy of George Bush but significantly support George Bush on his struggle against terrorism," said Elvin Majidov, one of the Western University students. "That's because we have seen what the terror is."

Azerbaijan has been in a sometimes-bloody conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory for 15 years.

"It was a pity to learn my partner (in the KU class) didn't support the Azeri side in Karabakh conflict," said Nana Atakishiyeva, another Western University student. "I cannot say that he supported the Armenian side -- he had a neutral position."

In fact, KU student Nina Mosallaei said, none of the KU students was familiar with the conflict.

"Apparently they've been fighting for many years," said Mosallaei, an Overland Park sophomore. "I had no idea."

'Direct experience'

Mosallaei said she hoped the class would be a model for more international courses.

"I think it's a really good experience to have, especially nowadays," she said. "We're always in our little bubbles, and we think we're always right. I think it's a fantastic idea, to talk to people around the world. If we did more of that, maybe we wouldn't fight as much and we'd get along better."

Herron, the KU professor, said he planned to teach the course again next fall.

Adam Meier, a spokesman for the State Department, said the government planned to add more universities to the program.

"These are the future leaders in their countries," Meier said of the international participants. "Time and time again, we hear of people rising to power who have had a direct experience that led to a better understanding of American cultures.

"I think everyone would agree it's in our best interest to have (foreign) leaders with a better understanding of who we are, rather than potentially relying on skewed media in other parts of the world. You'd rather have that direct experience."

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