Not your average international classes held at CMU

It is 7:30 on a Wednesday night in a quiet lecture room in the new Collaborative Innovation Center. Some final audiovisual adjustments are made, and suddenly the large screen mounted on the wall in the front of the classroom blinks to life. Students slowly file in, setting up their laptops, organizing their notes, and preparing for class. On the screen, Japanese students are doing the same thing.
This is 14-845: Fundamentals of Computer and Telecommunication Networks, a graduate course taught in real time both at CMU and in Kobe, Japan. The course is one of several offered by the Information Networking Institute (INI), part of a masters program offered here in Pittsburgh and at the Hyogo Institute of Information Education Foundation in Kobe.
The INI is a leader in connecting students in remote locations with Carnegie Mellon?s learning environment. The INI has set up a masters program in information networking and technology in Athens, Greece as well as in Kobe.
The Athens program started three years ago to simultaneously teach students at CMU and in Greece cutting edge technologies. The INI has since expanded the program to include Kobe. These programs are referred to as ?hybrid distance education models? because while the professors teach the core degree classes at CMU, they also go to the remote location several times a semester, and CMU students get to see what it?s like to be there.
Professor Tina Wong teaches 14-845. ?I have seven students here and there are nine students over there,? Wong explained. ?As you see today, it is all real time, real-time videoconferencing. It is kind of like just a normal class. I lecture. I have slides and they see the slides. They have a co-instructor over there, but I?m the one who gives all the lectures.?
Trying to teach globally does presents cultural problems. ?I think I have to be a little bit more conscientious in terms of paying more attention to the Kobe side of the classroom,? Wong said; ?students [at CMU] are very, very vocal.... I have to remember to engage the Japan side, too, and call on them. Part of it is the cultural differences. People here are not very shy, and [the students in Kobe] are more shy. They don?t want to interrupt because they feel like it is rude, so I have to tell them, ?If you have any comments or questions, don?t feel like you are interrupting me. You are participating in class and we have a small class, so you want to be interactive.? ?
Students made less of the culture barriers and saw them as a learning experience. ?The cultural differences are an added bonus to the class. It gives us an opportunity to become familiar with other environments,? B.J. Bayha, a masters student at CMU, said of the experience.
Parts of the communication problems were technical. Stephanie Weber, Instruction Support Specialist for the INI, explained the situation in the remote locations: ?In Athens, they have wireless microphones, so something as simple as being able to ask a question, if you have to pass the mike... [Students] don?t want to interrupt that class, but they would have to. Maybe it would take a split second, but those seconds add up. That was a big challenge.?
The problem persisted at the Kobe location. ?We don?t really have a chance to speak up in the class,? said Keiji Takeda, an adjunct professor in Kobe.
CMU has been able to solve the communications problem at the Pittsburgh end by utilizing microphones that zoom in on the speaker. These microphones simulate a face-to-face experience for students in the remote locations. ?There is a connectedness that was difficult at the beginning,? Weber said.
The courses taught in Athens and Kobe are graduate-level classes, but that is not to say that the international format would not be of value to undergraduates. ?I definitely think it could work at the undergraduate level,? Weber said.
CMU seems to have counted on undergraduate interest, with wildly successful results. This semester sees CMU offering its first joint Pittsburgh?Qatar class, American?Arab Encounters, utilizing the newest web camera videoconferencing technology, similar to the INI courses.
The course explores the relationship between the United States and the Arab countries of the Middle East. However, its primary focus is on promoting interactions and understanding between people from multiple cultural backgrounds in the Middle East and the U.S. The experience is incredibly hands-on.
?We are totally embracing technology,? said professor Laurie Eisenberg, the Pittsburgh co-instructor. ?It is incredible how we are using the newest technological capabilities and applying them in the humanities.?
Professor Ben Riley is the co-instructor at the Qatar campus. Over the summer, Eisenberg and Riley put together a syllabus for the course while Riley was visiting CMU. Both professors work together during class time to facilitate discussion. Their approach to teaching is organized and cooperative, with each taking turns leading lectures. The result has worked very well.
Since September 11, conflicts have arisen between Arabs and Americans. The resulting opinions and biases are based on media portrayals and on information from our surroundings. Young people from each region seldom have the opportunity to hear what the other has to say. ?Our goal is to let Arabs and Americans speak with one another, giving them the scholarly and historical background to induce intellectual, informed discussions,? said Eisenberg, who specializes in Middle East relations. Communications technology has allowed the bridging of culture and knowledge like no other.
For example, Qatar students will not attend class on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Similarly, Pittsburgh students will not attend class during the two-week break given during Ramadan.
In addition to utilizing advanced technology during class, students are required to spend two hours a week in an outside discussion group facilitated by, a nonprofit group focused on improving Arab-American relations. Students use web cameras to engage in videoconferenced conversation with groups of eight students from Arab and U.S. universities.
?This experience has been priceless,? Eisenberg said about the course. ?As a historian, I like to work with primary source documents. Hearing what the students have to say is like oral history, we are capturing in a sense the feelings and opinions that are prevalent in the Arab world. It is terrific to let the students speak for themselves.?
The cultural exchange has gotten much positive feedback. ?It is really important to exchange ideas and learn from each other,? said Noura Alsubai, a student at the Qatar campus. ?This course is unique because I can see other points of view, open my eyes to things I didn?t know, and get views other than what I see in the media and the movies.?
Pittsburgh students feel the same way. ?I was interested in taking this course because it was something groundbreaking,? said Joe Phillips. ?I was curious to see how utilizing the newest technological tools would structure this course, and it is very relevant to current events and current U.S. policy. My knowledge of the Arab world and American policy has expanded greatly.?
Aroon Pahwa, on the other hand, is taking this course for more personal interests. ?Qatar is a developing area with lots of business opportunities. I wanted to get a chance to meet people over there and get contacts.?
Students have found American?Arab Encounters interesting because of the amount of student-to-student interaction. ?Being able to see the other students through the video conferencing really gives a human face to the other side?s argument and perspective,? said Phillips. ?It?s not just a difference of ideas, it?s a real issue, and it is interesting to see the human aspect of it.?
For many students, the course is their first chance to utilize the newest advances in communications technology. ?I?m so happy to be one of the first to see this happen,? said J.B. Galloway, a Pittsburgh student. ?It?s like an urban myth. It is amazing to
actually have a class where this kind of technology is implemented.?
Regular interaction with our international counterparts may be around the corner for more CMU students, and not just online or onscreen. Athens students have come to CMU for the summer and student exchange programs with the Qatar campus are in full swing. ?It?s a great program,? Weber said.?It?s really fascinating to watch it grow and change, especially with the technology and being
at Carnegie Mellon. There is no better place to be.?