Reaching Across Boundaries: The Bryant College-Belarus Connection

Using the Internet’s sphere of influence, one small college is making an impact on the education of students in Belarus, a country that has achieved only limited structural reform since its independence from the former Soviet Union. Despite the country’s economic isolation from the West, Belarusian institutions are reaching across traditional boundaries to forge new collaborative relationships.

Emerging national consciousness in the Newly Independent States (NIS) of Europe has produced dramatic alterations in business, politics, economics, technology, and culture, requiring innovative educational methodologies that better match the needs of these countries in transition. In 1996, in response to these challenges, Bryant College spearheaded the Collaborative Learning at a Distance (CLD) program between Bryant and Belarus. This comprehensive joint venture is an excellent model for using Internet technologies to advance collaborative learning, communication competencies, and policy making.

In implementing the CLD Program, we encountered many philosophical, logistical, and technical challenges. Two distinctly different Belarusian institutions, the Information Technologies Center (ITC) of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the European Humanities University (EHU), bridged political boundaries to create a close working relationship between a state (government-owned) and non-state (private) institution. The shared enthusiasm of the ITC and EHU for the CLD Program enabled them to overcome their political differences.

A Non-Hierarchical Approach

The program uses a non-hierarchical model, emphasizing reciprocal, interactive learning across national and academic boundaries (see figure). It is based on our belief that learning is a collaborative process and that we learn better when we teach each other and learn in multiple ways. Our Internet-based CLD Program focuses on a small-scale, personalized interactive learning experience, which directly involves the teacher/mentor, student/learner, and all other stakeholders in the process.

This non-heirarchical pedagogical approach is relatively unfamiliar to university educators in the NIS. A history of centralized education and strong governmental control over curricula has resulted in a teaching environment that d'es not encourage the interactive exchange of ideas between faculty and students. At a time when funding for educational innovation in the NIS has been curtailed, cost-effective, collaborative distance learning projects can help address the problem of dwindling educational resources and compensate for the legacy of 70 years of communism.


Model for Non-Hierarchical Learning

Fostering Collaboration

Collaborative projects—including seminars for scientists and engineers who worked for the Soviet defense industry, distance learning courses, and the development of environmental policy initiatives with the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus—have been led by scholars representing diverse academic disciplines. These projects have utilized a wide array of information technologies, including International Virtual Roundtable Discussions via e-mail, seminars on Web site construction, Microsoft NetMeeting conferencing between the U.S. and Belarus, software training and development, and the use of the Internet to promote collaborative learning across diverse cultural and political boundaries. (The entire CLD Program is available at http://web.bryant.edu/~history/new/course.htm).

Using these technologies, faculty, students, and entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Belarus have formed strong ties. Faculty exchanges have permitted collaborators to teach at participating universities, conduct research, present training programs, lead trade missions, and deliver papers at international conferences. On-site visits, ranging in length from six days to six months, have played a critical role in our ability to develop trusting relationships and set the CLD Program in motion. We have learned that even sophisticated distance learning technologies cannot replace the power and intensity of human interactions.

Student-centered, collaborative group projects, standard on American campuses, are virtually unheard of in Belarus. The introduction of divergent points of view on controversial topics into classroom discussions is also largely absent. In fact, the educational system of Belarus, including all curricula issues, continues to be tightly controlled by the state. Still, the CLD Program’s use of Internet technologies has had a powerfully democratizing influence on Belarusian learners who have participated in this project.

Technology-enabled interactions between students from different cultures and with different expertise and skill sets have presented challenges. For instance, American students display an almost casual approach to e-mail correspondence, often failing to use proper punctuation or sentence structure. By contrast, Belarusians take particular care in constructing well-written messages, exacerbating the time constraints caused by limited computer laboratory access. Mentors in both countries encouraged collaborative techniques for negotiating these barriers to communication.

History professor David Lux noted that crucial pedagogical issues arose during the initial offering of his course, “The History of American Technology.” Viewing the course as an experiment to field-test technological and pedagogical issues associated with distance learning, Lux observed that cultural differences significantly affected how students approached the course. Belarusian students “proved voracious in their willingness to digest readings and engage in very sophisticated dialogue about the meaning and content of what they were reading.” Yet, Lux concluded that “the collaborative learning, student-project features of the course,” so popular with Bryant students, did not initially “translate meaningfully” into the educational culture of Belarus. With guidance and examples from Bryant faculty and students, however, Belarusian students gradually came to appreciate the value of collaborative projects.

In the course, “Cultures and Economies in Transition in the Post Soviet Era,” Professors Judy Barrett Litoff and Joseph Ilacqua described a high level of energy by students representing diverse countries. Heated debates often ensued as students tackled the difficult challenge of understanding societies in transition. However, their shared experiences as students helped them to negotiate their diverse perspectives. For example, during the Kosovo crisis in the spring of 1999, spirited e-mail exchanges of conflicting student perspectives took place. These discussions demonstrated the value of exploring cross-cultural and comparative political differences in order to better understand complex global problems.

Belarusian students enrolled in “Environmental Policy: Technology, Business & Government,” a course offered by Professor Gaytha Langlois, lacked a basic understanding of the governmental infrastructure necessary to implement well-designed environmental policy initiatives. Even Bryant students were poorly informed about how policies are actualized in the U.S., but in Belarus, the differences in governmental structure and practices further complicated this problem. The process of acquainting Belarusian students with the roles that government and non-governmental organizations play in crafting environmental and business policy has proved to be more cumbersome than expected. Through the use of structured International Virtual Roundtable Discussions, the ability of government and non-governmental organizations to formulate environmental policies became clearer.

Technical Considerations

Time differences, Internet delays, and the technological realities of Belarus presented challenges that limited the use of complex distance learning technologies. Consequently, we designed a relatively inexpensive and modest program. Since access to the Web in Belarus is often slow and unpredictable, we have provided CD-ROM versions of the CLD Web site to Belarusian students. CD-ROMs that are run on computers connected to the Web provide students with full entry to the CLD courses, including the ability to access hyperlinks. In addition, through the cooperation of information technology specialists at Bryant and EHU, a mirror Web site has been established to enhance connectivity.

Because of the seven-hour time difference between the east coast of the United States and Belarus, and because Belarusian students have limited access to e-mail and depend primarily on under-equipped (by U.S. standards) university computer laboratories for electronic communication, synchronous and asynchronous e-mail communication between the United States and Belarus has proved to be more difficult than we had originally anticipated. U.S. students are routinely assigned personal university e-mail addresses, but as a rule Belarusian students are rarely provided one. Even when students are assigned e-mail addresses, however, they often discover that access to university computer laboratories is limited to 2-3 hours a week. To encourage synchronous e-mail communication with students, Bryant faculty have adopted e-mail office hours between 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. in Belarus). By choosing these e-mail office hours, we are able to avoid the busy use of the Internet in Belarus during the mid- and late afternoon.

The most useful and successful distance learning technique that we have introduced is the International Virtual Roundtable Discussion (IVRD) via e-mail. This tool, utilizing the Internet to promote cross-cultural and comparative perspectives, has been incorporated into all CLD courses and has been enthusiastically embraced by learners. The IVRD features structured discussions that avoid the pitfalls of unmoderated chat rooms, yet it encourages learners to share informed opinions about specified topics that often result in lively exchanges of viewpoints.

On occasion, we utilize Microsoft’s NetMeeting program to provide live, two-way, global “see and talk” communication over the Internet. The Microsoft NetMeeting program, standard on new computers, uses simple computer accessories, including microphone, speakers, headset, and small video camera, that cost about $100. This inexpensive technology, although dependent upon a relatively new computer (about $1,000), replaces the high costs of long-distance telephone charges and video conferencing. Although two-way video and audio communications are exciting and hold great promise, they frequently require users to have great patience and perseverance in order to make them work properly.

Global Marketplace of Ideas

The CLD Program was further expanded in the spring of 2000, when Bryant was awarded the first of a series of U.S. Department of State Community Connections Program Grants (see http://web.bryant.edu/~comconex). These grants have enabled entrepreneurs from Belarus and Ukraine to participate in seminars and classes at Bryant, collaborate with Rhode Island businesses as interns, and meet with community leaders. The 40 participants from Belarus and Ukraine who have completed this program have provided us with a more realistic perspective about the challenges of conducting business in transition economies.

The CLD alliance of Bryant College with academic, business, and research institutions in Belarus demonstrates that Internet-based, collaborative learning across international boundaries, even with significantly different technological environments and requirements, can be achieved and supported by relatively inexpensive information technologies. Underlying all the projects associated with the CLD Program is a commitment to collaborative approaches to problem solving and decision making that make regular use of cross-cultural and comparative analyses. The Bryant/Belarus CLD Program has also shown that Internet-enhanced courses and training programs that focus on collaborative learning provide practical opportunities for academic, business, and research decision makers from the NIS to better navigate the global marketplace of ideas.

Major Collaborators:

Bryant College: http://web.bryant.edu
Envila College for Women: http://geocities.com/Athens/Agora/9237
European Humanities University: http://www.data.minsk.by/ehu
Information Technologies Center, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus: www.bas-net.by

Major Funding Agencies:

U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, and State Higher Education Support Program, Open Society Institute
Office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs, Bryant College

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