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International eLearning Partnerships

As the international political world seems to be getting less cooperative, people in higher education are trying to move closer to one another. Despite the differences in systems and credentialing in different countries, many universities are finding ways to collaborate on distance learning programs.

Most of the cases often start modestly. The really successful ones usually begin with a connection between individual faculty members from different institutions who believe their own students could benefit by linking with the other's students.

There are always problems to overcome. For example, a few years ago two American Studies professors, Dr. E and Dr. U, wanted to link classes and teach one another's students. One professor was at an Eastern European University (EEU), the other at a U.S. public university (USPU). The two professors worked together to combine their instructional materials onto a single Web site and agreed on the nature of the joint student projects. They set up arrangements for all students to have modest phone-calling cards for individual conversations and subscribed the students to a listserv hosted at USPU.

Sounds great, but as the classes began a few problems arose. One started before the classes even began. At EEU, American Studies was a new course and subject area. The faculty of EEU had to approve it. That process usually takes a couple of years, so Dr. E decided to go ahead and offer the class as a non-credit course. Students were still interested, but even they found that getting access to the Internet to participate in the discussions was difficult. The USPU students, it turned out, were very nervous calling a foreign country, although it cost them nothing. Using some grant money, the two professors were able to get access to a computer lab at EEU with relatively high-speed access. This helped a great deal and the student discussions flourished. In addition, the professors loaded the course materials onto CDs to give the EEU students better access.

Even so, the joint student research projects became bogged down because the EEU library had almost no resources on issues that generally arise in American Studies. That required a different set of solutions and sharing of academic resources between the institutions.

The happy ending of the story is that the efforts of the two professors paid off. The EEU faculty did approve the course. Students from each country did learn a great deal more about each others' cultures and lives through their online interactions. The tough part of this story is the incredible effort required by two committed professors to make it all work.

We need more of these eLearning partnerships so students can get the benefit of an international perspective. As these are set up, we need to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. While those of us who are active in distance learning may have little opportunity to affect the state of world affairs right now, we do have the knowledge and the tools to change how future citizens of many countries regard one another. It just might help.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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