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Collaborative Learning Across the Miles

American college breaks down the barriers to create online distance learning courses with an exiled Lithuanian university

Establishing ties between domestic and international colleges is one thing, but when the overseas institution has been forced into exile by its home country, the situation becomes a bit more complex.

SUNY Ulster of New York learned this about a year ago when it first collaborated with European Humanities University (EHU). The latter is a Belarusian university that was founded in Minsk in 1992 but was, according to the school, "forcibly closed" by the government in 2004. According to the EHU Web site, the school reopened in Vilnius in 2005 and was granted the status of a Lithuanian university in 2006.

"EHU is the only Belarusian university committed to academic freedom and the process of integrating a European higher education on BA and MA levels," according to the site.

Exiled by the Belarusian government for being "too progressive," EHU is headed up by a president who is no longer allowed in Belarus. His school's mission includes joining the "international academic network" and forming alliances with other universities to evoke "constructive cooperation." As part of that mission, EHU worked with SUNY Ulster in 2008 to offer an online course in English as a second language, followed by a similar collaboration in 2009.

According to Hope Windle, an instructional designer at SUNY Ulster, which is located in New York's Hudson Valley region, a group of six SUNY students participated in the four-week program with EHU students. The courses taught both groups the basics of English and grammar using online communication tools like Skype. The students also used stories and photos to illustrate their varied cultures and life experiences.

"Despite their different backgrounds," said Windle, "the students connected over the common goal of learning a new language together." Windle is part of a SUNY team assembled by the college's Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). The team worked with EHU administrators, faculty and students to assess the state of EHU's distance learning programs and develop a strategic plan for the future with grant funding from the prestigious Open Society Institute (OSI.)

Windle said the international collaboration with EHU spun out of an interaction that took place about 10 years ago between students from both SUNY and the exiled university. "We went to Lithuania last summer and did some workshops with EHU's online programs," Windle explained. "That was the germinating seed. It just seemed like the perfect collaboration, so we moved forward with it."

Windle said SUNY's overseas educational partner was particularly interested in advanced language concepts like critical thinking and analysis. "The professors from EHU thought it would be great if we could [pair up] students that were in upper-level literature classes," said Windle. As it happened, SUNY's COIL director was also a professor who taught a contemporary world literature class. "It was a perfect union," said Windle.

The online courses were divided into sections, with the first focusing on introductions, cultures, and each country's news and media outlets. The second part of the course focused on the novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, who writes about her experiences during the Iranian revolution. The third and final part of the course found students breaking up into smaller teams and using Pixton to create their own comic strips based on the lesson.

To manage the online, international coursework, SUNY and EHU used a combination of Moodle and Google Docs. "Everyone could add documents to the system," said Windle, "but the majority of the communication took place on discussion boards that were organized by topic, with agreed upon grading rubrics."

The collaboration isn't without challenges. For starters, Windle said, EHU is a virtual school, while SUNY Ulster teaches in a more traditional classroom format. "Their students see each other at the beginning and end of each semester, while ours are used to meeting face-to-face regularly and using online tools minimally," she said, adding that SUNY's professors and students both had to get up to speed on the online educational environment.

"There were some technical challenges to getting everyone comfortable with the online aspect, including the bulletin board postings and contributions," said Windle. Using Skype was another challenge, she said, particularly when professors would get unexpectedly cut off from the Internet-based phone system or when video conferences were necessary. "We wound up using the system to do audio, and didn't even bother with the video."

Cultural issues have also come into play. To minimize them, Windle said, SUNY relies on its collaborative partners; researches (with local faculty members) the politics and pedagogic approaches of the collaborative country; and invites local students who speak the language of the collaborative country to provide insight and feedback on the interaction.

Windle said SUNY also utilizes a "pre-lesson exercise" through which its students can learn more about Belarus. The school has also teamed up with Globalization 101 to develop an introductory lesson plan on the media as perceived by the students and how news is defined and received. "This will provide a forum to explore similarities and differences," said Windle.

Ultimately, Windle said, the challenges that come with creating online ties to international schools are well worth the trouble. The online medium, she added, pushes instructors, regardless of their pedagogic affinity, to adopt a student-centered approach to learning. "This affordance creates a tone to the pedagogy," said Windle, "that enhances the collaboration."

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