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Interdisciplinary, Intercultural Online Courses Provide a Global Education Experience

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In an attempt to improve students' understanding of global issues, schools are seeking new ways to incorporate international education into their curriculum. The University System of Georgia (USG) and the University of Munich in Germany have developed and implemented a unique collaborative approach that provides students with a global education experience, while giving them the opportunity to participate in a "virtual" foreign exchange program. During the fall 2001 semester, the institutions jointly offered their first two interdisciplinary, intercultural online courses. Over the next 18 months, a total of nine online courses - all focused on some aspect of the European Union - were offered to students from both universities. All nine courses were developed and team-taught in English by faculty members from a USG institution and the University of Munich.

The courses are part of a European Union Studies Certificate program, which provides undergraduate students from USG campuses and the University of Munich with the opportunity to earn a combined certification from both institutions. The certificate is a collaborative program of USG and its European Union Center (www.inta.gatech.edu/eucenter), as well as the European Council. By taking part in the program, students learn about the European Union; gain knowledge of European history, culture and business practices; and communicate electronically.

Processes and Procedures

One of the courses offered during the fall, titled "European Monetary Union" (EMU), focused on the monetary merger of 12 European Union members. Political science and business constitute the academic backgrounds of the instructors, providing the course with both political and business perspectives. Serving as a content expert for the course was a professor of politics and international affairs, who was also a leading European scholar.

The collaborative process for instructors of the EMU course began with a three-day working session in Munich. As one of the course instructors, I met twice more and communicated regularly via e-mail over the next year with my German counterpart. In addition to outlining and developing our modules during this time, we made decisions concerning the course format, interaction methods and procedures, evaluation and assessment instruments and strategies, and student assignments. We also produced a course syllabus and schedule that were compatible with the standards and schedules of both institutions. Following is a description of each of these processes and procedures:

Course format. A comparative analysis of the Univer-sity of Munich and USG semester schedules revealed an eight-week period during which students from both institutions were enrolled concurrently. Thus, we decided on an abbreviated eight-week course format, which allowed us to construct a course schedule of modules and exam dates. For each course module we developed objectives, lecture notes, a list of assigned readings, written assignments, self-test questions, as well as midterm and final-exam questions. Because there were no textbooks used to build the course, we spent a lot of time researching and developing the content. In addition, students were assigned readings from a variety of publications and Web sites.

Course introduction. Before beginning the class, we contacted the students enrolled in the course by e-mail. In this initial contact, we provided them with instructions for logging in, procedures for beginning the course, and instructions for maneuvering the course content and online materials within the course Web site. We also sent students the course syllabus and schedule. In addition, students were given access to an online tutorial to help them become acquainted with the functions and capabilities of the course's online course-management software.

Language barrier. Few American students (or teachers) are proficient in German, while almost all German students are fairly proficient in English. Therefore, the course content, all online discussions and the course examinations were presented in English. However, because students enrolled in the course at their home institutions, they submitted written essays to their assigned professor in their native language.

Class announcements. Each week we posted an announcement that introduced the week's module, gave an overview of the upcoming week's activities, provided any additional information or explanations about course content or assignments, reminded students of test dates, and addressed any student concerns expressed to the instructors during the previous week.

Class discussions. To encourage discussion of course content and interaction of ideas in the course, we posted content-related topics regularly. Because there is a six-hour time difference between the United States and Germany, class discussions were primarily in a threaded or asynchronous format. The instructor whose module was being covered was responsible for posting the discussion item. Students were more likely to participate if the topic was concise and did not require lengthy responses. Participation in discussions was very helpful because it enabled students to assist each other in their understanding of course material. Discussions were also a part of the students' final grades.

Although real-time chat sessions can be interesting, we scheduled only two during the term. Not only did the time difference complicate the scheduling of sessions, but because all participants must be online at the same time, it was often difficult to schedule a session in which all students could participate. In addition, we found that when a large number of students were logged on at once, it took a lot of time for the instructor and students to discuss a limited amount of course content.

Instructor and student interaction. Because the students and instructors did not meet in person, the instructors checked e-mail messages frequently so that students would receive prompt responses when they had questions or required assistance. To maintain continued student-instructor communication, students were asked to keep us informed of their progress through biweekly e-mails.

Student Assignments, Assessments

Because the German students tend to be more familiar and proficient at written assignments and assessments, and less familiar with objective-style testing formats - often just the opposite with American students - we included both types of evaluation in the course. To promote team building and encourage student camaraderie at the beginning of the term, the first assignment required each USG student to interview a German student on his or her experiences concerning the single currency changeover. Each German student also was required to interview a USG student concerning an aspect of the American economy. Then, the students wrote essays sharing their findings.

Education's Goals

One of postsecondary education's goals is to provide students with a greater global understanding. Participation in a virtual student exchange program can help students obtain this global education experience without the expense and time commitment of a study abroad program. Interdisciplinary, intercultural distance learning courses, such as the EMU course, require an extensive amount of planning and coordination on the part of the faculty involved. However, if well organized and facilitated, the courses can offer students a convenient and effective method of access for international education.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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