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Vol. 6, No. 1: June 15, 2000

Broadening the Dialogue:
UW-Stout's Diversity Connections Project uses Technology to Expand Students' Experiences

by Jennifer Smith, TTT Editor

It has often been said that higher education is not just about training students for the workplace or immersing them in a specific discipline--higher education is about preparation for life and the cultivation of citizenship. UW-Stout assistant professors Brian Fitch (English) and Alec Kirby (History) believe this philosophy passionately. As co-directors of UW-Stout's new Diversity Connections Project, they are working not only to share their respective fields with their students, but broaden the dialogue within their disciplines by connecting their students with peers at other colleges in the U.S. These links are made possible through two-way video and Internet technology. In the future, Dr. Fitch and Dr. Kirby hope to expand the horizons of Stout students even further with the addition of international partners to the Diversity Connections Project.

The groundwork for the Diversity Connections Project was laid in the spring of 1999, when Fitch and Kirby attended a conference in Tampa, Florida, on learning communities. The two instructors spoke informally with colleagues from Cerritos College in Los Angeles and Xavier University in New Orleans. What Fitch, Kirby, and their colleagues found is that their students remained isolated from peers whose backgrounds differed from their own. In addition to this, students expressed concern about life after college, when they would work with people of diverse backgrounds and perhaps relocate to unfamiliar cities. Fitch, Kirby, and representatives from Cerritos and Xavier thought that linking their students would be one way to address this concern and strengthen the educational experience at the same time.

Cerritos College and Xavier University have become the first institutions to partner with UW-Stout for Diversity Connections. In terms of ethnic makeup, they are quite different from Stout, where the student body is 96% white. Xavier's student population is largely African-American, while Cerritos's students are 45% Latino, 26% white, 20% Asian, 8% African-American, and 1% Native American. Geography is another difference Cerritos and Xavier have with UW-Stout; unlike those urban campuses, UW-Stout is located in Menomonie, with a population of around 15,000.

So why, some might ask, does this matter so much when teaching English or history? Alec Kirby brought up the saying "Where you stand often depends on where you sit." In history, the subjectivity of the historian is an important issue. The same historical events can be interpreted in numerous ways that may be connected to the historian's personal background. By linking students of divergent backgrounds together to discuss historical events and their treatment in historical literature, students on both ends of that link are exposed to a wider range of views. Brian Fitch shared this view, commenting that in English, it is key for writing students to see not only different ways of articulating the same issue, but the validity of various discourses.

Both instructors also stressed the point that the Diversity Connections Project is not a one-way street for Stout students to learn about minority communities; rather, it is a true exchange, with students from all partner institutions gaining insight into different cultures. Just as their students learn about life in Los Angeles or New Orleans, their peers learn about life in a rural Midwestern setting and about the immigrant cultures of Wisconsin.

Dr. Kirby and Dr. Fitch will be presenting the Diversity Connections concept at an international conference this summer, to be held at the University of Reading, England, in July. They hope that this will provide an opportunity to enlist some international partners in their venture. Already, they are making plans to add more partners within the U.S., one of which may be a regional Native American college. As Kirby and Fitch state, the more campuses that can be added to the dialogue, the more perspectives students can gain.

The professors have been using both synchronous and asynchronous technologies to accomplish their educational goals. So far, linkages have been established primarily through two-way videoconferencing, which has the advantage of allowing students to see each other and pick up on non-verbal communication clues. Video conferences were supplemented with Web-based discussions and e-mail outside of class times. Asynchronous Web and e-mail use allowed students to prepare for future class sessions or discuss issues from past classes. They also provided a sometimes-welcome anonymity when students needed to discuss sensitive issues. As Kirby commented, with video, some students felt a bit shy, given that they were not only on camera, but discussing sensitive topics with people they initially did not know.

Student responses at UW-Stout thus far have been highly favorable to Diversity Connections. As Doug Ellerman, a senior from Merrill, WI, wrote: "I was in the Marine Corps for four years and traveled to Korea, Okinawa, Guam, and Australia. I know the importance of being able to deal with people from different cultures. In order to be comfortable with people from different cultures you need to have a first-hand experience of working with them. If you just close your eyes, you're missing out on a lot. I was really impressed with the class as a whole, and by expanding the project you're making a good experience better."

In a similar vein, Jeff Sawyer, a sophomore from Port Edwards, WI, commented: "A project like [Diversity Connections] is a creative way to involve students in a lecture-format class, which is never easy to do…This is not only important educationally but culturally. It's interesting to mix ideas and opinions about our nation's history from people of different races and cultures. I feel I learned more about modern history from this type of curriculum simply because it was fun and interesting to be a part of." JoAnn Hakala, a freshman from Eau Claire, affirmed, "This link has given students from very diverse backgrounds and cultures a way to communicate that was not possible before… We had the opportunity to share our ideas and hear different perspectives that I don't think any of us would really have been exposed to otherwise."

Dr. Fitch and Dr. Kirby expressed great enthusiasm at their opportunity to expand the Diversity Connections Project in future semesters by not only including more partner campuses but also by involving more UW-Stout faculty. For spring 2001, an English/philosophy professor is in the initial planning stages for linking with a Native American college. Kirby and Fitch also expressed their gratitude to all of the administrators and staff who had made their educational project possible, among them Chancellor Charles Sorenson, Dean John Murphy, Director of Diversity Mary Riordan, and educational technologists Russ Lasocki, John Lauson, and Sally Mounts.

When asked about their educational vision for the future, Fitch commented that he hopes to "reach out and make as many connections as we can" and Kirby expressed a desire to include "an infinite number of perspectives." Both feel that a key way to broaden the UW-Stout experience given a student body that is ethnically homogenous and regional in nature is to "bring" Stout to other campuses and vice versa, virtually speaking. As they succinctly put it, what they do is not distance education but "closing-the-distance education."

For more information about the Diversity Connections Project, e-mail the project's organizers.

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Note: Some statistics in this article have been taken from the St. Paul Pioneer Press article "Learning Through Diversity," April 30, 2000.