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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 4, January 25, 2000

Expanding the Graduate Seminar through Compressed Video: Linking Students and Scholars

by Jennifer Smith

Much recent discussion of educational technology has focused on two areas -- rethinking undergraduate education and designing asynchronous distance education. But what does educational technology have to offer on-site graduate education, particularly in fields that are not closely allied with technology (literature, say, rather than engineering)? One answer to this question can be found on the UW-Madison campus, where a number of humanities and social-science professors are using technological enhancements to broaden the scope of their upper-level seminars. This way, graduate students gain exposure to more scholars in their research specialties and can meet their counterparts at other universities.

Madison professors Rudy Koshar (History) and Leigh Payne (Political Science) have both used compressed video over ISDN lines to expand the reach of their graduate seminars. Similar circumstances led to the creation of their courses; both Koshar and Payne are affiliated with multi-campus research centers receiving foundation support.

Dr. Koshar's course, "Contemporary Germany and the Transatlantic Politics of Memory," grew out of a new Center for German and European Studies (CGES) jointly hosted by UW-Madison and the University of Minnesota. The CGES is funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), a major German foundation supporting the research efforts of students and scholars worldwide who work on German-studies topics. Several years ago, when the DAAD was seeking proposals from campuses that wanted to host a new German studies center in the Midwest, Madison and Minnesota joined forces and submitted a successful joint proposal.

Team-taught, cross-campus seminars are one facet of CGES activities. By using two-way compressed video, both parties in this collaboration can work together on specialized research topics. The "Transatlantic Politics of Memory" seminar covered hot issues in contemporary German studies: what is the status of German and American memory of World War II and the Holocaust? In what ways can we understand these historical events? In what ways do these events play a role in contemporary life? Professor Koshar taught the course with Gerhard Richter of Madison's German department and two Minnesota professors, Karen Till (Geography) and Richard McCormick (German).

Dr. Payne's course, "New Dimensions of International Security," was part of a three-way collaboration. Her teaching partners were political scientists Kathryn Sikkink (Minnesota) and Lynn Eden (Stanford). Again, a research center was at the heart of the collaboration. Payne is the director of a graduate program in global studies supported by the MacArthur Foundation, which supports efforts promoting international peace and cooperation. Moving away from single-institution support, the MacArthur Foundation chose to award a consortium grant, with the Madison/Minnesota/Stanford alliance being the pilot project. Part of the terms of the grant involved new technologies and distance learning.

As with the German studies seminar, "New Dimensions of International Security" allowed UW students access to more voices -- students and scholars outside the UW System. As Professor Payne noted, students got a sense of the "institutional cultures" on other campuses and had greater exposure to key questions in their field and the way those questions are addressed. Furthermore, she commented, seminars of this sort fill in gaps on individual campuses (for example, few scholars on the Madison campus focus on traditional security issues).

Both seminars used additional educational technology components beyond compressed video. Homepages were established for both "Contemporary Germany and the Transatlantic Politics of Memory" and "New Dimensions of International Security." Both classes used e-mail, and the political science course also had a chat room and participants used document cameras to display presentation points. Madison's Educational Sciences building, home to several high-tech classrooms, provided the physical resources needed to conduct the seminars. A technical support person was also present at all times to resolve any glitches.

The main teaching challenges noted by Rudy Koshar and Leigh Payne were managing classroom dynamics in this unconventional set-up. Students seated around a large table in Madison watched their counterparts elsewhere on a large screen, with a small picture-in-picture of their own table. When students spoke, the video camera zoomed in on them, providing a closer image to their distant classmates. Some students initially found this setting distracting or seemed ill-at-ease at being on camera. There was also less spontaneity due to the need to cut back and forth between different students and campuses. However, both instructors reported, these inconveniences lessened over time and group dynamics became more natural. Payne even noted a hidden benefit -- students seemed to prepare more and think out their comments more carefully before speaking on camera. Koshar enjoyed the synergy that developed among his group of four instructors, with each bringing to the table different areas of expertise.

The multi-campus seminars offered by Koshar and Payne demonstrate just one possible application of educational technology -- courses that unite, in real time, students in disparate locations. Also, they demonstrate that technology can benefit not only large-enrollment, introductory courses but also advanced seminars for master's and doctoral students pursuing specialized research.

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