New Global Classroom Links D.C. to Doha
Clutching coffee cups for a caffeine boost early in the morning, six students drift into a New North classroom, chatting quietly and getting settled for their 9 a.m. class.
Seven thousand miles away, the scene repeats itself on Georgetown’s Qatar campus in Doha. Six students enter the classroom with one difference — these students are nearing the end of their school day.
This would be unremarkable, except for the fact that the 12 students are gathering for the same course, Causes of War. Taught by the same professor in real time, the students participate in the same discussion and interact with each other throughout the session.
Welcome to the latest technological advancement at the university — the global classroom.
This classroom links the Washington, D.C., and Doha campuses and is the first to use advanced technology that puts Georgetown students face-to-face in a classroom, even though continents separate their physical locations.
“There is often talk of a ‘Georgetown bubble’ on Main Campus,” says Matthew Smallcomb. “The videoconferencing pops that bubble and invites different perspectives that one wouldn’t necessarily find on the Hilltop.”
Geography and background matter, especially when those experiences influence perceptions of warfare, he adds.
The bi-local course is the brainchild of James Reardon-Anderson, dean of the School of Foreign Service-Qatar. He says the technology that supports the course is important for two reasons: it enables students in Washington and Doha to take classes together and makes the learning experiences on the two campuses one. It also gives Qatar students wider access to faculty and courses unavailable on the Doha campus.
This semester’s course serves as the second bi-local offering between the Hilltop and Dunetop, as the respective campuses affectionately are known.
“The [first] class was a success, but the technology was limited because it projected only talking heads or shots of the whole class in which each student was too small to see,” Reardon-Anderson recalls.
Better technology brings together the campuses with the help of exacting classroom specifications. Ceiling height, lighting levels and microphone and camera placement are measured precisely to give sound and video clarity. The rooms even look the same — students on each campus sit in front of a blue Georgetown banner in a classroom decorated with dimpled wood panels.
“This truly opens the doors between D.C. and Doha,” says Randy Bass, executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. “This is at the center of what we do as a global university. It’s exciting how many possibilities there are for powerful interactions in the future.”
Back in New North, David Edelstein, assistant professor of foreign service and government, prepares to begin Causes of War. The room is just big enough to hold the six students, Edelstein and John Steitz, who manages the videoconferencing. A curved 6-foot-long screen is embedded with a camera that transmits the video to Doha. Microphones placed inconspicuously around the room pick up even faint whispers.
In Doha, the scene is much the same, as the six students find places to sit in the classroom so they are visible on screen.
Before class begins, Edelstein amiably chats about his young son with his Doha counterpart. The screen’s special camera, which has two lenses that blend and process the images, allows the professors to make eye contact with each other. Thanks to the high-definition video provided by the twin-lens camera and audio from small microphones placed strategically all over the room, the two are able to make eye contact and hold a conversation as if they were in the same room.
The class gets down to business, discussing the mechanisms of global democratic peace. Edelstein starts off the class by writing on an electronic notepad. As the words appear on a screen in D.C., they simultaneously show up in Doha. Pivoting his chair between the screen in front of him and the rest of the class in the room with him, Edelstein gets the entire class involved in the day’s lecture.
Students bounce ideas and theories off each other, able to carry on a fast-paced discussion because the delay time on the videoconferencing is imperceptible.
“There is some awkwardness to the experience,” says Yancee Hardy, a third-year School of Foreign Service student in Qatar. “It’s weird enough to talk to members of your family on a webcam, let alone a classroom of relative strangers. Making comments in class can feel a bit like talking to an answering machine at first, but all this is relatively temporary and relatively easy to adjust to.”
There are practical drawbacks as well.
“As forward as this technology is and as much as it tries to put us in one place, the simple fact is we’re not in one place. There still is a separation,” Edelstein says. “We can work hard to overcome it, but I will never run into the Doha students around campus or walking down a hallway.”
That compels Edelstein to find more ways to forge connections with the Doha students. Office hours are held via a webcam and e-mail messages fly back and forth. As the semester goes on, Edelstein notices that the students are becoming more comfortable using the technology to communicate with him.
Edelstein and Steitz also have offered to set up videoconferencing outside of class for Doha students, and Hilltop students will travel to Qatar over spring break to meet their counterparts and work on group projects analyzing causes of various wars in the Middle East.
A team of Georgetown officials across many offices already is considering further uses for the videoconferencing technology, Bass says. He says there is talk of setting up guest lectures and informal coffee hour discussions through videoconferencing, as well as finding more classrooms on the Hilltop and other international locations that can effectively utilize the technology.
“The thrill of bringing world leaders to the stage of Gaston Hall will always be there, but seeing the leaders … of the world and talking directly to them when they can’t make it to Gaston or ICC — that’s magical,” says Provost James O’Donnell.
Author: Georgtown University News, 11 February 2008