A professor has just finished delivering a lecture on the movement and flows of Islam across the Indian Ocean when a student raises her hand to ask a question. Sounds like just another day of teaching at Tufts, but here is the catch: the professor is teaching in Eaton Hall on the Tufts Medford campus, and the student asking the question is thousands of miles away in Lahore, Pakistan, attending class from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
Welcome to the connected classroom, an original course design that was developed by Tufts history professors Ayesha Jalal and Kris Manjapra for their Spring 2012 course, Islam on the Indian Ocean Rim. Funded by a Tufts Collaborates! grant and with support from Tufts Technology Services (TTS), the course developed a state-of-the-art suite of tools that connected a classroom at Tufts via the Web and video conferencing with one at LUMS, combining the best of intimate residential learning unique to Tufts with the best of long-distance cross-cultural education.
With Kris Manjapra teaching from Tufts and Ayesha Jalal from LUMS, the course used video conferencing to link classrooms at Tufts and at LUMS once a week, and Adobe web conferencing during the meetings to create a live back channel for dialogue between the classrooms. In addition, different assignments and platforms were experimented with to stimulate intensive shared learning experiences and deeper reflection among students in the two classrooms, as well as the important socialization that comes along with interaction and shared projects. For example, an Interactive Video Player was developed to disseminate video lectures to students through an interface that allowed them to explore geographic references, concept terms, and key personal names.
An important goal for the instructors was to find the best methods for creating enhanced social and intellectual engagement between students situated across the global post-colonial divide in South Asia and the USA. They also wanted to create new ways for students to reflect more deeply on their own learning processes, and their geo-political locations as learners in a twenty-first century global context. As part of the course, Jalal and Manjapra developed open-access humanities content to promote scholarly themes of transnational, inter-regional and comparative history.
Jalal and Manjapra learned that breaking the “fourth wall,” or the boundary separating two video-conferenced classrooms, requires significant thought and effort. To begin creating this kind of learning context for students a great amount of support was needed from a range of experts at Tufts and at LUMS. Tufts Academic Technology led the way in contributing huge amounts of time, expertise and inspiration, especially since the existing tools and models for connecting classrooms and synchronizing learning across distance are still in a state of infancy. Jalal and Manjapra learned that breaking the fourth wall and building a sense of inclusiveness, free-flowing interchange and spontaneity in a video-conferenced course demands a new kind of instructional design. Online learning can create synchronous, intimate learning environments among students separated by great distance. The interpersonal, instead of the impersonal, possibilities of online learning hold immense promise for teaching the humanities in our global age. Such teaching requires us to rethink many of our classroom tools and methods from the roots up. Jalal and Manjapra learned that such work requires intensive cooperation between instructors, instructional designers and technology experts.
Supported by a Tufts Innovates! grant, Manjapra and Jalal are now planning a new “connected classroom” course for Spring 2014 with colleagues at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They want to coordinate the learning of students from very different backgrounds who grow up within contexts marked by the strains of post-colonial divides – such as the legacy of imperialism, “first world development versus underdevelopment, and the inequality that separates the West and the Global South. The aim is not just to create the means for long-distance co-teaching with South Asian universities, but to enhance the quality and the themes of long-distance collaborative education. A major feature of this new kind of course is the enhancement and extension of online teaching as a way of addressing disparities of institutional capacity in higher education at an international level.
The connected classroom can also impact teaching and learning on a more local level by linking students within the same city or region, separated by severe income and class disparities within a single society. The digital tools developed for Islam on the Indian Ocean Rim can be used to enhance and broaden the residential learning experience, and give more students in the world access to the best learning content, the best tools for analysis, as well as new opportunities for social and intellectual learning through peer interactions across borders.
At Tufts, Manjapra and Jalal are now working with colleagues at the School of Medicine and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine to pool expertise and resources in teaching across borders, connecting classrooms and redefining the residential learning experience of Tufts students, as well as of students on the other side of this century’s enduring global divides.
Kris Manjapra, Assistant Professor, History, School of Arts and Sciences, and Rebecca Sholes, Editor, TLR Innovations, Senior Faculty Development Specialist, TTS Educational and Scholarly Technology Services