Professor Gavin Brockett, in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo, Ontario, was building connections for student exchanges with Istanbul Şehir University in Istanbul, Turkey, when he was asked to develop a course in Muslim Studies. The Associate Dean suggested he use videoconferencing technology in this course to link classrooms in Waterloo and Istanbul. Dr. Brockett designed a course that integrates active learning pedagogies with a global classroom, using online communications as the core of the teaching and learning activities. The course, An Introduction to Muslim Studies, was offered for the first time from January to June, 2014, and involved 34 students in Waterloo and 9 students in Istanbul.
Globally Connected Active Learning was the model Professor Brockett adopted for the course, tackling the logistics and conflicting schedules of the two institutions as a preliminary planning step:
- The different start times for the winter/spring terms meant the WLU students started five weeks before the Turkish students; consequently the WLU students spent those weeks reading, discussing and working together to prepare for the international class. The Turkish students had additional classes with Dr. Brockett after the end of the WLU term, completing the course in June.
- During Reading Week at WLU, nine students accompanied Dr. Brockett to Istanbul where they spent considerable time with the Turkish students, sharing one in-class session and much more time visiting the city. Personal connections and friendships among the students facilitated the learning and the interaction for the rest of the course. This visit was entirely optional but proved very beneficial.
- The time difference meant the WLU students started their three-hour class at 8:30 a.m., while the Turkish students started at 3:30 p.m.
- To allow the Turkish students time for prayer, the break time was flexible.
- The students at Istanbul Şehir University take their programs in English so language was not an issue.
Turkish and Canadian students in Istanbul
Professor Brockett describes the theme of the course as “what is it like to be Muslim today in different parts of the world”. All of the Turkish participants are Muslim and about half of the WLU class, with family backgrounds from all parts of the world, and about half from various Christian backgrounds. The different cultural contexts were central to the active learning through sharing and discussing.
The course was organized around key questions, such as how Muslims celebrate their faith, contributions of Muslims to human rights and environmental movements, and how Muslim societies address issues of gender and sexuality. Videoconferencing was used for introductory and summary lectures, large group discussions, and presentations by visiting professors. The two classes could see each other at all times, and students often stood up or waved to identify themselves.
Classroom in Istanbul, with WLU on screen
Students prepared for class with readings and writing on the week’s topic. They worked in groups at five round tables at WLU, with one or two Turkish students as group members. In one example of active learning, students in their small groups read and discussed one or two pages of an article, and then each group reported on their section to the class as a whole. The small group discussion was online, often through Facebook pages the students set up for their groups and chat groups. After all groups contributed their analysis using the videoconference link, each group wrote a response to the article as a whole and the theme of the week. The small groups would also interact each week to respond to lists of theme-related questions.
The final group projects resulted in documents and videos addressing issues such as comparing how Muslims celebrate Eid with how Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, environmentalism in Turkey and Canada, and Muslim education in Bosnia and Indonesia. The final exam was a take-home reflection on the class.
Outcomes and Benefits
As well as covering the formal course content and the wider social context of the information, the students responded well to the active learning model, becoming very engaged with the learning process, the content, and the interactions, taking responsibility for their own learning and supporting their peers.
The student comments reflect the value of the learning experience:
- “Despite the time difference, there is collaboration and chatting, meeting, searching and laughing and understanding, transmission of the knowledge ... We have a big chance to think about the issues we had never thought before and had chance to question the things related to our own experience.” (Turkish student)
- “Much of what I learned in this class was through peer discussion with those not only here in Canada, but also on the group chat with the Turkish students.” (Canadian student)
- “Part of the reason I think I learned so much was because of the interactive learning design and networking made possible with student inside the class, in Turkey, and guests.” (Canadian student)
- “The chats were very important. It is like we are all sitting in a roundtable and sousing with each other...The video connection has a huge significance and importance to the course because we could see each other and feel part of the course.” (Turkish student)
- “I have found the interactive learning and cross-cultural interaction extremely helpful.” (Canadian student)
Professor Brockett attributes the course success to active learning facilitated by Facebook, videoconferencing and real-time chats. The students covered “substantial academic material, supplemented by interpersonal and intercultural learning at unanticipated levels.” A large majority of students were strongly motivated and reported enjoying the class.
Challenges and Enhancements
The group projects were very challenging for some students, reflecting both cultural and time differences.
The technology presented significant challenges, especially at the first joint class. The students who met in Istanbul were able to compensate for the system defects by bringing up the Facebook pages they had set up while in Istanbul so that the group could communicate.
After the WLU term ended, Professor Brockett met with the Turkish students via videoconference, but found the dynamic very different. As the education system in Turkey often has more of a separation between students and professors, they were less comfortable in interacting with him alone.
The course is to be offered again in 2015, with university funding for research on:
- Best practices that can be applied to this course and to the development of a model for additional, similar courses;
- Strategies for effective integrated learning between widely dispersed sites; and
- Implications for the internationalization of education.
Dr. Brockett is also interested in looking at where the technology can be used to connect students from areas of the world in difficulty, such as Palestine and Pakistan, with students from North America and other regions.
For Further Information
Dr. Gavin Brockett
Co Co-ordinator, Muslim Studies Option Middle East/Islamic History
Faculty of Arts
Wilfrid Laurier University