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Transnational conversations: a Web pedagogy.


The authors discuss their experiences teaching an international distance learning class on cultural globalization that linked classrooms in the US, Singapore, and India.


In the spring of 2002, the two authors worked with a third colleague and team-taught an interdisciplinary class on globalization and contemporary American and Asian culture. Such team-teaching is not, in and of itself, all that remarkable. What was remarkable was that the three of us taught our class simultaneously at three different schools located in three different countries: MIT (Cambridge, MA), the National University of Singapore, and the Center for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore, India. Many college instructors today would like to incorporate both Web technology and international perspectives into their classrooms, but are sometimes put off by the perceived difficulty of doing so. In this article we explain how we used the Web to teach this international distance learning class--and how it was easier to do than you might expect.

Our course, "Transnational US-Asian Culture," combined face-to-face interaction in the classroom with online learning. Each instructor ran a traditional discussion-based class at their home institution, in which the students read, viewed, and listened to a wide array of primary and secondary material, discussed them in a seminar-style class setting, and wrote papers and gave oral presentations. The Web-based component consisted of an online discussion forum in which three classrooms came together to exchange views on the course material.

The key to our course's success lay in the close tie between its subject matter and its use of technology. The interactions among students located in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US complemented the pedagogical aims of a course on US-Asian cultural interaction. This integration of subject matter and technology is pedagogically critical. In an age when students and faculty often feel pushed to use technology for the sake of using technology, we wanted to make technology work for us in sensible, effective, and logical ways. Our students were committed to the discussion forum because by participating in these transnational conversations, they became part of the very phenomenon they were studying.

Putting the Course Together

When Christina Klein of MIT began planning a class on globalization, she mentioned the idea of collaborative teaching to Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a prominent scholar of Indian cinema at the Center for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS) in Bangalore, who was visiting the MIT campus. When he expressed enthusiasm for the idea, Klein sent inquiries to the National University of Singapore (NUS), where she had previously attended a conference, and to the graduate American Studies program at Doshisha University in Japan, where she had earlier delivered a lecture. Doshisha was unable to join the effort, but Jeffrey Partridge, an American who had earned his doctorate at NUS and was now an assistant professor in the English department, eagerly signed on.

A crucial element in putting together the collaboration was finding students who were fluent readers and writers of English; because English is the language of instruction at both NUS and CSCS, these schools made logical choices. What this initial experience tells us is that in order to teach an international class, instructors must have some international contacts to draw on. This means that universities must provide funding for their faculty to attend international conferences and to invite speakers to campus from outside the US.

Once our team was established, we turned to the task of designing a syllabus that would stimulate lively discussions among our diverse group of students without restricting each instructor to a set of texts that might not be wholly satisfying. Creating such a syllabus was the first--and biggest--challenge we faced. Over the course of six months we exchanged scores of emails in which we discussed the course's conceptual structure, evaluated the scholarship on globalization, and debated the selection of books, movies, and music that would most engage our students. We discovered that three instructors with separate scholarly interests are not likely to fully agree on the readings and texts for a jointly-taught course. For this reason, we turned to the idea of "core" texts. We ended up with a syllabus in which two-thirds of the material would be taught by all three instructors, and the rest would vary according to each instructor's research interests and institutional demands.

We faced our second major challenge when we tried to align the syllabus with our divergent semester calendars. While CSCS and NUS began their semesters in the first and second weeks of January, respectively, MIT did not start until February. We solved this problem by dividing the syllabus into four distinct units, or blocks. Block One was a two-week introduction to the course, focusing on critical issues related to globalization and transnationalism. Each of the remaining blocks focused on a specific theoretical model of globalization: Block Two on "Cultural Imperialism and Local Resistance" was three weeks long; Block Three on "Diaspora and Notions of Homeland" was five weeks long; and Block Four on "Cultural Transformation" was five weeks long. CSCS and NUS moved through these blocks in sequence. MIT, however, progressed from Block One directly to Block Three, and shifted the material in Block Two to the end of the semester. By early March our courses would be in synch with each other and our discussion forums could begin.

Creating the Discussion Forums

Our third challenge arose with the creation of the discussions forums. We wanted to use the internet in a way that would provide significant interaction among the three institutions, but at the same time to avoid linking the fate of each individual classroom to that technology. The issue of tying a course to technology is as old as the overhead projector. Any presentation or lesson plan that depends on electric current risks disaster if that electric current fails--how much more an international discussion forum that depends on computer technology. For this reason, we envisioned each classroom as autonomous and capable of running "unplugged." Thus, when MIT' s computerized registration system failed to post the course and too few students initially pre-registered for it, the NUS and CSCS classes were prepared to continue. This close call highlighted for each of us the wisdom that discussion forum technology works best as an enhancement of a course rather than as its foundation.

Web technology was essential to the interactive, cross-cultural component of our project. Without this technology, interaction between our three classrooms would have been impossible. Those familiar with this technology will know that there are several formats from which to choose. "Chatrooms," "MOOs" and "Video Conferencing" allow synchronic communication similar to a multi-party phone conversation. "Discussion Forums" are asynchronous forms of communication via websites on which participants post messages and replies on a forum message board. Participants check the forum periodically for new comments and for reactions to their own previous comments. Conversation therefore develops over several days or weeks; whereas a chatroom requires the participants to be at their terminals during a specific period of time and to respond spontaneously.

Of these formats, discussion forum technology suited our needs best. Given the disparate time zones between Bangalore, Singapore, and Cambridge, any attempt at synchronous conversation would have posed a logistical nightmare. We also felt that the discussion forum format would produce the most intellectually substantive interaction: it allows students to read the comments of other participants carefully and to compose measured replies without feeling pressured to respond as quickly as possible to a person waiting at a terminal on the other side of the world. Discussion forum technology is available free on the Web from such companies as Microsoft. In our case, however, CSCS created a forum as part of their research into classroom technology and distance learning, which allowed us more control over the design of the interface.

We ended up with a forum in which the instructors could post a discussion question, which would appear as a discussion "thread"; students would respond to the question in the thread and then respond to each other as more comments were posted. A student could respond to the instructor's initial question or to a comment by another student. The first few lines of each reply would appear below the previous comment; participants could click on this new message to read the entire response. This kept the forum uncluttered and allowed participants to see the overall development of the conversation before going on to read detailed comments. As with any website, navigation features on a discussion forum need to be carefully planned so participants will not feel "lost" in the forum.

Conducting Discussion Forums

Once we had agreed upon a core set of texts, designed the discussion forum, and synchronized our syllabi, we could begin the online discussions. To make these interactions as fruitful as possible, we decided to break down the classes into separate groups. We divided the students into three relatively small groups, each of which combined students from all three schools and was moderated by one instructor.

Drawing on the instructors' previous experience with discussion forums, we limited each discussion to a defined period. This allowed the students to focus on the discussion without feeling that it would drag on interminably or gradually die off. We began with a one-week trial discussion in which we encouraged the students to get to know one another by posting basic information about themselves and to discuss their initial responses to the course material. This introductory discussion also allowed the instructors to identify and solve unforeseen technical problems. Discussion Two lasted ten days, and focused on questions of "Diaspora." Because students found this discussion a bit too short, we lengthened the third discussion, on "Cultural Transformations," to two weeks. Our divergent calendars allowed for a total of five non-consecutive weeks of discussions.

The introductory discussion got off to a slow start: the students seemed a bit unsure how to respond to our open-ended invitation to comment on the reading in general terms. For the second session, we decided to post more specific questions about the texts. We encouraged the students to respond as they would in an academic essay, rather than producing "chatter": we asked them to make analytical comments, to refer to specific scenes and passages from the text, to incorporate key concepts from the theoretical readings, and to write at least 2-3 paragraphs. This adjustment improved the quality of interaction; at the same time, however, some of the postings took on a stilted quality, as if the students were trying to satisfy our expectations of formal academic prose. We suspected that this approach might be stifling some spontaneity and intimidating weaker students.

The breakthrough came when students began to combine personal and academic exchanges. Once the students took the ideas from the classroom and applied them to their own lives, the discussions suddenly came alive. One group, for instance, got into a long discussion comparing the different attitudes towards American Born Chinese in Singapore and in American Chinatowns; another conversation explored the changing standards of beauty and authority in Singaporean media. In these discussions the students began to think critically about how they lived globalization in their everyday lives and how they personally encountered the issues that we discussed in class. These more free-wheeling conversations had the biggest impact on the students: as one student later wrote, "the fact that critical, analytical comments were interspersed with personal anecdotes and experiences made the discussions very lively and spontaneous, instead of only being very academic and pedantic." Another student commented that the "personal touch to the discussions" added an experience "unlike anything we could discover in the texts" and made "the transnational discussion forums a unique platform for learning and exchange."

One student perceptively noted that the online discussions' value lay in the opportunity they created for a unique form of expression. If they simply repeated the format of the classroom interaction or the five-page essay, the forums became "redundant" and offered little incentive to participate. The model for the online discussion, as she saw it, should be the sophisticated conversation: fast-moving, informal in language, dialogic in nature, and an opportunity to show off one's knowledge to one's peers. College students are often most interested in talking about themselves; rather than fighting this impulse, we tried to turn it to our advantage. When we did so, the discussions reached a productive balance between a technological medium that encourages informal "chat" and the classroom expectations for serious intellectual work.

Keeping the academic responses from becoming pedantic, and the personal responses from becoming too anecdotal, was the responsibility of the moderator. We experimented with two models--hands off, and gentle prodding. One group that was left to the hands-off approach in the first discussion felt abandoned. Some of these students felt that others were simply posting ideas without engaging with the comments of other group members, and they wished that the moderator would take some action. We soon found that the moderated groups worked much better. The moderator would ask "silent" students to post comments, encourage students to engage with each other's comments, bring discussions back to the course material, and offer comments of their own where appropriate.

We also found that we needed some way of bringing the discussion forums into the classroom, rather than leaving the virtual discussions as a segregated experiment only loosely connected to the classroom discussion. We each developed ways of reviewing some of the significant points from the discussion forums in class, either by projecting the discussion forum on a viewing screen or by distributing handouts of printed excerpts. The NUS students were required to write a two-page report on what they learned from their discussion, which were then discussed in class. Their comments allowed us to evaluate the changes we made for the second forum and to make further adjustments to the third and final one. They also allowed us to gauge our students' enthusiasm for the cross-cultural experience, and we all felt gratified when one student wrote, "It was very interesting to be discussing issues of transnationalism with each other, who are ourselves embodiments of different transnational experiences."

One problem of the online discussion that we did not fully resolve was that of anonymity. Several students commented that it was difficult to engage in a sustained conversation with people who remained faceless and they often found it difficult to remember who had said what. Some students also felt that it would have been easier to keep conversations going within a smaller group of only three or four students. At the end of the semester we posted group pictures on the Web. Posting individual photographs at the outset and linking them to the self-introductions would have allowed students to connect visually with their discussion partners.


The course we developed utilized relatively simple Web-based technology and could be replicated by instructors with minimal technological sophistication. However, we do not want to leave the reader with the impression that running such a course is no more complicated than teaching a regular course alone. Any collaboration takes effort and runs the danger of short-circuiting somewhere along the way. We began our collaborative effort nearly one year before the course began. Besides two brief but immensely helpful face-to-face contacts between two of the team members, the three of us relied solely on email to debate approaches, negotiate the syllabus, and synchronize schedules.

Collaborating with instructors in three different countries and in significantly different institutions increased the potential for problems to arise. And problems did arise: NUS, for instance, required a full syllabus to be submitted three months before the course began, forcing us all to make what seemed like premature decisions on core texts. The most serious difficulty was managing the uneven match with the CSCS group. The MIT and NUS students were well matched: advanced undergraduates in their early 20s with some background in literary and media studies, they fell into an easy rhythm with each other and discovered they shared similar interests and life experiences. The CSCS students, in contrast, were older PhD students in a media and cultural studies program. They had a more sophisticated theoretical background, more specialized vocabulary, and were more interested in pursuing theoretical questions than in plumbing their own lived experience. Some of the MIT and NUS students felt intimidated and found it difficult to engage with their comments. Perhaps as a result, the CSCS students were less avid participants in the discussions.

Despite these difficulties, the students and instructors alike felt that the end results were well worth the effort. We found it satisfying intellectually to work on a common project with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds, pedagogical approaches, and areas of expertise. Most invigorating, however, was the stimulating intellectual activity that the transnational discussion forums brought to our classrooms. Student feedback was highly enthusiastic. One student said she not only learned a lot about US-Asian cultural interaction, but the course also taught her more than she had ever learned about Asia. Not a surprising comment, perhaps, if uttered by a student at MIT. But this comment came from a Singaporean student who found that so much of her education had focused on understanding the West rather than on interacting with other parts of Asia. Cultural interaction, even of the virtual kind, may be time-consuming and complicated, but we all came away with the feeling that our classrooms and our minds had expanded as a result.

Christina Klein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jeffrey F. L. Partridge, National University of Singapore

Christina Klein is Associate Professor of Literature at MIT and the author of Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (University of California Press, 2003). Jeffrey F. L. Partridge is Assistant Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University and the National University of Singapore
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Author:Partridge, Jeffrey F.L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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