Unique classes shared via CourseShares

by Hilary Dickinson

Some Penn State students said they wanted to take Hindi, but their university didn’t teach it. Now, they’re taking a Hindi class from the University of Minnesota through the use of CourseShares video-conferencing technology.

The purpose of CourseShares is to give students access to more classes, the University’s CourseShare campus coordinator, Robin Matross Helms, said.

The University is teamed with 11 universities nationwide to make low-enrollment and graduate classes available among the schools. With live video and audio feed, students at one university can participate live in a class at another.

The CLA Language Center started CourseShares in fall 2006 as part of a three-year pilot run of the program.

Helms said CourseShares is used because, even at large institutions, there’s a lack of resources and expert faculty to teach some classes.

Also, if a class has below the minimum number of required students, it risks cancellation, she said. With CourseShares, universities can offer those classes since additional students fulfill enrollment requirements.

This semester, two University students are taking a transmitted University of Michigan Yiddish class, and the University is transmitting a Hindi class to Penn State.

Dr. Ravi Prasad, who teaches the Hindi course with his teaching assistant, Anjana Shankar, said teaching a CourseShare is a better teaching experience than teaching a traditional class.

Prasad, who also taught the Hindi CourseShare last semester, said he had some initial concerns because language classes need to be interactive. He said he wondered about playing videos, engaging students and clarity.

Prasad said he had to make adjustments, such as speaking louder, but the technology has worked well because he can pair students in group activities, despite geographical distance. “It almost seems like they’re physically present in the classroom,” he said.

The University students taking Hindi said the Penn State students can be too loud, or sometimes there is a delay, but those things aren’t a big deal.

One University student, Kait Dougherty, a global studies sophomore, said she doesn’t find the addition of the Penn State students a distraction. She said the class is long, so there’s time to allow for technical difficulties.

Prasad said Penn State students were hesitant about taking the CourseShare class because they’d be paying the same rate as standard, in-person courses and wanted the same attention they could receive there.

He said he explained how the class would work. “It didn’t take them much to get convinced that this was a great idea, and this is how the word spread,” Prasad said.

Enrollment, however, is still low – though Prasad said the number of participating Penn State students increased from four to seven last semester.

Two University students in the University-based Hindi class, Morgan Hennessy and Amelia Smith, said they wouldn’t want to take a CourseShares class because they like to be in the same room as the teacher.

Prasad said if the 10 Penn State students taking the Hindi class need help, they have to e-mail him, but added that they often help each other.

Helms said for the University’s Yiddish class, the instructor at the University of Michigan e-mailed the assignments to her, and she scanned back completed assignments. Prasad said this process of e-mailing, photocopying and scanning can be time-consuming.

Time-zone differences can also be problematic, Prasad said. For example, his class gets out at 8:35 p.m. Central Standard Time, but at Penn State, students get out at 9:35 p.m., which gets to be late.

Helms said for the initial three-year pilot, students in CourseShares are paying their home universities for classes. After three years, participating universities will rework a tuition agreement.

Still, Elaine Tarone, who was recently selected as the full-time director of the University’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, said CourseShares classes are a good way to learn languages less common in the classroom.

She said CARLA is applying for a grant for an advanced Chinese CourseShare class.

Prasad said he may be teaching an Indian music course to be transmitted next school year.

More graduate seminars and language courses are also being considered, Helms said. So far, the University only has an agreement with the College of Liberal Arts to do CoureShares, but she said there’s talk of broadening the program’s reach to the College of Biological Sciences, Public Health and Pharmacy.