Campus Life

Professors Rosa Chia and Elmer Poe inside the global classroom.

Studying Abroad, Staying Home

ECU’s global understanding classes allow students
to see and talk to other students all over the world

By Spaine Stephens

athan Lean’s education went international after his first global understanding class at ECU in 2005. The course, the first of its kind at any university, connects students around the globe through simple technology to break down boundaries and expand students’ perspectives. Through a video link and e-mail chat, ECU students enrolled in the program connect with students at partner institutions to discuss customs, family, college life and a multitude of other topics.
“What I enjoyed most about interacting with my peers in other countries was tackling the tough issues in an open way, addressing the elephant in the room.”

Global Understanding student Nathan Lean visiting Roman ruins outside Tripoli

“I enjoyed discussing controversial topics like gender roles, religion, stereotypes,” says Lean, who is now a graduate student in international studies. “What I enjoyed most about interacting with my peers in other countries was tackling the tough issues in an open way, addressing the elephant in the room.”

That open dialogue appeals to today’s ECU students—so much so that sections of the global understanding course fill up quickly during registration. The program’s founders, Rosina Chia and Elmer Poe, want to see additional sections added so that more students can experience learning from other students around the world.

What started as a conversation at a break during a committee meeting has had reverberations for students at ECU and its 28 partner institutions in 20 countries. ECU is changing the face of education, and putting a face on each and every culture explored through the global understanding course.

Chia, assistant vice chancellor for global academic initiatives, and Poe, associate vice chancellor for academic outreach, approached the concept in 2003 in an effort to boost ECU’s strength in online and distance education and to encourage more students to study abroad. The first global understanding course connected students at ECU and Soochow University in China, Chia’s native country. Chia bridged the partnership through her connections, and she and Poe were encouraged as they set out to build new, similar affiliations. They worked with the U.S. Department of State and foreign governments to attract institutions from potential partner countries.

Today, those partners include Russia, Pakistan and India. Poe and Chia continue to foster new relationships that can benefit ECU students and other institutions’ participants as well. Partnerships with countries like Namibia, Malaysia and Gambia allow students who may have been exposed to fewer educational opportunities to participate. The low cost of equipment and online readings (no textbooks required) put the world in their hands.

While the course, which is taught universally in English, has global reach, Poe says the experience for students remains personal. “I imagined the power of face-to-face dialogue changing and shaping student attitudes at all of the universities,” he says of his hopes for the course from the beginning.

Lean’s experience struck a particularly personal chord. He enrolled in a second section of the course and won a scholarship through the global understanding program to study at one of ECU’s partner institutions in Morocco. Then a piano performance major, Lean developed a program with the U.S. Embassy and the State Department and traveled the country, teaching music classes and performing with Moroccan musicians. When he returned to ECU, Lean enrolled in the international studies program to add a global component to his education. Now, as a graduate student in international studies, he serves as a liaison between ECU and its foreign global understanding partners. He is planning a career in cultural diplomacy.

“By interacting with people from a variety of cultures across the globe,” Lean says, “ECU students will be better aware of the possibilities for collaboration and cooperation at a global level.”
 Global Understanding Classroom
Luci Fernandes teaching in the global classroom

Poe and Chia thought carefully about what class format would best allow students to be exposed to multiple cultures during a semester. The course is divided into three five-week sessions that include four partner universities. Throughout the semester, the partners switch off so that each one communicates through video and e-mail chat with every other institution. Partners for a particular semester sometimes are chosen based on current world events, Chia says.

For example, ECU began a relationship with institutions in Muslim regions of the world to stimulate that dialogue and understanding. Different sections of the course focus on different issues and are taught by instructors whose area of expertise lie in fields like anthropology, psychology and sociology.

One facet of the course, with support from the State Department, will focus on global climate and includes the United States, China, Brazil and India, countries with important roles in global climate change. During the semester, teams made up of students from each country must propose a project that has the potential to improve climate on a level local to each student. For other sections of the course, students team up beyond national borders to write papers and complete projects.

Each ECU student is required to keep a journal that records his or her personal growth in respect to beliefs and views of other cultures. No professor ever reads a student’s journal; it serves only as a measure for students to see what they’ve learned from their counterparts. “They really see in their own words how these cultures compare on all the topics,” Poe says. “They can see the differences and similarities. The students can see their own attitudes changing.”

About 1,000 students worldwide take the course each semester, and the planning behind that is no small feat. Chia, Poe or other technology and pedagogy experts at ECU travel to each new partner country—trips are paid for by the State Department—to meet face to face with facilitators and government officials to establish a bond.

Equipment is set up, lighting and sound are tweaked, and the course schedule is lined up. Because of global time differences, students at ECU might convene early in the morning to meet in real time with their counterparts who attend class late at night. There have been several instances, Chia says, when inclement weather caused ECU to open late. The global understanding students came to class at their regular meeting time so as not to inconvenience their overseas classmates.

With its low cost, far reach and full support of the university administration, ECU’s program has earned recognition, including the Institute of International Education and the American Association of University Administrators awards for innovative international education.

“We are the only university that is offering this type of course,” Chia says. “It is cost effective and sustainable, and there is no other university with a similar program.”

However, other universities are modeling programs after East Carolina’s. “We’ve done invited presentations at a number of conferences and schools,” says Poe, “and some are beginning to move to integrate these ideas and techniques.”

At ECU, the global understanding strategy is catching on. A global component is being added to the curriculum of many colleges and schools. The College of Human Ecology has used video and distance education to provide its students a real-time video speech given by the manager of a major Beijing hotel. Health-education majors have used the technology to discuss issues like health disparities, disease and maternity with students and professionals in countries like Moldova. Poe and Chia are using the course’s success to encourage other professors to incorporate the format into their classes.“The program is helping the faculty see how they can integrate these international experiences into their classes,” Poe says.

In Patch Clark’s theatre-education courses, students traded folk tales with Peruvian and Russian students. The ECU students then adapted the foreign tales into skits that they performed for schools all over eastern North Carolina. Over the years, Chia and Poe have seen and heard stories of their own that prove the value of the global understanding course. Once, ECU students were communicating with Pakistani students who, with 10 minutes of class time left, said they needed a break to eat.

The ECU students asked them to wait until after class, but the Pakistani students were insistent that they needed to leave right then but would return. The ECU class waited, and their counterparts returned as promised and explained that they needed to break a religious fast. After that, the ECU students would stop class at the time the Pakistani students needed to leave and remind them to go eat. At one point, the Pakistani students returned and held their food up so the ECU class could see it up close. “They said, ‘We wish we could share this with you,’” Poe says.

Seeing students learn about themselves through their understanding of another culture has value beyond the video screen. “They begin to understand that there are different views of knowledge and understanding within one’s culture,” says ECU Provost Marilyn Sheerer. “Issues are not black and white, but are somewhat relative because of the way they are positioned within our own experiences in our families and our communities.” Earlier this year, Sheerer and Poe presented the global understanding model to the legislative joint education oversight committee as a part of ECU’s distance education strategies. “One senator actually stood up and clapped because of the emphasis on global understanding,” Sheerer says, “because he said it was what all students need to experience to compete in today’s world of work.”

Because the course uses low-cost equipment like simple Internet connectivity and a video-conferencing computer, and the support of the State Department, there is room to expand the program at no cost to East Carolina. Poe, Chia and other program administrators continue to work diligently to find new worldwide partners that are a perfect fit for ECU’s program. The plan is to include more course sections so that more students can participate and possibly study abroad following their in-class experiences. More academic disciplines and newer technologies will link even more ECU students to people, ideas and cultures the world.

As a student whose academic and career paths have been altered by the global understanding course, Lean also would like to see the program expand and introduce new ideas to more students before they graduate from East Carolina. “The program has a chance to globalize the minds of ECU students,” he says. “The course has the capability of showing them that while learning can take place in a classroom, the real learning starts when they leave school and go out into the world.”