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Spanning Two Continents

Spanning Two ContinentsThrough a unique class, undergraduates at Tufts and two Universities in Africa are using technology to study African political and social issues together.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.28.02] Though they are separated by nearly 8,000 miles, undergraduates at Tufts and two Universities in Africa have been closely working together to study issues of African labor and migration without ever leaving their classrooms. Created by Tufts' Pearl Robinson, the unique "metacourse" is one of the first to use technology to build a shared curriculum between the U.S. and African universities.

While increased use of internet technology in Africa has been tried before, Robinson told the Chronicle of Higher Education that its focus was limited.

"Almost nobody had focused on curriculum development," the Tufts political science professor told the Chronicle.

"So my project got funding because it was seen as a way of linking the notion of bringing more computers to these universities and doing more than just basic computer skills."

Robinson and Tufts sociology professor Paula Aymer, who is teaching the "metacourse" right now, used technology to connect students at Tufts taking Aymer's course on labor migration and refugees in Africa, with undergraduates at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Makerere University in Uganda.

"In these 'metacourses,' as Ms. Robinson calls them, each of the university classes follows its own syllabus and reading materials, but the instructors work out a common nexus, and hold online discussions and post materials around that connection," reported the Chronicle.

Each group of students brings a unique perspective to the online discussion.

"The American students have far more access to online materials and database research, and are able to share what they learn with the African students," reported the Chronicle. "The African students, meanwhile, have a direct contact with the culture being studied and have access to materials and points of view that they can share with the Americans."

The collaboration has helped create a unique learning environment.

"You end up being able to have a conversation to have a greater understanding about why someone has a different perspective," Robinson told the Chronicle. "That's the kind of dialogue that can change the way we think about international studies."

This year's "metacourse" is the second collaborative effort between Tufts and the African universities. Last year, Robinson designed the project and taught its first class, "Regionalism in African Relations."

But for the Tufts professor, there is more work to be done.

"Ms. Robinson will return to Africa this spring while the courses are running," reported the Chronicle. "She says she will try to encourage the African professors to post more material on the courses' sites, and will look for African policy makers and other experts to participate in chats with students."

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