Learning Together While Living Apart

Learning Together While Living Apart

Westchester Hebrew’s college-credit distance-learning course puts Mamaroneck and Zhenjiang students in the same (virtual) classroom.

Merri Rosenberg is the Westchester correspondent for The Jewish Week.

When ambitious high school students pursue college-level courses, they usually take advanced placement classes taught by one of their own teachers.

Taking an actual college course, concurrently with students in a classroom in Zhenjiang through a long-distance learning program, is something else again.

For a small group of students at Westchester Hebrew High School, their world regional geography class was in fact an online, four-credit Binghamton University course, delivered concurrently to their Mamaroneck classroom and to high school students at Zhenjiang International School in China.

This is Westchester Hebrew’s second year offering the Collaborative Online International Learning Course (known as COIL), and the American high school students were also learning with Chinese high school students at Zhenjiang International School; in another class section, Zhenjiang students shared discussions with Binghamton students.

“This is a full course with three groups of students in two different countries,” said Marc Reisinger, the Binghamton University professor who teaches the class.

The semester-long course covered political, economic, physical and cultural aspects of geography, including issues of colonization and conflict. During the morning’s discussion of sub-Saharan Africa, the students on both sides of a computer screen methodically addressed such topics as subsistence agriculture, export agriculture and urbanization. The conversation also explored aspects of the informal economy, from street vendors to drug dealers and prostitutes, as well as concepts like brain drain. Reisinger pointed out that refugees also encompassed those who were displaced internally, forced to leave their homes if not their country. When the Chinese students chimed in, several spoke about the significance of Africa’s influence on other continents, with Reisinger expanding on the cultural impact of the slave trade.

Expectations and responsibilities are the same as for college students, including a 25-page paper and three exams. If students go on to enroll at Binghamton, the course would fulfill some general education requirements as long as they earn a C or better — which is not easy.

“Students have to prepare a good bit outside of class,” Reisinger said. “They do textbook readings and the lectures are posted online.”

None of this would be possible without technology. Besides the online classes, the course involves much texting between the American and Chinese students, who must work together on group research projects and joint presentations. Students have access to a tool, VoiceThread, which lets them text, as well as submit video and audio responses.

While there are some cultural and logistical hurdles, such as time zone challenges and navigating a class where the American students are used to actively participating while the Chinese students, who are still learning English, are less accustomed to speaking up — the course offers a unique educational experience.

Naomi Messer, a junior from Greenwich, Conn., who had been to Africa, said, “I learned so much. We have a community with the Chinese students and students at Binghamton. It’s a skill to be able to communicate across the world.”

The relationship is mutually beneficial for Westchester Hebrew High School and Binghamton. As Reisinger said, one motivation was to encourage more students to take classes with Binghamton faculty, as part of the University Readiness Program, and ultimately consider Binghamton for their post-high school education.

For Westchester Hebrew High School, said Rabbi Jeffrey Beer, head of school, giving students the opportunity to work with well-known college professors at Binghamton and extend the school’s relationship with the college are positives.

“Despite the logistical complexities, it’s very worthwhile,” said Rabbi Beer.

“Sometimes students are focused on what’s going on in the immediate area,” he said. “This [course] is allowing students to open their eyes to the larger world, and enriching their experience academically. When students are able to collaborate, they’re preparing for the world and their future.”


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