Tom Burns tries not to think about it as he stands before his graduate seminar, but sometimes he wonders who besides his five students is watching. It literally could be anyone in the world, for Burns is team-teaching his history class, "The Early Middle Ages: Late Antiquity in RealTime," on the Internet with professors and students from Universität Augsburg in Germany.
As the course title suggests, the seminar takes place "live" with a sophisticated computer system that enables students and professors to see and hear each other via split-screen monitors as they discuss the middle ages and the world of Late Antiquity in the era AD 300-600. And what better way to do "field work" than to learn from colleagues who live in and study Augsburg, a major Roman center that survived long after the fall of the Roman Empire.
A recent seminar guest was an archaeologist who currently is digging in Augsburg. "We have access to research that 'still has dirt on it,' in a manner of speaking," said graduate student Beth Cottrell. "Otherwise, we might need to wait for months or even a year until the information is published." Cottrell says that Burns encourages students to evaluate their current web experience, and to consider how they will use the technology in their own teaching. The course's web site includes a discussion link that enables users to conduct bilingual dialogues on subjects under discussion through the university's LearnLink system.
The seminar's computer system includes a high-powered mini-mainframe computer, one at Emory and the other at Augsburg, Sun workstations with movie cameras installed on top and a digital system that translates the audio/video into a web format. The set-up was awkward initially, said Emory graduate student Brent Hardy. "The setting lacked spontaneity and was a bit stilted at first, especially in posing questions to phantom people, but we all adjusted," said Hardy. "It's a neat way to engage with people around the world." The seminar is conducted jointly with Augsburg for an hour, then Emory signs off to continue for another hour on their own.
Once they adjusted to the technology, said Burns, the educational benefits of such an ambitious undertaking were clear. "Germans tend to have a more regional focus and begin with a detailed approach to studying history before moving toward generalization, while Americans tend to begin by painting broad, historical strokes and examining trends that take place over decades before addressing specifics," said Burns. "Combining the two methods results in a rich experience for all." The seminar currently is conducted in English, but in the future Burns would like to lead sessions in German. "The seminar helps to lower the threshold of anxiety among students who plan to study internationally," said Burns. Information on the Emory graduate students and Atlanta is included on the course's web site, and Burns plans to add material on the four German graduate students and their hometown in the near future.
Augsburg professors Gunther Gottlieb and Veit Rosenberger and Burns have all been active in the Emory-Augsburg partnership, which includes a student/faculty exchange program. Burns met the German professors 10 years ago when he visited Augsburg on a Fulbright fellowship.
Rosenberger says that the seminar enables students to observe different teaching approaches. "In Germany, we have either pure lectures with the professors speaking or seminars with students giving papers," said Rosenberger. "The Anglo-Saxon way of discussing almost all of the time is rather unknown to our students. To some degree this seminar gives the students on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean the best of both worlds."
In addition to the technology hurdles, the German professors and students are participating on a voluntary basis because they believe the program is beneficial. The seminar begins at 7 p.m. German time, which means a long day for Rosenberger and his colleagues. Although Rosenberger says the Internet will never replace student-abroad programs, he's already thinking of the future. "We can dream of having a seminar not just between Atlanta and Augsburg," said Rosenberger, "but among three or four universities around the globe."
If you wish to observe History 504: "The Early Middle Ages: Late Antiquity in RealTime," tune in between 1-2 p.m. on Wednesdays throughout the spring semester at: <http://emory.edu/WorldClasses/History/our.html>.