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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2003

Hands across the Ocean, Bytes across the Sea

Grounded by SARS travel advisory, technology allows professor in UBC studio to teach students in Shanghai classroom

By Erica Smishek

The SARS outbreak may have suspended physical travel to Asia earlier this year but it never stopped virtual travel.

Thanks to new technology and some determined creative minds, the Sauder School of Business at UBC was able to use the Web and video broadcast technology to offer a course in its International MBA (IMBA) program in Shanghai.

For two very early mornings and two brutally long nights in July, Assoc. Prof. Carson Woo stood in front of a camera, computer at hand, in a television studio at UBC’s Point Grey campus and taught 21 IMBA students seated in a classroom at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

It was done by Internet Protocol (IP) videoconferencing, a system that uses the Internet to transmit video and audio data, and allows for interactive, two-way communication. Students had two computer screens in front of them -- one for Woo’s videoconference and another for his PowerPoint presentation -- as well as a camera, which they activated with a button to relay their questions or responses back to Woo.

While UBC has been using the IP videoconferencing system for about two years, it was the first time it had been used by an instructor to teach an entire course to a class in a distant location. Everyone involved termed the innovative experiment a success.

“It was a good example of collaboration among many individuals. It took a lot of people to pull off,” says Mark Zuberbuhler, executive producer and director for UBC Telestudios, the new-media production facility that utilizes technologies for the creation and development of e-Learning initiatives.

“The professor had never done it before. The students had never done it before. We were utilizing new technology in a new way for teaching.”

The 24-month IMBA program begins each January with 12 class days in Shanghai. Students then reside at UBC for four weeks in February to attend full-time classes. The program continues on a part-time basis with 18 four-day monthly modules, with Sauder faculty members travelling to Shanghai to teach. All classes are offered in English.

Following the SARS outbreak and subsequent travel advisory by the World Health Organization, no modules were offered in April or May of this year. By June, students were getting restless and frustrated, and approached both Grace Wong, assistant dean of International Programs at Sauder, and representatives of the Master’s program to discuss alternatives.

“The students were getting very anxious,” Wong says. “So we presented them with the option of a videoconference module. It’s something that could be a good model anyway, not for full-time teaching but certainly as an alternative.”

Students suggested that the Information Technology course might particularly lend itself to the trial, so Woo, who teaches Business Modeling for Information Systems in the IMBA program, was brought into the mix.

After three tests and the purchase of some new software in Shanghai, the kinks were ironed out and it was time for Woo to really get to work.

Given the time difference between Vancouver and Shanghai, he taught from 3 a.m. to 6:45 a.m. on a Thursday and Friday. Then he went home for a sleeping pill and a long nap before starting again on Friday at 5:30 p.m. and teaching until 1:30 a.m. Saturday. He did another 8-hour stint Saturday evening through Sunday morning.

“Friday was very painful,” Woo admits. “By the time I got to midnight, I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“I was eating dinner at breakfast and breakfast at dinner. By the end, my stomach was really complaining.”

Despite the physical challenges, Woo says the project went smoothly. The system was only disconnected twice due to network traffic collisions and took only five minutes each time to reconnect. He had sent his PowerPoint notes to Shanghai long in advance so they would have background information if technology failed. And students were supportive of the initiative from the beginning.

“One wrote to me afterward and said he was very happy to be in the first group to ever experience this.”

While Woo acknowledges it is an intriguing learning alternative, he would prefer to teach his students in person or at least be able to meet them face-to-face prior to ever appearing on video.

“I lost the shy student who normally would come up after class or during a break to discuss things,” he says. “Some students were just too shy to speak when everyone else could see or hear them. They did have the option of emailing me questions after the class but I received very few. So I lost that whole touch with those students. To me, that doesn’t feel good.”

Given the experiment’s success, Wong says the Sauder School is exploring other possible applications for the videoconferencing technology, including meetings and interviews.

While it cannot replace the unique nuances of interpersonal contact, she says it’s an appropriate alternative when travel is not an option.

For more information on UBC’s strategy to support work, learning and research through the use of new Internet and Web technologies, visit www.estrategy.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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