Hands across the Ocean, Bytes across the Sea

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

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

“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.