Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Back in Belarus

I've just spent an enjoyable and interesting few days in Minsk, Belarus, as part of a project between my university, Linnaeus University, and the Belarusian State University. This cooperation has been going on for a few years now (see earlier post on my first visit in 2008) and we are now at the stage where we're designing a joint net-based course in media management to be run in 2011 with students from both countries.

E-learning is still relatively new in Belarus where university education is still virtually synonymous with campus-based full-time studies. There are few areas in the country that are far from a university and the idea of universities offering distance courses for professional development hasn't really taken off, except for more traditional correspondence courses. In 2008 the university had very poor bandwidth on campus which made e-learning virtually impossible but now they're rolling out Moodle as a learning management system and I saw one course in mathematics which featured some nice simulation models. So the basic requirements are in place for this joint course.

One feature that has still to be resolved is how to distribute video lectures since most streaming video formats are blocked by the firewall to save bandwidth. The answer could well be to use YouTube which works fine. However most students in Minsk access the net from thier own computers at home where they often have more bandwidth than at the university; an unusual situation compared to many other countries. It's all a matter of finding common denominators between the two countries and adapting to suit them.

It will be interesting to see how the course works.We can expect a mix of very different student groups. In Sweden, net-based courses normally attract part-time students over 25 who have full-time jobs, family and don't live near the university they are studying at. These students will be studying with Belarusian full-time campus students most of whom are under 25. Plenty scope for increasing students' intercultural understanding and also, of course, plenty scope for misunderstanding. Students and teachers will need to be prepared to accept and adapt to other ways of working and to find common ground as much as possible.

Of course the course objectives and subject matter are the most important but on a course like this I would say that the side effects are almost as useful for the students' development. Learning to collaborate on the net with people of different age groups, nationalities and cultural backgrounds is undoubtedly a vital 21st century skill that will be of great use in the students' future careers. We just need to make sure the technology we use on the course is as clear and easy to use as possible. Work in progress.

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