Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2001
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U.Va. distance learning goes all the way to South Africa

Gene Block
Photo by Tom Cogill
Gene Block (foreground), who becomes UVa. vice president and provost Sept. 1, Dr. Richard Guerrant, professor of international medicine (left), and others participate in a videoconference with the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

By Fariss Samarrai

It was an unprecedented conference call -- an international videoconference held Aug. 20 between administrators and faculty at U.Va. and the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) in South Africa.

The time was 10 a.m. in Charlottesville, 4 p.m. in Johannesburg. The purpose -- conducted in real-time, across an ocean and seven time zones -- was the signing of an academic partnership agreement between the two institutions for a distance-learning project in the environmental sciences. A third partner, the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, is also participating.

The agreement was simultaneously signed during the videoconference by Gene Block, U.Va. vice president and provost, at Zehmer Hall, and in South Africa, by Norma Reid, vice chancellor of WITS. The agreement opens the door to new collaborative research and education projects in infectious disease study, telemedicine, nursing, environmental law, African American Studies, history and other areas. Project leaders are hoping to exchange faculty and students as well as develop highly innovative distance-learning courses.

Beginning this semester, 10 videoconference lectures on the ecology of southern Africa will be broadcast live via satellite between the three universities. Students at all three institutions will earn credit, and will interact with lecturers and each other during class. Six of the broadcasts in the undergraduate/graduate seminar series will originate from U.Va.'s Zehmer Hall; two will come from WITS, and two from Eduardo Mondlane.

"This is nothing short of spectacular," Block said to Reid as he looked at her moving image on a video monitor. She smiled in agreement, while a camera provided Block's smiling image to her and other participants in Africa, including U.Va. Vice Provost for International Affairs William Quandt. "This is a great beginning to increased activity between our institutions, and a model for the future of distance education," Block said.

"It is a privilege to link up with U.Va. via this technology," Reid said. "Study cannot be done in isolated plots. We need coordinated international investigation, and this partnership agreement is an agent to further our joint research and education efforts."

U.Va.'s Department of Environmental Sciences has conducted research in Africa for more than 12 years in collaboration with several African institutions through its Global Environmental Change Program. The new partnership with WITS will expand on and enhance current activities.

"We believe we have created a first live international distance education course," said Steve Macko, U.Va. professor of environmental sciences, and one of the people who spearheaded creation of the course. "This is not a case of students merely downloading Web pages. This is real-time interaction using the global classroom of the future."

The idea for a distance-learning course between U.Va. and the African universities began last fall during a meeting at U.Va. between environmental sciences faculty from the three institutions.

"We were looking for ways to expand on our collaborative research and education, and we came up with the idea of connecting our schools through video technology," said Macko. "The idea was greeted with enthusiasm, and we received great support from Vice Provost Quandt, President Casteen and former Dean Mel Leffler. The idea fit in perfectly with the university's increasing international focus."

The new course is also being funded by a National Science Foundation International Programs grant.

The videoconference works through a complex linking of video cameras, individual microphones, dedicated wideband phone lines, satellite linkups, and Internet connections. The system was, in effect, cobbled together by Bob Hutchison, chief telecommunications engineer with U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and Gene Sullivan, director of telemedicine at the U.Va. Medical School.

"They are magicians," said Macko of Hutchinson and Sullivan. "They were able to take the wild ideas of some wild professors, and make it happen."

Other participants agreed that the videoconference, and the signing of an international research and education agreement, was a special event.

"By watching our colleagues in Africa, and interacting with them live, I was able to see their personalities, to get a sense of how they think and what their priorities are," said Richard Guerrant, professor of international medicine. "It's tremendously exciting to see this bridge being built to enhance our collaborative work."


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