OSWEGO — Students in a SUNY Oswego women’s studies course engaged online with an international-management class in Lebanon for five weeks last semester, moving along a new path to intercultural learning and global connections.
The cooperation between Susan Coultrap-McQuin’s “Women, the Workplace and the Law” course and the business course taught by Ina Pfeifer Issa in Lebanon marked the first SUNY Oswego use of a SUNY-wide initiative called COIL.
The Center for Collaborative Online International Learning, headquartered in the SUNY system’s Global Center in New York City, advocates cross-cultural learning through classroom partnerships, whether for all or part of a semester.
Oswego now has about 11 other COIL courses launching or in development across disciplines ranging from human-computer interaction to broadcasting, from education to physics.
For the students in Oswego and Lebanon, COIL proved a cost-effective approach to building cross-cultural connections and knowledge.
“The international perspective is the real growth in the COIL experience,” Coultrap-McQuin told interested faculty and staff at a recent session in the college’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. “It’s important to learn content, but the other kind of learning is figuring out how to communicate with other people from another culture who are second-language speakers.”
The COIL center emphasizes there are many ways to implement a partnership, but the goal is “to create co-equal, team-taught learning environments where faculty from two cultures work together to develop a shared syllabus, emphasizing experiential and collaborative learning.”
Issa made a trip to SUNY Oswego in March to help Coultrap-McQuin share lessons they learned in the college’s first COIL experience last fall, to continue planning improvements for their classes’ partnership this semester and to work on research projects they have undertaken. Issa, who also gave a talk in the Ernst & Young Lecture Series, is a native of Norway who teaches online courses for SUNY’s Empire State College in Lebanon.
She learned of Coultrap-McQuin’s search for an international academic partner last year from a colleague in Athens, who sent her Coultrap-McQuin’s email: “I said, ‘Why not?'”
The agreement concluded Coultrap-McQuin’s digital odyssey for a COIL partner for the project, during which she received expressions of interest from teachers in Iran, Gaza, Panama and Nova Scotia, among other places. “It seemed like we were such a good fit,” Coultrap-McQuin said. “She had interest in and enthusiasm for the project.”
Coultrap-McQuin and Issa described the halting steps — for example, a bombing near a university in Beirut threatened to derail the collaboration before it started — but ultimately successful ones they took, and what they intend to improve this semester.
Time-zone differences and class schedules discouraged a synchronous approach, so the two classes — working in English — used the SUNY Learning Network online system common to coursework at Oswego to share the content plan and assignments with students. The two teachers asked the students to post their work and actively encouraged them to reach out by email and other electronic means — an approach within financial and technical reach of all students, including those who cannot afford to study abroad.
It took some time for back-and-forth among the 24 Americans and the 17 Lebanese, one Jordanian and one Kuwaiti in the online class in Lebanon to get off the ground, Issa said, but interaction between the classes eventually picked up momentum.
Issa and Coultrap-McQuin are about to do it again this semester. The Oswego students have been doing background research about Lebanon, its culture and its peoples, as well as on the topic of women in the workplace, Coultrap-McQuin said.
Some of Coultrap-McQuin’s current students met with her and Issa prior to Issa’s presentation on “Women and Work in Lebanon” in the Ernst & Young Lecture Series on Gender Equality.
The students expressed curiosity about the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whether refugee children could become Lebanese citizens, what life was like for Issa in the Middle East and about the Lebanese students they are about to meet.
The students in Lebanon “are excited about this collaboration,” Issa told them. “They’re also a little nervous, I think. Some of them are a little shy — they don’t express themselves (in English) as easily as you do.”
Coultrap-McQuin summed it up: “Our students will find they are a lot like us.”