A typical seminar class brings a group of students together in a room with a professor to discuss the topics within the course.
Alex Mayer has expanded his seminar classroom online to share this experience, not only with other universities, but with students in other countries. His seminar on “Coupled Natural and Human Systems: Payments for Ecosystem Services” shares a one-hour weekly teleconference with classes as far away as Mexico, to discuss pressing issues dealing with ecosystems. Mayer is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech.
The course began as a research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Much of the research was done in the field, but Mayer wanted to add an additional educational component to attract students to learn some of the basics about ecosystem services and the different incentives that can encourage people to conserve. This is the second time that the course has been offered, but Mayer has been offering international seminar courses since the early 2000s.
Mayer is only able to see his own students, which makes it harder to draw the students from other universities into the discussion. But there are other ways students can participate without having to speak. The online teleconference has a chat box, which helps students share ideas as others are talking or if English is a second language for a student. Students can also participate when they are unable to come to class, by using the link to the conference.
Interdisciplinary, Multicultural Perspectives
This seminar supports interdisciplinary work among students as well. Among the students at Michigan Tech interested in the issues raised by this course, only a few disciplines are represented. The other universities have students from other fields—the social sciences, for example—which enables others to share disciplinary knowledge that Tech students might not get here.
Multiple cultural and geographical perspectives are easily shared as well, with students from Columbia and Mexico participating. “That’s kind of the richest part actually, is when people talk about their own experience and own viewpoints that relate to the topic,” Mayer said. “It opens everything up, as we all have our preconceived notions about how people interact with the environment and what they should and shouldn’t do, what works and what doesn’t, and what works in this culture, what works in this town, may not work in that town. I get to learn as well.”
Tech students are partnered with students from the different universities to present and lead discussions and work on final projects, which furthers the opportunity to learn.
While the benefits of this class are easy to see, there are a few challenges as well. The task of finding a time to meet across all universities, along with aspects of dealing with other countries' holidays and different semester times has been a challenge.
Technology has caused its share of disruptions as well. When Mayer first began running on-line seminar courses, internet speed was not the fastest, causing as much as 30 minutes of lost discussion time. Today, the class only loses about five minutes before everyone is able to participate. Online speaking etiquette has also developed. A lack of physical cues can make it awkward, with students talking over each other, and figuring out who will speak first can leave a small gap of silence.
Despite the challenges it presents, Mayer plans on continuing to offer courses like this. The NSF-funded project has one more year, and the course is improving as it continues. The participation of multiple universities helps keep the work load low and make courses like this possible. Students will be able to continue making connections with other universities and pushing themselves to think outside the box, benefiting from the diverse perspectives that come with experiences like this.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.