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School of Arts and Sciences

Connecting Classrooms

Monday, October 6, 2014

History Students in Medford And Bangladesh Become Classmates and Collaborators

Students in Professor Kris Manjapra's seminar
BayOfBengal "Connected Classroom Teaching"
An overview of the Bay of Bengal: Flows of Change class between Tufts University and BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh held in 2014.

BayOfBengal Students in Professor Kris Manjapra's seminar on the Bay of Bengal hold a video conference with a classroom at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In addition to these conferences, interaction between students at Tufts and BRAC occurred through group projects and a course blog.

BayOfBengal Bay of Bengal history students in Medford during a videoconference class with BRAC University students in Bangladesh.

BayOfBengal Bay of Bengal history students at BRAC University participate in a class discussion with Tufts students in March on "Ecology and Exploitation."

Two mornings each week this past semester, half of Professor Kris Manjapra's Bay of Bengal: Flows of Change history class met in the Isobe Conference Room at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The other students gathered in a classroom at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where it was evening. Co-taught by Manjapra and BRAC University professors Perween Hasan and Iftekhar Iqbal, a live videolink connected these classes separated by over 7,000 miles. "We are in different sides of the world, but we are in the same classroom," says Manjapra.

Manjapra recalls that the Tufts students were surprised the first time they saw their counterparts in the Dhaka class. "We were seated at a long table," recalls Manjapra, "and when the BRAC class was projected on the screen, it looked as if we were sitting together at the table." This continuity is an important element of the classroom dynamic. Manjapra and his history department colleagues aim to use videoconference classes in a manner that emphasizes person-to-person connection and intense social interaction.

The experience of his pilot digital class, which he worked on with Professor Ayesha Jalal and with students at Tufts and LUMS University in Lahore, Pakistan, provided some guidance in facilitating discussions for the Bay of Bengal course. With the Lahore class, which met in 2012, "the video was like a wall," says Manjapra. "Despite the fact that we could see the students on the other end, it was hard to talk through a screen, since as professors we were used to a residential group of students talking to us," says Manjapra. "Creating meaningful discussion in a video-conferenced course necessitates encouraging spontaneous exchange, and it's a special moment when students begin to talk across a screen." Tufts graduate student Neelum Sohail agrees that she never felt that there were two different classrooms during lectures. "We had a really good rapport with our counterparts in Bangladesh," says Sohail.

Given that the BRAC students live on the Bay of Bengal, Manjapra thought it optimal to focus the course on the Indian Ocean. The students explored the history of the eastern Indian Ocean, and linkages between South and Southeast Asia in a global context, and this generated dialogues about issues such as environmental change, population migration, and transformations of political economy. Shehryar Nabi, A14, was surprised at the political agreement between students in Medford and Dhaka. "I thought it would be more controversial, given the huge differences of culture and political affiliation," says Nabi, "to talk about some very big issues such as religion and national identity."

Manjapra has also learned that it takes much more than a synchronized digital classroom to create a community, and an interactive website and collaborative culminating project were important parts of the course. A website for class members gave students the chance to connect through videos, images and blogs about the course, but also about their lives and activities at school. "The cultural exchange through sharing photos of Tufts and BRAC U on the website helped us bond with the students at Tufts," says Muhammad Mustafa Monowar. Tufts student Nabi agrees that student posts about local events and the differences in weather in Medford and Dhaka were an important part of their social learning and helped foster a sense of community.

Tufts and BRAC U students worked together in small groups on video essays that required them to choose a topic and explore the theme by arguing a thesis, with video recordings completed by members of the group. The completed video essays are curated in Corpora, a Tufts repository of video and audio documents that includes filmed lectures and oral histories. The combination of global collaboration and multimedia archiving and curation will allow student work to have a lasting impact on the study of history, says Manjapra, who will use the video essays in future courses. "We want student work to add to the body of knowledge, and not have it disappear once it has been handed in," he adds.

Manjapra and his colleagues at BRAC U wanted students to reflect on the frustrations and challenges of their international collaborations as part of the learning experience through diary entries. Creating digital projects across continents brought about surprises and new learning experiences for the classmates. "Although the distance and time difference affected our team-building, working on the video essay with my Tufts teammates didn't seem to be too different from group work I've done with students in BRAC U, "says Risana Malik. "We talked, we delegated, and we consolidated our work."

The collaborative work with students from BRAC who were studying literature and economics produced a multi-faceted discussion on various topics each group had chosen, says Tufts graduate student Sohail. "The cross-cultural exchange and learning brought across different perspectives, and I learned from my colleagues in Bangladesh," she noted. "Creating a video project with one half of your team living on a different continent made it all the more challenging. But I think that it helped us to articulate our ideas, refine our research and our message for the video essay."

BRAC U student Mariama Muarif says her group's dependence on the Internet to communicate certainly presented challenges, "but we always tried to overlook the distance and helped each other with tremendous support as well as respect." She adds, "there were clashes of thoughts or opinions as we were from different backgrounds, but we managed to overcome those by being respectful and compromising." Muarif says she was skeptical of whether their project would be successful but was surprised in the end to see their "perfect and well-made video essay," "The Historical Roots of the Rohingya-Burma Conflict."

Tufts senior Nabi learned that "in an international collaboration, success or failure has more to do with your collaborators than the issue of distance. "In order to make it work, everybody needs to care about the project and be understanding of everyone's situation," says Nabi.

Manjapra was pleased with what students took away from the experience: they discovered differences between the way they study history and culture in the United States and how it is studied in Bangladesh. "You can only learn about these differences when working with such a group, " says Manjapra. "It's important to encounter these difficulties, dealing with such discontinuities as the eleven times zones separating our classrooms," and emphasized that "it's important for our students to encounter and confront these differences even if they can't be easily resolved."

Manjapra and his colleagues were impressed with the final projects. "These are subtle, sophisticated video documents," says Manjapra. "It's hard to create a educational digital story with a beginning, middle and end and a playtime of less than ten minutes."

A course evaluation revealed that the majority of students enrolled thought the connected class was one of the most valuable courses they'd taken in college. The seminar, says Manjapra, offers not just disciplinary knowledge, but the opportunity to engage in social learning. "The Humanities focus on the human experience, and we are bringing this into the classroom, with relations, rapport and friendship," says Manjapra. "We, meaning students and teachers together, are experimenters, changing education for the future."

Bay of Bengal: Flows of Change Class Video Essays

"Globalism" - Bay of Bengal Video Essay Spring 2014
Authors: Sunaina Basu (Tufts), Shehryar Nabi (Tufts), Nusmila Lohani (BRAC-U)
View video

"Rohingyas" - Bay of Bengal Video Essay Spring 2014
Authors: Zaian Chowdhury (BRACU), Hong Jie Lim (Tufts), Mariama Muarif (BRAC-U), Neelum Sohail (Tufts)
View video

"Bengal Sufis" - Bay of Bengal Video Essay Spring 2014
Authors: Aniket De (Tufts), Sara Mehnaz (BRAC-U), Muhammad Mustafa Monowar (BRAC-U), Ishrat Jahan Prioti (BRAC-U)
View video

"Travelers" - Bay of Bengal Video Essay Spring 2014
Authors: Risana Malik (BRAC-U), Rashna Munawar (BRAC-U), Hiram Reynold (Tufts), Don Tran (Tufts)
View video

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