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Learning Together Across Cultures and Time Zones

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Early on a blustery November morning, a group of Dartmouth students arrives at Baker Library to prepare for a unique educational exchange. They and their counterparts at the American University of Kuwait (AUK) are about to go to class together. It's 7:45 a.m. in Hanover and 4:45 p.m. in the Persian Gulf, but the students will see and speak with each other in real time using web-based videoconference technology. The sessions are made possible by a partnership between Dartmouth and AUK, which was founded in 2003 as Kuwait's first liberal arts university.

aukDartmouth students participate in a videoconference class session with students at the American University of Kuwait. Honest and sometimes difficult, the videoconferences bring students from opposite sides of the world together in real time. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)
This is the second time this particular group of students has met in this way And-because their first conversation was so intense and extended well beyond the allotted time-they have decided to devote at least two hours to this conversation.

The students at AUK are in two classes taught by Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature Rawda Awwad. They are studying "Europe and Islam" and "Women and Literature." On the Dartmouth end, Professor Dale Eickelman has assembled a group from two of his anthropology classes, one that focuses on the political uses of the field and the other on anthropological approaches to Islam. The students are prepared to discuss whether modernity is synonymous with Westernization, and what role the media plays in shaping cultural perceptions.

Web-based videoconferencing takes place in Baker Library within the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), a state-of-the-art facility used by faculty to improve their teaching techniques, to bring groups of scholars together to discuss ongoing research, and to host seminars. The AUK students gather in a similar facility on their campus.

There are no country codes or telephone numbers involved. Instead, one institution dials in to the other's Internet Protocol (IP) address. They are on opposite sides of the world, but once the connection is made, students instantly see and hear each other. Asking questions, responding-even arguing-it's as though they are all participating in a seminar in the same room.

But this is no ordinary discussion. Students at both AUK and Dartmouth sense that their conversations represent an opportunity to connect in ways that could make all the difference, and they are eager to make that happen. "I leave these sessions feeling the urge to continuously seek every opportunity that will help me better understand the global state of affairs, tolerate diverse views, and figure out how I can contribute to bridging the widening gap between 'East' and 'West,'" says AUK student Dina El-Zohairy.

Matthew Forman '11 of New York says, "To see students from a remarkably different background pursuing the same kind of education we are here at Dartmouth is so gratifying. If we can come together to engage in debate and scholarly discourse, surely our political leaders can find common ground."

In a very real sense, the sessions between students symbolize the true significance of the Dartmouth-AUK partnership. The students acknowledge that these conversations-difficult though they sometimes are-could only take place when there is a deep sense of trust between individuals and institutions.

"This is a necessary challenge," adds Professor Awwad, "to the way we are used to teaching, and may lead to a truly global pedagogical practice. Videoconferencing enables a dialog that goes far beyond a mere exchange of ideas. It facilitates the potential for future discussions that are, in every way imaginable, honest and useful."

Professor Eickelman explains that the videoconferences were initially considered a resource to be added on to existing classes. "In the future," he says, "they will be at the core of seminar design."

"We really need this kind of class," adds AUK student Yousef Al-Baqsami, "especially at a time like this when there is so much ignorance between cultures. Dartmouth and AUK have a wonderful partnership, one that has made these kinds of discussions possible. We are raising some very sensitive issues that students in most other colleges or countries might not have an opportunity to experience."


The Dartmouth College-American University of Kuwait Project

Since 2003, Dartmouth and the American University of Kuwait have worked  together under the terms of an agreement that allows Dartmouth to play an advisory role in helping to build the new university. The two institutions have developed a flourishing relationship that involves faculty, students, and staff. Sixteen Dartmouth students have held internships at AUK, and many AUK students have held internships at Dartmouth. Dinah Warren '10 and Laura Cree '11 are in Kuwait this March. This summer, AUK students Nur Soliman, Mohammed Qasem, Emad Salama, and Hala Al Qabandi will be on campus as interns in the Rassias Center and in the Hood Museum of Art. This summer also marks the first AUK Visiting Faculty Fellowship at Dartmouth, to be held by Simon O'Meara, who teaches art history at AUK.

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 1/19/10