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Carolina on their minds

May 10, 2013 | Telepresence Options

classroom video conference

Story and Images by Yan Yiqi / China Daily

Students in Hangzhou Foreign Languages School interact with peers in North Carolina through videoconferencing.

Classroom experiment is bringing together students in two schools, one in China and other in the US

It is 8:30 pm in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and Wang Bowen, 18, is presenting two pictures on a big screen showing what he thinks are the differences between Chinese high school students and their US counterparts.

The Chinese one shows students cramming for exams with books piled high, and the US one shows youngsters dancing in a bar.

The US students apparently do not agree with Wang's depiction of their lifestyle.

"That's what you think," one of them says during the presentation.

This meeting of minds and its mild dissent is happening in continents for removed, for Wang's interlocutors are sitting in a classroom more than 12,000 kilometers away in North Carolina, where it is 8:30 am.

The participants are part of an experimental virtual classroom program that enables students from different countries to communicate via the Internet.

The program, initiated by North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in the US and Hangzhou Foreign Languages School in East China's Zhejiang province, focuses on reinforcing intercultural communication among students of the two schools.

For the program, which began in March, both sides invited 18 students to take part, most of them high school seniors. They gather every Monday for 50 minutes, for lectures, presentations and discussions.

Both sides use professional videoconferencing software and high-resolution cameras. In the multimedia classroom of the Hangzhou school, four microphones hang from the ceiling so the US students can hear everyone clearly.

When presentations are given, screens in both classrooms are synchronized with PowerPoint displays.

Qian Feiting, one of the Chinese students taking part in the program, says: "It is an exciting and impressive meeting across half the world. We can enjoy their presentation, raise questions and discuss things with them. It's as though we are in the same classroom."

Qian says she hopes there can be more one-on-one discussion time so she can talk more with her US counterparts.

Elizabeth Moose, dean of Humanities at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, says East Carolina University, one of the school's sister institutions, came up with the idea of a shared virtual classroom 10 years ago.

"We have adapted it according to our own need and to our particular curricula. And we really appreciate our colleagues in Hangzhou's willingness to adapt to this new idea. I don't think it could have turned out better," she says.

Liu Li, a professor at the College of Education of Zhejiang University, says the program may be revolutionary.

"Internet courses are not new to Chinese classrooms, but most of them fail to offer necessary classroom communication for students," Liu says.

Xia Guming, deputy principal of Hangzhou Foreign Languages School, says he believes the program can provide valuable classroom experience.

"But more importantly, our students can use this opportunity to improve their communication skills and strengthen their understanding of Western culture."

And Xia's counterparts in the US share the sentiment.

Moose says she hopes students in the US will be able to understand different cultures better through the program.

"I think it is important for Americans, especially people in this school who are really being educated to take on leadership roles in our state or in the nation, to have a very good global perspective. It is important for them to be open, interested and receptive to others beyond our own borders, and first-hand experience in talking with others from other cultures is crucial."

All students taking the program in North Carolina are attending Chinese-language courses. For them, the long-term benefits are still being tested, but at the moment they are enjoying the experience.

Alexander Jacobson says he is especially fond of the program because it gives him the chance to talk with Mandarin speakers.

"It is the reason why I take Chinese lessons. I need to talk to people who are not only native speakers of Chinese language like our teacher here, but also who are natural Chinese citizens and are living in China," he says.

Jacobson is interested in Chinese history and he exchanges views on Chinese culture with his counterpart in Hangzhou. His classmate James Buchanan has already decided to pay a visit to China this summer.

Li Hong, the teacher in charge of the program at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, says she is happy to see students are keen to learn from each other and that they respect one another.

After six sessions since March, Li says she has realized that the program has helped break stereotypes.

"Although I grew up in China and go back very often, even I had stereotypes about Chinese students," she says.

"Through the program I have realized that students in Hangzhou are very open-minded and have very good critical-thinking skills."

After the 50-minute session ends, the Hangzhou students discuss with their teacher what transpired and suggest future topics.

Qian says some people in China think too highly of the US, underestimating their own country's worth, and she feels China's virtues should be shown off to people in the US to alter stereotypes.

"We have virtues that they lack. One is the value we place on the togetherness of families, and we should use this opportunity to show them that," Qian says.

The program focuses on topics in which both sides share an interest, such as college applications, air pollution and family members.

Time for the communications sessions is expected to be doubled in the semester beginning in September, and topics will be enlarged to cover politics, economics, culture, education and environmental protection.

"I hope this can be a first step of a long love affair with China with all our students," Moose says.

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