‘Metacourse’ Explores New Opportunities For U.S.-African Collaboration
Since the mid-1970s, Dr. Pearl T. Robinson has been investigating and teaching the politics of African nations. Now, as 21st century African universities begin using the Internet to strengthen their academic programs, it comes as little surprise that Robinson is pioneering an Internet-based teaching and learning model that partners American and African scholars in curricular collaborations. This past spring, Robinson spearheaded a unique distance-learning model, which she has labeled “metacourse” and involves a collaboration among an American university and two African universities.“Regionalism in African International Relations,” as the undergraduate course is titled, involved three international relations courses offered separately by Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Robinson, who taught the Tufts course, says the metacourse is a product of curriculum co-development among faculty members from the three participating institutions.“It’s a model that enables (faculty members at different institutions) to cooperate on free-standing courses,” she says. “It’s based on distance learning.”The Tufts University political science professor says the metacourse model involves using the Internet to link two or more courses that are available to students on their respective home campuses. Unlike a traditional course where one professor designs the content and students interact only with their classmates, the metacourse involves more collaboration. The participating courses typically have a similar theme — international relations in Africa, for example. Participating faculty members then work together to co-develop a portion of the curriculum that is shared for six weeks. Robinson estimates that 25 percent of the readings of the international relations course she taught this past spring overlapped with that of her colleagues’ courses.During the shared course period, the professors had their students post comments to questions on common Web pages on the Internet to establish interaction among all the students. The students also participated in two virtual live-chat discussions. The Web-based course platform was developed with Blackboard software products. “Every student has a home page,” Robinson explains.The interaction enabled students from the different countries to consider the perceptions and thinking of their peers and professors overseas on various political issues. It helped the students get a firsthand impression of “how people think about their own reality,” Robinson says. “Most graduate students don’t get that sophistication in their (training).”At the conclusion of the shared six-week period, the courses resumed their independent paths. Eleven Tufts students completed the course while 25 from Makerere University and 25 at the University of Dar es Salaam participated in the interactive coordinated course period. Even though Makerere had a total of 49 students and the University of Dar es Salaam had 125 students taking the full course on their respective campuses, the coordinated course period limited interactive participation to 25 students per campus.
Foundation SupportAs this spring’s course was coming to a close in May, the Ford Foundation awarded Robinson a one-year proof-of-concept grant of $260,000. Although the grant arrived too late to provide much support for the inaugural metacourse, the award signals an important investment the Ford Foundation is making as part of its commitment to revitalize higher education in Africa. Last year, Ford, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation announced the $100 million Partnership to Strengthen African Universities. It is expected that the foundations will provide the funding over the next five years to partnership projects, which include Robinson’s co-curriculum development project. Makerere University and the University of Dar es Salaam have been identified as key African institutions in the partnership, according to foundation officials.“This partnership will be flexible, and approaches will differ,” says Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. “But we are united in the belief that strong universities and intellectual freedom are indispensable preconditions in developing and sustaining healthy democratic societies.”Robinson, who first began conceptualizing the idea while as a scholar-in-residence at Makerere in 1997-98, has seen how the lack of resources hinders higher education at African universities. Roughly $90,000 of the grant will be used to build and staff a computer lab for the faculty of social sciences at Makerere. The lab will be available to the departments of political science, economics, sociology, women’s studies and possibly others, Robinson says.“This is a project that enhances the infrastructure at Makerere, while also contributing to curriculum development,” she says. Robinson notes that faculty members in other departments at Tufts are looking at the curriculum co-development project as a model for collaborating with other foreign universities. She plans to be on sabbatical from Tufts for one year, beginning January 2002, to continue work on the project while based at the University of Dar es Salaam and visiting Makerere University. Robinson’s Web address at Tufts is <http://ase.tufts.edu/polsci/>.
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