By Kerry Barrett
January 21, 2011
Each summer, incoming NYU freshmen are typically given a reading assignment to serve as a shared intellectual experience. During Orientation Week, the book serves as a catalyst to stimulate student-faculty conversations under debate, such as multiculturalism, racism, immigration, or environmental ethics, which allows students to explore divergent viewpoints. The goal of such summer reading programs, however, becomes more challenging when students in an entering class hail from 39 countries, speak 43 languages, and comprise the first class of a new university, NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).
To help connect the incoming freshmen before they set foot on campus, the students took part in an interactive summer reading colloquium, Cosmopolitan Ideas for Global Citizens. It took advantage of established educational technology—Blackboard, iTunes U, Second Life—and relied on the immense support of several ITS groups to create a unique summer program to match an exceptional freshman class.
The Summer Colloquium project began with a simple word that NYUAD has embraced to describe its students, faculty, and location: cosmopolitan. Senior members of NYUAD's admissions team selected Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers as the reading. With choice of reading settled, we then were left with the more difficult task of determining how best to meaningfully engage the students through a virtual experience. Under the leadership of NYUAD Vice Provost of International Education and Outreach Carol Brandt, faculty instructors Matthew Silverstein and Cyrus Patell, Associate Vice President of Global Technology Heather Stewart, and myself, it became clear that the project would benefit the students most if we drew on the many different forms of learning—seeing, writing and discussing, and listening—and incorporating those into an online interface.
Built on a wiki-based platform, the NYUAD Class of 2014 Summer Site allowed students to share and discuss their thoughts on Appiah's text using each sensory experience, as described below, via links to Blackboard, an Academic Gallery, and iTunes U.
Students were emailed the colloquium syllabus, which outlined the range of assignments and provided them with the web address and instructions on how to access the wiki (Figure 1). The wiki also served as a means to make important pre-departure announcements, provide updates, and answer frequently asked questions, as well as provide links to NYUAD social networking sites and blogs.
After students completed Appiah's book, their first assignment was to go out into their local communities and take a photograph that they felt visually captured the meanings of cosmopolitanism. Through the Summer Site, they uploaded their photographs to Blackboard. In turn, the site administrator uploaded the photographs from Blackboard to the Academic Gallery on the wiki (Figure 2). The photographer and location of the captured image remained anonymous and only the title of the photograph was included. Students could then view and compare their fellow classmates' interpretations of the assignment.
The photographs then had a "second life" as both a virtual and physical exhibition. Liam Fry, manager of ITS Student Technology Services, designed a scale model of 19 Washington Square North, NYUAD's academic home on Washington Square, in the 3-D, virtual world of Second Life (Figure 3). That space was used to design an exhibition of a selection of the students' photographs. The virtual hanging was used as a diagram to hang the public exhibition that opened at 19 Washington Square North on January 4, 2011, in conjunction with the arrival of 34 NYUAD students taking January Term classes in New York, NYUAD's equivalent to NYU's Winter Session (Figure 4). This aspect of the project marks an innovative way to tangibly bridge the two campuses, and to make a final product of the summer colloquium available to colleagues here in New York.
An important part of the colloquium was for students to learn the varying viewpoints of their internationally diverse classmates. Through Blackboard's chat tool, the students were divided into small chat groups of four to begin discussing overview questions provided in the syllabus (Figure 5).
Using the Group Chat function, each small group was asked to compose three questions for NYUAD professor of philosophy, Matthew Silverstein. Professor Silverstein then discussed the questions with the students during large chat group sessions, which consisted of four small chats groups. Of the 12 questions posed by each large chat group, one final question regarding Appiah's text was chosen to send on to NYUAD Associated Dean of Humanities Cyrus Patell, who prepared a final lecture based on that question.
Professor Patell's lecture was filmed at NYU TV's studio and reformatted as a podcast for iTunes U (Figure 6). Throughout the summer, students had the option of downloading supplemental lectures on cosmopolitanism, that had been filmed throughout the 2009-2010 academic year at 19 Washington Square North as part of NYUAD's sponsored lecture series, The Cosmopolitan Idea. After viewing the lectures, students were invited to continue to discussions in their small chat groups.
The Summer Colloquium came to a close during Marhaba (Welcome) Week, when students arrived in Abu Dhabi for the start of their freshman year. Professor Patell delivered a welcome speech that readdressed questions about cosmopolitanism and discussed Appiah's book with the students as a unified class. The Summer Colloquium proved to be a successful experiment in combining the best available educational technologies to create a single learning experience for students spread around the globe.
As NYU continues to move forward with educational software that incorporates social networking into the learning process, summer colloquiums that take place virtually will become increasingly productive ways to unify culturally and geographically diverse students. While plans for next year's summer reading program have yet to be established, there are several lessons we can apply to future virtual colloquiums. The first is to make the chat sessions more engaging and interactive, ideally through live chats. This in itself is difficult considering the global locations of the students, but nevertheless it is a challenge that will be increasingly relevant as the Global Network University becomes an integral part of NYU. The second is to adopt tools from social network sites to make the colloquium more student friendly, which may mean moving away from a wiki platform. For example, offering the ability for students to "friend" students from other chat groups to enrich the dialogue. And finally, we will encourage students from the Class of 2014 to provide feedback on the Summer Colloquium to help us build on and improve the experience for the Class of 2015.
We hope some of the lessons learned from the Summer Colloquium will be applied this spring when NYUAD's inaugural Global Network Seminar takes place. NYU music professors Michael Beckerman and Martin Daughtry will co-teach the course Translation as Multimedia Practice and Metaphor. Professor Beckerman will lead a class in New York that will meet with Professor Daughtry's class in Abu Dhabi through video conferencing and digital connections. Students in both cities will collaborate with one another inside and outside of the classroom on a weekly basis.
The Summer Colloquium photography exhibition is open to the public and on view until February 18 at 19 Washington Square North. To see some student photographs from the exhibition, visit the online gallery.
Kerry Barrett is Associate Director of Academic Programs at NYU Abu Dhabi.