‘Borderless Classroom’ Offers Virtual Global Exchange With German Students

June 9, 2020
By: Nancy Sheehan

This fall, Worcester State University students can get some of the benefits of studying abroad without leaving home. Karen Woods Weierman, Ph.D., professor of English, will offer a course titled “Migration in Germany and the U.S.,” which will take the form of a virtual exchange with the University of Wuppertal in Germany.

Weierman and her German counterpart, Dr. Birgit Spengler of the University of Wuppertal, have created a plan for a “borderless classroom” with a focus on the literature of migration and the legal framework that shape our history and our present moment.

The virtual exchange is designed to build intercultural communication, virtual teamwork, and critical thinking skills which, Weierman says, are key competencies for effective global citizenship and employment.

Wuppertal resembles Worcester in many ways—a post-industrial city with a vibrant and large immigrant population. Many of those immigrants are from the same areas as many Worcester State students, including Eastern Europe, Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East. “So, we’ll be talking about migration literature from the 19th and 20th centuries against the context of the present and our students’ personal migration histories,” she says

A pilot version of the course in the fall of 2018 showed that students found the virtual exchange a beneficial way to upgrade their educational experience to an international level. Despite the ongoing uncertainties that the virus pandemic has caused for the fall semester, the course is slated to be offered with the University of Wuppertal, which is also eager to proceed with plans that were made before the virus shutdowns hit.

“The German universities are in a similar state of chaos as we all grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Weierman says. “My colleague, Birgit, and I discussed our plans and concluded that the whole semester may end up being remote anyway, but that wouldn’t make much difference for our transatlantic class. We’ve put a lot of planning into this course and Worcester State has been very supportive, so we’re going to go ahead with it.”

In the first section of the course, Worcester State students will work with Weierman on a series of literary and historical texts about migration in the United States. In part two of the course, the German students and Spengler will join the class when the University of Wuppertal begins its semester in late October. The Worcester State and Wuppertal students will share an eight-week unit with a common syllabus, team teaching, and a variety of videoconferencing and other online events.

The eight-week unit length and the live student-to-student interaction were recommendations that came out of the 2018 pilot, which had been six weeks long.

“What we heard from the students was that the experience wasn’t long enough,” Weierman says. “We didn’t want to come off as the ugly Americans, so we were all very polite and then once everybody felt comfortable enough to have some really lively debates, the virtual exchange was over.”

The study of migration is meaningful for both the German and American students because of a close historical connection that reverberates today, Weierman says. German immigration to the United States shaped our history, and German Americans are the largest single ethnic group in the U.S. Across the Atlantic, Germany is a central player in the migrant crisis in Europe, which has striking parallels to our own border crisis.

Weierman had a chance to visit the University of Wuppertal in July 2019, where she gave a guest lecture and met some of the students who had participated in the pilot program (Classes in Germany don’t wrap up until mid-July so the students were still there). The students told her they found the virtual exchange experience interesting and rewarding beyond what they gleaned from the migration readings.

“In some ways, they felt that the particular subject matter almost didn’t matter,” she says. “It was the experience that was really important. I found that interesting because we thought that the migration topic would be the key to the course, but that didn’t seem to be the case. They found that material rich and interesting, but what we’ve realized is that it’s more about the virtual exchange model and the student-to-student interaction than it is about the particular subject matter.

The class also may serve some students as a step toward study abroad, and in other cases as a substitute when that’s not a feasible option. “The reality is, study abroad is just not a possibility during a global pandemic,” Weierman says. “And in normal times, the financial and opportunity costs may be too high for many students, and so to be able to have these kinds of intercultural exchanges is especially valuable and important.”

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