Camels, Cardinals & Bantams: Distance-learning enhances course offerings

Last October, Associate Professor of Neuroscience Joseph Schroeder emailed all Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience majors at Conn, informing us about a potential new seminar for the spring semester, which would focus on schizophrenia. The course description immediately sparked my interest, but what made it different from any other class at Conn was that it is a distance-learning course being taught by a faculty member at Wesleyan with five students from Connecticut College, Trinity and Wesleyan (CTW).

Many of us at Conn know that the CTW consortium provides an excellent interlibrary loan service between the three schools. In addition, students at one college are able to take classes at another college within the consortium without having to file a formal study away application. For instance, a Conn student could take a class at Wesleyan every semester in conjunction with taking three other classes at Conn. However, the biggest drawback of this system has been the challenge of traveling from one college to the other. New London is at least an hour away from both Middletown and Hartford, and very few students would spend the time or gas money driving back and forth from classes. This makes the distance-learning approach unique. According to Professor Schroeder, “The current telepresence collaboration was initiated by Wesleyan to capitalize on the three-school consortium to experiment with the new approach, offer different courses and also to eliminate the travel problem.”

Being able to take a seminar at a different college without worrying about travel logistics was extremely appealing to me. The class, titled Schizophrenia and its Treatment: Historical, Neurobiological and Phenomenological Perspectives, is taught by Dr. Matthew Kurtz, Associate Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan. Dr. Kurtz’s research focus is on the treatment and cognitive deficits of schizophrenia. Conn has never offered such a course so this was a remarkable opportunity to take a class with an expert on schizophrenia. However, I signed up for the seminar with a fair amount of skepticism on how the distance-learning telepresence approach would work.

My skepticism quickly dissolved, and I was knocked off my feet. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, five of us go to a classroom in Olin where two large screens, a video camera and a state-of-the-art teleconferencing system via Jabber have been installed. On one of the screens, we see Dr. Kurtz and the rest of our classmates at Trinity and Wesleyan. On the other screen, Dr. Kurtz displays his powerpoints, video clips and other course material. I did not recognize the potential of this videoconferencing system until I first started participating in class. Simply raising a hand from Conn is enough to grab Dr. Kurtz’s attention at Wesleyan. Class discussions count for 10% of the grade and I never expected to have such smooth and fulfilling conversations via a videoconferencing system with students from Trinity and Wesleyan. One must encounter the system in person to truly appreciate its versatility and power.

The semester has been divided into four parts, each covering one major topic in understanding schizophrenia as a disorder, including the basic symptomatology, history, cognitive neuroscience and treatment of the disorder. We also had the rare opportunity to visit the Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) as a field trip for the class. At CVH, we met a staff psychologist who gave us a historical tour of the treatment facilities and buildings. In addition, we were able to meet with a schizophrenia patient who agreed to talk about his personal battle with the disorder. It was an enlightening moment during my educational experience at Conn.

Conn has a very limited number of upper-level course options in certain departments compared to larger colleges and universities. For instance, Conn only has two Behavioral Neuroscience faculty members that cater to the course and research needs of a large and growing number of majors. Distance-learning can expand course options and afford students less limits in their learning experience. As Dr. Kurtz said, “I think it can be very helpful when you have groups of students interested in more specialized academic topics with limited access to this material at their home institution. It has the potential to work synergistically to group students with similar academic interests who would not in any other way be able to connect with one another.”

My field of interest, the science of the mind, is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary – scientists are mathematically modelling neural activity, understanding economic decisions through brain scans and using lasers to control genetically sensitized neurons. As a senior in the sciences, I constantly have to justify to potential employers and graduate schools the value of science education within the liberal arts as opposed to those within larger research institutions. Distance-learning can mutually benefit students across the CTW colleges to be educated in these new fields of research by taking courses with prominent researchers.

This does not just apply to the sciences, but also to students in the humanities and arts; we all can immensely strengthen our liberal arts experiences through an influx of innovative and novel ideas. Professor Schroeder added, “Today’s students are shaping the emerging ‘digital information age,’ so designing learning strategies that are aligned with how young people access information is critical to a productive learning environment. So, if we have the opportunity to collaborate with some of the country’s best teachers and brightest students, why not use the technology to our advantage?”

Distance-learning is the future of liberal arts education. In the recent discussion of revamping the General Education requirements at Conn, I feel that distance-learning across the CTW colleges should be one of the leading topics of discussion. We can fill gaps in our liberal arts education system by allowing courses and ideas to flow across colleges. This format of learning is not difficult to implement and has been working already this semester with the schizophrenia seminar.

According to Professor Schroeder, Trinity College is already planning a telepresence seminar next year on neurochemistry, a course that both Conn and Wesleyan do not offer. As of now, the respective colleges are using the current schizophrenia class to evaluate the success of the system. I strongly believe that the distance-learning approach to teaching and learning will build strong relationships across the CTW colleges and will prosper if fully implemented. •

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Ishtiaq Mawla

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