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Classrooms in different parts of world meet virtually with KU Medical Center faculty and students even after pandemic necessity

KU Nursing and KU Health Professions continue collaborative classrooms with Kenya, India and Ghana, building international connections that don’t require physical travel.

Person wearing headphones sits in front of a monitor showing a group of 10 people in a video conference call
Virtual classroom exchanges, where KU Medical Center students can be classmates with students from another country thousands of miles away, were created during the pandemic and continue today.

How do students learn about global health and build their cultural IQ when barriers such as a worldwide pandemic keep them from traveling?

It’s a question Michelle Cochran, DNP, clinical assistant professor in the University of Kansas School of Nursing, asked herself in June 2020. The answer, facilitated by KU Medical Center’s technology experts and the Office of International Programs, was to create virtual exchanges with classrooms in Kenya, Ghana and India.

These exchanges filled a need during the pandemic, but even as travel restrictions have lifted, the virtual exchanges continue. Why? Faculty and students have appreciated the experience so much, the exchanges are being expanded and studied.

“These classes are so much richer if there’s an experiential piece to them,” Cochran said. “We can talk about international health all we want, but when students are in a setting where they can experience that other culture — there’s just no replacement for that. There’s no way I can go back to teaching any other way.”

An addition, no longer a substitution

So, what is a virtual global classroom exchange? Students and professors from different universities use teleconferencing software to simultaneously meet together online. Each classroom may have one or two cameras to transmit the entirety of the class physically gathered in one room, or participants might use the camera and connection from their own devices while either in the classroom or somewhere else.

The Office of International Programs views these classroom exchanges as an additional opportunity for international experience. “We still believe that place-based experiences are beneficial,” said Alexa Smith, international partnerships and programs coordinator. “There’s something about getting to go and be physically present in another location that we would never want to take away. But we recognize that there’s more to global health than just traveling.”

The cost of traveling, which prohibits some students and faculty from face-to-face international experiences, isn’t an issue in virtual classroom exchanges. Because of the lower cost, more students are able to participate.

Also, the exchanges can create strong ties between faculty because of the collaboration required to create curriculum, build schedules and work out technical issues.

“The original idea was that (since) we have this virtual classroom, students are getting some cross-cultural, educational exposure,” explained Kimberly Connelly, senior international officer in the Office of International Programs. “But even more importantly, at the foundation of this exchange, is that faculty are connecting at a deeper level.”

How virtual classroom exchanges started

In the fall semester of 2020, Cochran set up a partnership with Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, for her NURS 485 class titled Population Health from Local to Global and continued the exchange for the second part of the class in the spring.

“Kenya was wonderful, saying, ‘Let’s meet’ but it seemed like every week we encountered another challenge,” Cochran said. “Out of this entire disruption that was the pandemic, a new innovation came out of it because everyone was coming to the table. Everyone felt like this was a good commitment for the (education of) students.”

In the spring semester of 2021, Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, joined the exchange.

By the spring of 2022, students in the respiratory care program in KU School of Health Professions had classmates in Africa. Lisa Trujillo, vice chair for the Department of Respiratory Care and Diagnostic Science, said their classroom partnership arose because the University of Ghana had a staffing issue that left the school without a lecturer mid-semester.

“We had an established relationship and collaborative agreement between our institutions already,” Trujillo said. In fact, Trujillo was in the audience when the very first class of respiratory therapists graduated from the University of Ghana in 2019. “We had a very quick turnaround trying to prepare for the exchange. The week after the university asked, we were up and running.”

Current status

For the spring 2023 semester, Cochran is leveraging a grant from the university’s Kansas African Studies Center (KASC)  in Lawrence for a graduate-level midwifery seminar course with KU School of Nursing and Moi University.

Trujillo also received a KASC grant for a KU School of Health Professions class titled Community and Global Health, which has 70 participants in Africa representing 14 different health-related occupations joining students in the respiratory therapy program at KU. Trujillo said four KU students from that collaborative classroom plan to travel to Ghana in May 2023 to meet some of their classmates in person.

The next step for the virtual global exchange will be an in-depth look at how such an exchange affects student learning, faculty collaboration and global understanding.

“What’s so great about getting to do these virtual collaborations is that we’re really taking away a lot of the distractions that we focus upon,” Smith said. “We can focus on the disparities and the similarities, getting students to realize, ‘We’re all navigating these challenges.’ Once they realize that they’re all respiratory therapy students, or midwifery students, or whatever the case may be, the discussion that follows is just so rich.”

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