Distance Teaching: Professor instructs class in Russia over the Internet

December 14, 2010

To prepare to teach class some days, Indiana State University professor Gerald Cockrell turns his attention to his students, then at the webcam beaming his image to them on a television screen halfway around the world.

He sees his students through a camera the class has set up so he, in turn, can see them.

Cockrell, the interim chair of the department of built environment in the College of Technology at ISU, teaches a seminar in project management to students at St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation (SUAI) in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the seminar, the class reads from a book on project management written by Cockrell, who will log onto the internet and use a webcam to discuss the material with the class and answer students' questions. The students will then watch a DVD featuring a lecture by Cockrell on the material.

"It's a topic that I'm interested in, and obviously I'm interested in Russia and the culture, and it's fun," Cockrell said. "I enjoy talking to the Russian students."

The class started after Cockrell met SUAI professor Alex Bobovich in 1995 at an event for the International Society of Automation. Cockrell was the event organizer and Bobovich was the advisor of the Russian student team, Bobovich said.

"From that moment we started our friendship," said Bobovich, who helps coordinate the seminar at SUAI. "Every year we participate at many ISA events."

They eventually began discussing the possibility of teaching a long-distance class. But the technology wasn't yet available for it, and eventually the duo worked their way up to "control systems" that could be operated over the Internet, Cockrell said. In one such example, Cockrell would flip a switch in Terre Haute that was connected to the Internet, and in Russia, a light bulb would turn on.

Before long, they started using the webcam method to help teach students. Now, as Cockrell teaches the class over the internet, technology has advanced to the point where hardly any delay exists between the ISU professor speaking to the class in Terre Haute and students halfway around the world receiving the message.

"So it's a very effective mode of presenting this material," Cockrell said, "and the Russian students are very interested in not only project management, but talking to an American about life in the Midwest."

Though the students do not speak English as a first language, they are required to be proficient in it to be able to take the class, Cockrell said. This is the sixth year he's offered the seminar to SUAI students.

In 2003, Indiana State and SUAI entered into a cooperative agreement, which included the seminar, Bobovich said. He facilitates the class in St. Petersburg as Cockrell talks to the students from Terre Haute. More than 100 students have taken Cockrell's seminar.

"I hope we will continue this seminar in the future," Bobovich said. "Many Russian students want to take Gerald's seminar."

During one class session in early December, Cockrell logged onto the Internet and connected with Bobovich. An image of a Russian classroom filled up Cockrell's computer screen as Bobovich greeted his counterpart at ISU. The two friends then talked briefly - about the weather, the upcoming Christmas season, the semester's end at ISU and an upcoming event at SUAI - before Bobovich introduced the class and Cockrell began teaching the students.

As Cockrell spoke, students at SUAI watched him on the television screen set up for the lectures. They are free to ask questions about any topic, Bobovich said. As the seminar progresses through the year, Cockrell said that students will sometimes ask him about life in the United States, such as about politics or events in the news.

Some people at SUAI even had the chance to see Indiana State first-hand. In October, a group of 10 students and faculty from the Russian university, including Bobovich, visited the United States on a trip that included a stop in the Wabash Valley for several days. Their visit included some recreational stops, such as to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Fowler Park Pioneer Village, along with academic presentations and a roundtable discussion at ISU.

"We try to give them a flavor of what life is like in Middle America," Cockrell said.

In March 2009, SUAI awarded an honorary doctorate to Cockrell. He traveled to St. Petersburg to receive the award and speak during SUAI's commencement. He also speaks regularly to SUAI faculty via the internet; in mid-December, he will give a brief speech during a research conference at the university.

While the semester is preparing to wind down, though, Cockrell's class with Russian students is just starting. He will speak to the current class twice a month from now until the class ends in April.

"So as a teacher, I get a lot out of that," Cockrell said of teaching the course. "I get a lot of joy because it's what I do. I transfer knowledge."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/1118068772_McpaV-L.jpg (Courtesy Photo)
The students from Indiana State University professor Gerald Cockrell's seminar on project management pose with their certificates from the class. Cockrell, on the television screen, teaches the class via the Internet to students at St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation in Russia.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/1116702236_G2TdG-L.jpg (Courtesy Photo)
Indiana State University professor Gerald Cockrell, on the television screen, talks via webcam to Alex Bobovich, professor at St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation. Cockrell teaches a seminar to students at SUAI via the Internet.

Contact: Gerald Cockrell, chair of the department of built environment, College of Technology, Indiana State University, 812-237-3394 or gerald.cockrell@indstate.edu.

Writer: Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or austin.arceo-negrich@indstate.edu.