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Credit: Nathan Adler

Due to pandemic-related travel suspensions, Penn Abroad redesigned Penn Global Seminars to include the international component of the courses virtually — with participating faculty and students deeming it to be a great success.

While Penn Global Seminars include an abroad component either during winter break, spring break, or summer break, where students visit the country they learn about in class, the courses now follow a Collaborative Online International Learning format. 

Under this new format, PGS-COIL courses incorporate virtual tours of historic sites, virtual talks with academics and locals from foreign nations, and collaborative projects with college students from around the world. The courses are uniquely offered without any program fee or separate application through the Penn Abroad website.

The most notable characteristic of the traditional COIL format is that there is a parallel class meeting with students from another culture with various opportunities throughout the semester for students to engage with each other, according to Penn Abroad's Assistant Director for Global Seminars Laurie Jensen.

While Jensen said that Penn Abroad did not mandate the traditional aspects of COIL as a course requirement, they encouraged faculty to "get creative" with their course formats this semester. The international component in each of the seven courses being offered this semester are slightly different because the courses had already been set before the University's transition to virtual learning, and also because professors are still adjusting to the online format, she explained. 

Some professors who are currently teaching PGS-COIL courses described the varying ways they shaped the collaborative virtual landscape of their abroad portion.

Critical Writing lecturer Aurora MacRae-Crerar said she is taking advantage of her connections in academia and research while teaching her writing seminar, WRIT 012: "Communicating Change in Mongolia." Despite the 13-hour time difference between Mongolia and the United States, MacRae-Crerar said she found it easier than expected to find colleagues who are not just from Mongolia, but from all over the world, to give guest lectures. 

With the virtual format, she believes her class has gotten a unique chance to connect with a diverse array of people.

“It’s not ideal to be going to all of college on Zoom, but I do think Zoom is pretty amazing, in terms that it’s like a time machine or a teleporter,” MacRae-Crerar said. “We’re compounding time and space, and are able to interact together in this virtual world from different places all over the globe and time zones.”

Jensen agreed with MacRae-Crerar, emphasizing that virtual learning allows great flexibility in course features.

“It helps in an odd way that we’re all already virtual, because it’s not really a huge leap to have somebody else join your Zoom room. There’s nothing higher tech about that than what you are already doing," Jensen said, agreeing with MacRae-Crerar. 

College and Wharton first year Gabrielle Coetzee, a first year in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business who is enrolled in MacRae-Crerar’s course, said she has been enjoying the virtual abroad component of the class so far and would consider taking more COIL classes in the future.

“[The PGS-COIL format] allows you to kind of still have the international aspect to the education without necessarily dedicating a bunch of weeks in your summer break to going abroad,” Coetzee said, adding that the original Penn Global Seminar format may have been limiting for people who wished to participate in local activities during the semester, rather than traveling abroad during breaks.

Like MacRae-Crerar, the Linguistic Department's American Sign Language Program Director, Jami Fisher, has been arranging meetings between colleagues in other universities to connect with her students at Penn. 

Fisher’s course, LING 079: "Disability Rights and Oppression: Experiences within Global Deaf Communities," was first offered in 2019 as a Penn Global Seminar with a study abroad component in Italy. 

Through the online PGS-COIL format, Fisher continues to incorporate the Italian deaf community members into her class through virtual question and answer sessions, while also inviting her colleagues at Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in D.C., to run simultaneous classes for their students. After teaching the course individually, the professors from both universities also meet together with Penn and Gallaudet students on Zoom every other week to discuss readings with the help of ASL interpreters. 

While she has found benefits in the virtual format, such as being able to facilitate collaboration between Penn and Gallaudet students in a virtual classroom, Fisher said there are limitations to virtual learning — particularly with sign language. 

“I think this format has allowed for this expansion of ideas and connections in ways that were not possible before,” Fisher wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “But being that sign languages rely on continuous eye contact and attention, it’s hard to maintain this in the Zoom format when the classes merge.”  

Though College senior Elizabeth Kim, who is enrolled in Fisher's course, said the virtual format was not really accessible for deaf students at first, she said there have been significant improvements and efforts on the professor's behalf to find out which learning strategies are most beneficial for deaf students.  

Kim, who was born deaf herself but wears cochlear implants that allow her to hear, said that the course was a great opportunity to meet people who are culturally deaf and that she is excited to experience this multicultural exchange between the culturally deaf American students at Gallaudet and the culturally deaf Italian community members from Rome. 

History professor Warren Breckman is also teaching a PGS-COIL course, HIST 202: "The Great War in Memoir and Memory," this semester. 

Besides organizing colleagues from Paris and Oxford University to Zoom in to his lectures as guest speakers, Breckman has also been working with local people in France to offer his students virtual tours of the region's various war sites.

Still, Breckman emphasized the importance of in-person Penn Global Seminars. 

“There’s no substitute, of course, for physically going to places,” Breckman said. “We can read in history books about the scale of these battles, but when you get onto a battlefield, and 100 years later, there are still craters that are 20 meters deep, it gives you a new appreciation for that history.”

Despite this, Breckman said the virtual format allowed students to meet different people by making it "second nature" to invite guest speakers to lectures. 

“Two years ago, when I offered this course, I could have reached out to various colleagues and said ‘Hey, I’ll come to your seminar, if you come to my seminar.’ But it didn’t even occur to me back then," Breckman said. 

From left to right: Dr. Aurora MacRae-Crerar, Dr. Warren Breckman, Dr. Jami Fisher. Each professor expressed interest in continuing to incorporate the COIL format into their courses going forward. 

The professors also said that Penn Abroad provided great communication and support while they prepared their PGS-COIL course formats, and each professor expressed interest in continuing to incorporate the COIL format into their courses going forward. 

Jensen said that the initial results and feedback for the new format have been overwhelmingly positive, especially for classes that fit better within the traditional COIL definition.

She added that Penn Abroad has been monitoring this semester's seven courses as a test for continuing PGS-COIL courses in the future, emphasizing that the format can be integrated into existing Penn Global Seminars moving forward. 

Penn Abroad is especially interested to see if these courses are getting a new demographic of students that Penn Abroad has not been able to capture, Jensen said, such as students who are not interested in physically studying abroad due to financial or time restraints. 

“Not every class has this parallel class meeting elsewhere, and those who have that have been the most successful ones," Jensen said. "I think it would be nice if that could be consistent throughout.”