Out of his Comfort (and Time) Zone

ENST professor tests waters with “instructing abroad”

ENST Professor Robert Hill (front) teaches a distance-learning course in China.

June 17, 2013

For Environmental Science & Technology Professor Robert Hill, being in two places at the same time is simply a routine part of the job. Through the magic of modern technology, Hill can teach a course inside a classroom on campus at the University of Maryland while simultaneously reaching a second set of students on the other side of the world via videoconference.

Last fall, however, Hill was challenged to step out of his comfort zone and turn the dual-teaching technique on its head. For the entire semester, Hill was the one on the other side of the globe – Northwest Agriculture & Forestry University (NWAFU) in Yangling, China to be exact – while he remotely taught students in College Park. Hill’s experience at NWAFU was to serve as a test case of sorts for other UMD faculty members interested in going abroad during the school year. “It’s very difficult during either semester for faculty to go overseas for even two or three weeks,” says Hill. “Someone has to teach the courses while they’re gone.”

A teaching assistant in College Park and broadband internet conferencing allowed Hill to teach his regular soil hydrology and physics course to UMD students and offer the same course at NWAFU. Hill also led an interactive class – Environmental Issues and Culture in USA and China – that connected 12 students from Maryland and 14 students from China through video conferencing. “I didn’t get a chance to study abroad so I wanted some way to make that connection and I read the description of the class and it sounded so cool,” says Danielle Russo, a senior Environmental Science & Technology major at UMD. Russo says when she initially signed up for the course she didn’t realize Hill would physically be going to China for the duration of the semester. “It was actually so awesome having him there because I think it really connected the class to China,” says Russo. “It was like there was a piece of us in China.”

Communicating Across Continents

Due to the time difference, students in Maryland attended class at 7 o’clock in the evening while the Chinese class met at 8 a.m. Throughout the course, students from Maryland partnered up with their Chinese counterparts in order to work on projects and presentations – exchanging email addresses, Facebook accounts and Skype IDs to facilitate communication. At times, Hill and the other instructors would leave the classrooms to allow the students in both America and China to talk freely with each other. “I think they were kind of scared to speak with us at first,” says Russo. “Around the (Presidential) election though, they had a lot of questions about that.” “I found that the students of USA are always active -- not only their behaviors but also their thoughts. They always learn what they want rather than what they should,” says Bowen Wang, a NWAFU student majoring in graphic information systems. Yuan Ruina, a graduate student studying soil science at NWAFU, also enjoyed the interaction with UMD students: “I learned a lot from my American classmates, such as humor, open-mindedness, rigorous thinking and teamwork,” Yuan says.

For the American students, Hill’s cross-continental course offered exposure to another culture without the costs and time commitments associated with traveling abroad. For the Chinese, however, it provided a chance to practice their English-speaking skills and interact with an American professor – highly valued experiences that aren’t abundant in this rural region of China where the nearest city, Xian, is 50 miles away. “They start taking English at a very early age but the problem is they rarely get an opportunity to speak it so their communications skills are not that good,” says Hill. “To have a course taught to them by a native-speaking English instructor is a big deal to them.”

Aside from interacting with students from another country and immersing himself in the Chinese culture, one of Hill’s primary reasons for spending several months at NWAFU was to pursue research interests and establish connections with scientists at the prestigious National Key Laboratories, which receive funding and support from the Chinese government. While working in the country, Hill was able to travel to several research stations to examine projects dealing with issues such as water storage in soils, increasing water use efficiency for crop growth in dryland environments, and methods to reduce wind and water erosion.

Overcoming Obstacles

Hill admits juggling the responsibilities that come with spending a semester abroad was not without challenges. In order to keep up with classes on both continents, he was literally teaching around the clock – finishing up with UMD students sometimes after 11 at night and then rising with the sun to prepare for his course offered early in the morning on NWAFU’s campus.

Communication difficulties also cropped up during the course Hill instructed remotely to students in Maryland. Although NWAFU has a reasonably fast internet connection during the daytime, it becomes bogged down in the evenings when students are out of class and logging on in larger numbers. The course Hill was teaching to UMD was delivered at 10 p.m. Chinese time and as a result, the internet connection often broke up or failed during Hill’s lectures. “They (UMD students) are not used to dealing with unreliable internet connections and they quickly lost patience,” Hill says. “There are definitely some bugs to be worked out.”

Before spending the fall at NWAFU, Hill had only traveled to China twice before for fairly brief visits. Relocating to the country for several months created logistical obstacles he hadn’t anticipated. For example, when Hurricane Sandy was approaching the East Coast of the United States, all Hill could do was hope his house would hold up. “I wasn’t sure what would happen during the storm and I was totally helpless to do anything about it,” he says. “Simple things can become big problems when you’re so far away.”

Fortunately Hill’s home survived the storm unscathed and despite the various stumbling blocks, he says he found his overall instructing abroad experience rewarding and would be open to doing it again. “When you go for a very short period of time, you don’t get much exposure to the culture where as if you stay longer you become more integrated and gain a better understanding of the culture and the students and the way they do business, their education system,” Hill says.

For students under his tutelage in both the United States and China, Hill’s efforts allowed them to bridge the gap between their two cultures without ever having to leave home. “It was maybe my favorite class I’ve ever taken here and I think (Professor Hill) is a great person to be doing this,” says Russo. “To me he’s just so American.”