Eight in the morning is not a favorite start time for most college students. However, the chance to video chat with peers halfway across the world has spurred Huskers enrolled in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s “Global News in the Age of Social Media” class.
Led by Gary Kebbel, professor of news-editorial in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the course connects Nebraska students with peers from Oman’s University of Nizwa for weekly chats via the video-conferencing platform Zoom. The virtual exchange provides experiential learning for students in both countries, and expands on the course outcomes of understanding media literacy and the global spread of information.
“These discussions give us a real clear example of what normal people are talking about in other countries, which is one of the emphases of the class,” Kebbel said. “This class can be taught without this (virtual exchange), but it’s certainly so much more fun and gives students a multicultural understanding.”
When the university transitioned to remote learning in March and announced an extended spring break in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, not much changed for Kebbel’s course. In fact, the Nebraska and Omani participants voted to continue the Tuesday morning sessions — even when Nebraska classes were canceled and during finals week — because they were a major highlight of the students’ week.
“I think this class has been really valuable since COVID-19 and the transition to remote learning because it is an experience that I can easily still have from my living room,” said Aaliyah Wells-Samci, a senior advertising and public relations major. “It doesn’t stop now that I am not in my classroom anymore.”
Kebbel said the pandemic and the students’ desire to continue the virtual exchange reinforces how interconnected the world is today.
“I think the situation has sort of forced this subliminal understanding that everybody is trapped in the same way at home,” he said. “The conversations have really blossomed out from there and made all of us kind of feel that we are in this together.”
This semester marks the second year Kebbel has taught the course with a virtual exchange component in partnership with his colleague Shamsudheen Arumathdathil at the University of Nizwa.
In fall 2018, Kebbel’s course launched as part of the UNL Global Virtual Project, funded by a grant from the Aspen Institute’s Stevens Initiative. After the 2018 project established a successful foundation, the Office of Global Strategies launched its own Global Virtual Classrooms grant to expand the geographic and academic scope of virtual exchanges at Nebraska. Kebbel was one of six faculty projects selected for the inaugural round of funding for 2019 and 2020.
“This group of expert faculty at UNL have leveraged technology to connect with our partners around the world and offer students impactful experiential learning that prepares them for today’s workforce,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs Josh Davis said. “These are exactly the kind of innovative learning experiences that Chancellor Green has challenged us to create as we implement UNL’s N2025 Strategic Plan, and we are proud to support Professor Kebbel in his efforts.”
Kebel’s favorite part of the virtual exchange is watching students open up during the semester — which opens with students being hyperaware of physical differences, from the casual dress in the Nebraska classroom to Omani females wearing hijabs. He said students quickly move past those superficial details and delve into open, wide-ranging discussions based on trust and a shared goal of learning about each other.
“Seeing how fast it takes them to realize that 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds are the same everywhere with the same interests and same concerns, when they end up just talking as one young person to another young person, the cultural and geographic differences between them melt away really fast,” Kebbel said.
The togetherness is what has really made this semester different from others, according to Kebbel. Students chat on a WhatsApp group to decide what they are going to talk about each week. Kebbel said that by letting the students decide the weekly topics, he ensures students have a free-flowing conversation that continues outside of the classroom.
“My favorite moment from the discussions with the Omani students has been trading different videos and YouTube channels we all get our news from with each other,” Wells-Samci said. “It was nice to know that I as well as the Omani students love to watch ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.’”
In addition to providing students with a global perspective, Kebbel says virtual exchange is a new way to eliminate the economic and logistical barriers for some students who want to learn about other cultures firsthand, but can’t study abroad. One of Kebbel’s former students even told him that the virtual exchange was the “next best thing” to traveling to Oman, and that the class provided an international experience they couldn’t have afforded any other way.
“I’m proud of Gary Kebbel and his colleague, Dr. Arumathdathil, for leading these combined Zoom calls,” said Amy Struthers, interim dean of journalism and mass communications. “The College of Journalism and Mass Communications is excited to continue offering such innovative global learning experiences for our students.”
As the semester comes to an end, Kebbel believes remote learning tactics such as Zoom meetings and video calls will continue on in higher education in the aftermath of COVID-19. He plans to incorporate the model of virtual exchange into future courses over the summer and coming school year.
“COVID-19 is going to change education forever by forcing every classroom to look beyond its boundaries. I remember a time when people talked about the fact that you should travel internationally (to) learn about differences,” Kebbel said. “Now, the importance of travel and the importance of this exchange is just the opposite — it’s to learn about commonalities.”
For more information about the Global Virtual Classrooms initiative, contact the Office of Global Strategies at firstname.lastname@example.org.