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UCLA professor unites three university campuses through online class

By Suzy Strutner

Jan. 27, 2012 12:23 a.m.

Twice a week, UCLA professor Robert Goldberg lectures in three places at once.

While Goldberg gives genetic engineering lectures at UCLA, his talks are streamed live to classrooms at UC Davis and Tuskegee University in Alabama. From a high-definition television screen, Goldberg calls on students in Davis and Alabama by name, summons them to the whiteboard, and asks them to debate the morality of genetically engineered foods.

Students on each campus see video feeds of their fellow classmates. They speak into a class microphone so Goldberg and the other students can hear them, an unusual experience for the students in Goldberg’s classroom.

“At first it was intimidating, but now I’ve gotten into it,” said third-year UCLA student James Serwin about answering Goldberg’s questions before three roomfuls of peers. “I find myself formulating my answer in a way that feels more professional.”

Goldberg debuted his long-distance learning format in 2002, when his UCLA class was streamed to students in Japan. Since then, he has taught the Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Law and Agriculture course to multiple campuses during four quarters.

A grant from the National Science Foundation helped him expand his course to include other universities, so students would be exposed to viewpoints from multiple backgrounds.

The controversial nature of genetic engineering makes for rich discussion between students, Goldberg said.

“This class is not passive ““ (Goldberg) poses hard questions and makes all students participate,” said Tuskegee University professor C.S. Prakash, who leads the class at Tuskegee and occasionally gives lectures for the course. “Sometimes I forget he isn’t physically here.”

A biotechnology expert, Prakash has known Goldberg for about 20 years. Though apprehensive when his friend approached him with the idea, Prakash said collaborating with Goldberg on the course is one of the best things he has done for his students.

While Tuskegee has dedicated professors, Prakash said, the school’s small size and geographic location makes access to top-notch professors like Goldberg and his guest lecturers difficult to come by.

Lauren Lindsey, a plant and soil science graduate student at Tuskegee, is enrolled in the genetic engineering course. She said the course has made her a more active learner, since she cannot visit Goldberg’s office hours as she would if the class were taught on her campus.

“I can email (Goldberg), but I can’t rely on him,” said Lindsey. “I learn better because I’m forced to go to the library and do the research myself.”

Since he’s always been comfortable speaking in front of large groups, UC Davis student Alec Olson said he enjoys the perspective that comes from debating legal and ethical questions with two other classrooms.

“Each class kind of has their own local opinion,” Olson, a second-year genetics and computer science student, said. “It might be possible to have that diversity of ideas in a single classroom, but it’s even better to have all our opinions mixing.”

Olson said he’s looking forward to later in the quarter, when students from UC Davis and Tuskegee will join Goldberg’s students at UCLA for a week to attend classes, tour Westwood and finally meet their classmates face-to-face.

“I think more of the UCLA kids will recognize me than I’ll recognize of them,” Olson said. “The camera doesn’t zoom in on them as much as it does on us, so they’re a little fuzzier.”

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Suzy Strutner
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