For the first time in Cornell’s history, an undergraduate course is being taught via remote learning technology, allowing second-year premedical students overseas to participate in Prof. James Maas’s legendary Psych 101 class. Maas, psychology, has been hosting this exchange since the beginning of the semester, recording all Ithaca lectures and sending them, over satellite, to the Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha, Qatar.
Maas was present in Doha during the inauguration ceremonies for President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 and spent much of his time this past weekend giving lectures and participating in discussions with his students.
There are 22 men and women in this select group for whom the Psych 101 class is now a requirement for graduation. This is a far cry from the lectures taught in the filled-to-capacity Statler Auditorium, in which nearly 900 Cornell undergraduates attend Maas’s lectures. After teaching Psych 101 for 40 years, Maas said he was “excited at the challenge” of a new approach to teaching the course.
In addition to three weekly lectures, there are weekly discussion sections in which Maas uses video-conferencing technology in his office. During this time, students ask questions and perform small experiments, and Maas clarifies points from the week’s lectures. Advanced technology allows this revolutionary type of teaching to take place, explained John Ruffing, the project manager in the Office of Academic Computing at Weill Medical College.
Ruffing, Maas and Daniel Alonso, dean of the Qatar medical school, began planning the logistics for this course late last spring. Because of the recent renovations in Statler Auditorium, Maas and his assistants had to transfer his old analog slides and video to digital media programs that would be compatible with Statler Auditorium’s more modern technology. “He can now deliver an entire presentation from his laptop,” Ruffing said.
Although the technology used on either end is relatively straightforward, getting the systems to cooperate can be a bit complicated. “Interaction [with IT teams in Qatar] certainly helps bridge the inevitable gaps that emerge — over thousands of miles, eight time zones and a different cultural context,” Ruffing said.
Matt McRae ’03 was a student in Psych 101 during his freshman year. He is now in Doha acting as Prof. Maas’ teaching assistant, having taken the position because he enjoys the course material and has an interest in teaching. McRae said he has been struck by “the amazing amount of similarity and the important differences between this Arab nation’s outlook on family, state, health care and religion, and a typically Western view.”
Maas echoed this sentiment after returning from his 48-hour trip to Doha. Between the two sets of students in Psych 101, “there are more similarities than there are differences,” Maas said. “Under the veil they’re very much like Cornell undergraduates — lots of fun and sleep-deprived.”
Subhi al-Aref ’08, a student in Maas’ class, said that he enjoys most aspects of the class but the distance does have its toll. “The course is very exciting — but sometimes you can’t ignore the negative sides of having to take a lecture with the professor several thousand miles away from you,” al-Aref said. Although he and his classmates can submit questions to the TA, “many questions are never answered.” The time difference and cost prohibit frequent phone calls, so e-mail is the main form of communication between Maas and the students.
Despite some minor technical problems, most of which were fixed by the third week of classes, the students were “appreciative that they were being given this opportunity right in their homeland,” Maas said. Additional medical school curriculum will be brought to Qatar next fall using even more advanced technology, from both the New York City and Ithaca campuses.
“When this started out I didn’t think it was going to work, [but] now I am totally sold on it,” Maas said after administering his first “deculturized” prelim to students on opposite sides of the world.
Archived article by Melissa Korn