Black boxes turn into the faces of young people from Brazil, Mexico and the United States as a Zoom fills up with students ready to make their final presentations.
They are studying biodiversity and have been paired up with peers in other countries to analyze and present on some of nature’s most complex relationships.
Professors and students exchange words in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The class from Mexico experienced a time change last night, someone explains, and is running late.
Christopher Baraloto, a professor of biological sciences at FIU, addresses the online assembly on behalf of the instructors: “We want every member of the group to present some piece. Mostly what we want to do is provide some comments on how you put the presentations together. Don’t worry about your grade. Relax, have a good time with this, and let’s try to learn together.”
The slideshows commence. One group talks about the diversity of soils and how temperature affects them in different climates. The next describes the nuanced relationships between ants and plants in various habitats.
“Some ants use plants against predators,” says Thiago Cobra e Monteiro from São Paulo State University. “Others take advantage of flowers and sterilize the plant.”
The native English speakers jump in occasionally to help their foreign partners finish their sentences. Fellow students ask questions of the presenters, and then faculty give feedback.
In virtual rooms like these, FIU students are learning collaborative skills they might need down the road as they interact with professionals of various backgrounds and countries of origins.
“You will find this type of diversity in your fields,” Baraloto tells the students of those whom they are meeting and learning from via the internet. “And this experience will make you ready to work with others.”
The project is one of nearly 100 that FIU has participated in since first engaging in 2017 with Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), an approach to technology-enabled global learning that got its start at the State University of New York.
The goal: unite students and faculty from around the globe over the study of common interests to promote, integrate and enhance international education.
“Collaboration doesn’t happen by default,” says FIU COIL Director Stephanie Doscher, who is helping make linkages around the globe in the interest of helping young people develop teamwork skills based on an appreciation of differences in cultures and experience. “It happens by design.”
The projects last anywhere from three weeks to a semester. FIU students and professors have connected with classrooms in Canada, Honduras, Peru, Italy, Algeria, Lebanon and Japan, among others. They have studied tourism, culture, law, gender issues, business, language and more.
Senior English major Dante Nahai participated in a COIL with fellow Panthers and students in Colombia that examined how literary works of fantasy often rely on symbols and concepts taken from established religions to create compelling characters in pursuit of universal truths.
“It was great to hear all of the perspectives that people who grew up here maybe wouldn’t have considered,” Nahai said. “In one presentation, the students [from Colombia] brought up a goddess in Colombian folklore who was like Green Ivy in the Batman comics. It was really interesting to look at religion from a different angle."
FIU's participation in COILs has ramped up in the last year, and a standout looms on the horizon: Virtual Tabadul, a virtual reality initiative to create an English-Arabic language learning community amongst students in the United States and those in Morocco and Algeria.
FIU has also taken up training staff elsewhere to run such programs. The university is currently working with an educational organization in Chile to establish COIL across a network of 24 universities. FIU recently hosted for the third time an annual leadership institute to instruct teams in the United States and abroad on how to establish and expand COIL on their campuses.
Even during a pandemic, Panthers are making global connections.