Every summer, more than 150 students from around the world come to Brno to study at Masaryk University’s (MU) summer schools. This year, however, the university had to cancel practically all of them due to the coronavirus pandemic and related travel restrictions. Nonetheless, three summer schools were held online, a first for MU. They were attended by more than 30 students from 12 countries, including Switzerland, Iraq, the USA, Spain, and Hong Kong. Although they did not get the chance to explore Brno, for many it was their first international experience, and they were impressed by it.
The organisers of these online summer schools had to deal with one crucial problem: picking a time when the participants would meet in virtual space. “In the end, we decided that lectures would run from two to four o’clock Central European Time. That meant students from the USA logged in from six until eight o’clock in the morning and students in Hong Kong from eight to ten in the evening,” says Erin Anna Smith, from MU’s Centre for International Cooperation, who coordinated the summer schools.
Every lecture started and closed with a strange mix of greetings – while some students greeted their classmates with the words “good evening”, those in other time zones were wishing people “good morning”. Students met for lectures every day for three weeks, during which time they had to dedicate themselves to studying, reading texts, and preparing for class discussions. At the end of the course, they created group projects and wrote essays. According to Smith, the students had to put in a lot of hard work, but, because they were highly motivated, they had no trouble passing.
The summer school organisers were pleasantly surprised by the great interest in these courses and the relative ease with which they were taught online. So, too, was Richard Turcsanyi, who taught at two of the summer schools. “Classic summer schools are based on the idea of combining teaching with other activities, such as sightseeing in Brno, visiting different international and non-profit organisations and museums, and travelling to neighbouring countries. But things were different this year because of the pandemic, and it’s probably why the students were willing to spend three weeks out of their summer holidays at home studying in front of their computer screens.”
Turcsanyi thinks it is wonderful that MU decided to test out holding online summer schools and that they turned out to be a success – largely because students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to travel to Brno could take part.
For many of the students, these summer courses were their first international experience. For some, it was even their first time having classes in English. Even though the students were not physically present in Czechia and did not get to explore Brno and MU, they did not miss out on the chance to visit international organisations: during the three-week course they took virtual tours of the United Nations (UN) Office at Vienna and Radio Free Europe in Prague, which broadcasts in many languages.
During their virtual tour of Radio Free Europe, students even met experienced professionals. For example, students enrolled in the International Relations and Threats to Global Security summer school had the chance to talk with an Afghani journalist, students from the World in Transition and Central European Transformation course spoke about the transformation process in Moldavia and Romania with a Romanian journalist, and students from the International Law and Human Rights course engaged in lively discussion with a Russian journalist.
Different time zones brought together by a shared online platform
The students, too, were happy with the summer schools. They appreciated the interesting course contents, the opportunity to meet peers from abroad, and the chance to see their field of study from an international perspective. They also learned how to use Microsoft Teams, the communication platform on which the courses were taught. Participants spoke highly of this application because they had everything in one place – video recordings of the lectures, textbook materials, journal articles, and presentations – which made working on the final group project easier.
Even though the courses were held online, the students praised how interactive they were. American Tyler Ekback, who studies at the University of Glasgow in Great Britain, applauded the amount of discussions that were held as part of the International Law and Human Rights summer school. “It was a great course, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in law, politics, international relations, and history.”
Although the biggest obstacle presented by holding the summer schools online was that students and teachers could not be in the same room together, according to Turcsanyi, turning on his computer’s camera easily helped overcome this spatial barrier and imbued the summer schools with a unique atmosphere. “During my lectures, I enjoyed seeing the environments that the students were logging in from. As monsoon rains were lashing the windows of students in Cambodia, in El Salvador a sunny day was just beginning. That’s not something you experience as a teacher standing in front of a classroom. Even though we were thousands of kilometres away from each other, we formed a community. After our three-week course came to end, we were all sorry to say good-bye and log off.”