Macedonian students with Dr. Steve Faulke and Carine Ullom
A group of students from the Department of English Language and Literature at the Blaze Koneski Faculty of Philology in Skopje, in the current spring semester of the 2012/2013 academic year have the opportunity to be part of quite special and unique course, “Regions of the Balkan and the U.S.”. The course simultaneously integrates students from Ottawa University in Kansas and the English Department at UKIM. Both of the students groups are linked via an on-line academic platform called Blackboard where they have the chance to explore and learn both about U.S. and Balkan culture in general, to delve deeper into important historical moments, discover admirable geographic landscapes, get acquainted with a variety of ethnical groups and perform other creative tasks. Apart from their regular tasks, the students also communicate regularly through different technical tools like Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts.
The course is led by visiting professor at UKIM, Dr. Steven Foulke coming right from Ottawa University in Kansas and Dr. Rumena Buzarovska as a co-teacher from UKIM. The technical online support and the online training of the UKIM students is provided by Carine Ullom. Thus, we must admit, this is something quite new and different. The ongoing activities also bring within a little sense of premonition as to where the future of education in Macedonia is headed in the years to come. For more extensive information, here is some insight from Steve and Rumena.
1. What is the reason that sparkle the initiation of the special course Regions of the Balkan and the U.S.?
Dr. Steve Foulke: The short answer to the first question about the genesis for the idea of the online course linking students from UKIM with those at Ottawa University in Kansas came from my wife, Carine Ullom. A few weeks after I received notice from Fulbright that I would again be teaching in Macedonia, Carine mentioned the idea of the online course. I quickly agreed with her. We then contacted Rumena Buzarovska, and she soon warmed up to the idea.
It is worth noting that when I was at UKIM in the spring of 2007 on a Fulbright, I knew then that I wanted to bring back my experience in Macedonia to my students in Kansas. In the years following I would often make reference to Macedonia in my lectures to my students at Ottawa University, but I struggled to find a way to connect them to Macedonia. I sensed that there must be a method in which I could make Macedonia more real to them, but I really struggled find a bridge. I am convinced that this online course can create meaningful connections between students in Skopje and Ottawa University.
2. There is this experimental side of the course which we already mentioned. Can you tell us something more about it?
Dr. Steve Foulke: While the twelve students from Macedonia have not experienced online learning before, the online classroom is not a new concept. In fact, in the U.S. most students spend some time in a structured online environment during the time in school or at university. What is unusual about this course the cross-cultural dimension, particularly as it involves Macedonia and the United States. The young people from Macedonia are being asked to negotiate a new technology in a cross-cultural context – this is as close to a pioneering educational experience as these students will ever get.
Dr. Rumena Buzarovska: This is indeed the first time that such a cross-cultural learning platform has been created between Macedonian and American students, allowing them to exchange guided information about their countries and thus attain first-hand knowledge about either Macedonia or the USA. All of this takes place online, which is something that the Macedonian students have never experienced before. In fact the whole notion of the online classroom is new to them – though it is not difficult to see the future of education being transferred to this virtual environment. Even though it took a little bit of time, I see the students really warming up to it.
3. What are your expectations of the course?
Dr. Steve Foulke: I expect all of the students to participate fully and enthusiastically because I think it is clear to all that this is a unique opportunity. Beyond this, I do not know what to expect for this course in the short, medium, or long-term. We have all done a great deal of planning, and have high hopes for success, but, on the other hand, I am trying to keep my expectations in check.
Dr. Rumena Buzarovska: I have very high expectations of this course, partly because I see it as a type of guided traveling through the landscapes of Macedonia or the US, with the students themselves being the tour guides. Of course in this process both parties learn a lot not only about the culture of the new country they are exploring, but also about their own cultures. I find this notion very exciting and innovative – this is why my expectations are so high. Apart from the dedication and organization of those organizing the course – Steve, Carine and myself – things also depend very much on the students who signed up for the course – their dedication to the course and their willingness to take part in such a new experience, as well as their personalities, because a lot of the course involves communication between people who do not know each other and come from very different backgrounds. So far things are turning out very well, so I am hoping that we can continue working on similar projects in the future.
Dr. Rumena Buzarovska
4. You have been living in few countries around the globe. Can you compare living and teaching in other countries to living and teaching here in Macedonia?
Dr. Steve Foulke: This is a question that I think about quite often, and it remains difficult to answer. While the world is “connected,” there still are distinct cultures, or at least cultural qualities, in each place. Over the years I have had teaching positions in universities in Germany, Paraguay, the Republic of Macedonia, and, of course, the United States.
I have taught several times in Germany. My first time teaching in Germany was while the country was still divided, as I taught a course at a university located in Oldenburg, West Germany. Since then I have had taught four times at a university in Marburg and my experience there has been very positive. While institutions of higher education in Germany seems overly regimented at times, education is taken very seriously in the country. Those involved in higher education are accorded a degree of prestige I have not witnessed in the U.S. and other places.
I taught a month-long course at a Catholic university in Asuncion, Paraguay. The university is located in an impoverished part of the city, on the edge of a favela. The school is under guard by soldiers with automatic weapons – soldiers with machine guns are in front of every entrance. My students were from the elite of Paraguayan society. I was constantly jarred by the extremes I observed there.
I have taught at Ottawa University for nine years. The United States contains a variety of colleges and universities – public and private – large and small. Ottawa University, a private institution located in Kansas, is a small place – with about 600 students – but it provides me with the opportunity to really know my students and to teach an assortment of classes. I am an academic generalist, and I enjoy this.
Dr. Rumena Buzarovska: So far I have only taught two summer courses in Macedonian at Arizona State University in the USA. The experience was very different than teaching in Macedonia. Things are much more structured, controlled and organized. Resources are plentiful and available at all times. Teachers and administrators were much more responsible, there was never room for misinformation or miscommunication, and even students were more responsible and dedicated to learning. On the other hand, this experience made me appreciate certain aspects of Macedonian education that I previously found irritating. For example, chaos and unavailability of resources miraculously makes room for creativity. Both students and teachers can organize valuable learning activities and projects without going through all the tedious administrative processes. Also people tend to be more relaxed, which can be very positive if channeled towards innovative learning activities.
5. What do you like and dislike in the Macedonian educational environment?
Dr. Steve Foulke: The physical facilities in the English Department at UKIM make it hard for everyone – faculty, staff and students – to produce to the best of their abilities. I firmly believe that people react to their surroundings, so when tables wobble, chairs are uncomfortable, lights are dim, and floors are crumbling it is extremely difficult for everyone to deliver their best work. Nevertheless, what I appreciate about the students and professors I have come into contact with it that they all seem genuinely interested in academic work and vigilant about protecting the intellectual process. I have not met people in education in Macedonia who are willing to cut corners. It is my sense that the Republic of Macedonia remains a country of great potential, and this is especially true for those associated with higher education.
Dr. Rumena Buzarovska: I have studied and taught here almost all my life and obviously I could go on about what I like and dislike about this system forever. But I am going to try to highlight just a few points. What bothers me most is the culture of slacking in our education system. Both unprofessional teachers and students are tolerated. The deadline is a mysterious notion in our environment. Instructions are rarely provided, and as a result, students are not used to them and do not take them seriously. Another thing that really affects the way we learn and work is the unavailability of resources. Sometimes just getting a projector, functional speakers or Internet access in class is a heroic endeavor. Books and articles are also difficult to find. Then, there is always some kind of snag when trying to organize something official due to complicated and slow administrative processes. I mentioned before that strangely, all of this can make room for creativity. I have also found that students here do not get flustered and disillusioned because of these problems – their desire to learn frequently remains unaffected.
Interview done by Stefan Alievikj