Is it anxiety-inducing to teach at a university in a part of China where students have little contact with Americans — especially if you’ve never taught anywhere before? Well, yes, says Peter Jeziorek, an MIT mechanical engineering doctoral student who, with four MIT colleagues, taught for a six-week stint last summer at Qinghai University in Xining, a city in western China.
“Of course you’re nervous at first,” says Jeziorek, who taught computer science. “But after a while, you get used to it.” The students also had a confidence builder: MIT OpenCourseWare (http://ocw.mit.edu), the Web site on which the Institute is currently posting the educational materials — lecture notes, assignments, video lectures, multimedia tools, readings — from virtually all its 1800 courses.
One benefit of the site, which is being supported by both private foundations and individuals: members of the MIT group didn’t have to plan their courses from scratch. “You had the structure and the materials from OCW,” notes Jeziorek, a California native, “so you could focus on how you wanted to teach.”
Which doesn’t mean it was easy. The Institute representatives, who went under the auspices of the MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) China program, could teach in English because their students were reasonably fluent in it. But there were still language issues, says Yiqun Bai, a chemical engineering major from Ohio who taught introductory biology.
Her students, she says, were savvy about the concepts she was teaching, but vocabulary was another matter: “It was sometimes a problem for them to get past the scientific terms.”
Despite such challenges, both the U.S. and Chinese participants counted the experience a success. Qinghai, in fact, wants to make MIT OCW-based courses a regular part of its curriculum, and MISTI China is lining up more students to go there.
For Yiqun Bai, meanwhile, one lesson is that regardless what materials are available, teachers matter. “You need someone with the ability to teach the materials,” she notes.
Peter Jeziorek also learned from the experience. “We spent our free time with our students,” he notes, “and it was great to be at the heart of another culture.”