Jennifer Greenwood is traveling the globe.
Since January, the UMW freshman has visited a medieval cathedral in Worcester, England; interviewed a French student at Sorbonne University in Paris; and surveyed a lush tea plantation outside Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. Before the semester’s end, she will have journeyed to more than 15 cities in 11 countries—all without ever leaving the Fredericksburg campus.
“It’s like I’m there with Dr. Rallis,” said Greenwood, who plans to major in geography because of Rallis’ class. “It’s amazing to be able to interact with someone who is across the globe. I’m able to connect on a personal level. I’m learning while he’s learning.”
The ambitious course is the first of its kind at the university, and, to Rallis’ knowledge, may be unique throughout academia. The endeavor is one of the first launched under the Online Learning Initiative aimed at providing UMW students an exceptional liberal arts and sciences experiences in an online environment. Partial funding has been provided by the Center for International Studies, the Department of Geography and the Teaching Center. In addition, Rallis has borne some of the costs and has stayed at the home of friends and acquaintances.
He began the sessions in person in January, lecturing to his students from a traditional Monroe Hall classroom on the Fredericksburg campus. He set the stage for his upcoming travels, provided an overview of the course and got acquainted with his three classes of students while they discovered his passion for travel. Then, he boarded a plane from Virginia for two weeks in England, three days in Paris and eight days in Istanbul. In subsequent weeks, he journeyed to Rwanda and South Africa’s Johannesburg and Cape Town. From there, he flew more than 6,000 miles to Malaysia and will conduct his remaining classes from Penang, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and China.
He meets the evening classes for two and a half hours each week, streaming live through an online teaching/conferencing site called Adobe Connect. The students join the sessions wherever their laptops travel, whether with a small group over coffee in Eagle’s Nest or alone in pajamas in the comfort of a dorm rooms. As Rallis questions his class, they respond to him or other classmates through an online chat room. Photographs or videos that Rallis has taken of the region augment class discussions. After class, Rallis stays in touch via Twitter, YouTube videos and blog posts where he issues class challenges, updates students on his adventures and shares his insights on food, politics and religion of the region’s inhabitants.
A native of South Africa, Rallis is an avid traveler and photographer who has led 16 or more study abroad trips to such exotic locations as Cambodia, South Africa and Madagascar. He’s an expert on apartheid and many of the political and cultural developments throughout the world.
Rallis has taught world regional geography face-to-face for the past 14 years, but has tested the feasibility of a virtual course since 2008 when conducted geography lectures from Guangzhou, China. Then, he relied on an unpredictable Internet connection and PowerPoint slides to deliver his lessons.
Five years later with much-improved technology, Rallis has experienced few technological issues. But he’s learned that “live” classes don’t stick to a course outline.
“The real world doesn’t present itself in syllabus-ready format,” said Rallis. “And learning in it is a vastly different experience from learning from the systematically argued pages of a conventional college textbook.”
During the first sessions, the six-to-eight hour time differences between the U.S. and his location tested his classroom delivery. He quickly adapted, conducting field work, taking photographs and capturing video to spark class discussions that he delivered in the wee hours of the morning from his hotel room. And his 18-hour flight from Johannesburg to the Malaysian island of Penang allowed him only 15 hours to recover from jet lag before class.
Despite any challenges, Rallis has learned as much from the experience as his students.
“It has helped me to be observant and to think about what I am seeing as I travel,” said Rallis. “As I walked around Worcester, Paris and Istanbul, I found myself constantly thinking about how I could use what I was experiencing at the time as a teachable moment.”
Serendipity has led to the most compelling class experiences. In England, a church service at a Worcester cathedral sparked a lesson on the roles of religion in the U.S. and Europe. In Paris, Rallis met a second-year French student at the Sorbonne, and, in Istanbul, he encountered a recent UMW alumna traveling in Turkey.
In turn, Rallis has witnessed a level of student engagement unlike any he’s experienced during his 25 years of teaching.
Freshman Sequoi Phipps said she’s learning about the world unlike a conventional geography class.
“Dr. Rallis pulls from every area,” she said. “We don’t just look at geography and the architecture and the people. We look at the culture and how people interact with other cultures. He makes you think from so many angles.”
Elementary education major Abigail Fleming agrees.
“The way he teaches is unlike any professor I’ve had,” she said. “He makes you think in a completely different way about the world. Perspective is huge in this class.”