Rutgers, Michigan, Penn State students work together in distance-learning program offered by Committee on Institutional Cooperation

Ben Suh
Rutgers student Benjamin Suh makes a point during a discussion in his Korean Language and Culture in Everyday Life class. Behind Suh is a monitor linking him to his classmates at Penn State University and the University of Michigan.
Photo: Nick Romanenko

Western news media, reporting on the April 16 sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol, have framed the story in disturbing ways that sparked lively debate among students in a class on Korean language and culture – even though those students were sitting in three classrooms hundreds of miles apart.

All the students were devastated by the heart-wrenching tragedy. But they were confused by the media’s claims. Was it a case of bad luck, incompetence and bureaucratic bungling? Did the hierarchical Korean culture lead hundreds of high school students to obey the crew’s instructions rather than common sense?

Rutgers sophomore Benjamin Suh said his mother, who was born in Korea, is upset and angry. “She was like, ‘Haven’t these people ever seen the movie Titanic? If you’re on a boat and it’s sinking, you get off the boat; you don’t go back into it!’” says Suh, sitting in a language lab on College Avenue.

Suh’s classmates – four from Rutgers, seven from Penn State and four from the University of Michigan – are part of a distance-learning program called CourseShare.

CourseShare allows the 15 members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) – a consortium of top research universities, most of them also members of the Big Ten – to offer such courses in real time, for full credit. Nearly 65 less commonly taught language and culture courses – Uzbek, Czech and many others – are offered through CourseShare.

This is one of the first undergraduate distance-learning classes available to Rutgers students under the auspices of the CIC, which Rutgers joined in July 2013.

This particular class, “Korean Language and Culture in Everyday Life,” is hosted at Penn State and taught by Penn State Professor Susan Strauss, an expert in applied linguistics. From her classroom in State College, Pa., Strauss can address the Rutgers and Michigan students through monitors in their classrooms. She also can display notes and articles from her computer, like this statement from a CNN correspondent: “South Korea is a culture that prizes obeying your superiors.”  Or a Reuters report that said, “Many of the children did not question their elders as is customary in hierarchical Korean society, and paid for their obedience with their lives.”

"Which aspects of Korean culture reported by media actually help us and the world understand what happened and why? Which, instead, minimize and exoticize Korean culture?" Strauss asked the class.

Strauss encourages her students to view cultural traits and representations through a lens of critical analysis and discourse and to be keen observers of how language shapes perceptions, interactions and ideologies. The class has centered on analyzing the patterned structures, grammars and lexicons in everyday Korean and English.

She knows her students in all three locations by name and sight, making a point of interacting with each student during every class. The students at all three universities not only have a good view of her, they also can see each other. In the Rutgers classroom, Hee-Chung Chun, a lecturer in Korean who serves as proctor, is able to manipulate a camera to focus when a student speaks. Chun also can split the monitor’s screen, so that Rutgers students can see and interact with their counterparts at Michigan and Penn State simultaneously.

Strauss deliberately pairs off students in different locations to work together on projects. She and the students keep in touch via Skype, email and an online message board.

Strauss, who is teaching in the CourseShare program for the first time, has high praise for the experience. “We use the discussion board a lot – something I don’t typically do when I teach only at Penn State,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed the interactions among the students. The fact that we’re in three different places has made it really interesting.”

Joe Ponist
Joseph Ponist, audio-visual coordinator of Rutgers' language lab, explains the distance-learning set up to Hee-Chung Chun, a lecturer in Korean and the classroom proctor. The monitors show real-time images of the Penn State and Michigan classrooms. Students at those locations can view the Rutgers classroom as well.
Photo: Nick Romanenko

Coryn Klementovicz, a linguistics major in her junior year at Rutgers, said she signed up for the class because it fulfilled requirements for both her major and her minor in Asian studies.  She’s enjoyed being in Strauss’s classroom. “She’s passionate about her subject,” Klementovicz says of Strauss. “That comes through, even though we aren’t in the same room.”

Young-mee Cho, an associate professor of Asian languages at Rutgers, also teaches a class on Korean language and culture. But Cho wasn’t offering it this year, so she was pleased to see Strauss’s Penn State course on the CourseShare list.

“I knew there was interest (among students),” Cho says. “So I selected Susan’s course, because I knew what it covered.” Cho and a colleague, Suzy Kim, are Strauss’s faculty contacts at Rutgers.

In addition to Strauss’s course, Rutgers students can take courses hosted by other universities.   A political science course on Korea is scheduled for next fall, to be hosted by Ohio State University, and so is a course in Yoruba, the West African language, also hosted by Ohio State.

The CIC website hosts a portal that lists confirmed classes and classes in varying stages of collaboration. Faculty can propose courses by contacting the CIC at

“This class is the first of what we hope will be many such classes,” says Richard Edwards, executive vice president for academic affairs and interim chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Now that Rutgers is a member of the CIC – a benefit of our joining the Big Ten – our students can take advantage of courses offered at 14 other elite universities that might not be offered here, and students in those institutions can take courses here that might not be offered at their institutions.”