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Classroom Close-up: New digital podiums connect students with top global health experts at the U.N.

Francis Barchi arranged conversations between students and global health experts through her role as a Rutgers’ United Nations faculty representative.
Photo: Carl Blesch

'I get really excited knowing that we are able to talk to the people who are really doing the work ... It makes you think about what you are doing and how you are going to bring change.'
– Daniela Ortega

When she walks up to the microphone in her classroom to question some of the United Nation’s top global health experts, Daniela Ortega is inspired to think about how she can make a difference in the world.

“I get really excited knowing that we are able to talk to the people who are really doing the work,’’ said Ortega, a junior pre-med student from Nutley, who most recently found herself talking to a senior adviser with the World Health Organization, which is part of the United Nations. “It’s an incredible experience. It makes you think about what you are doing and how you are going to bring change.’’

New digital podiums with built-in Mac computers installed in classrooms throughout Rutgers are making it possible to use the power of Skype­ to talk with scholars and top officials who work on the world stage.

Francis Barchi, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, arranged the conversations for students in her “Global Health Perspectives” course through her role as a Rutgers’ United Nations faculty representative.

The Rutgers-U.N. program, established by the Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs, selects two faculty representatives each year to build the university’s relationship with the global organization.

During her first visit to the U.N. in September, Barchi learned that the United Nations Academic Impact program offered opportunities to use Skype to bring experts into the classroom. She quickly reworked her syllabus to make time and take advantage of a powerful opportunity to engage her students.

“Many of the faculty who teach topics that deal with global issues can handle the basic content, but it is a totally different matter to hear from someone in a position of authority and responsibility on the global stage,’’ Barchi said.

Connecting with students in a large class of 80 public health and social work majors can be difficult. Bringing in world experts adds a level of engagement beyond any reading, PowerPoint slide or video and is empowering for students, she said.

Speakers this semester included Jacob Kumaresan, head of the World Health Organization’s office at the U.N.; Simon Bland, who leads the New York office for UNAIDS, the U.N. program that works to combat the spread of the disease; and Rama Lakshminarayanan, a senior adviser at the World Health Organization who specializes in reproductive and child health.

Students were able to see the U.N.’s global health experts on a large screen in their classroom, and U.N. officials were able to see and hear the students through a camera attached to the new digital classroom podium.

Student Marie Callahan talks to Rama Lakshminarayanan, a senior adviser at the World Health Organization.
Photo: Carl Blesch

“When someone of that significance is willing to talk directly to them, that sends a message about their value as learners, as part of Rutgers, and as citizens that is hard for faculty to impart on our own,’’ Barchi said.

As one of the first faculty to take advantage of the new technology to Skype with experts, Barchi is excited about the different possibilities and is hoping its use will become widespread. She envisions the technology could be used to connect students to people working in the field around the world on a range of global health issues.   

“The implications of what we might do using Skype in the classroom is pretty huge,’’ Barchi said. “The goal is to get faculty comfortable enough to do this the same way we turn out the lights, adjust the heat and bring up our PowerPoint on the projector.’’ 

She is also considering building a course tailored around the use of Skype with the U.N. that could include additional conversations with the United Nations Children’s Fund, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights and other high-ranking global experts.

The Digital Classroom Services division at Rutgers is working closely with Barchi to create a model for video conferencing that can be replicated around the university. The new digital podiums have been installed in nearly half of the 251 classrooms at Rutgers University-New Brunswick as part of an ongoing project.

The division is considering making cameras standard in all classrooms – the equipment is currently available upon request – and is working out details such as the best placement to facilitate conversations.

Marie Callahan, a junior in the School of Social Work, said she was nervous the first time she took the microphone to talk to a U.N. expert, but was thrilled Skype provided a platform and opportunity to have the conversation.

“It brings the class to life,’’ said Callahan, of Galloway Township. “Dr. Barchi provided an amazing experience to talk face to face with U.N. experts, which made class even more exciting. The conversations inspired me to want to make a difference in the world the same way as the experts we spoke to.’’

For media inquiries contact Andrea Alexander at 848-932-0556 or

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