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The new community school

USF professor David Batstone is the architect of a virtual classroom full of students on the East and West Coasts. Chinese students may soon join in.

It's midterm time, but professor David Batstone won't be grading bluebooks.

Instead the University of San Francisco professor will log onto the Web to grade students' comments and conversation in an online discussion "caf?." Among the subjects that will be covered: women and monotheism, East-West dialogue in ecology and religion, and scripture, tradition, and ecotheology.

The course, Women, Ecology, and Religion, is Batstone and partner Michael Benedict's attempt to create a virtual classroom in which students from diverse cultures, backgrounds and geographical locales can use the collaborative powers of the Web to share ideas, values, and theories about complex academic topics.

"This is what the Web originally was to created to do, to allow collaboration," said Benedict, the director of the Center for Instruction and Technology at USF. "What we did on a shoestring university budget is to create a place, a community."

The class is novel because to this point, much of online education hype has focused on technical training. The course, dubbed the Global Ethics Caf?, is one of the first collaborative Web courses to experiment with a more abstract, academic topic.

"I believe the Web is almost more powerful in those areas," said Benedict. He believes that there are a number of subjects that can truly benefit from diverse points of view. "Can you imagine having the opportunity to discuss history with students in New York and South Africa? Imagine how that changes a student's view of history and how it is created."

The Ethics Caf? uses audio, video, text, and Web sites to allow collaboration between students from University of San Francisco and Sweet Briar College in Virginia. The students, called "literati," join cafe tables to discuss ethics and create RealAudio files, case studies that describe their personal experiences, women's role in the global economy, and the environment and ethics. During class there is also a video phone that allows students to see their sister class and professors in real time, exchange portions of lectures, and answer questions.

"This is not technically motivated," said Batstone. "It was my interest to find better ways to have students learn about other systems of ethics. A traditional classroom often limits points of view. I went out searching for ways--aside from traveling--to get students to see different viewpoints."

His students agree. USF student Raphael Rivilla says he thinks the virtual class "provides with a chance to way what we want to say outside the classroom?and to view what others think about what we have to say."

Clair Farrington, another USF student, added: "There is a warmth in discovering common ground and common questions. The focus is on sharing and refining ideas through dialogue rather than absorbing great quantities of information."

Already Batstone says he has seen the difference in the attitudes and experience that students from each coast bring to the class. On the East Coast, he says, "students are much more focused on tradition, what one should do in life." The Pacific Coast students have a very different sensibility about where the future is headed. "They are much more entrepreneurial and focused on the future," he added.

To further broaden the students' perspectives, Batstone plans to collaborate with a major Chinese university this fall. He declined to reveal which university would participate since a discussion on global ethics could be a red flag for the censor-prone Communist government. But Batstone says that the Chinese university officials are very receptive to the idea. "We are not trying to proselytize or convince," he said. "It doesn't come with an agenda. This course is a discussion."