Students reflect on US-China relations and global security in distance learning course

course 2 At the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing, Peking University professor Fan Shiming presents his remarks during a session of "The United States, China, & Global Security," a joint course taught by Stanford and Peking University via videoconference; Palo Alto, May 2016.

A new course jointly taught by Stanford and Peking University brought together students and scholars in China and the United States in dialogue using videoconferencing.

Each week during the past spring quarter, students at Stanford and Peking University (PKU) gathered in a classroom to learn, just as they would for any other course. The only difference was these students were neither in the same classroom nor on the same continent.

Despite being separated by nearly 6,000 miles, 18 students in Palo Alto and 28 students in Beijing held ‘face-to-face’ conversations via high definition videoconference in a course taught by American and Chinese scholars. On each side, they sat in a three-rowed amphitheater and looked directly ahead – not at a whiteboard – but at a screen that projects a video ‘wall’ of their colleagues at the other campus. The venue, known as a ‘Highly Immersive Classroom,’ enabled the distance learning experience between the two universities, using advanced software to create a cross-Pacific virtual classroom. The course titled The United States, China, & Global Security, led by former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and PKU professor Fan Shiming, was organized under the auspices of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative whose research focuses on security challenges in Asia with teaching as one of its core activities.

“We set out to host a course that addressed topics critical to China and the United States in a new type of classroom format,” said Eikenberry, the Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and director of the Initiative. “What resulted was a truly unique academic exchange that considered topics even beyond the bilateral relationship and carried a certain ‘Silicon Valley spirit’ being divided by an ocean yet connected through technology.”

“I loved the cybersecurity class because there was a lot of candor on both sides.”

-Shan Jee Chua, PKU graduate student

Over eight weeks, a select group of graduate students from the two universities explored a wide array of subjects related to international security, ranging from terrorism to trade and energy and the environment. The course aimed to provide students with a forum to discuss current issues in U.S.-China relations and to analyze areas that could be applied to other case studies. 

“Because each week was a different topic, it didn’t feel like I was just thinking about the United States and China again every Wednesday night,” said Sam Ide, a Stanford graduate student who studies China’s relations with Central Asia. “Each session was very interesting to me in a different way.”

Guest-taught by prominent scholars and former senior government officials from the United States and China, the course sessions allocated thirty minutes for each lecturer to present, followed by a thirty minute question-and-answer period in which students were given the opportunity to interact with the lecturers and their peers on the other campus. Lecturers from Stanford included nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and Thomas Fingar, a former deputy director at the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence; and from PKU, Dean of the School of International Studies Jia Qingguo, and arms control and disarmament expert Han Hua. All discussions were off-the-record to encourage candid exchange of ideas. 

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At Stanford's Highly Immersive Classroom in Palo Alto, students look ahead at their counterparts in Beijing.

One course session in particular resonated with students. The session, taught by Zha Daojiong, a professor of political economy at PKU and Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, focused on the changing nature and future of cybersecurity relations between China and the United States.

“I loved the cybersecurity class because there was a lot of candor on both sides,” PKU student Shan Jee Chua recalled.

Kimberly Chang, a second year Stanford graduate student in management science and engineering, noted that it was beneficial to hear the Chinese view on cyber “because most of the talk within the United States has been from an American perspective.”

“Hopefully, I'll be able to meet some of these people in real life who I've met on the 'wall.'”

-Sam Ide, Stanford graduate student

The course revealed a broader range of perspectives and provided a chance to interact first-hand with international colleagues while remaining at their home campus. Discussion amongst peers uncovered the “behind the scenes stories” and added context to media reports found online or in print, said Seung Kim, a student in Stanford’s East Asian studies program.

Besides the technology, a unique aspect of the course was its diversity. More than half of the course participants were international, representing 15 countries beyond China and the United States. That setting encouraged debate and reinforced the notion that “neither the United States nor China is the center of the universe,” said Zhu Jun Zhao, a PKU international relations student.

When students were asked what could bring about better understanding between China and the United States, continued dialogue was a common answer. The future of U.S.-China relations rests in the hands of people talking to one another: “I think we need more honest conversations,” Chang said.

And for some students, an opportunity to hold those conversations in-person may be close. Ide said he anticipates traveling to Beijing over the summer and plans to try and meet with a few of his counterparts whom he met through the course.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to meet some of these people in real life who I’ve met on the ‘wall.’”

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Video showcases SCPKU's Highly Immersive Classroom enabling co-teaching across the Pacific