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Week of 28 March 2003· Vol. VI, No. 26

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Live, from Beijing
BU and prospective TAs hook up in virtual interviews

By Brian Fitzgerald

BU professors talk to potential teaching assistants from China -- the other half of a roundtable discussion -- some 6,800 miles away. Photo by Jennifer T.


BU professors talk to potential teaching assistants from China -- the other half of a roundtable discussion -- some 6,800 miles away. Photo by Jennifer T.


Speaking face-to-face -- even though about 6,800 miles apart -- Boston University professors and potential BU graduate students from China have been getting to know one another for the past three months through videoconferencing technology and the Internet.

They have been conducting virtual interviews to see whether or not they are a good match: BU evaluates the students’ academic skills and mastery of the English language, and the students, in turn, ask questions about the University. And with a 13-hour time difference, it may be a long way from Boston to Beijing, but the meetings, involving the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, went “extremely well, and proved to be a valuable resource tool for recruiting students,” according to Carol Pineiro, a senior lecturer at the Center for English Language and Orientation Programs (CELOP).

Pineiro, who evaluates the English skills of the applicants, says that the interviews enable her to determine if these future teaching fellows are able to communicate well enough to supervise labs and lead class discussions.
“Last year, we had a pilot run, and the CAS chemistry department interviewed a few students in Beijing,” says Pineiro. “This year, we saw students in both Beijing and Shanghai. The chemistry department interviewed 49 students, the physics department interviewed 38, and the College of Engineering 10, for a total of 97. The professors I worked with say it takes the guesswork out of accepting international students. They can see and hear them, and ask questions that are not on the application. I think this gives the professors a better sense of what the candidates are like and how well they would fit into a lab or research group.”

Professor John Straub, director of graduate studies in the chemistry department, piloted the project with Pineiro last March. “International students are an important source of talent for our department,” he says, “and this was a chance for us to talk with them about their research interests and to recruit the best students. We were looking for a better way to determine the qualifications of the candidates, and we were also looking for another way for us to promote the strengths of the department and the quality of our graduate program.”

At the Access Grid Conference Facility at 111 Cummington St., members of the admissions committees “met” with the applicants at 7 a.m., which was 8 p.m. in China. The Access Grid is an ensemble of resources used to support group-to-group communication on the Internet. At present, there are 100 such fully operational sites in the United States and more than 20 international sites. “Last year, BU was the first university to use the Access Grid to interview graduate students,” says Jennifer Teig von Hoffman, project manager of the Scientific Computing and Visualization Group at BU’s Office of Information Technology. Teig von Hoffman, who operated the computer, video, and audio equipment during the interviews, says that this year, Indiana University and the University of Texas at Austin have also begun to use the technology for the same purpose.

“Reviewing applications, essays, and scores is not enough to make informed decisions in the case of international students,” says Assistant Professor Jonathan Lee, a member of the chemistry department’s admissions committee. “Actually seeing and hearing them speak about a subject area gives the admissions committee a much better idea of what they know and how well they are able to express that knowledge.”

Physics admissions committee member Ulrich Heintz, an assistant professor, says that most of the candidates can speak English, but some students who expect to teach undergraduates “have had little contact with people who speak native English. As a minimum requirement, we want to make sure they not only have adequate knowledge of the English language, but can use it effectively in a classroom setting.” He says that the national Test on English as a Foreign Language “doesn’t tell reliably whether or not they’ll be able to communicate effectively as a teacher.”

While large urban learning institutions are by their very nature cosmopolitan and enroll many international students, in colleges and universities across the country the ability of teaching fellows to speak English well enough to communicate with their students has been an increasing source of concern over the years. A 2000 Harvard University study linked language barriers between some international professors and their students to lower grades.
The professors all agree that even graduate students who can speak fluent English may still not be qualified to teach. Graduate Record Examination scores “don’t always reflect the students’ working knowledge of physics, especially in the experimental context,” says Heintz. “If you want to apply the knowledge to research, it’s really a whole different ball game from just being able to solve problems and perform well on a test.”

Straub says that the interviews “worked well in every way,” and the program “could possibly be extended to recruit students in other parts of Asia and Europe in the future.”

To be sure, other universities are interested in the technology. At CELOP on May 9, Pineiro will demonstrate the Access Grid at a meeting of the New England International Teaching Assistant Network (NEITAN). Members of NEITAN help international graduate students improve their English and teaching skills after they arrive. The demonstration will include trainers from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Northeastern, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth, UConn, the University of Rhode Island, and Brown.

Pineiro says that word of the advantages of using the Access Grid -- especially in cases where travel is not practical -- is spreading in the world of higher education. “I imagine that even more BU departments may request the service next year,” she says.


28 March 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations