Considerations When Teaching Across Continents

Many Duke courses offered to global learners involve learners and instructors located both on-campus at Duke and around the world. However, simply putting learning materials online and having web/video conferencing available doesn’t ensure effective online teaching and learning. Four key elements of course design considerations should be addressed to provide a solid foundation for effective global courses:

  1. Course format and learning activities
  2. Communication and interaction
  3. Inclusion and diversity of culture and language
  4. Technology

Course format and learning activities

Consider articulating learning goals and outcomes first, and then choosing appropriate course format and learning activities.

Some instructors have chosen to use a hybrid course form which is structured to deliver the majority of developed instructional material asynchronously online, while synchronous sessions are held so learners and instructors can interact in real time. If you are considering having a synchronous component to increase interaction and real time activities for a global course, make sure you can articulate a learning goal for having a live session and then determine how often, and how to run it. A live session can be done well or poorly, and a poor session is arguably worse than no session at all.  If the main purpose of a live session is for lecturing, for having students  discuss  content covered in videos or in any online lecture formats, you might consider using alternative asynchronous methods e.g. asynchronous online discussion forums or social media tools.

This Faculty Focus article  provides the steps you can take to run synchronous class sessions that are energetic, interactive, and productive.

The instructors in the revised course, Infectious Disease Epidemiology in Global Settings from the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI)have developed some activities to facilitate meaningful and effective live sessions such as “think-pair-share”, team debates, “elevator pitch/talks,” progressive case studies, and using the feedback from quick formative assessments to guide the live session discussions.

Communication and interaction

Consider choosing good communication and interaction strategies to build  opportunities for interaction throughout a course.  

  • Build a learning community, e.g. assign students to work on group projects which provide opportunities for them to support and learn from each other.
  • Set up virtual “coffee klatches” where students can participate in chats about pre-selected topics. You could assign students topics to research and present for discussion.
  • Offer one-on-one “office hours” via WebEx, Skype, or even chat. This can be especially useful as students are selecting topics for presentations or other significant course work.
  • Set up meaningful discussion forums. Based on recent research on online learning, [Orlando, J. (2017) and Zhou, H. (2015)]  students learned more when forum activities were task-based and not simply discussions. For example, post a problem for students to solve that could have multiple valid solutions based on differing processes or methods. – and then tell students to work together to solve it instead of simply posting a question for them to answer. In Dr. Jim Zhang’s Global Environmental Health Problems Principles and Case Studies course, students found the discussion forums valuable for learning and wished more substantive interaction with their peers. One of Zhang’s student commented, “I liked the video lectures and the discussion forum where I felt the sense of global community and learned how the topics discussed in the lecture were affecting the communities that my classmates were from.

Inclusion and diversity of cultures,  languages and perspectives

Consider tools and strategies that support inclusion and diversity. Student linguistic and cultural backgrounds are strong determinants on their perspectives will affect the learning process.  

  • Pay attention to cultural norms. Remember that your global students have different cultural knowledge, different ideas of appropriate humor, and different educational backgrounds. Humor and references to current events in the US can be particularly problematic for international learners.
  • Integrate globally relevant content. As William Williamson, Ed.D. pointed out “Designing and delivering globally relevant content isn’t solely, or even primarily for the benefit of our international learners. Part of our mission at Duke is to help our students become global citizens who are able to thrive in the global community. We need to carefully take advantage of every opportunity to help our students develop a truly global perspective.” For example, In Fall 2015 when Professor Queen Utley-Smith, Ed.D., RN, CNE, ANEF taught her Duke online nursing course, N502, Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, she had graduate students from Duke Kunshan University’s Master of Science in Global Health program enrolled.  She asked the Duke Kunshan students to contribute their perspectives and engage with U.S. students in the discussion forum. “Students willingly offer ideas and healthcare solutions for their country’s population, as well as, receive possible solutions from our side of the ocean that might be found workable in China.” The faculty and the U.S. students appreciated how the students in China added a global dimensions to the class discussion. In Fall 2016 Utley-Smith integrated even more global components in the revised and enhanced course .
  • Authenticity: Collaborate with global partners to bring in local perspectives including real world case studies.The Infectious Disease Epidemiology in Global Settings course includes quite a number of expert interviews and videos documenting actual fieldwork, such as “Conducting Outbreak Investigations (CDC case study of typhoid in Tajikistan)”, “Field Entomology in Kenya” and “Field Visit for Surveillance in Sri Lanka.” The students found exposure to authentic casework increased their understanding by providing applied examples of course concepts.


Consider providing flexibility, accessibility and alternatives to single technological solutions; technology that works in the U.S. doesn’t always work in other countries. 

  • Don’t assume:  give the learners flexibility in how they consume their learning content by providing alternatives. For example, we enabled a “progressive download” for our video streaming system,  WarpWire, to address internet bandwidth constraints for learners in Kenya. YouTube is unavailable in China, so make sure it’s not the only video streaming method when you have learners in China.
  • Whenever possible, make pdfs of the slide decks used in your videos, along with making a transcript available for download. Use closed captioning for videos whenever possible.
  • Provide a backup plan, such as adding videos to Duke Box allowing learners to download them and watch offline.
  • Provide guest account access options e.g. Duke Onelink to non-Duke learners.
  • Address web accessibility compliance -Follow the best practices and guidelines of universal design to make learning as accessible as possible.
  • Make all content as mobile friendly as possible. In a  2016 study researchers found that 59% percent of online students said they completed at least some coursework on a mobile device. In some countries in Africa, cellular service has greater penetration and higher reliability than internet service. Wendy O’Meara, PhD noted that in her course learners in Kenya used tablets with SIM cards to access course content and take quizzes. Making content, including assessments, mobile friendly is extremely important. In O’Meara’s course we followed the video design template for producing mobile friendly videos and included captioning. More tips at “Five Tips for Designing Mobile-Friendly Content.”
  • If you use Eastern time when setting submission parameters in Sakai, remind learners in other time zones to adjust their local times accordingly. An alternative is simply to use Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

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