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Interview with Andrea Peto, Ph.D., Professor of Gender Studies at Central European University

About Andrea Peto, Ph.D.

Dr. Andrea Peto is a Professor of Gender Studies at Central European University, though several European and North American colleges have offered her guest professorships in gendered memory, oral history, and the Holocaust. She was awarded a German Academic Exchange Service professorship at the University of Frankfurt, and a Teaching Fellowship at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation. Dr. Peto has extensive experience delivering lectures in English and her native Hungarian within international learning environments. She participated in a global research seminar investigating how various cultures archive information about the Holocaust. The project was conducted online in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and, separately, Smith College.

Dr. Peto previously served as co-president of AtGender—the European Association for Gender Research, Education, and Documentation—and worked to institutionalize gender studies and gender history programs across Europe. She has authored academic papers, written and edited textbooks, and created films training other instructors on the use of oral history. Additional achievements include being awarded the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit by The Republic of Hungary, and Bolyai Prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Peto holds a master’s degree and two Ph.Ds. from Eötvös University, a master’s degree from the Marx University of Economics, and a Doctor of Science from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Interview Questions

[] Can you describe your experience designing, teaching, and participating in online courses?

[Dr. Peto] Teaching international online courses is based first of all on trust. You must trust that your co-instructor prepared her teaching material when she promised to do so, trust the IT people of your university that the internet connection will be stable, and trust yourself to be able to handle several tasks at the same time: consulting with your notes, showing your teaching material, discussing the readings with your own students and the students across the ocean, and meaningfully communicating with your co-instructor on several levels during the class. And last but not least, you trust that your students will not freak out working and thinking in a classroom with three cameras and four screens.

[] What logistical challenges do global online courses pose and how can institutions address them?

[Dr. Peto] The blended online course between Central European University (CEU) and the University of Minnesota (UM) was a pioneering course. The IT departments learned by doing how to support a class like that on CEU’s side. Luckily the CEU Center for Teaching and Learning was supporting the course. When preparing an online collaborative seminar, you have to plan. Preparing a very detailed syllabus is the first step to success. The second is to calm down students who freak out reading a 15-18 page long syllabus instead of a 2-3 page one. But think ahead and put into writing everything you [and your co-instructor consider] crucial. The bottom line of thinking is: what is the pedagogical benefit of having a joint classroom instead of a “normal” classroom? What can you teach this way that you otherwise cannot? If you have meaningful answers to these questions, then it is worth investing all that energy in the course. And there are lots of tiny details to think of, like daylight savings, [which can pose a] major challenge when half of your class time is just gone. You should ask the students to make name cards for themselves written in legible letter size to be seen through the camera by students on the other side of the ocean.

[] Some of the courses you teach are very political in nature. What are the benefits and challenges of teaching these courses in a global program?

[Dr. Peto] Teaching critical thinking became a mantra of higher education, but how can you teach it when the fear from being graded down is very often limiting for critical minds? CEU is an international educational organization that offers an international space for English speaking education. In a typical CEU classroom, we have a maximum of 25 students from possibly 25 different countries. The difference between these CEU students and the UM students is that the UM students have been working in international classrooms during their whole educational career. For CEU students, that was their first time. Most CEU students come from countries where frontal teaching is still dominant, and discussion is not a part of the learning process. UM students learned how to learn through discussion from their early years on and in heavily competitive environment. For CEU students who were previously only graded based on written assignments prepared alone sitting in front of their computers, it was a challenge to learn through discussion and to accept that instructors can very clearly assess one’s level of preparation and depth of thinking from a single comment. Due to these differences, we offered CEU students separate face time when they could address their educational and academic concerns in a familiar setting.

[] What do you consider to be some of the most important benefits of online education, global or otherwise?

[Dr. Peto] The key point of global online collaboration is learning how to communicate ideas using different programs and platforms. Students are aware their differences, but [only experience how those] differences actually work out during their group work. Experimenting and testing your limits are crucial here. CEU students often have non-government organization (NGO) activist backgrounds and experience working in challenging countries on pioneering issues. They are not scared running against teargas, but sometimes they are totally paralyzed when in a non-hierarchical teaching situation. It is easy to declare to fight against hierarchies and discrimination, but doing it in your own educational career is more difficult.

[] What advice might you offer professors preparing to design and present their online course? Are there additional considerations with international courses?

[Dr. Peto] If you are determined enough to go for a collaborative online seminar, what you need, besides having a reliable personal and teaching partner on the other end, is a supporting institutional atmosphere. Preparing a syllabus for an online class requires at least four times more time and energy than for a traditional class. You have to assess all possible risks and outcomes of every five-minute slot in your class. Prepare for at least three scenarios. The first is the Armageddon scenario when, for example, the connection does not work because, as it happened, the internet cables were cut in the ocean, or the provider had major tests running at the same time as your class. The second is the ideal plan: when everything goes as planned, the technology works, the students are active and prepared, and you have a class that energizes you till the next meeting. The third is that the class just goes on as planned. You must be flexible, but the joy and the improvement in students’ knowledge are all worth it.

[] As a professor at an international university who has participated in international projects online, what are the most significant trends you see driving or emerging in online education today?

[Dr. Peto] I see two trends developing. One is the spreading of MOOCS, for several reasons: a need for institutional branding and [the reality that] replacing “living faculty” with “recorded faculty” in some disciplines is cheaper. On the other hand, experimental and micro projects like my teaching experience with UM or Smith College are opening up a totally different possibility for progressive pedagogy. It is great fun and a very different approach to teaching, but one I only recommend for the brave and daring.