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Eugene Weekly : News : 9.4.08




Sisters in Learning

Technology aids Russian-Eugene connection

by Eva Sylwester

Galina Groza, president of the Eugene-Irkutsk Sister City Committee, has learned that  during the 20 years of cultural exchange with Irkutsk, Russia, building trust between citizens of the two cities is necessary for them to accomplish things together.

When the committee was formally established in 1988, Groza was a Russian teacher at South Eugene High School, and one of her first goals was to bring her students to visit Irkutsk. Russia was still part of the Soviet Union then and under tough economic conditions. Irkutsk’s mayor at the time was more interested in business than in educational exchange, Groza recalled. Finally he sent a group of high school students from Irkutsk to Eugene in December 1989. They stayed with Eugene families, attended South Eugene High School classes and visited the Oregon Coast. After that, Groza was able to bring groups of students to Irkutsk. 

Groza, now retired, said no one from either side has had a visa denied while traveling on behalf of the Eugene-Irkutsk Sister City Committee because of the program’s “squeaky clean” reputation. But the committee’s latest project, an online Russian language course, hopes to provide cultural exchange without anyone needing a visa. 

Tom Layton met Groza while teaching English at South Eugene, and he became involved with the Eugene-Irkutsk Sister Cities Committee after retiring from the 4J School District in 2001. During that career, he founded CyberSchool, the first public school program to offer high school credit courses over the Internet, in 1995.

Soon, Groza said, Layton began discussing distance learning with Irkutsk’s current mayor, Vladimir Yakubovsky. An Open World Leadership Program grant from the Library of Congress brought five people from Russia to Eugene for a technology workshop. 

In 2006, the committee received another Library of Congress grant for the Women as Leaders program. Nataliya Sverdolova, dean of the international department at Irkutsk State Linguistic University, came to Eugene on that grant and is now working with Layton to create an online Russian language course. 

Irkutsk is located in Siberia, near Russia’s border with Mongolia. Groza, who has been there about a dozen times, said its forests look very much like Oregon in some places. Irkutsk is also a university town like Eugene, but it has multiple universities because Russian universities tend to be small and focused on only a few disciplines.

Universities in Irkutsk do not have distance learning, Sverdolova said, and even in more high-tech Moscow, such online courses are rare. In summer 2007, Sverdolova returned to Eugene for two weeks of intensive training in computer skills. Since then, she and Layton have regularly communicated via Skype (www.skype.com), a low-cost Internet service that offers live audio and video communication from computer to computer. 

Layton and Sverdolova are designing an AP-level online Russian course using Skype, Google and YouTube. Sverdolova makes slide shows and audio recordings of Russian lessons, and Layton assembles those materials into movies. Three of Sverdolova’s colleagues at Irkutsk State Linguistic University are helping write the tests. 

Sverdolova said in a Skype interview that the course would try to give the “deepest understanding of the Russian language,” adding, “We can’t divide it from the culture.” She and Layton are assembling a collection of pictures and movies of Russia, especially of scenic Lake Baikal near Irkutsk. 

The course Layton and Sverdolova are designing is patterned on The College Board’s Advanced Placement program, which gives high school students opportunities to earn college credit by taking exams. AP foreign language courses are typically equivalent to the second year of university instruction in that language. Layton and Sverdolova are beginning by creating a Russian course at that level, and they then intend to work backwards to make courses for more introductory levels of Russian. Layton said he hopes the Russian courses will also serve as a template for online courses in more foreign languages accessible to students in any high school. 

Jennifer Topiel, executive director of communications for The College Board, said in an email that advocates of Russian language studies have been working on a pilot AP Russian course and exam for the past several years, but that the AP program currently does not have a timeline to adopt the pilot due to lack of external funding.

Groza was in Irkutsk Aug. 13-20 attending a celebration in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Eugene-Irkutsk Sister City Committee’s establishment. At the main exhibition, which included dancing and a display of photos documenting the history of the sister city relationship, Groza gave a speech and read a letter from Mayor Kitty Piercy. 

A delegation of seven citizens from Irkutsk will be visiting Eugene from Sept. 27 to Oct. 4.