Logo: University of Southern California

China Meets Taiwan in Viterbi’s “No Distance” Classroom

Imagine the best students with the best faculty — all connected around the world under the banner of USC Viterbi’s iPodia. Stephen Lu already has.
Angus Mccoll
August 08, 2011 —

Professor Stephen Lu calls it “No Distance Learning.”

This, of course, despite the fact his spring 2011 class used the USC Viterbi Distance Education Network’s telepresence capabilities to deliver content to undergraduate students spanning one island, two continents and three globally renowned universities. Lu’s iPodia class taught principle and practice of global innovation to students simultaneously in real-time at three prominent engineering schools to unite disparate learning groups in engineering collaboration in a way not previously possible.

Launched and led by Lu in spring 2010 as a joint venture between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Peking University (PKU) College of Engineering, iPodia now includes a third partner – National Taiwan University (NTU). Lu is succeeding where politicians have often stumbled bringing together young learners from both China and Taiwan to solve real world problems, while considering ways to explore cultural diversity to improve innovation. USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos and PKU Engineering Dean Shiyi Chen agree that such education collaboration is both unprecedented and promising.

Students from iPodia spring 2011: USC, Peking University and Taiwan National University.
“Shiyi’s willingness to work with USC is a key enabling factor in iPodia's success,” Yortsos recently commented during a visit to PKU’s campus. Another key enabler is an anonymous donor, a Taiwanese native with a keen interest in both engineering and improved ties between China and Taiwan. His generous gift of $1 million underwrote start-up and operational costs associated with running the program, delivering the course and hiring teaching assistants.

While in Beijing last May, Yortsos was able to witness firsthand the end of semester project interaction in which USC and NTU students come to PKU to finish their semester-long collaboration — an intense three week in-person innovation lab. Although the NTU students had not yet arrived, the dean witnessed a late night USC-PKU project session held in an off-campus innovation studio setting, an office high-rise adjacent to the PKU campus.

The innovation studio space provided a haven in which student teams were free to innovate outside of traditional engineering classrooms and lab spaces. Twenty USC students were collaborating late into the night with 20 PKU students to create innovative ideas that could improve the lives of college students through novel improvements to various processes governing life on campus. An additional 20 NTU students arrived a few days later to bring the effort to a climactic finish.

“I arrived after 10 p.m. on a Tuesday evening,” Yortsos noted, “and it seemed they were just getting started for the evening. The experience seemed to encompass the best features of both a kindergarten and Google — playful and innovative. Student cohorts were brainstorming and writing down their ideas on the studio walls and windows, while they sat on beanbag furniture and shoveled pizza. I have not seen such a burst of creative energy among our young students, except on very rare occasions.”

The following day, Yortsos attended a mid-morning iPodia class in PKU’s digital education facility. The subject for this session was transforming the current customer needs to the emerging market wants, and Lu was challenging his students from all three schools to “learn to view everything from the viewpoint of the customer, not your own preconceived point of view.” He had assigned the student teams from USC, PKU and NTU to make presentations by showing a picture of an uncommon artifact from the cultural perspective, and then having the other students figure out its purpose or uses by asking questions. The NTU students joined in the exercise live by telepresence from their classroom in Taiwan. The questions, answers and discussion were lively and reflected a great deal of curiosity and innovative thoughts. Artifacts included a traditional set of Chinese tools for eating crab, a Taiwanese duck smoker, and an American “fuzz buster” police radar detector.

“The concept of iPodia is simple, yet profound,” Lu explained. “We bring together top students from some of the best universities to take on a cutting edge topic taught by the best professor in the subject matter. Using telepresence technology we eliminate for the very first time both political borders and physical distance. We also get away from the institutional boundaries between universities and remove the distance that hinders interactive learning among students. It is borderless ‘no distance education.’”

Lu acknowledges that he is merely the first professor in what he hopes will be a long line of world-class professors teaching iPodia-style courses. He envisions a coming era in which the best students from a wider set of universities can be brought together by telepresence with the best professor qualified to teach the class with a new pedagogy.

According to Lu, the strong support of Professor Yang Wang at PKU and Professor Wei-cheng Tian at NTU were critical in this year’s iPodia success. He was also ably assisted throughout the semester by teaching assistant, Mr. Ang Liu, a Viterbi Ph.D. candidate, Mr. Matthew O’Pray, Viterbi’s director of admission, and Mr. Craig Western, the 2011 USC Salutatorian and an iPodia alumnus from spring 2010.

“We are enthusiastic to expand iPodia next year and hope to include the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Korea's finest engineering school, and Technion, Israel’s top engineering school, among a field of other globally renowned universities,” Yortsos noted during his visit to PKU.

“Imagine being at USC, one of the world’s best engineering schools, but also being able to take classes from some of the world’s best professors and learn together with the brightest youngsters at other collaborating iPodia schools worldwide. Then you can grasp the full potential of iPodia and ‘no distance learning,’” Lu muses. “This capability is a hallmark of Viterbi's globalization efforts and will definitely assure our engineering students receive the world-class education we promised them.”