UMSN Technology Connects Michigan and Haiti

A pilot program allows community health nursing students to videoconference with global peers.

“Let’s start with a weather report,” said UMSN lecturer Norma J. Sarkar, MPH, RN, at the beginning of a videoconferencing session with 8 University of Michigan School of Nursing (UMSN) students on campus in Ann Arbor and 14 Faculty of Nursing Science of the Episcopal University of Haiti (FSIL) students in Léogâne, Haiti. “It’s only 40 degrees here, but nice. It’s good videoconferencing weather.”

“It’s 80 here,” responded FSIL’s Dean Hilda Alcindor, BA, RN, with a laugh. The conversation quickly turned to the lesson plan.

UMSN-Haiti Student VideoconferenceEach week the students examined various components of a community assessment such as safety, transportation, and health and social services. The UMSN students researched those topics in Southeast Michigan communities including Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Saline, and Taylor. The UMSN students also shared their results on a course blog. “It’s been interesting for the students to see how different these communities are, even though they may be relatively close geographically,” said Sarkar. “Instead of thinking of that patient in a bed, they’re assessing a community and how it impacts health.”

Meanwhile, the FSIL students focused on the same topics in Haiti, and compared them to details from the Michigan communities during the videoconferencing sessions. Students from each side assigned to the same topics are partnered up and communicate via e-mail between sessions.

Sarkar oversees the pilot project for one section of N456 Community Health Nursing, coordinated by Clinical Assistant Professor Rosemary Ziemba, Ph.D., RN. Sarkar was inspired to create an international experience for the undergraduates after a trip to Ghana with UMSN Second Career Program students. “I thought the undergrads should get the same opportunity,” said Sarkar.

Haiti seemed a natural fit because of UMSN’s longstanding ties to the Caribbean nation, including an annual fundraiser held by the University of Michigan Student Nurses’ Association (SNA) for FSIL. Sarkar saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the universities. “Unfortunately, Haiti became travel-restricted for undergrads by the university,” she said. U-M made the decision in February 2012 citing a high threat of violent crime, limited infrastructure, and the limited ability of police or the U.S. Embassy to respond to an emergency.

Sarkar, while still pursuing other travel opportunities for undergraduate students, learned of a grant through the Office of the Vice-Provost for International Affairs and was able to launch the videoconferencing program. Along the way, she dealt with difficult and sometimes unpredicted obstacles, including complications from Haiti’s fragile infrastructure that Sarkar saw first-hand when she traveled to Haiti to set up FSIL’s end of the connection.

The video connection struggled during bad weather – a reason why opening weather reports were more than trivial chit chat – and students sometimes had difficulty conversing due to the language barrier. The FSIL students speak mostly French or Haitian Creole but practice their English during the sessions. To maximize the impact of the sessions, lesson plans and reports were sent through email ahead of time to assist communication. Dean Hilda also assisted with translations.

While some of the UMSN students expressed frustration at the technological difficulties, most agreed the spontaneous dialogue was the most valuable part of the session, and they would like to see more of it in future sessions. “I feel like it’s the most beneficial when we ask questions back and forth,” said UMSN student Erica Worrell.

“I like knowing more about the individual person, like how the transportation issues impact their lives as nursing students,” agreed UMSN student Angela Wan.

“I’d like to know more about their clinical experiences and backgrounds,” said UMSN student Kathryn Hildreth.

Philomena Meechan, part of U-M’s Language Resource Center, served as the Instructional Learning Lead for the project and assisted in both the setup and weekly execution of the sessions.

The faculty members are hoping this videoconferencing project will be just the start of expanding the international experience for students in this course. “We’re hoping to integrate more global health concepts,” said Dr. Ziemba. “All you need to do is think about a flu pandemic, HIV, hepatitis or any number of concerns about the spread of infectious diseases. We also have common challenges related to the environment and chronic illness, and that gives the global component a valued place in this course.”



 Written by: Jaime Meyers. Photos: Steve Kuzma. Please contact the UMSN Marketing and Communications office with questions.