MANATEE -- State College of Florida professor Anna Vigliotti launched her own Internet cafe of sorts in an effort to bring students together.
Her goal was to offer more diversity than the Bradenton campus could provide, so she invited students and professors around the world to sit in on online classes and gather informally in her Professor V's Teaching Cafe.
Vigliotti launched her open-forum style website nearly six years ago when she was assigned to teach an intro to diversity class.
"I was racking my brain and planning over the summer," Vigliotti said. "'How do I get my students in a diverse arena?' It's not like grade school where you put them on a bus and take a field trip somewhere. You can't do that in college."
Vigliotti said she set up the web page and began sending invitations to all of her connections in education to join.
"I was able to just start it up and do it," Vigliotti said. "It is easy to use and set up, and I can do it without putting it in front of a board or a budget."
Vigliotti's online students have participated in lectures with the University of Michigan. Vigliotti has also partnered with professors in India and Ireland for interaction with students overseas via Skype and the website's live chat function. One of Vigliotti's classes even had a guest from the NASA Airspace Systems Program.
Professor V's Teaching Cafe has had 15,518 log-ins to date from around the world, including schools in South America, Africa, Europe and Australia.
K.P. Jaikiran, a professor
at the University College of Trivandrum India and program director for the Department of Higher Education in Kerala, India, began collaborating with Vigliotti's teaching cafe last year. His class worked with Vigliotti's class on projects for a three-credit diversity course. Vigliotti and Jaikiran were able to give assignments to each other's students."
"Students showed great enthusiasm as they commented to blogs and discussion groups," Jaikiran said.
Jaikiran remembers one weekly assignment relating to a blog post on the behavior of people in public spaces.
"The 120 comments or so from the students formed excellent reading material about how people behave in public spaces in different parts of the world," Jaikiran said. "It was a great cultural learning experience for the students. Professor Vigliotti's infectious enthusiasm was a new experience to the Indian students."
Jaikiran said one of his history students started a new group on the website about Indian history.
The platform gave Vigliotti's students an opportunity to learn philosophies of other cultures as well as simple things such as salutations.
Vigliotti continues to use her website for education, reading classes and diversity classes.
She has shipped books to schools in India and a college in Ireland giving those student an opportunity to discuss the books online with her students.
"We were able to get different perspectives throughout the world," Vigliotti said.
The book Vigliotti chose was "Anthem" by Ayn Rand.
"The chapters are small. That way we don't lose anyone. But the ideas are big," Vigliotti said. The book addresses capitalism.
Vigliotti said the website has been a valuable tool for making sure online students are engaged. Vigliotti said she remains logged in to her teaching cafe to answer questions over live-chat questions, sometimes as late as midnight, although says she weens off as the semester goes on.
"My students have direct access to me like they are literally in my home on my couch," Vigliotti said. "The big idea is that they are doing literally everything online, and it has opened up the world for them. It gives them the opportunity to have blogs and an online presence."
This semester, Vigliotti collaborated with University of South Florida professors the week of Halloween for virtual advising and college counseling for her students. Vigliotti said she usually invites advisers into her classroom, but invited them to log on to her website this year for her online classes.
"I don't know of any college that has ever made that collaboration happen," Vigliotti said.
Angela Adkins, a student at the State College of Florida for her third semester, said she is using Professor V's Teaching Cafe for the first time for her intro to teaching and intro to diversity classes.
Adkins said she has discussions every week with her classmates, and the class requires her to post blogs and video posts.
Adkins, a mother of five, said online classes are her only option, so she finds the new approach refreshing.
"I enjoy it. I'm not super savvy at technology, but it is easy to figure out," Adkins said. "I got to know my classmates."
Tyler Miller, in his third year at the State College of Florida, is taking his first online class with the teaching cafe. Miller said he likes the interactive, social media feel of the virtual class. Miller, who is studying education, hasn't participated in an international forum, which was not offered this semester. He said is interested in staying with Vigliotti's virtual classes for the chance to do so."I would like to see how things are done in education from someone outside the country, like what their requirements are and what kind of programs they have," Miller said. Miller plans to teach music, and he said Vigliotti's format might be something he would consider.
"It would be possible to stay in communication and have students respond to feelings about different artists," Miller said. Miller said as in any online class, students have to stay on top of their assignments so they do not fall behind."It's all you. You have to plan and have a set time to work on it," Miller said.
Vigliotti said she considers her students a generation of "digital natives," but she found it interesting some students were uncomfortable at first about the use of technology.
"I always think it is interesting when the digital natives are uncomfortable about using technology for something that is important," Vigliotti said. "You guys will get on Facebook and look up videos, but are more tentative when it counts."
Vigliotti said the social media aspect to her teaching cafe helps break down those barriers. She said she hopes her students remain in contact with the people they meet around the world.
"They use it like a Facebook when they want to share something or if they made a particularly good acquaintance," Vigliotti said. "Now it is up to them to maintain relationships as is any classroom or club situation. I help to get them acquainted and get the ball rolling, but the cafe is a place to return year after year."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.