Where the City Meets the Sea

Course Collaboration Across Oceans

Polycom’s ATX 200 videoconferencing system displaystwo video feeds, which capture the entire room,and another feed for sharing a computer screen.This configuration allows instructors andstudents to interact across continents withunprecedented ease.

Polycom’s ATX 200 videoconferencing system displays
two video feeds, which capture the entire room,
and another feed for sharing a computer screen.
This configuration allows instructors and students
to interact across continents with unprecedented ease.

As NYU aspires to become a Global Network University, it faces challenges. For example, how can we best offer advanced courses in the sciences at our global sites? How can we bridge the gap between instruction and research? How do we develop courses that relate to the specific locations in which we offer them, yet have a global scope?

As described at the recent Teaching with Technology Conference this semester, one undergraduate course—Where the City Meets the Sea—successfully demonstrated how technologies such as videoconferencing, mobile computing as well as data management, sharing, visualization, and analysis can help achieve these goals.

Developing a global course for a global university

In the winter of 2011, the University tasked a few of us with conceiving new kinds of science courses. NYU needed courses it could offer at its many global sites. The courses had to be challenging and offer relevant curricula that addressed the concepts, content, and tools of 21st century science. One other criteria: they had to be courses that we could offer at any NYU location, including those without physical labs.

After discussing various options, we focused our attention on a marine urban ecology course called Where the City Meets the Sea: Studies in Coastal Urban Environments. NYU (and only NYU) could offer it in New York, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, London, Tel Aviv, Accra, Buenos Aires, Sydney, and many other locations. The course is a joint effort between an NYUAD faculty member and marine biologist, John Burt, and Mary Killilea, a faculty member in New York with fifteen years of experience studying the local environment using geographic information systems (GIS) software to manage and visualize geospatial environmental data. With John and Mary as the intellectual and instructional drivers of the course, NYU’s Global Technology Services, ITS, and the Libraries of both campuses helped create the physical and online environments for the course.

Connecting and collaborating

Using the Motorola Xoom tablet, students have manyadvanced tools to help them collect data in the field.This is the custom home screen they see.

Using the Motorola Xoom tablet, students have many
advanced tools to help them collect data in the field.
This is the custom home screen they see.

In the Spring 2012 semester, NYU offered Where the City Meets the Sea in New York and Abu Dhabi. The students and faculty, while resident in both NY and AD, used videoconferencing to work together as a single class. They shared large environmental, demographic, economic and other types of data sets provided by a range of groups, such as city, state and federal governments as well as international groups. Assignments, for example, sent students into their respective cities to test the water and air in specific locations. They then uploaded their data to a shared data repository and collaborated to analyze the impact of the man-made environment on the natural world.

Even though New York and Abu Dhabi seem to have very different histories, students found that both cities have changed their natural environments in remarkably similar ways. Both are cities built on landfills and immigrant labor, both have manipulated their environments to secure clean water and provide energy, both have struggled to manage their waste, and both overwhelmed their fish stocks. New York has done this over the course of 400 years. Abu Dhabi has done it in 40.

An essential characteristic of the course relates to the students’ assignments and data collection. That is, rather than view the students’ work as tasks designed to develop and demonstrate a mastery of facts and skills, the students collect data and make available analysis so that other students in their class, other classes, and at other sites can build on it. The students’ data will become a part of a University interdisciplinary data set related to particular locations and times. In this way, NYU has bridged the gap between undergraduate instruction and research.

The technology that made it possible

To make this course a reality, we relied upon a wide range of technology, including videoconferencing, mobile computing, data management and sharing resources, and data visualization and analysis software.


Polycom’s ATX 200 videoconferencing system sends two synchronized videoconference streams, as well as a third stream for shared content. We selected this system after receiving feedback from faculty and students as well as witnessing how courses using single-stream videoconferencing setups faced technical and logistical challenges. The ATX 200 series, in contrast, captures everyone in the room on camera, so there is no need for a student or faculty member to manage the camera. It permits students to participate in a seminar without the burden of managing the technology.

Mobile computing

For field-based data collection, we selected the Motorola Xoom tablet, which runs on the open source Android operating system. In addition to time and date-stamping all inputs, the Xoom has a GPS chip for gathering location data. It also has a 5-megapixel camera for photo and video capture. To create the necessary forms and related data collection tools, we used the Eclipse open source development platform (including the Eclipse Android Development Tools plug-in), Java SDK, Android SDK, Google App Engine SDK, Google Web Toolkit SDK, and Google’s OpenDataKit Collect for data gathering on Android tablets.

Data management and sharing

We used Google App Engine and OpenDataKit Aggregate for managing the collected data on a server. For the first offering of the class, we simply shared data sets via Blackboard and FTP. In the future, we anticipate using the NYU Library’s Spatial Data Repository.

Data visualization and analysis

ESRI, a GIS mapping software maker, agreed to a University-wide site license for its desktop software. For this reason, students used both Google Earth and ESRI’s ArcMap to analyze and visualize data. The data can be exported as CSV files (converted to shapefiles) or KML files. For future iterations of the course, we may also start using Google’s Fusion Tables or similar technologies, such as those from ESRI.

Two final areas we needed to address—and will need to address in order to offer the course at additional locations—include local GIS support for students and faculty as well as access to regional spatial data. In the United States, federal, state, and local governments routinely make the spatial data they collect available to the public. Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates are just starting to develop such practices, and it took some effort to track down and request data from government and private sources.

The future of Where the City Meets the Sea

Where the City Meets the Sea has gone well in its first semester. We will not know, however, if we have succeeded on all fronts until the course is offered again and elsewhere (such as at NYU Shanghai in 2014 and potentially sooner in London and Sydney). We also want to reuse the technologies for courses in other disciplines, such as Irish Studies, Global Jewish Cultures, Global Public Health and more. Stay tuned to future issues of Connect for updates!