LAWRENCE — Teachers can attest that engaging students with classroom material can be challenging. A University of Kansas professor is leading a study showing that given an online platform in which they can discuss provocative topics like what justifies war, middle school students not only get engaged, they go beyond class requirements.
Joe O’Brien, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, is leading a project among middle school students in Kansas, New York and Virginia. The students use Ning, a closed social media site to discuss what reasons might justify going to war. They start with a discussion in their classrooms, put together a list of reasons, then post it to the site and eventually discuss their reasons with their peers online.
“It gives them a different audience than just their classmates,” O’Brien said of the synchronous online discussions. “Since their teachers are preparing them for life in a democratic society, we thought this would be an appropriate topic.”
Now in its third year, the project has shown students regularly become more engaged in the topic as they participate in nine online discussions throughout the year. Before each discussion students are given a new historical situation in which to answer the question but with the identifying context removed. When they discuss their reasoning for war, possible solutions to a conflict and whether one side is right or wrong, the students have also regularly progressed in their use of logic, questioning their peers and defending their positions. After the online discussion, each classroom’s teacher debriefs the discussion and compares their thinking to what actually occurred during the historical situation.
“That’s one of the big takeaways,” O’Brien said of the students’ engagement. “Look at what they’re doing when they have a chance to express themselves. This is all peer to peer, and they’re getting very excited and engaged.”
A good deal of research exists on the use of nonsynchronous online discussions in education, but O’Brien wanted to find out whether having the chance to talk to fellow students in real time would make a difference. The results thus far have shown both a greater number of overall posts and progression in the students’ reasoning. Numerous students even take part in multiple discussions at the same time. While teachers lead the in-class discussions, they simply monitor the online work so students are free to take the lead.
In addition to simply generating a larger number of posts, the synchronous discussions have shown the students are willing to go beyond the requirements. The site will feature a required reading where students are instructed to post their thoughts. However, roughly two-thirds of all comments on the site are posted in “discussion threads” where the students are allowed to talk about the issue and hash out their reasoning, but are not required to do so. O’Brien and his colleagues have presented the findings in a series of journal articles and an upcoming book chapter.
Perhaps the greatest value of the project is preparing students to take part in public discussions. At the end of the school year the students are required to make a presentation to a group of adults representing nations on the United Nations Security Council. The ongoing conflict in Syria was one of the recent topics addressed at the United Nations exercise. As they showed in the synchronous discussions, students’ thinking on such matters showed depth and concern.
“Fighting to preserve peace is an oxymoron in my opinion,” one student wrote. “Fighting can only lead to increased citizen and military casualties. I do not believe our military should get involved at this point.”
The synchronous online discussions throughout the year are showing the ability to engage the students in such conversations, a skill they will need throughout their lives and careers.
“We’re hoping that as they interact with each other, the students’ reasoning for going to war become more complex,” O’Brien said. “They tend to see there’s not always a simple answer, and we want to see what needs to be done to get them to think more deeply about important issues.”