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Researcher finds linking students in synchronous, online discussions boosts engagement, quality of contributions

Wed, 03/12/2014

LAWRENCE — Adults may bemoan young people’s reliance on social media, but a University of Kansas professor is showing that when used in an educational context it can help foster young students’ public voice and increase the quantity and quality of their class participation, all while getting them to consider questions of policy and ethics.

Joe O’Brien, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, leads a project that brings together students from two Kansas middle schools and a middle school in The Bronx on a social media site to synchronously discuss what might justify nations going to war. During the first online discussion, the students generate a list of possible reasons to go to war. In the following six discussions, the teachers present the students with a hypothetical situation and ask them to discuss amongst their online peers whether military force is just and the possible consequences of using force. After each online discussion, the teachers meet with their own students in the face-to-face classroom to apply what they discussed to an actual historical event and to compare their decisions with those of historical figures.

“While each class of students was online for about 35 minutes, we were able to get at least two classes online synchronously for about 22 minutes at a time during a single discussion by the end of the school year,” O’Brien said. “We noticed an increase in both quantity and quality of their posts. I think even the students were aware that they were more involved and doing better.”

Being simultaneously online with their peers is key as they can present questions and answers to one another and can  take part in several sub-discussions at the same time. Several of the discussions had more than 400 posts, and the students were averaging about six posts apiece. While the increased participation is a welcome change to students silently listening to a peer during a face-to-face class discussion, it is more than just online chatter. They have to decide if the use of tactics such as military force, economic sanctions, arms embargos, arming rebels, quashing dissent and other tactics are morally right and to justify their decision.

“You see them grapple with questions like ‘who are the people involved’ and ‘what are the effects of this decision,’ and they’re trying to juggle that in real time,” O’Brien said.

So as to highlight the seriousness of the online discussion, students are told prior to each discussion that they are to play the role of advisers to a national leader. Teachers also emphasize to their students that they are interacting with students from another school. Such efforts to help create a sense of audience and to illustrate the importance of crafting clear, thoughtful messages and are intended to set the stage for the end of the year discussion where they apply their thinking to a contemporary crisis during a mock United Nations Security Council meeting.

Whereas in prior discussions the students engaged in peer-to-peer deliberation about how to respond to a situation, during the UN “meeting” adults from throughout the United States and the United Kingdom participate as representatives of nations on the Security Council, which raises the relevance of the audience and gives the students an incentive to consider an array of perspectives. The timing is critical, O’Brien said, as middle school students are at an age when they often transition from viewing the world in certain, dichotomous ways, but while discussing how to respond to a situation like the Syrian conflict, they begin to grasp that life is often more shades of gray than black and white.

“We’re trying to use this as a vehicle to develop the students’ public voice,” O’Brien said. “The nature of their posts and the increase suggests they see these delegates as an increase in their audience and raise the content of their posts to match that.”

While the increase in participation and quality of student contributions is a benefit for young people, it is a bonus to teachers as well. The online format gives teachers, in essence, a written transcript of each discussion that they can study, whereas oral discussions are immediately lost. Teachers can also compare students’ work throughout the year, which again is not as easy with oral discussions, and they can also monitor several group discussions at a time.

O’ Brien and KU students Tina Ellsworth and Tom Barker of KU have co-authored a book chapter on the project for Digital Social Studies, edited by William B. Russell III. Teachers Nick Lawrence of New York, Kori Green of El Dorado and Brian Bechard of Gardner — all former O’Brien students — led the classroom participation in their schools and contributed to the chapter as well.

O’Brien and colleagues plan to continue to study online synchronous discussions and examine other aspects of its educational applications. They hope to add a video feed so students can see their peers while they chat and monitor whether or not it has an effect on participation. While they’ve used the method in the context of social studies, O’Brien said the increase in participation and quality of contributions is evidence online synchronous discussions could be used in a number of educational settings in which teachers wish to increase student engagement.



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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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