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

Wed, 03/12/2014

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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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