Vol. 19, No. 32

May 25, 2000

Prof receives national award for innovative teaching

Technology in teaching is 21st-century chalk — it is a tool that promotes learning, not an end in itself, and nothing can replace face to face teaching and interaction with students, according to James Magee, political science and international relations, who recently was honored with a national award for his teaching.

Magee — a two time winner of UD's excellence-in-teaching award (1980 and 1993) and a fellow of the University's Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education--last month received an Innovative Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Technology Award at the 11th annual International Conference on College Teaching and Learning in Jacksonville, Fla.

At the conference, which promoted creative ways of teaching including the use of technology, Magee was invited to speak on "Integrating Web-Based Resources with Problem-based Learning in Political Science," describing some of the teaching methods he uses in his classroom.

Modern technology, he said in his talk, makes it possible for faculty to "embark upon classroom ventures unimaginable during their own undergraduate years."

Magee pointed out that he has been redesigning his teaching methods, going from the "traditional lecture/discussion format to include more 'active learning' and web-based instruction." With colleagues in his department and a semester's leave from the Center for Advanced Studies, Magee developed a "gateway" course to political science, which was designed to "sharpen students' problem solving, analytical and (written, oral and computer) communications skills."

Students were walked through an online syllabus and required to use e-mail. They were divided into eight groups of five to work on real-world projects. One project used a software package of statistical analyses, which the students used to demonstrate the variables that are linked with successful democratic governments, such as privatization of businesses or women in power. Magee commented that the students learned to distinguish the important variables from those that are not, such as smoking or alcohol use, which are statistically related to democratic countries but are not really relevant to the form of government.

Another student project was developing a constitution for a fictional state, based on their studies of different political systems. The students had to research different political systems and had to learn to confront and compromise on a series of issues, such as minority rights.

Another course he described in his talk is a constitutional debate course for students enrolled in the University Honors Program. The culmination of this course was a mock appeal, taking place in the U.S. District Court for Delaware. Students had to prepare for this appearance and undergo rigorous questioning by the judge and law clerks. Magee pointed out that students have evaluated this experience as "one of the most educational and exciting aspects of their undergraduate studies."

In describing his approach to teaching, Magee said even in larger classes, such as his American government class which typically has approximately 150 students, problem-based learning and interactive workshops can be used as teaching tools, by dividing the class into discussion groups that meet weekly with teaching assistants.

Modern technology plays an important role in communication and in finding out information in all his classes. "There has been a revolution in information technology, but," he cautioned, "we have to ensure that it is available so that some people aren't left behind, creating an even larger gap among people in society."

One of his most rewarding experiences in teaching political science is an overseas program in Italy, which he has led for 12 years, Magee said. Students not only experience a different culture but learn about a different political system, visiting various government offices and hearing from politicians and professors. "The experience changes their perspectives and broadens their outlooks as they learn about the world firsthand, and the students have grown and changed by the time they return to the United States," he said.

A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Magee received his doctorate from the University of Virginia and is the author of Mr. Justice Black: Absolutist on the Court and is working on another book, The Development of Freedom of Speech.

— Sue Moncure