Piquing Their Interest
Having taught courses on political development and Latin American politics for over 30 years, John Deiner firmly believes that "students learn best by actively processing, integrating, and presenting information, particularly when they encounter concepts, values and cultures for the first time."
Deiner, an associate professor in Political Science and International Relations as well as an assistant dean in the University's Parallel Program, has turned to the Internet and MyCourses to provide his students with the kind of active learning experience that fosters full understanding of complex concepts.
Deiner's class, Introduction to Politics in Developing Countries (POSC211), is "an introductory course in non-western political processes that focuses on the forces affecting politics in emerging nations," Deiner explained.
To facilitate student involvement, Deiner runs the class as a corporate simulation: the class forms the fictitious Pique Publishing group, publishers of newsletters that cover current events worldwide.
During much of the semester, the students work in groups to gather and analyze information related to social, economic, and political events in selected developing countries. Each group is assigned the tasks of researching events, trends and issues in one country and of then presenting that research in articles posted to online newsletters on the class MyCourses site. In addition, each group makes formal presentations to the class based on the articles posted on line.
"One of the reasons I have the students use the Internet is that I want them to do research on specific countries using current sources," Deiner said. The Internet provides the students with access to a wide array of international sources, guaranteeing current information from a variety of viewpoints.
Deiner's students discover that evaluating the information they find is an extremely important part of the learning process. Publishing their newsletters online at the class MyCourses site helps the students formalize their evaluations, coming to terms with how biases and differences in values can lead to differences in the reports they find online. Formally evaluating each other's newsletters and in-class presentations reinforces this process for the students.
The Pique Publishing simulation includes clearly defined roles for each member of each work group: editor, columnist, reporter, and media specialist. Deiner said that the students rotate through the roles over the course of the semester so that each student can experience each role. In addition to using MyCourses to upload their newsletters, the students use its discussion and chat features to simulate "online meetings," allowing the students to collaborate on their work outside of class time.
"Simulating the roles in a publishing company provides the students with a good model for how to work with complex material in a group, how to find the information, how to analyze and evaluate it, and how to best present the information," Deiner said. "The students say that they liked the active participation in preparing the work and that the process lets them learn a great deal about the country on which their group focused."
According to Justin Schakelman, the educational technology consultant at PRESENT who helped Deiner develop the course material, "Professor Deiner's students make aggressive use of MyCourses tools, including the MyCourses Student Presentations Tool to post their newsletters."
In part because the class is offered at the University's Georgetown campus and in part because of the complexity of the tasks required, Schakelman and his colleagues in the PRESENT developed a training CD for the students, using screen action video to demonstrate the technical concepts the students needed to master.
"We developed the CD so that the students could take full advantage of Deiner's vision of technology's role in the course."
Like many of the courses offered at the Georgetown campus, the course attracts a lot of non-traditional college students. Deiner indicated that "about a fifth of the students are 'very non-traditional' in terms of age or occupation, about a fifth of the students are of a traditional 'college age' but work on their families' farms, and all of the students work at least 20 hours a week in addition to taking classes in the University Parallel Program." The students' experiences in the work force makes the Pique Publishing simulation an excellent way of getting the students more involved in the learning process.
Given the mix of students in the class, Deiner knew that he needed technology to make the class successful: Deiner maintains and controls the entire process using .
The POSC 211 MyCourses site provides the students with ready access to the syllabus; information about the Pique Publishing simulation, including expectations for each role within the simulation; tip sheets for newsletter publication; model newsletters from previous semesters; discussion and meeting areas; class handouts; and the forms used by Deiner and his students to evaluate the published newsletters. In short, the class MyCourses site makes it easy for students to jump into their work at Pique Publishing, even providing tools for asynchronous collaboration on each group's newsletters.
"Most of the students start out knowing very little about other countries but have strong opinions about some of those countries," Deiner said. But the material they find on line, the way they work as a group to evaluate that material, the active work they do to present their results, and the evaluations of each other's newsletters and presentations often lead the students to have an awakening.
"They come to realize that we can do certain things in our country because of the resources, educational systems, and political structures in place; that the 'American way' is determined by those factors. By being exposed to information about other countries and cultures and by coming to terms with some of the political, economic, social, and educational factors that shape events and values in those countries, towards the end of the course the students come to think much more seriously about their own values and develop more empathy for other cultures and values."
Note: This project was supported by a technology assistance grant administered by PRESENT.
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"Simulating the roles in a publishing company provides the students with a good model for how to work with complex material in a group, how to find the information, how to analyze and evaluate it, and how to best present the information."
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