University 2 Diversity: the story of 2 Live Class
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2 Live Class was a technology-enabled, conversation-based, inter-institutional and intercultural undergraduate course. At its heart was an intensive asynchronous online conversation connecting two similar courses, on the philosophical and social foundations of education, at two dissimilar institutions: North Carolina A&T State University, a historically African-American public university (Exhibit 1), and Guilford College, a historically European-American private college (Exhibit 2). Both institutions are located in Greensboro, NC. Each course enrolled between 15 and 20 students.
2 Live Class was a response to the problem of how to teach about cultural diversity at institutions that are not culturally diverse. It was also an answer to the question of how to teach and learn effectively online.
Asynchronous online conversation provided a simple and effective way to create a worthwhile inter-institutional and intercultural experience. Students participated in substantive, ongoing online debate, without having to adjust school or work schedules. Because of the relative proximity of the campuses, we were able to arrange a few face-to-face meetings, but even these were difficult for many to attend. Combining the courses without technology would have been impossible.
Online conversation also provided a simple and effective way to teach and learn online. Prior to 2 Live Class, instructors at both schools used face-to-face, conversation-based approaches, one rooted in constructivist theory, the other in Peirce's semiotics. We believe that conversational methods are key to effective teaching and learning, and we found from 2 Live Class that these methods are highly effective with, and even strengthened by, technology. Conversation is quite literally the glue that holds networked reality together in the first place—the Internet would hardly function without e-mail, chat, and other forms of conversation—so our methods played directly into one of networked technology's inherent strengths. Through ongoing, online discussion we were able to extend our conversational ethos and methods well beyond the standard three-sessions-per-week format. We were also able to merge our solitary practices. The expansiveness required by conversation-based teaching and learning was easily realized online.
Getting started with conversation-based, online teaching and learning was easy. Instead of writing a syllabus, we created a Web site to serve as an information and publication center (Exhibit 3) and dove into the process of online conversation. Our opening question for 2 Live Class—"what makes for a good conversation?"—yielded insights, comprehensive analysis, initial sharing and community, and ethical discourse parameters that also served as initial guidelines for course governance. We then introduced objectivist and constructivist philosophical paradigms (part of our required subject matter) in the context of our talk about course governance. In other words, we built our content into the ongoing conversation by asking the question whether the teacher's responsibility is to "deliver content" or to facilitate and deepen students' abilities to construct meaning individually and socially.
Student responses to this approach were heady if hesitant. In some cases hesitancy gave way to structure-hunger. One student put it this way:
Congratulations, I feel successfully confused. I am trying hard to get anoverall grasp on this class, but I have been, thus far, a bit stalled. I amtrying to stay on board.
In other cases, hesitation led to a full embrace of exploratory processes. A Guilford student wrote:
I am excited that we are walking on new ground together because I feel we are guaranteed to learn. I like the people in our class and the positive feeling we have towards the course and towards working with A&T students.
Through exploring and personalizing objectivist and constructivist paradigms in a conversation about class governance, there was little doubt that students learned what these key concepts mean. Formative evaluation was easy: students used the terms fluently and contextually in online debate. In addition, the technologically-enabled, conversational format exposed students to a diversity of opinions and voices, many of which they would not have heard otherwise. One student put it this way:
I want to thank everyone for giving us this chance to explore in such open ways what we feel about these topics. This does not happen everywhere. I honor what we have created as a class.
About one month into 2 Live Class, students decided to form governance committees, with the instructors serving as advisors on the curriculum committee. The committee arrived at a structure based on essential questions. A rudimentary if proper syllabus was drafted (Exhibit 4). The essential questions arrived at by the curriculum committee were:
- What is education? (a question of philosophy)
- How did we get here? (a question of history)
- Who gets what education? (a question of sociology)
Since we had already addressed the question of philosophy by talking about course governance, we realized that we had already accomplished a third of the coursework. Our overall response to the question "What is education?" was that education as most of us had come to know it was more accurately termed "positivist education."
The above instance illustrates several of the benefits we found in using online conversation—all of which hinge on the expansiveness afforded by online teaching and learning and required by conversational teaching and learning.
Online conversation provides a place for students to explore issues on their own terms. It obviously made much more sense for our students to explore foundational philosophical issues in terms of "class governance" and "the teacher's role" rather than in terms of "objectivism," "constructivism," and "paradigms." Yet in traditional formats there is often no time for this crucial, student-generated discourse to take place.
As it develops, online conversation creates a matrix that easily supports the introduction or elaboration of technical terms. Because of the rich conversation on course governance, we did not have to belabor key terms through drill, practice, and testing. We simply put these terms into play.
Since it allows multiple voices to be heard to a much greater extent than in the face-to-face classroom, online conversation provides extensive, immediate, and compelling evidence of diverse opinions. This diversity problematizes ethnocentrism and egocentrism at a basic level. It also moves the discourse towards greater complexity and depth. When we discovered that some students in 2 Live Class experienced structure-hunger and others elation, the discourse moved to a more complex examination of argumentation, examples, rhetorical nuances, and research offered in support of stated positions. At the same time, it engaged ethical issues and reality-effects created by divergent personal experience, in order to accommodate the variation in student experience, and foster community.
Online conversation also enables exploration of topics that might not otherwise be taken up in class. In the online conversation about course governance, we found that students were more comfortable conversing online than in person about the course, the instructors' methods, and the use of technology. In this respect, online conversation enabled the inclusion of critical material while simultaneously exploding the illusion that students are not thinking critically.
All of the above above features remained in strong evidence when 2 Live Class, according to its plan, took up the essential question of history. Referring to the work on constructivism and objectivism, we first discussed whether there could be such a thing as a single, objective history. We read authors on both sides of this question, and watched movies such as Black Athena (a constructivist account of Western historical origins) and The Classical Ideal (an objectivist account of Western historical origins).
Students again avoided "instructor terms" (such as, for example, "patriarchy") in their conversation about history, much as they had avoided technical terms in their first conversation about philosophy. Instead, they used terms more familiar to them to explore historical issues, such as "religion" and "homosexuality." Their conversation started slowly, and built into two weeks of sustained online exchange. Related news events during this time included the murder in Wyoming of Matthew Shepherd, a young gay man. Much as the online conversation had previously generated the content for our question of philosophy through exploring class governance, it now generated the content for our question of history through conversation about homosexuality and religion. Students' focus on the intertwined topics of religion, gender, and sexuality was entirely consonant with a point that several of our expert historical sources made: namely, that it is the (often violent) interplay of religion and gender that defines the historical dynamic of Western culture. As instructors, we called attention to the convergences between student conversation and expert discourse, and added what we felt to be appropriate materials (readings, videos, guest presenters, websites, and so on) as enhancements to the conversation. Again, this expansive online approach left little doubt that students were learning foundational issues of history. Through online conversation, students had identified and articulated a center of historical debate and learning. The expansiveness and depth of higher-order cognitive and ethical work done by students on this issue is well spoken for by the 140 pages of transcript they generated. In this instance, as in previous instances, the instructors found that online conversation allowed for a degree of comfort in examining sensitive topics that would have been difficult to maintain in face-to-face conversation (Exhibit 5).
In regard to diversity of opinion in the online conversation, one student offered this comment:
Our discussion with A&T students opened my eyes to other opinions, as well as my own, on "false history's" influence on today's students. I couldn't help but chime into the discussion when we began to talk about our roles as teachers, especially when teaching the subject of history. What do we do when the text tells us to teach something that we know isn't true? This is something that we are going to encounter!
When we turned our attention to the question of sociology, we did so with the philosophical and historical consciousness we had already constructed. Our overall response to the question of sociology was that the best education often goes to those who most closely meet a so-called single, "objective" standard that is patriarchal-male and Euro-American. We found once again that online conversation allowed students to explore sensitive social issues more deeply and diversely on their own terms.
Mirroring the overall ethos of the course, we evaluated the course as a response to a question (a process we'd recommend in these days of high-stakes testing and evaluation). To a significant degree, we knew how students felt about the course because they talked about it openly and explicitly in online discussion (Exhibit 6). We also had clear formative evidence of conceptual understanding of course content, because students demonstrated their understanding as they conversed online.
Beyond this, our evaluation procedures mirrored the structure of 2 Live Class in being diverse rather than uniform. Evaluation techniques derived from chaos theory provided us with powerful evidence of insightful group processing on the largest scale (Exhibit 7). We used standard, objectivist measures to evaluate the medium-scale elements of the course, including required summaries of readings and videos, mid-term and final assessment events, and reports on field work. Participation in the online discussion was mandatory, at 250 words per week. Students could write essays if they so desired, but no one opted to do so. Self-evaluation was employed for individual term projects, which were posted on the class website. The attempt to summarize these various vectors yielded "grades," but each student was also provided with a narrative and note of appreciation for their participation.
It is very difficult to sum up the actual, lived experience of 2 Live Class, but the following students words come close:
This is my final posting to this forum. I haven't written as often as I could, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing from everyone. It is a safe place to share opinions and reactions and I would be interested in continuing it. I thank everyone for their contributions to this class. I have enjoyed reading everyone's postings. I know at times I have seemed violently opposed to this class, but despite my heated reactions, this has been one of my favorite semesters and education classes. Not simply because I found it challenging, but also because I have enjoyed the large pool of voices from which we have heard.
From our perspectives the overarching aim of a conversation-based, technology-enhanced course such as 2 Live Class is not to foster unanimity or uniformity of response or evaluation. The goal is rather to create and inhabit an expansive conversational reality, to foster an appreciation and understanding of different perspectives, and to kindle the desire and confidence required for active participation in the ongoing, ever-expanding and transformational conversation of humanity. Online conversation clearly enabled us to meet this goal through initial explorations of content, opportunities for complex and charged analysis of stated positions, interplay of diverse voices, and open and reflective expression and revision of views on difficult topics. Without technology, we would have been hard pressed to realize more than a fraction of these potentials. With technology, most were fully realized. As instructors, our conversation and collaboration continue (Exhibit 8).
Spencer, C. (author); Ali, T. (director); Bingham, B. (narrator); Bernal, M. (source author). (1990). Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization [Videotape]. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel.
Wood, M. (1989). Art of the Western World. Program 1, the classical ideal [Videotape]. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur.