ONLINE CLASSES PROVIDE BETTER WAY TO TEACH GLOBAL EDUCATION, RESEARCHER SAYS
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Web-based college classes are more than just a technological novelty for graduate students who are learning global education, according to an Ohio State University researcher.
Courses taught on the web allow Americans to interact with people from around the world and to learn new perspectives that they could never experience in a typical classroom, said Merry Merryfield, professor of social studies and global education at Ohio State University.
Online classes permit students to tackle more controversial subjects, ensure that all students participate equally, and give the opportunity for more thoughtful and in-depth discussions of issues, Merryfield found in a recent study.
Merryfield teaches graduate-level online classes on global education for teachers in the United States and around the world. In her study, she examined the online interaction of 92 American teachers who took her courses and 22 cultural consultants – educators from other countries that Merryfield hired to provide the American teachers with international perspectives. The results showed the value of online classes in global education, Merryfield said.
“Online technologies provide opportunities for teachers to experience a more global community than is possible face-to-face,” Merryfield said. “In a course I taught last summer, I had 65 people from 18 states and 12 countries. This diversity affected the course and the content in many ways, and greatly helped the learning process.”
Merryfield presented her findings April 22 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
While traditional classes with students meeting in a classroom have some advantages, online courses have their own strengths, she said.
For example, Merryfield found that web-based interaction allow discussion of sensitive and controversial topics that would be difficult in face-to-face settings. Students can discuss cultural and political issues – such as those involving terrorism and the war with Iraq – that they might be reluctant to do in a classroom. One student told Merryfield that “online discussions are like a veil that protects me” and allowed her to “feel safe enough to ask the hard questions” of other students in her class.
“People respond to text instead of a person’s physical presence, personality, accent or body language,” she said.
Students in Merryfield’s online courses have projects which they turn in and make available to other students to comment on and critique, she said. For example, at the beginning of class each student turns in a short bio explaining their experiences related to equity and diversity. Other students react online to these bios.
While in traditional classes students may stand up and talk a little about themselves, the online format give students more time to interact and comment about each other’s bios. In a class about global education, this helps tremendously in promoting cross-cultural interaction, according to Merryfield.
Online classes have another important advantage: they allow all students to participate equally. While in traditional classes a few students may dominate, Merryfield has rules in her web-based classes that set minimum and maximum numbers of messages each person posts.
“There is no possibility of a few people monopolizing a discussion, nor is anyone left out,” Merryfield said.
One of the main ways students communicate in the online class is through threaded discussion – an interactive discussion in which a person posts a message, people respond to it, and people can respond to those responses. Threaded discussions can occur on a variety of topics, such as the readings assigned to the students. These discussions can be much more meaningful and in-depth than oral discussions in a classroom.
“Discussions take place over several days, so people have time to look up references and share resources,” she said. “They have time to think, analyze and synthesize ideas. I have been amazed at how these threaded discussions increase both the depth of content and equity in participation.”
In her online classes, Merryfield has students complete a project of their choosing that has relevance to global education. For example, a teacher taking the class might do an in-depth project on African literature to help her teach her units on colonization. The online nature of the course helps students develop these projects in a variety of ways. For one, Merryfield has cultural consultants from areas around the world who can provide insight and advice. Also, unlike traditional classes, these projects aren’t just provided to the instructor – they are available for all the students to read, critique and use.
The projects that students work on can have immediate impacts for teachers around the world, Merryfield said. From these projects and other sources, Merryfield and her collaborators have created databases about certain countries, regions and issues in global education. When the latest conflict between the United States and Iraq erupted, Merryfield and colleagues took database information about Iraq and the Middle East and sent it to various listservs and published it in Social Education, the lead journal for social studies.
“It’s immediately getting the best resources we have about a certain part of the world in the hands of teachers so they can use it in their classrooms,” Merryfield said. “Traditionally, it would have taken 10 to 15 years to publish this information in textbooks.”
Overall, web-based courses can provide significant advantages for teaching global education, Merryfield said.
“Online technologies are the perfect tools for social studies and global education, as these fields focus on learning about the world and its peoples,” she said. “This provides opportunities for teachers to experience a more global community than is possible face to face.”
However, she noted, “All of us do need opportunities for face to face experiential learning with people of diverse cultures.”