International relations curriculum is not 'chalk and blackboard' anymore
Academics are still unsure how much technology and social media should be integrated into the international relations curriculum, but it's already transforming the classroom.
Every couple of years, The College of William & Mary does an exhaustive survey of the field of international relations, polling on current events, teaching, and research.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But this year, the people behind the survey, the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations, set out for the first time to assess a key change in the teaching of international relations: the growing presence of social media, Wikipedia, YouTube, and videoconferencing.
To Dan Drezner and Charli Carpenter, professors who co-wrote a paper in 2010 examining the way user-driven technology is changing the field, the ability to do everything from video-chat with students in other countries to post research online and have large numbers of readers critique it immediately is significantly broadening students' experience in school – even as it poses tough, new challenges.
"It's not chalk and blackboard anymore," says Dr. Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Drezner says he enjoys pulling up a YouTube clip to illustrate a point in class and discussing blogs. But, he says, integrating technology and social media into the classroom comes with challenges: How can professors train students to think critically about the vast amount of information on the Internet? How can they prevent all this technology from distracting students?
Faculty are struggling to understand best practices, says Sue Peterson, director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations. They're split over whether it's fair to require students to use certain technology or monitor blogs – and they're still debating whether blogs are truly an academic resource.
But even as academics thrash out these questions, individual school programs and professors are plowing ahead into what is still uncharted territory, despite the ever presence of technology in students' lives.
Michael Tierney, who heads the international relations program at William & Mary and is Ms. Peterson's codirector, says that students and professors now cite Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs regularly in class discussions and lectures, although the widespread acceptance of such sources doesn't yet extend to journal articles and other research work.
Professors have a responsibility to try new methods and not just teach students the way they've always been taught, says Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of anthropology who teaches at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. "My teaching should reflect the world they're living in."
Writing Wikipedia entries for class
That world is one in which Wikipedia is a frequent first stop for information. So in 2010, Ms. Davis decided to bring the website into her classroom, despite its less-than-perfect reputation for accuracy.
"It's out there, and everybody uses it," she says. "We need to at least be familiar with it."
All of the students in her "Introduction to Study of the Arab World" class had to choose a relevant topic that hadn't yet been covered on Wikipedia and produce a full-fledged article for the site. Davis saw it as a sort of literature review – but done in the public sphere, not just as an assignment that she alone would see. Students received feedback not only from each other and Davis, but also from anonymous Wikipedia users.
Many students were skeptical.
"We went through the academic system when Wikipedia was first starting," says Patrick Friedel, who was in the class. "We all kind of thumbed our noses at the website."