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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.

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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."

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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."

Davis and Mr. Friedel were pleasantly surprised in the end, however. Davis says the class handed in the best research papers she's seen at Georgetown University. And Friedel's article on Egypt's National Democratic Party, the party of former leader Hosni Mubarak, got 5,000 views in just one day during the country's revolution. "Typically the only person we hope reads it is the professor," he says. "[With Wikipedia,] you're really creating something in the public space."

Adrieh Abou Shehadeh, another of Davis's students, says that the project taught her a lot about explaining complex topics in a way the public could understand – something she might not have otherwise learned until after graduation.

"Being in academia gets a little esoteric sometimes," she says. "It's nice to be engaged with something outside academia."

Videoconferences bring in world

The ability to videoconference has also changed the academic experience in tangible ways. Today students can complete a master's program from another country, crunch numbers with an expert several states away, and talk with activists in the thick of a revolution.

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