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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Graduate students meet to discuss issues at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, part of Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Harvard University

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.

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."

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.

Almost half of the students enrolled in the Global Master of Arts Program at the Fletcher School live outside the United States, and none of them attend classes on the Medford, Mass., campus. But they still study with full-time Fletcher professors who are some of the top names in their field, says Genevieve Abraham, GMAP's assistant director of admissions and marketing.

The program is designed for mid- and senior-level professionals who want "the Fletcher perspective" but also want to continue working. The students meet their professors in person just three times during the one-year program. The rest of the time they view lectures via online streaming or on DVD and use online discussion boards to talk with classmates and professors.

Some say they prefer the discussion boards over typical classroom discussions because "everyone has a chance to get their word in," Ms. Abraham says "You get a lot more dialogue going."

Hillard Pouncy, a lecturer at Prince­ton University's Woodrow Wil­­son School of Public and Inter­na­tional Affairs, says that videoconferencing has been a boon because it expands professors' options.

For one of his courses, Mr. Poun­cy wanted his students to calculate the economic cost of lives lost to violence. He brought in someone from the Centers for Dis­ease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta via videoconference to walk the students through the calculations.

The exercise was successful because it was a social exercise, not because it was a videoconference, Pouncy says. Since the CDC worker couldn't have come to Pouncy's class, without the technology, the exercise could not have happened.

Skyping a revolutionary

Videoconferencing can also bring a degree of immediacy and place to a classroom a world away from where events are unfolding.

For Friedel, the Georgetown student who wrote on Wikipedia about Egypt's National Democratic Party, a highlight was a classroom Skype call last spring. In the midst of Egypt's revolution, Friedel's professor cued up someone working for Mohammed ElBaradei, a former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and potential presidential candidate in Egypt's upcoming elections. For a few minutes, the students were in Cairo.

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