ORLANDO, Fla. -- In an effort to deepen their understanding of how technology can help different cultures understand each other better, David L. Stoloff last year decided to give his students a taste of peer review -- and outsourcing.
Presenting on Wednesday at the annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning, Stoloff, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, described an experiment in which he used social media to teach students in a first-year course on educational technology a lesson about how they can use social media to change how they do amateur cross-cultural research on the Web.
Stoloff divided the students into four groups, and assigned each to put together a PowerPoint presentation on one of four countries -- Taiwan, Algeria, Nepal and Russia -- using basic Web research.
But instead of assessing the projects himself, he tapped more authoritative sources: university students in those countries.
Using the learning-oriented social networking site ePals.com, which mostly focuses on K-12, Stoloff tracked down professors at 20 universities and asked them via e-mail if they would be interested in having their students evaluate his students’ work. Four replied.
When Stoloff’s students turned in their projects, the professor posted them to a wiki, where students at the National Kaohsiung Marine University, the University of Mascara, the Nepalese Skill to Earn program, and the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhni Novgorod could view and critique them.
And critique, some did.
“[Y]ou wrote only about one type of clothes of our older times -- the one used for celebrations,” wrote one Russian student. “I believe you should describe some clothes that were used for ordinary occasions.… On the second slide we can see a girl in summer dress on the winter background, it cannot be like this. When you speak about the convenience of celebratory wear that’s not really true, sometimes it just aims at modesty and at closing most part of the body including the head.”
“There are some facts on the second page, which shocked me,” wrote another Russian student (the Russians were the most enthusiastic reviewers). “Well, Russia is not cold most of the year.… There are maximum 4 or 5 months with negative temperature. ‘Their food needs to give them energy and warmth because of the winter’ -- it sounds like we Russians as bears need to eat more during the summer and the fall to go through the winter and survive.”
On the whole, though, the critiques were positive -- if not exactly Tocquevillian in their complexity. But Stoloff says he is not worried that the exchanges are not particularly academic in nature.
“Understand that this was a first-year student course -- these are 18- and 19-year-olds,” he says. “It’s not that they can’t learn research skills, but I thought that getting closer to the personal level of values was a good object lesson. And also it was in the context of a leading-edge educational technology course, where we’re trying to see how we can push the envelope on connecting across boundaries … connecting over the Web, creating your own reality -- that’s here, too.”
Stoloff then asked his students to reflect on the experience of having their work fact-checked by on-the-ground sources. In later iterations of the exchange, he hopes to explore more ways to help students process the implications of the experience for their own learning, and learning in general.
Asked if he would be better off focusing on teaching better research skills -- which might prevent students from relying on unreliable websites for cultural information about other countries (or, for that matter, anecdotes from a handful of residents) -- Stoloff says that opening students' minds to the notion of multiple, diverse perspectives was his main priority. Teaching good research skills is important, he says, but first students need to develop an understanding of the world -- something that not all college students had the luxury of learning in high school.
“They’re not leaving the country,” Stoloff says of his students. “Some of them haven’t left Connecticut.”
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