Anita Chadha, Associate Professor of Political Science, Department of Social Science, University of Houston, Downtown
This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Spring 2019 issue.
For the past twelve years, I have involved my class in introductory American politics in Houston, TX in an online collaboration discussing current and controversial issues in American politics with several U.S. institutions and community colleges (So far these discussions have involved students from Texas, California, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland).
The intent of the collaboration was for students to engage with each other on questions posed to them on a weekly basis. With the anonymity and (infinite) time afforded by online spaces, students had time to think and respond with critical thought often revisiting the discussion. Using a mixed method approach of content analysis and statistical testing, I can confirm that students have been academically reflective, as well as challenging, arguing and questioning each other with lengthy posts and responses furthering these discussions.
Measuring academic reflectivity was based on research that defined deeper reflective learning to mean that students had reflected, deliberated, or reconsidered their own views when they responded to questions or when they commented on other students’ posts (Chadha, 2018; Woods & Baker, 2004; Yeh, 2010). Reflectivity was not just talking for the sake of
talking, but coding for reflectivity meant 1) that the student was thinking critically, developing informed perspectives across issues, learning from opposing views of others and interacting in a civil manner. They puzzled through problems or issues, questioned and challenged peers holding them accountable for their views. Reflectivity, therefore, involves critically reflecting on one’s own beliefs while simultaneously being open to learning other ideas or perspectives from peers, which requires a dialogue, and a seeking out of alternative perspectives. This means that students have reconsidered their own views, challenging themselves and their peers to think critically and even corrected and clarified their stances on disagreement with their responses. In doing so, they responded with thoughtful, reflective and deliberate comments without knowing whom they interact with on an online site. This also meant that 2) students would ask each other honest questions, one that enlarged the scope of the discussions, rather than rhetorical ones that assumed answers. And that students 3) would use classroom ideas/texts, 4) media materials or outside links referencing their ideas to further these deliberations. And lastly, 5) the length of student posts and responses were measured on a scale of 1–3, where 1 = a short response of usually 75 words or fewer; 2 = a medium response; and 3 = a long response. Please note that it is not the total number of postings per student (example: student X posted six times a day, five days in a row) that is a measure toward academic reflectivity, rather, the academic reflectivity score was a measurement of thoughtful understanding and contribution to a post or response, and one that would facilitate interaction through the use of academic class text references, outside links, and media materials.
This fall (2018) the online collaboration involves my students in Houston, TX with students at Yonsei University in Korea who are enrolled in the same class type, an introductory American politics class along with the same collaboration requirements as my prior collaborations. These identical syllabus requirements are that they are to post a minimum of eight times to an instructor’s question and respond to a peer a minimum of sixteen times for a total of twenty-four posts during the semester using a minimum of 75 words. So far, the content analysis (which is ongoing) shows that their posts and responses have been reflective, deliberative, civil, lengthy (posts averaging 1500 words) with several revisiting the online collaboration without regard to gender, race or other differentials interacting with civility despite the current and controversial questions from differing perspectives.
Here is an (edited) question that was asked this fall followed by a sample of student responses. “…. Historically[,] turnout in midterm elections tends to be low. And historically one of the issues that can affect voters is how popular the president is. A wildly popular president can motivate a lot of people, particularly people of the president’s party, to turn out to vote. Also typically, during good economic times, the party of the president would do better than they would during periods of economic decline…. If Democrats end up taking back control of the House during the midterms, you could see changes in the American political landscape ahead of the next general election in 2020. Based on this what you know about midterm elections, what do you think these midterm elections can achieve in our democracy? Is turnout a concern? Are the political campaigns ahead of these elections different than in the past? How so? Many people feel that the negativity around campaigning continues to get worse each year, but is that true? Do midterm elections impart specific issues? OK, so let’s say the Republicans or Democrats win the Senate. What does that actually **mean** in real terms? What will change in Washington? So, we established there are a lot of races happening. Can you name three races you find most compelling and why? What are some ballot measures in these midterm elections that can change the political climate? What is as stake…and what can midterm elections achieve/not achieve? Why? Here is a sample of student responses,
Houston student response:
“Midterm elections, although highly disregarded by the public, are crucial for the political stability in the country. Personally, I’ve noticed a large influx of interest in this year’s election. This is mostly due to the current president, who as most of you know, has brought extreme controversy to the office. In these midterm elections, the stakes could not be higher as a battle is being waged to decide which vision of America will prevail; that of President Donald Trump, or his opponent. Control of the US House of Representatives, Congress and the Senate is at stake. These elections are important especially for those who feel underrepresented in the presidential elections. Active participation in these elections may guarantee the voice of the representative for each state. The midterm elections taking place this year are different than those of the past simply because people have shown outrage regarding certain policies and decisions that have been happening during Trump’s presidency. This outrage has in turn given rise to citizen’s political efficacy. The race that I find most compelling is the one happening between democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke and his Republican opponent, Ted Cruz. Texas, being a predominantly Republican state has always washed away [D]emocratic nominees. However, O’Rourke is trailing behind Cruz by 6 points. According to Nicole Goodkind on Newsweek, the biggest problem O’Rourke faces is that in Texas, the people that vote the most are Republicans. If O’Rourke can bridge that gap and influence more Democrats to vote then he may indeed change the face of not only Texas politics but those of the country as well.”
Korean student response:
“Midterm election is a ‘midterm-evaluation’ for the current administration and the opposition party…Turnout is one of the most critical factors that determine the efficacy of the election….Turnout is important because the result of the election with a low turnout would only contain ‘half-efficacy’ in their future politics. Also, it is more likely that the elected senates (under the low turnout) be criticized (or not being admitted or recognized by the public) due to the low turnout condition (because it means that they are supported by only a small portion of people). Also, turnout is an indirect measure that represents the extent of the public’s political participation and concern on politics….
There are many interesting races going on in this midterm election. I think it is interesting because each competitive race contains the critical issue of each state. For example, in races like Mimi Walters and Katie Porter in California’s 45th Congressional District (on tax bill issue in California), Barbara Comstock and Jennifer Wexton in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District (on health care issue) and Carlos Curbelo and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Florida’s 26th Congressional District (on immigration, carbon tax bill), its people would experience different society following their voting. Voters can limit the policy that they don’t prefer and at the same time promote certain policy based on their interest.
The midterm election has another critical implication in democracy because its result would mainly rule over the future party politics and the overall political situation of the country. And this aspect imparts specific issues especially in terms of a power struggle between the Democrats and the Republicans. For example, if Republicans maintain their control of the current Senate, the current Trump administration would likely continue its strong power on the country’s political and legal system. On the other hand, if Democrats take control of the House, they will be in a more active position to check the current administration and their policies. Based on the result of the election, the future arbiter of Washington politics would be determined.”
Chadha, A. (2018). Personalized online reflective deliberations: No significant differences across institution type. Journal of Instructional Research, 7(1), 60-67.
Woods, R. H., & Baker, J. D. (2004). Interaction and immediacy in online learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 5(2).
Yeh, Y. C. (2010). Analyzing online behaviors, roles, and learning communities via online discussions. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(1).
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