Asynchronous Online Collaboration in AP Language/Composition & AP US Government/Politics

Michael Fantauzzo, Social Studies Teacher, Rush-Henrietta Senior High.   mfantauzzo@rhnet.org
Ross Amstey, English Teacher, Rush-Henrietta Senior High.  ramstey@rhnet.org

Background Information

It was our intention to develop an action research plan which could accomplish several things:

  1. We wanted to work cooperatively across curricula. The AP Government classes present many of the same reading and writing skills as the AP Language and Composition classes, and we wanted to find a way to connect those skills to a particular project. As with most advanced, academic classes both of these courses rely heavily upon skills of research and focused, persuasive writing.
  2. We both were interested in student motivation and engagement and participated in a study group in which we read Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. This also re-introduced us to Ryan and Deci’s work in Self-Determination Theory.
  3. Our work with MCC Fellows introduced us to 21st Century Skills and led us to the book Teaching 2030. As a result we began to explore ways to integrate technology across our two classrooms and arrived with the following inquiry question:

Inquiry Question

How does asynchronous, online collaborative problem-based learning across two different classes affect student engagement and motivation within the framework of Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory?

Inquiry Design

Over a 6 week period, students in a 12th grade AP US Government and Politics class and in AP Language worked in creating an online blog. The final product consisted of a position paper written by the AP Lang students using research compiled by the AP Government classes. After online publication, students in the AP Government classes read the blogs on the subjects they researched and were directed to give constructive criticism. The purpose of this work was to introduce students to a new and motivational way to engage in both the research method, and in persuasive writing. These skills have a direct correlation to the work students complete in the respective classes, and are asked to demonstrate on the respective AP exams. It was our hope that students found working across curricula and utilizing technology in an integrated and meaningful way bolstered engagement and motivation.

Both classes completed a pre and post Intrinsic Motivation Inventory created and validated by Ryan and Deci to measure changes in motivation and engagement. The results for each class were compared against each other and statistical analysis was performed to highlight significant differences. This data can be found in the Data and Analysis File. Data was also collected through field journals during the project through naturalistic observations. The CGR MCC Fellows pre and post student survey was also examined to provide both a baseline for the two teachers as well as a measure of change in teacher practice.

Timeline

The project began with AP Government students during the Political Parties and Interest Groups Unit. In order to make the project more authentic and linked to the curriculum students were asked to think of themselves as working for the research department for a “Think Tank” in Washington DC. Their objective was to provide the Publishing Department, the AP Lang students, with credible and significant information covering the history and current status of several social/political issues. Students were presented a list of 19 issues and narrowed it down to 5 based on their interests. These 19 issues were selected because of their relevance to both the AP Government and Lang curriculum. The 5 issues that students chose were: Genetic Engineering, Capital Punishment, Euthanasia/Right to Die, Gun Control, and Censorship.

The AP Government students proceeded to spend 2 instructional blocks(160 minutes) researching their topics. Students were allowed to form their own groups based on their interest in the 5 selected topics. During this phase of the research collecting, students were advised to consider their audience and their purpose: to provide credible and useful information that could be easily understood so that the publishing department could then prepare several policy statements on the range of positions for their issue.

The AP Language and Composition students self-selected study groups. Each group chose one of the 5 topics which the AP Government students researched. Each group in the AP Language classes read the appropriate documentation for their topic, and after synthesizing the varied and sometimes contradictory information, developed a position, wrote a thesis statement, and then using information from the documentation wrote a position paper defending or challenging one of the assertions related to their controversial topic.

As the “Publishing Department,” it was the job of the AP Language students to make sense of the research the AP Government students presented to them. Upon completion of the papers, the AP Language students published their findings/positions on a blog. The AP Government students then took on the roles of evaluators and critics. Each of those students read the position papers and commented directly on the blog. AP Language students had an opportunity to read the critiques and make some comments of their own. As we are constantly aware of the college-readiness needs of our students we wanted to develop a study that mimicked the kind of work the students will encounter at college or in a professional academic setting. This sort of asynchronous conversation hopefully accomplished that goal.

Because we are mindful of these 21st Century needs, we hoped to show that this sort of assignment will not only provide students with the necessary skills in reading and writing needed for their future, academic success, but we hoped to demonstrate that this type of work will enhance engagement and student motivation.

Student Artifact

http://rhdebatetopics.blogspot.com/

Data Collection and Analysis

Please see Data Collection and Analysis Final II

Discussion

The results from the AP Government surveys suggest that while students enjoyed the experience, they found the work more forced or less natural in comparison to typical class activities. The moderately high scores on the pre-survey with regards to choice, relatedness and comprehension, the variables in Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination, indicate that students were already experiencing the conditions necessary for increased student engagement. The Think Tank Activity, although novel, simply manipulated many of the variables related to motivation in an already familiar manner.  Any gains then would be marginal at best.

The students in the AP Language classes had similar experiences to those in the AP Gov’t classes with one significant exception. Generally, the Lang. students felt as if the work they were asked to do was a bit contrived and artificial. They didn’t ultimately feel more engaged in the process than they do when we tie the work directly to the AP exam. The one very significant, positive outcome that emerged from this project was that the students reported they felt more confident in their work: they felt they were skilled at this type of work, and perceived they were better at these skills after they engaged in our process than they did prior to the project.

Students may have also experienced a certain degree of frustration while working in the library. Originally, we had hoped that all the research would be shared electronically using Google Drive or Gmail. In past experiences, data sharing sites prevented the creation of multiple accounts on one computer or during a small window of time. To circumvent this, we sought out the advice of our school Librarians. When discussing the technical requirements of the project with the Library Staff, it was recommended that students use NoodleTools, a research site that all students had received training in from the Librarians. It soon became apparent that the students were less than proficient in using this site as a means to share information between the classes. The decision was made then after completing the research to simply provide paper copies to the AP Language classes. A further complication was determining what blog site would be best to upload the essays so that all students could access without having to create a new or separate account. It was originally hoped that students would upload, revise, and edit themselves online however, the essays, once written were uploaded by the AP Language teacher. The AP Language students felt a similar level of frustration with the technology. There were several occasions in which computers failed to work, the documentation program, NoodleTools, was too unwieldy, and they felt limited by the available databases.

A vocal group of students said they were hoping for more “bang for their buck”; that they put a lot of effort into their research but wanted more from the persuasive essays. In essence, the Think Tank Activity left the AP Government students and AP Language students with a sense of wanting more. While this may be somewhat disappointing, it reveals that students have a genuine interest in continuing this type of work and interaction with other students in a fluid online environment. In many ways, students already engage is this behavior using social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Students have yet though to realize the full potential of social networking and data sharing as a means to create learning communities.

Implications for the Future

As we look to the future, it is imperative that we embrace the modern, technological demands and opportunities of a culture of students whose online presence is essential to their lives. Schools must acknowledge, and plan accordingly not for the future, but for the present. Our students must have academic experiences which mirror their own methods of communication. We felt that providing this asynchronous learning opportunity would begin to establish a paradigm shift in the ways we present content to students, alter the expectations for how students present their work, and perhaps most importantly, encourage cross-curricular collaboration based on skills rather than content.

Establishing Online Learning Communities

The great success of this project was tapping into student interest in working collaboratively online with their peers. The “one and done” nature of the project dismayed many students. The real impact of the findings reveal the power of creating online learning communities that are continuously used throughout the year. The potential exists for students to not only interact with their classmates anywhere in the school, but anywhere in the world. This project was a good start but ended prematurely in the minds of the students. Capitalizing on the potential of online learning communities has the additional benefit of helping students develop the skills and resources needed to collaborate with their colleagues while in college with the additional benefit of serving to help increase college and career readiness.

The end product, in this case a blog, has just as many possibilities. The following is a list of several alternatives:

  • Virtual Public Issue Forum 
  • “Social Science” Fair
  • Uploaded Public Service Announcements
  • Public Policy Webinars or Podcasts
  • Video Teleconferences for debates or question and answers

It is now clear how powerful and motivating this type of online collaboration can be for high school students who are already immersed in this type of activity but have yet to learn how to “code switch” in using technology to develop online learning communities. Future plans include integrating online learning communities in a regular fashion throughout the course that will conclude with a large publication of student work after continuous editing and revision. This larger final project will hopefully provide students with a more complete and satisfying experience.

Increased Collegial and Interdisciplinary Planning

Initially, we had intended to start the year with the project. However, due to some unforeseen events along with some questions regarding our BOCES internet connection and possible censorship of controversial issues the roll out for the project was delayed. This then forced us to reconsider where the project best fit within the sequence of our curriculum. After it was determined that the project was more content dependent for AP Government and more skill dependent for AP Language, the Political Parties and Interest Group unit was chosen as our starting point. From start to finish the project covered a two month time span.

Given that most students wanted a continuation of the project this suggests that online collaboration is an excellent vehicle for Collegial and Interdisciplinary Planning. In this regard, one recommended practice would be to develop a question or theme central to two different courses that is routinely worked into each course and reevaluated, revised and edited at the end of each unit with a final culminating activity such as an online teleconference. One such question might be “What is justice?”

The benefits of this process lend themselves well to higher order thinking but more importantly college readiness. Too many high school students see knowledge as static or concrete and fail to consider domain knowledge outside of a content area. Further, most students have become complacent the with “first draft-only draft” model of thinking. Embedding an essential question throughout will require students to synthesize information both within and across curricula, utilizing feedback from others to refine their thinking.  This more likely mirrors the scientific process of observation, explanation, experimentation, analysis, publication, and replication that students will actively engage in at the college level.

Resources

Berry, Barnet and Teachersolutions Team 2030. Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for OuR Students and Our Public Schools–Now and in the Future. New York: Teachers College Press, 2011. Print.

Conley, Richard T. College Knowledge: What it Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We can Do to Get Them Ready. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. Print.

Deci, Edward and Richard Ryan. Self-Determination Theory. University of Rochester. Web. 30 April 2013.

Goldstein, Noah J, Steve J Martin and Robert B. Cialdini. Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. New York: First Free Press, 2008. Print.