Making Connections: Using Online Discussion Forums to Engage Students in Historical Inquiry Whitney Blankenship
Blankensip, Whitney, Social Education
Previous issues of Social Education have highlighted the benefits of using electronic discussion forums, including increasing citizenship skills, supporting historical inquiry, and enhancing classroom discussion. (1) Researchers have also found increased levels of student engagement, enhanced communication skills, and increased participation in discussion. (2) The 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Project report states that 93 percent of American youth ages 12 to 17 are online and 51 percent of these youths report being online daily. (3) Students in classrooms today are technologically literate in ways that their parents and grandparents could not even dream about. They readily turn to the Internet for entertainment, news, and social interaction. Students who are already engaged in online activities may become more intrinsically motivated when their preferred medium of communication and research is utilized within the classroom. (4)
Online Discussion Forums
The ongoing interpretive case study that I will highlight here focused on students' use of online discussion forums within a problem-based inquiry classroom. The focus of inquiry during the year centered on two historical questions: What does it mean to be an American? and, What is America's place in the world?
The participants in this study are students in two sections of my International Baccalaureate History of the Americas course. Students are required to post to the discussion forums four times each six weeks. They have the option of either beginning new discussion threads or responding to the posts of their peers, but all posts must be related back to the content of the course: the social, political, and economic history of the American continent. I conduct a content analysis of the archived posts at the end of each semester. Utilizing a constant comparative method, 10 themes were identified within the archived discussions by grouping discussion topics into two categories: (1) transfer of knowledge and (2) engagement with class content. Additionally all posts within a discussion thread were read and analyzed chronologically within the topic. (5) The results of the content analysis, along with student surveys (see sidebars), and in class observations are the basis for the findings in this article. Data was also subject to member checks and peer examination.
Students' Online Discussions and Transfer of Knowledge
On the first day of class, I divided students into groups and gave them the 38 topics that had comprised the main discussion threads from the previous year. Their assignment was to classify each of the topics into larger themes and then turn the themes into a series of historical questions. The synthesis activity at the beginning of the school year gave students the opportunity to review all of the discussion threads, not just the ones they participated in the previous year. As a result students began to make more nuanced observations regarding the connections between the topics. After reviewing my field notes, I noted that one group struggled with creating the historical questions from their categories, particularly with topics that related to the American Dream and foreign policy. When asked to defend why he would put the Iraq War under the American Dream, Edward (6) replied, "The American Dream fuels foreign ... overseas, policy." After being encouraged to clarify his thinking, he declared, "Like in the Spanish American War, when we wanted to help [Cubans] get their independence. We wanted them to be like us." This thought led to additional questions about the relationship between the American Dream and U.S. actions overseas. After a minute of debate, Rachel interjected, "Maybe we need to be asking 'should' rather than 'why'?" Jennie immediately picked up on Rachel's thoughts and asked, "Is it right to go and fix stuff?" (7) By connecting the American Dream to American expansion students were beginning to reflect upon the interconnectedness of U. …