Let loose on the net, students indulge political paranoias

September 13, 2002

Beverley Milton-Edwards, winner of the LTSN/ THES e-tutor award, found herself ambushed in a virtual world when she put Middle East politics online

Sometimes teaching Middle East politics in a place such as Belfast is a bit like taking coals to Newcastle. This past year, as I have driven down the Ormeau Road between Nationalist and Loyalist neighbourhoods and past the fluttering flags of Israelis and Palestinians, I have pondered on how conflicts can elide in a most surreal manner.

Students, however, need to be clear about who is who and what is what. Role play can help achieve that clarity. I introduced it on our module at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1994. The activity proved so popular that by 2000 we decided to go virtual. The Middle East politics module covers colonialism, gender, political economy, nationalism, American foreign policy and, of course, war and peace. Between 40 and 70 students study at any one time.

Putting the module online dovetailed nicely with Queen's ambitions on e-learning. But it also encouraged me to rethink marking and introduce something students had long lobbied for: continuous assessment. The module moved from being 100 per cent exam to a 50 per cent role-play component, including online documentation, a book review and a country study.

I wanted my students to start looking beyond the library for web-linked material held by organisations and institutions involved in the Middle East. I wanted them to continue dialogues that may have begun in a lecture theatre through to the campus intranet, onto their home computers and back into tutorials, the campus common room or coffee bar.

I started by following my own ideas about website graphics and design. This annoyed the university authorities because I had not used the set format. This allowed me to grab students' attention and direct them to common themes via websites. Then the unexpected happened. The students started telling me about other interesting sites they had visited and began downloading articles, official documents, pictures and so on to supplement our tutorial discussions. Tutorials started to liven up. We created a "class box" for materials that became common property.

In the role play, five virtual teams - representing Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the US and Hamas - were formed. They put their photos on the web. Guidance notes went up also. Password-protected discussion groups for each team started. All this contributed to a more rapid creation of team spirit and identity. As "game director", I monitored and guided the discussion in the weeks prior to a final day's live role play, Showdown on Shuhada Street, which involved negotiations over releasing hostages.

Students tentatively began online discussion. As they developed, and paranoia set in about being "bugged" by the other side, students became increasingly reliant on the discussion board. I guided them to particular points or material and remained responsive to requests, which ranged from material on the Israel-Jordan peace treaty to help in buying an Israeli flag.

The students brought fresh, original perspectives to the hostage scenario that I would not have thought of. I was soon reining in their enthusiasm, afraid they might all declare war on each other before reaching the negotiating table. Students who were less comfortable contributing verbally in tutorials came through as increasingly vocal actors on the discussion board. Their nom de guerre allowed for greater symmetry in contributions.

As the day of the role play grew nearer, I found myself ambushed (literally), online and in real life, by increasing numbers of students engaged in surreptitious surveillance of my own movements or requiring me to act as a go-between. On the day of the role play, the fine line between reality and imagination was strained and blurred. We tried to make the events of September 11 more relevant by introducing a renegade radical element from al-Qaida - the Tora Bora Revenge led by Sheikh S'beer (aka Peter Hinchcliffe, former British ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait). He said that the students displayed an expertise and grasp of the issues involved that might well be expected of seasoned diplomats.

I put much of the improvement in performance down to the online innovation. In one semester, I had seen students change from passive learners reluctant to participate in tutorial discussion, taking notes obsessively and over-reliant on material that I distributed, to active learners complaining there was not enough time in tutorials to debate.

Although the big debates about virtual learning environments have tended to pass me by, the experience of putting my module online has made me realise how it can help students connect with their subject. Our virtual environment broke down the geographic and political borders that separate Belfast from Bethlehem, Derry from Deir al-Balah and Portadown from Peta Tikva.

Beverley Milton-Edwards is a reader in the School of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast. She is the winner of this year's THES e-tutor award. http://www.qub.ac.uk/pol/mep/

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