INCORPORATING HOT TOPICS IN THE ONLINE CLASSROOM: USING MANDATORY DISCUSSIONS ON BIODIVERSITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE ISSUES TO ADDRESS EARTH SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES
In 2012, we addressed students’ concerns that one semester-long topic was monotonous. We focused instead on Earth sustainability issues through the two favorite discussion topics of our 2011 courses: biodiversity and climate change. Students were randomly assigned to 6 discussion groups, and weekly resources (graphs, website links, scientific articles or summaries) were posted along with two critical thinking questions. Students analyzed and evaluated required readings, responded to critical questions, debated content with peers, and extended discussions to their personal experiences. The final unit required the assembly of a group consensus on planet sustainability, climate change, and how biodiversity was related to the climate discussion.
Although the 2012 climate change discussion covered only 6 weeks, student gains in the 2012 classes (n = 23, 30, 11) closely paralleled the 2010 classes which had semester-long discussions. Importantly, the vast majority of students reported in an anonymous end-of-semester survey that the biodiversity and climate change discussions increased their scientific understanding of sustainability issues, as well as the complexity of these issues. We suggest that online discussions, coupled with scientific readings and instructor-posted critical thinking questions, can facilitate respectful, scientific discussions in classrooms. Students react well to discussion opportunities in which they can collect supporting evidence, and respond thoughtfully (if not synchronously) on potentially controversial issues. Sustained discussions (6-week or longer) are also important for maximization of student literacy.