1. Introduction
2. Overview
3. Why the Web
4. The Purpose
5. Evaluation
6. Limitations
7. Summary
8. References

The Digital Agora:
Interaction and Learning in Political Science

Carolyn Watters, Dalhousie University, Canada
Marshall Conley, Acadia University, Canada
Cynthia Alexander, Acadia University, Canada

The Digital Agora is an ambitious interdisciplinary project that provides pedagogical supports for the understanding and analysis of complex issues in the social sciences. This project accompanied an educational paradigm shift from instructor-centered to learner-centered at Acadia University. In this paper we will describe one example of the new class of learning support tools that are needed to take advantage of the deployment of student-centered, mobile technology. The Digital Agora uses the web to integrate the student experience inside and outside the classroom, and perhaps more importantly, within the campus community and within the world community. The Digital Agora is a good example of the next wave of educational support that moves beyond providing access to more information to providing support for collaborative solutions to complex problems.

About the authors...

1. Introduction
Acadia University is the first "laptop" university in Canada. Through the Acadia Advantage program, each incoming student and each faculty member is equipped with a laptop computer. In addition, classrooms, library, residence rooms, and common areas are wired so that the network is accessible both in and out of classrooms. This initiative has been accompanied by an educational paradigm shift from instructor-centered to learner-centered. In this paper we will describe one example of the new class of learning support tools that are needed to take advantage of the reality of student-centered, mobile technology [Conley et al, 1997]. The technology is used to integrate the student experience inside and outside the classroom, and perhaps more importantly, within the campus community and the world communities. The Digital Agora is an ambitious interdisciplinary project that provides pedagogical supports for the understanding and analysis of complex issues in the social sciences, using the web for connectivity both on and off campus. This project recognizes the need for educational support that goes beyond accessing information [Shank and Krass, 1996] and acknowledges the importance of collaboration in solving complex problems. The Digital Agora is now being used in three political science courses at Acadia: International Politics, Peace Studies, and Introductory Political Science.

The Digital Agora

An ambitious interdisciplinary project that provides pedagogical supports for the understanding and analysis of complex issues in the social sciences.
View the Agora.

2. Overview of the Digital Agora
The Digital Agora [Digital Agora, 1998] provides an environment in which participants from a variety of backgrounds can appreciate different points of view on complex issues, formulate coherent analyses, and generate well-articulated and well-reasoned positions on issues. Participants, therefore, need to do more than access and read position papers on the web. They need to be producers as well as consumers of information, i.e., active participants as well as audience. The home page of the current implementation of the Digital Agora shows many of the components available to the participants.

The Digital Agora provides support for the following functions:

    • access to primary data, such as census data or government policy
    • access to secondary data, such as reviews or instructor notes
    • generation and editing of lateral maps
    • quizzes and evaluations
    • presentations
    • discussion groups, both open and moderated
    • consensus negotiation
    • collaborative writing
    • student authorship, i.e., composition of new nodes and annotations.

In this paper, we present samples of the various modes of interaction that are available to the students within the Digital Agora to enhance the learning experience.


3. Why the Web
There are some obvious and compelling reasons for implementing collaborative applications, such as the Digital Agora, on the web, including the following:

  • Scale up. The web provides us with a huge playing field in which 10 or 10,000 users can participate.
  • Protocols. URL, HTTP, and HTML protocols are widely accepted.
  • Metaphor. The use of a document metaphor normalizes the presentation.
  • Access. Universally-available browsers provide a uniform interface.
  • Storage. We can use a CDROM seamlessly for large scale local data storage.
  • Connectivity. Chat groups, newsgroups, and some collaborative support are available.
  • Immediacy. Authors can add data or make changes, and all participants can access this simultaneously and immediately.

4. Components of the Digital Agora
The Digital Agora is an application of multimodal components, most listed in the index frame of the home page, that are supported nearly entirely by the web. Students are able to approach topics from a variety of perspectives and are able to contribute in many ways.


  • Course material. Each course using the Digital Agora has its own course related material: outlines, notes, assignments, etc. In addition to course specific information each related course links to the shared resources of the Digital Agora.


Example 1:
Course Material.

  • Cultural Gallery. The Cultural Gallery is a collection that demonstrates, by example, how political ideas are portrayed in art, music, and literature. It helps students tie their ideas into other disciplines. Students can use the gallery for reference to other work and can make their own contributions to the collection.
Example 2:
A tour of the gallery covering each of the three modes: art, music, and literature.
  • Newsstand. Each course or group of interested students can produce its own online "newspaper." The students form collaborative and virtual editorial boards to generate a weekly online student "newspaper" dealing with issues relevant to the current topics of discussion featuring current events, historically relevant events, photos, and "letters" to the editor. This is the most heavily used component as virtually every student provides input, and very often responses are included from readers who are at different universities or government offices.
Example 3:
Sample Newsstand Page and Article.
  • Tutorials. A set of video-enhanced tutorials are available on topics that include essay writing, presentation, grammar, etc.
Example 4:
Sample Tutorial. 13MB Movie. (requires the Quicktime Plug-in.)
  • Country Profiles. The country profile component is a resource for students in all courses related to the human and natural resources of 29 countries. Each of the countries has visual and textual material covering 15 subtopics, ranging from geography to gender.
Example 5:
Sample Country Profiles.
  • Asynchronous Conversations. In the earlier version of the Digital Agora, students used the campus oriented chat and discussion group facilities. This meant that they had to "move" over to that facility to engage in conversation related to their political science work. This year a message board/discussion group was introduced that is integrated with the Digital Agora to facilitate intragroup asynchronous communication.
Example 6:
Sample Message Board. On the Agora Homepage click the "Message Board" link.
  • Glossary. The glossary, an online set of definitions for commonly used terms for political science discussion, is used by all of the classes. This facilitates common vocabulary for inter-class discussion and collaboration.
Example 7:
View the Glossary. On the Agora Homepage click the "Glossary" link.
  • Symbol bank. The symbol bank is another shared resource that supports interclass communication. The symbol bank is a collection of symbols with annotations that the students can use in essays, presentations, or lateral maps. Using a common bank of symbols allows the student to present visual arguments that can be shared among classes. Notice the relationship between many of the symbols in the symbol bank and entries in the glossary.
Example 8:
View the Symbol bank. On the Agora Homepage click the "Symbol Bank" link.
  • Lateral maps. Lateral maps are visual representations of arguments [Toulmin, 1958] and analysis [DeBono,1982; Novak, 1984; Sowa, 1984] and may be prepared by faculty or by students. Lateral maps are often made by students as the first step in problem analysis or consensus negotiation. Lateral maps are also used to present an analysis of a complex issue. Lateral maps may be relatively simple or quite complex including voice over. The lateral map presents components and relationships that must be understood in the process of forming opinions or solutions to complex problems rather than statements of truth or resolution. There are currently over 1200 lateral maps available for the students on a wide range of topics, from federalism to multiculturalism.
Example 9:
Sample lateral map. On the Agora Homepage click the "Lateral Maps" link. (requires PowerPoint)
  • Video clips. A set of 41 short video clips of speakers at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities held in Ottawa in May and June of 1998 is a resource for the students. These clips are from well known political and academic personalities on a wide range of topics. The students use the video clips for references and can include them as texture in other arguments or discussions they may develop.
Example 10:
Sample video. On the Agora Homepage click the "Video Clips" link. (requires the Quicktime Plug-in.)

Large source materials, which include many of the multimedia components, are stored on a Digital Agora CDROM [Digital Agora, 1998]. This includes over 1200 lateral maps, textual material, photographs, video and audio segments. The CDROM is accessed by the same web browser and links to the internet directly. From the student perspective, the CDROM is an invisible data source.

5. Evaluation
Online evaluation of student opinion and usage patterns was conducted at the end of the first term. Results from this evaluation indicate that students used the Digital Agora several times a week and used the interactive components, particularly the online newspapers, most frequently and rated these as the most useful.


6. Limitations of the Web
The web provides universal access to huge distributed repositories of text and data that may be relevant to analyses in the political sciences but only rudimentary tools for facilitating the understanding of the complexity of issues, the formulation of strategies for dealing with these issues and, finally, the communication of ideas [Watters et al, 1998a; Watters et al, 1998b].

There are some remaining implementation issues that we found problematic on the web, including lateral map construction, node and link authorship, and semantic links. Students who create lateral maps convert them to html and then may publish them on the web. These maps are presentations, not collaborative "works in progress," nor are they particularly interactive. The web still treats reading and creating as two discrete activities. For effective collaboration, the readers must be able to add content, notes, and links to works in progress. Semantic links are required to augment the generic "goto" link that is ubiquitous to hypertext on the web. As arguments are made, links such as "for example" or "argument against" are needed to thread components and contributions into a whole analysis.


7. Summary
The Digital Agora is an example of a large inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional project for the support of active learning in the social sciences that has been implemented primarily as a web-based system. The web is a natural medium for this project as the participants are from a wide variety of backgrounds, and a range of participation activities are supported from simple browsing to the collaborative generation of new analyses.

The Digital Agora is a good example of the next wave of educational support that moves beyond providing access to more information to providing support for the process of engaging in the solution of complex problems as a collaborative endeavor. The use of the web as the backbone for this project exploits the new mobility of students with laptops and allows for the integration of classroom exploration with off-campus collaboration and discussions.


8. References
[ACME, 1998] Acadia University (1998). Automated Courseware Management Environment, Acadia University, Nova Scotia Canada. [http:// acme.acadiau.ca]

[Conley et al, 1997] M.Conley, C.Alexander, and C.Watters (1997). Challenges and Choices in Designing a Collaborative, Computer-Mediated Social Science Classroom. Ed-Media/ Ed-Telecom 97 Conference. Calgary, June 14-19.

[DeBono, 1982] E.DeBono (1982). Thinking Course. BBC Books, London.

[Digital Agora, 1998] The Digital Agora Project (1998). Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. [http://ace.acadiau.ca/polisci/aa/digagora].

[Novak, 1984] J.D.Novak (1984). Learning How to Learn. New York, Cambridge University Press.

[Shank and Krass, 1996] R.Shank and A.Krass (1996). A goal-based scenario for high school students. Comm. Of the ACM, 39, 4, (April 1996), 28-29.

[Sowa, 1984] J.F.Sowa (1984). Conceptual Structures : Information Processing in Mind and Machine. Addison-Wesley. Reading, Mass.

[Toulmin, 1958] S.Toulmin (1958). The Uses of Argument. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

[Watters et al, 1998a] C.Watters, M.Shepherd, C.Alexander, and M.Conley (1998). The Digital Agora: Pushing the Web Envelope. HICSS'31 Conference, Hawaii, Jan 6-9.

[Watters et al, 1998b] C.Watters, M.Conley, and C.Alexander (1998). The Digital Agora: Using Technology for Learning in the Social Sciences. Comm. of the ACM, 41, 1 (Jan. 1998), 51-57.

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IMEJ multimedia team member assigned to this paper Daniel Pfeifer