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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Confessions of a Low-Tech Social Scientist

by James Schellenberg

The following essay was written in 2001 by James Schellenberg, author of the Conflict Studies textbook Conflict Resolution: Theory, Research and Practice, which was reviewed positively in an earlier issue of the Report. In his reflections, Dr. Schellenberg, who has just recently retired from the Faculty at Indiana State University, describes his experimentation with various technologies to help teach his conflict studies course. Due to Dr. Schellenberg's retirement, the online course he describes is no longer offered.

This article was originally printed in Sketches of Innovators in Education: A Collection of Articles on Teaching with Technology. It is reprinted with permission from the Office of Lifelong Learning at Indiana State University.

I am still not at home in our computer age. I do not know what people are talking about when they discuss computer hardware, and I always need special help when I start to use a new kind of software. I was a long holdout against e-mail, and I still receive it only at school, keeping me unbothered at home by a flurry of e-mail messages. I am not a Web surfer. Basically I use the Web only when I have a specific objective in mind. Yet, despite all this, I now find myself as the instructor of a Web-based course. How this came to be I would like to recount in these "confessions."

It certainly did not happen suddenly. It happened through a cumulative sequence of events over a period of years. These events might be summarized in terms of the following key developments: the program; the book; the television course; and getting on the Internet.

The Program

I have been teaching courses in social conflict for more than 35 years. I did this primarily as a scholar, not as a social activist. However, in the early 1990s, I became increasingly aware of a widespread interest in conflict resolution practices. I took mediation training and became aware of the effectiveness of conflict management tools and the practical help such tools offer to all kinds of people. Working then with others in the Department of Sociology, I developed a graduate program at ISU in conflict resolution. In this, we were especially trying to bring together scholarly work with the more applied concerns of practitioners. We would take very seriously the scientific studies of conflict; however, we would try to relate them to what people find to be practical tools for conflict management.

That, of course, was a very ambitious undertaking. One of the problems we faced was the absence of a good textbook that would bring the interests of academics and practitioners together. I started to write such a book and sent sample chapters out to several publishers.

The Book

This was not my first book on social conflict. One such previous book, The Science of Conflict (Oxford University Press, 1982), was very well received by other scholars. However, the present book was to include a more practical orientation. This posed some problems, for work in the field was pretty sharply divided into scholarly and practitioner markets. Nevertheless, I finally found a publisher, and my book came out in 1996 (Conflict Resolution: Theory, Research, and Practice, published by the State University of New York Press).

With the book project done, I sought to promote the ideas of our program and my book for a larger audience. I cannot be sure just what combination of altruism, vanity, and simple dedication to the tasks I had started was involved in my motives. I knew there were a lot of people out there who needed more solid grounding in the field of conflict studies than would trickle in through our on-campus graduate offerings. Also, since our program was unique to Indiana, I explored the possibility of using the television delivery platform offered via the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunications System.

The Television Course

Offering a course via television provided some very special challenges for me. I had to get over some of my camera self-consciousness, and adapt some of the techniques, such as PowerPoint, that would provide special aids for distance students. I involved other Indiana State University faculty members in taped interviews, which I felt added a lot to the course. The course included a basic grounding in social conflict theory and research (the more skills development work came primarily through later on campus workshops), and this was sometimes hard to achieve in a format that mostly extended an on-campus class to the off-campus world. Fortunately, I always had an on-campus group as an anchor. However, we did not reach a sufficient number of students to justify our continuing use of an IHETS channel. Besides, in this kind of pre-sentation, there were special difficulties, such as being able to hear fully from the students at a distance and the general artificiality of trying to extend the classroom by this new means. I began to explore what might be possible for a Web-based course.
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