May/June 2001 // Case Studies
University 2 Diversity: The Story of 2 Live Class
by Bob King and Tom Smith
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Bob King and Tom Smith "University 2 Diversity: The Story of 2 Live Class" The Technology Source, May/June 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

2 Live Class was a technology-enabled, conversation-based, inter-institutional, and intercultural undergraduate course that we taught in the spring of 1999. We connected two similar courses, on the philosophical and social foundations of education, at two dissimilar institutions: North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), a historically African-American public university, and Guilford College, a historically European-American private college. Both institutions are located in Greensboro, NC.

In the year 2000, NC A&T enrolled approximately 6,850 undergraduates and 700 graduate students. Eighty-nine percent of the student body was African-American, 8% Caucasian, and the remaining 3% described themselves as "other." The average incoming freshman SAT score was 897. In the same year, Guilford College enrolled approximately 1,250 students, 87% of whom were Caucasian. The average incoming SAT score was 1135. Photo essays of NC A&T (Exhibit 1) and Guilford College (Exhibit 2) provide a further, visual comparison of the two institutions.

2 Live Class began as a conversation about how to teach about cultural diversity at institutions that are not culturally diverse (Exhibit 3). It was also an answer to the question of how to teach and learn effectively online. On the NC A&T campus, the course was officially offered as "Curriculum and Instruction 301: Philosophical and Social Foundations of Education." At Guilford, the course was titled "Education Studies 203: Contemporary and Historical Issues in Education." The unofficial title of the course?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù2 Live Class?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùderives from (or "samples") the name of the rap group 2 Live Crew. Each class enrolled between 15 and 20 students.

Asynchronous online conversation provided a simple and effective way to create a worthwhile inter-institutional and intercultural experience. Students participated in substantive, ongoing online debate, without having to adjust school or work schedules. Because of the relative proximity of the campuses, we were able to arrange a few face-to-face meetings, but even these were difficult for many to attend. Combining the courses without technology would have been impossible.

Online conversation also provided a simple and effective way to teach and learn. Prior to 2 Live Class, instructors at both schools used face-to-face, conversation-based approaches, one rooted in constructivist theory (Exhibit 4), the other in Peirce's semiotics (Exhibit 5). We believe that conversational methods are key to teaching and learning, and we found from 2 Live Class that these methods are highly effective with, and even strengthened by, technology. Conversation is quite literally the glue that holds networked reality together in the first place—the Internet would hardly function without e-mail, chat, and other forms of conversation—so our methods played directly into one of networked technology's inherent strengths. Through ongoing, online discussion we were able to extend our conversation well beyond the standard three-sessions-per-week format. We were also able to merge our solitary practices. The expansiveness required by conversation-based teaching and learning was easily realized online.

Getting Started

Getting started with conversation-based, online teaching and learning was easy. Instead of writing a syllabus, we created a Web site to serve as an information and publication center (Exhibit 6) and dove into the process of online conversation. Our opening question for 2 Live Class?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù"What makes for a good conversation?"?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùyielded insight, comprehensive analysis, initial sharing and community, and ethical discourse parameters that also served as guidelines for course governance. We then introduced objectivist and constructivist philosophical paradigms (part of our required subject matter) in the context of our talk about course governance. In other words, we built our content into the ongoing conversation by asking the question of whether the teacher's responsibility is to "deliver content" or to facilitate and deepen students' abilities to construct meaning.

Student responses to this approach were heady if hesitant. In some cases hesitancy gave way to structure-hunger. One student put it this way:

Congratulations, I feel successfully confused. I am trying hard to get an overall grasp on this class, but I have been, thus far, a bit stalled. I am trying to stay on board.

In other cases, hesitation led to a full embrace of exploratory processes. A Guilford student wrote:

I am excited that we are walking on new ground together because I feel we are guaranteed to learn. I like the people in our class and the positive feeling we have towards the course and towards working with A&T students.

Students learned key concepts in objectivist and constructivist learning paradigms by personalizing the paradigms through discussions about course governance. Students soon used the terms fluently and correctly in online debate. In addition, the technologically enabled, conversational format exposed students to a diversity of opinions and voices, many of which they would not have heard otherwise. One student put it this way:

I want to thank everyone for giving us this chance to explore in such open ways what we feel about these topics. This does not happen everywhere. I honor what we have created as a class.

About one month into 2 Live Class, students decided to form governance committees, with the instructors serving as advisors on the curriculum committee. The committee arrived at a structure based on "essential questions." A rudimentary syllabus was drafted (Exhibit 7). The essential questions were:

  • What is education? (a question of philosophy)
  • How did we get here? (a question of history)
  • Who gets what education? (a question of sociology)

Since we had already addressed the question of philosophy by talking about course governance, we realized that we had already accomplished a third of the coursework. Our overall response to the question "What is education?" was that education as most of us had come to know it was more accurately termed "positivist education."


The above instance illustrates several of the benefits we found in using online conversation?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùall of which hinge on the expansiveness afforded by online teaching and learning and required by conversational teaching and learning.

Online conversation provides a way for students to explore issues on their own terms. It made more sense for students to explore foundational philosophical issues in terms of "class governance" and "the teacher's role" rather than in terms of "objectivism," "constructivism," and "paradigms." Yet in traditional formats there is often no time for this crucial, student-generated discourse to take place.

As it develops, online conversation creates a matrix that easily supports the introduction or elaboration of technical terms. Because of the rich conversation on course governance, we did not have to belabor key terms through drill, practice, and testing. We simply put these terms into play.

Since it allows multiple voices to be heard to a much greater extent than in the face-to-face classroom, online conversation provides immediate evidence of diverse opinions. This diversity problematizes ethnocentrism and egocentrism at a basic level. It also moves the discourse towards greater complexity and depth. When we discovered that some students in 2 Live Class experienced structure-hunger and others elation, the discourse moved to a more complex examination of argumentation, examples, rhetorical nuances, and research offered in support of stated positions. At the same time, it engaged ethical issues and reality-effects created by divergent personal experience in order to accommodate the variation in student experience and to foster community.

Online conversation also enables exploration of topics that might not otherwise be taken up in class. In the online conversation about course governance, we found that students were more comfortable conversing online than in person about the course, the instructors' methods, and the use of technology. In this respect, online conversation enabled the inclusion of critical material while simultaneously shattering the illusion that students were not thinking critically.

Extending and Completing

All of the above above features remained in strong evidence when 2 Live Class, according to its plan, took up the essential question of history. Referring to work on constructivism and objectivism, we first discussed whether there could be such a thing as a single, objective history. We read authors on both sides of this question and watched movies such as Black Athena and The Classical Ideal?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe first a constructivist, the second an objectivist account of Western historical origins.

Much as in their first conversation about philosophy, students again avoided "instructor terms" (i.e., technical jargon) in their conversation about history, instead preferring terms more familiar to them?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùsuch as "religion" and "homosexuality." Their conversation started slowly and built into two weeks of sustained online exchange. Related news events during this time included the murder in Wyoming of Matthew Shepherd, a young gay man. Much as the online conversation had generated the content for our question of philosophy through exploring class governance, it now generated the content for our question of history through conversation about homosexuality and religion. Students' focus on the intertwined topics of religion, gender, and sexuality was consonant with a point that several of our expert historical sources made: namely, that the (often violent) interplay of religion and gender defines the historical dynamic of Western culture. As instructors, we called attention to the convergence between student conversation and expert discourse and added what we felt to be appropriate materials (readings, videos, guest presenters, Web sites, and so on) as enhancements to the conversation. Again, the online approach left little doubt that students were learning foundational issues of history. Through online conversation, students articulated a center of historical debate and learning. The expansiveness and depth of students' higher-order cognitive and ethical work is indicated by the 140 pages of transcript they generated. In this instance, as in previous instances, the instructors found that online conversation allowed for a degree of comfort in examining sensitive topics that would have been difficult to maintain in face-to-face conversation (Exhibit 8).

In regard to diversity of opinion in the online conversation, one student offered this comment:

Our discussion with A&T students opened my eyes to other opinions, as well as my own, on "false history's" influence on today's students. I couldn't help but chime into the discussion when we began to talk about our roles as teachers, especially when teaching the subject of history. What do we do when the text tells us to teach something that we know isn't true? This is something that we are going to encounter!

When we turned our attention to the question of sociology, we did so with the philosophical and historical consciousness we had already constructed. Our overall response to the question of sociology was that the best education often goes to those who most closely meet a single, so-called "objective" standard that is patriarchal-male and Euro-American. We found once again that online conversation allowed students to explore sensitive social issues more deeply and diversely on their own terms.


Mirroring the overall ethos of the course, we evaluated 2 Live Class by framing a question (a process we would recommend in these days of high-stakes testing and evaluation). To a significant degree, we knew how students felt about the course because they talked about it openly and explicitly in online discussion (Exhibit 9). We also had clear formative evidence of conceptual understanding of course content because students demonstrated their understanding as they conversed online.

Beyond this, our evaluation procedures mirrored the structure of 2 Live Class by emphasizing diversity rather than uniformity. Evaluation techniques derived from the work of Jane Davis-Seaver on chaos theory provided us with powerful evidence of insightful group processing on the largest scale (Exhibit 10). We used standard, objectivist measures to evaluate the medium-scale elements of the course, including required summaries of readings and videos, midterm and final assessment events, and reports on field work. Participation in the online discussion was mandatory, at 250 words per week. Students could write essays if they desired, but no one opted to do so. Self-evaluation was employed for individual term projects, which were posted on the class Web site. The attempt to assess these various activities yielded "grades," but each student was also provided with a narrative and note of appreciation for his or her participation.

It is very difficult to sum up the actual, lived experience of 2 Live Class, but the following student?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s words come close:

This is my final posting to this forum. I haven't written as often as I could, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing from everyone. It is a safe place to share opinions and reactions and I would be interested in continuing it. I thank everyone for their contributions to this class. I have enjoyed reading everyone's postings. I know at times I have seemed violently opposed to this class, but despite my heated reactions, this has been one of my favorite semesters and education classes. Not simply because I found it challenging, but also because I have enjoyed the large pool of voices from which we have heard.

From our perspectives, the overarching aim of a conversation-based, technology-enhanced course such as 2 Live Class is not to foster uniformity of response or evaluation. It is to create a conversational reality, to foster an appreciation of different perspectives, and to kindle the desire and confidence required for participation in the ongoing conversation of humanity. Online conversation clearly enabled us to meet this goal through explorations of content, opportunities for complex and charged analysis of positions, the interplay of diverse voices, and open and reflective expression of views on difficult topics. Without technology, we would have been hard pressed to realize more than a fraction of this potential. With technology, much was fully realized. As instructors, our conversation and collaboration continue (Exhibit 11).

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