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Creating Online Structured Academic Controversies

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Technology, Communications & Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.353.1 - 9.353.8



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Paper Authors

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Robert McLaughlan

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2531

Creating online structured academic controversies Robert G. McLaughlan Faculty of Engineering, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia


There have been calls within engineering practice and engineering education to develop within engineers a capacity to recognise and accommodate diverse and even competing perspectives within decision-making processes. To satisfy these needs an instructional technique called Structured Academic Controversy was modified for multi-party controversies and for use with internet mediated communication. The activity specifically seeks to promote multiple perspective-taking on a controversial science and technology public issue and to develop conflict management skills, critical thinking and collaborative skills. The technique has been used to explore controversy surrounding genetically modified foods, the provision of telecommunication infrastructure to meet regional needs, the role of e- Libraries and the damming of international rivers. Feedback from student surveys show that there was a high level of student agreement that the activity developed their awareness of the political, social, environmental and scientific dimensions of the issue discussed. There were also high levels of student satisfaction with the activity. However due to the high number of student postings and the threaded nature of the discussion forum some students found it difficult to interact with all the points raised and to sustain dialogue within a thread. These problems with online dialogue have also been found in other studies. The instructional technique described has been effective in allowing students to develop knowledge of contemporary issues and appreciate the impacts of engineering solutions.


Increasingly, social controversy is becoming one of the basic ingredients of technology development1. Social debate about technologies used for energy production, transport, biotechnology and lifestyle are widespread. Within these contexts the engineering design process can be complex, multi-dimensional, ill defined and fraught with value judgements. Because no single perspective can fully encompass the whole system or issue at hand, multiple representations of the issues or problems are necessary. Resolving these complex design choices can require many ‘actors’ who bring different types of knowledge into a forum for extended dialogue. Recognising how to accommodate and even benefit from these diverse and often competing perspectives is a major challenge for the design process and the engineers undertaking the process.

Within engineering education the challenge to prepare students to broaden the basis upon which decision-making can occur is recognised within the generic attributes expected of undergraduate engineers. Recently developed accreditation outcomes required by ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) require that students should have “the broad education to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context” 2. The impacts are defined to include political, economic, religious, environmental,

Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education

McLaughlan, R. (2004, June), Creating Online Structured Academic Controversies Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--13016

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