25 April 2018

Pilot Beatrice de Graaf: 'Discussing terrorism in the classroom'

Suppose a terrorist attack occurs. How do you as a teacher address this as responsibly as possible in the classroom? Terrorism expert and Utrecht University Professor of History of International Relations Beatrice de Graaf developed a mobile website with information and teaching material together with Information Science, Educational Theory and History students. The web app called ‘Ter Info’ can be used as a tool to talk about terrorism with students in a way that is clear, fact-based and builds understanding. Ter Info was created as part of the ‘Utrecht zijn we samen’ taskforce. Through this initiative, Beatrice de Graaf and Professor of Educational Theory Micha de Winter advise the Municipal Executive of the City of Utrecht on combating polarisation and radicalisation.

An interview with: Beatrice de Graaf, project leader Ralph Sprenkels, Associate Professor of Information Science Frans Wiering, student assistant Herman Nelissen and honours student Lisa Hordijk.

“I have three children in primary school,” says Beatrice de Graaf, “and every day I notice how much they are aware of what is happening in the world. When they reach a certain age, they will start watching talk shows like De Wereld Draait Door. They also know exactly who Trump is. So when I was approached to give short lectures on terrorism, I started thinking about opportunities to discuss the topic in a broader way.”

It was a teacher of the Prinses Margrietschool in Zuilen who came up with the idea to build an app. “I thought it was an excellent idea,” De Graaf continues, “but developing an app is not something you do overnight. Then I remembered that at a meeting about the Dutch National Research Agenda I struck up a conversation with Frans Wiering, Associate Professor at the Interaction Technology division of the Department of Information and Computing Sciences. He mentioned his students could build apps.” De Graaf contacted Wiering, who responded enthusiastically.

Prototype

“Building the app was a great opportunity for a student project,” says Wiering. He sent six Information Science honours students an email saying: “You now have the chance of working with Beatrice de Graaf. Take it!” And they did. With support from third-year student Herman Nelissen, who is writing his thesis on Ter Info and works as a student assistant at Utrecht University, the students turned the idea into a prototype in three months.

“It’s great fun to work on this project,” says Nelissen, “but it’s also quite difficult. After all, it’s not just about technically building the app, the content has to be correct too.”

Focus on content

Gaining an understanding of the content was precisely what Information Science honours student Lisa Hordijk enjoyed about the project. “Being involved in this project and having to deal with educational theory and history, which are not my fields of expertise at all, has allowed me to learn so much. I focussed on how to get the information in the app across to students. Many aspects are involved in this: different ages, levels of knowledge, and backgrounds.”

In addition, the honours students also researched the history of terrorism. “Beatrice de Graaf supported us in this area,” says Hordijk. “We all went to a live show of De Wereld Draait Door, in which she spoke at length about the history of terrorism. This was a very instructive and fun experience.”

Cooperation between three fields of expertise

In his office at the Drift in the centre of Utrecht, project leader Ralph Sprenkels talks about this unique cooperation between the three fields of expertise and the enthusiasm with which the Information Science students started the project last summer: “They were already busy developing the app before the project had been officially launched. Humanities got on board immediately to fill the app with high-quality historical content. Educational Theory contributed by providing insights on the educational framework, so that we could actually offer the app to schools.”

A pilot with the Ter Info prototype has now been launched at six schools in Utrecht. The app is filled with valuable historical information that links to scientific sources as well as illustrative content of media organisations such as, for example, the Dutch broadcaster NOS or the BBC. All this information helps teachers to put terrorism and polarisation in the right perspective.

Rapid response

“The fact that Information Science was involved from the very beginning has increased the app’s effectiveness,” says Sprenkels. “It’s not just about content; the physical and logical design of the app is also important. This helps teachers to answer difficult questions from students quicker and better. A contemporary app is better suited to the needs of this target group than traditional teaching materials.”

One of the functionalities of the app is ‘rapid response’, which makes it possible to respond to current events. When something specific happens, such as an attack, teachers can find short articles through the app, including tips on how best to discuss the event in the classroom. In the coming months, the project group will focus on further improving and refining the Ter Info content, so that the app can be scaled up and offered to more schools.

Social importance

According to student assistant Nelissen, the schools that are currently participating in the pilot are extremely enthusiastic. “First of all, they love that young and motivated students like ourselves are working with them. But they are also impressed by the fact that big names such as Beatrice de Graaf and Micha de Winter are involved.”

What Lisa Hordijk finds especially motivating is the fact that she can work with an existing client. “It feels like everything we do has a clear purpose. To me, a project like this is one of the best opportunities you could have as a university student.”

Wiering is also proud that ‘his’ students are involved in something that is so important to society. “This project introduces students to applied science in a modern way and in a professional environment. They will benefit from this experience for the rest of their careers. What’s more, the students are also making a contribution to something that is of great social importance. I believe that the project has transformed them as individuals.”