Collaborative Online International Learning: The example of a course in the psychology of terrorism in the United States and Iran

The study of terrorism and responses to terrorism may have different meanings, definitions, and implications to which we will need to pay close and consistent attention.

By Anthony F. Lemieux, PhD and Abdolhossein Abdollahi, PhD

In the fall of 2008, a very interesting and exciting opportunity for an international collaboration started to take shape. At Purchase College, the director of the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Center, Jon Rubin, had recently been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the creation of several collaborative online international courses. Building on my previous experience in offering a course in the Psychology of Terrorism seemed like a natural extension of the traditional classroom experience into a new and collaboratively developed class that would take place online, and across cultures. Thus, the search for a partner began. My initial contact with Abdolhossein Abdollahi came when he responded to an announcement about the course that I sent to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology email listserv. Prior to our contact, I was familiar with some of Abdolhossein’s research on the topics of Terror Management Theory and terrorism (e.g., Pyszczynski, Abdollahi, Solomon, Greenberg, Cohen, & Weise, 2006; Pyszczynski, Rothschild, & Abdollahi, 2008). Needless to say, when he emailed me about forging a partnership, I was quite excited about the possibilities of our collaboration.

Following this initial contact, we had several weeks of email exchanges that formed the foundation on which we started to address more substantive issues about how to conceptualize and develop such a class. As we started to brainstorm about how to best proceed, we immediately noted some points that we would need to address both at the beginning, and throughout, our collaboration. Of course, there are the practical and technical matters – like course scheduling, technologies that we will use to offer the course, and so on. However, there are also more substantial issues that we are addressing as we move forward with the conceptualization and development of the class. A few examples of the more substantive topics include how to facilitate extensive interaction among students in the online environment, the readings and materials we will use in the course, and the types of examples and cases we will use.

In addition to the more practical challenges associated with the course, both the nature of the topic and the composition of our partnership, which bridges students from Iran and the United States in a collaborative learning environment, will provide an additional and unique set of challenges. In this course we will be examining a particularly challenging subject matter. The study of terrorism and responses to terrorism may have different meanings, definitions, and implications to which we will need to pay close and consistent attention. One particularly salient example that we have started to address from some of our earliest discussions is how terrorism can be defined. Anyone familiar with this field of study has probably read myriad definitions of the term (e.g., Hoffman, 2006; Marsella, 2004). So, one thing that we will need to work on, and to challenge our students to think critically about, is how we can arrive at a working definition of the term that will enrich the course, without bogging the class down in a way that would prevent us from getting to the central issues in this field of study.

The idea for this course was created at a crossroads of a unique set of circumstances. However, our hope is that we are able to create an engaging, effective, and replicable pedagogical approach to offering such a course. Over the 2008-2009 academic year, the initial priority was establishing a partnership that would be a good fit. During the Spring 2009 semester, we are in the process of developing the syllabus, materials, and establishing a shared pedagogical approach that will work across our respective cultures. The course that we are developing has the potential to build on some of the promising qualities of online international collaboration through a globally networked learning environment (Stark- Meyerring & Wilson, 2008). Far beyond what such a course could accomplish in a more traditional setting, this course will immerse students from two nations that have divergent and sometimes conflicting views about the nature of terrorism and counterterrorism into a common learning environment. Ψ


Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marsella, A. J. (2004). Reflections on international terrorism: Issues, concepts, and directions. In F. M. Moghaddam & A. J. Marsella (Eds.). Understanding terrorism: Psychosocial roots, consequences, and interventions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pyszczynski, T., Rothschild, Z., & Abdollahi, A. (2008). Terrorism, violence, and hope for peace: A terror management perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 318-322.

Pyszczynski, T., Abdollahi, A., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., & Weise, D. (2006). Mortality salience, martyrdom, and military might: The Great Satan versus the Axis of Evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 525-537.

Stark-Meyerring, D., & Wilson, M. (2008). Designing globally networked learning environments: Visionary partnerships, policies, and pedagogies. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.