Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

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Horses, carts and captured content

Usefully captured

Oddly, it took being interviewed for a research project to really crystallise my thoughts on this subject, after some months of it niggling away.

Earlier in the year, my institution launched a consultation on a captured content policy.

This was intended – in its words – to ensure improved access to learning materials and to allow for more flexible delivery, and was sold with a large dose of student demand (via our Students Union).

For those of you who’ve not had this conversation at your place of work, captured content covers lecture capture (semi-automatic filming of lectures to be uploaded to the VLE); flipped content and; anything else that’s a recording of teaching.

As an aside, there’s mixed evidence in the literature of its benefit for students: Owston et al suggest it’s particularly of use for low-achieving students, and Shaw et al see most benefits for non-native speakers; but Stroup et al find no evidence of impact on GPAs; while Danielson et al suggest that the kind of lecture has an impact.

However, as presented, the university wanted to have a whole lot more of this kind of thing, across the board, including talk of a largely-compulsory system of lecture capture.

Cue much concern from colleagues.

This ranged from how to deal with mixed lecture-seminar sessions to the impact on willingness to talk about sensitive subjects  to administrators using recordings for management purposes to the principle worry that students just wouldn’t turn up to class if they could just watch it online later on.

In its defence, the final, approved policy didn’t go as far as the draft plans, so there’s a lot more scope for instructor discretion about using captured content; although we’re all required to have discussions about how best to proceed on this front. Some of our teaching rooms now have automatic recording of classes, but defaulting to not making these available to students or anyone else.

So?

So that’s all fine, right? University over-reaches in its plans, colleagues feed into consultation, university responds and adapts. That’s what should happen. Right?

I’m not so sure.

To come back to the original sell, a key part of it all was that push from the Students Union to the effect that lecture capture would improve the quality and student-centredness of lectures.

Here we have to remember that lecture capture (since it was that, rather than captured content in general) is not about content, but about delivery. In a system that automatically records lectures, the expectation should be that lectures continue as they have, but now with the option of being available online.

No imagine you’re sitting in a lecture.

You don’t understand something, so you either raise your hand to ask the lecturer, or you ask the person sat next to you.

In both cases, you’ll get an almost instantaneous clarification for someone immediately and directly focused on the subject matter, with a pretty good change of resolving the issue.

But if you watch a captured lecture, then if you don’t understand the one explanation in that lecture, then you’ve got to email or visit the lecturer, who’s got to fit responding around whatever else it is they’re doing.

Much more time, much more effort, many more points of failure.

So no lecture capture then?

This is why I’ve never gone for lecture capture, but instead have travelled down the road of flipping. In the latter case, you’re using the contact time to give space for student questions and clarification, so it’s a much more engaged model than just recording the stuff that already happening in class.

Importantly, that’s what works for what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve.

And this is perhaps the central point.

In all the years of teaching that I’ve done, at all the institutions that I’ve encountered and worked for, I don’t ever recall a policy about optimising student learning.

I’ve seen policies about captured content or using VLEs; regulations about the volume and nature of assessment and size of modules; and more learning and teaching strategies than I care to remember.

But never a document about how to make informed pedagogic choices about designing the best possible learning experience for students.

If it’s appeared anywhere, then it’s in teaching training courses, and then generally indirectly.

I can understand why this is – those other things are much more fungible and measurable – but it does raise a question about the focus of our work.

Importantly, I feel that too often we find ourselves in situations where “student learning” is conflated with “student satisfaction”: if only we can make them happy, then they’ll get more out of it.

Even on its own terms, I don’t see the logic of this, even before we get to whether it’s something that’ll serve our students well in the wider world.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that if I change how I teach in my class, then it’s because I’ve made a considered decision about its pedagogic merits, rather than because of an institutional policy.

Negatives of Nuance

Related to Simon‘s and Amanda‘s recent posts about failing to get the results one expects, here is a very simple example.

My first writing assignment prompt this semester for my course on economic development and environmental change read as follows:

Purpose of this response: learn about the nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.

1. Read the rubric below.

2. Read/watch:

  • MRU: Basic Facts of Growth and Development.
  • Easterly, Ch. 1 and Intermezzo, p. 5-19.
  • Emily Badger and Quoc Trung Bui, “In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping and Intimate New Look at Housing in America,” The New York Times.
  • Hans Rosling, “The Magic Washing Machine,” TEDWomen, December 2010.

Answer the following question:

  • William Easterly writes “When those of us from rich countries look at poor countries today, we see our own past poverty.” (p. 19). Is this an accurate view of poverty outside and inside the USA? Why?

My intent in asking the question — which I thought was obvious from the “statement of purpose” that prefaced it — was to get students to think about the differences between how they think about the poor at home and about the poor in countries that they’ve probably only seen on the news, if at all. In other words, I wanted them to start thinking about why our perceptions of the poor often depend on where the poor are located.

Instead students wrote about wealth and poverty from a historical perspective — that the USA once had a low level of economic development, as measured by GDP or income per capita, and that’s where other countries are today. The USA developed into a high-income, industrialized society, so probably other countries, even the poorest ones, will eventually do the same. There was no real discussion of the nature of poverty in the USA or why it exists.

So I need to a better question, something like “Are the causes of poverty in the USA the same as in other countries? Why?” or “If the USA is an economically-developed country, why does it still have poor people?”

Electoral College Exercise

While I realize many of our readers are not based in the US nor teaching American government, the Electoral College is such an interesting oddity in electoral decision making that its a subject that may come up in Comparative Politics courses as well.  Certainly when I teach US politics I use quite a few comparative examples, as one of my themes of the course is how government arises from a series of decisions made by individuals and groups, none of which are or were set in stone.  Showing alternative models is a very useful way of doing this.

So here is a data analysis exercise that I use to teach the American Electoral College. It can be done either as homework or as an-in class as an activity after a basic introduction to the Electoral College and how it works (the basic premise of state-by-state popular vote, proportional votes based on number of seats in Congress, winner take all systems, and if no one wins a majority, the decision is made by the House with state-by-state voting).  

This exercise can be easily reformed for a final exam. Simply change the data and situations.  In the version below I use 9 states in a fictional world; in the exam version, I use about 20 states in a different world.  I never use the entire US or actual vote totals–this is largely to keep the math simple enough that it is not a test of arithmetic but of analysis.  Feel free to change the names of candidates and states to suit your own interests. 


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Mixing media

On set of my latest lecture capture…

Having given up on the blindfolds, I’ve now moved to some less radical activities in my class this semester.

Part of that includes making more use of media in sessions.

Video

A big part of that took place before we started teaching, when I recorded some more videos to upload to our virtual learning environment.

This is Flipping 101: giving a lecture online, then using class contact time for more interactive activities. Given that I’m teaching negotiation, that seems particularly sensible and I’ve been doing that for some years now, but this time around I’ve embraced it more fully.

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Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

Blindfolds, philosophers, and negotiations

This guest post comes from Alex Leveringhaus, from the Department of Politics, University of Surrey. He played Simon’s blindfold ice-breaker last week and it prompted some thoughts about philosophy. Obviously 

Imagine you are a member of a team that has been assigned a particular task. Nothing unusual about that. Imagine further that your team is competing with a second team that has been instructed to carry out the same task. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, either. But now imagine that all participating team members (your team and your opponents) have to carry out their respective task while blindfolded. That’s probably a bit more unusual.

Naturally, the blindfold generates all sorts of practical challenges. How do you know who your team members are? How do you coordinate the successful completion of the task? The answer to these questions seems quite straightforward. You need to engage in team work! That is, you need to devise a strategy for carrying out your assigned task while blindfolded, and you need to trust your team mates that they pull their weight. The two ingredients of success: strategy and trust.

But not so fast. Strategy and trust have an inward and an outward component. The former relates to your teammates, the latter relates to the competing team. With regard to the latter component, the question is whether you can trust the competing team to play by the rules of the game and wear their blindfolds (and vice versa). More precisely, can you trust them not to peep underneath their blindfolds in order to gain an unfair advantage in the completion of the task? And how would you be able to ascertain this without breaking the rules of the competition yourself?

After all, in order to assess whether members of the other team are peeping underneath their blindfolds, you must peep underneath your blindfold, too. Naturally, whether you trust the other team or not will affect your team’s strategy. Arguably, a strategy that assumes universal compliance with the rules will differ from a strategy that assumes non-compliance.

The conundrum generated by the blindfold game is not new, of course. Nor has it primarily preoccupied the minds of political scientists. For instance, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls, arguably the most important (political) philosopher in the English-speaking world post-World War II, offers a helpful distinction.

Rawls and Plato

According to Rawls, ideal theory, which he is primarily concerned with, assumes that there is universal compliance with principles of justice. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, assumes that not everybody complies with principles of justice.

Non-ideal theory generates two primary moral challenges. First, non-compliant individuals are free-riding. Second, moral obligations can quickly become over-demanding. Put simply, not only do non-compliant individuals benefit unfairly; to add insult to injury, compliant individuals also have to pick up the slack.

However, the problem is older than Rawls’ distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. In fact, it goes right back to the inception of western political theorising in Ancient Greece. In his work The Republic (circa 380/1 BCE), Plato considers the story of a young shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible. (Sounds familiar anyone?) What should the shepherd do? He could kill the king, marry the queen, and become the new ruler. Untold riches beckon.

But Plato counsels against this. It is better, according to Plato, to play by the rules and not become a usurper, even if this means that the shepherd foregoes worldly riches. Why? Being a just person, Plato contends, is important for the well-being of one’s soul. It is, in other words, better to be a poor but happy shepherd than a powerful but miserable (Lady) Macbeth.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

Several centuries later, Thomas Hobbes devised a different solution to the problem. You can’t rely on justice or a sense of fair play, Hobbes claims. For, as Hobbes argues in Leviathan (1651), justice does simply not exist in the absence of a suitable authority to enforce the necessary rules.

The solution, then, for Hobbes, consists in establishing an authority, the Leviathan, to enforce the rules and punish those who transgress them. That sounds sensible, I hear you say. But is trust in the Leviathan enough? And how does the Leviathan maintain its own grip on power to lay down the law?

In Renaissance Florence, a disgraced former civil servant by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli had his own thoughts on this issue. In his work The Prince (1532), a guidebook on how to be a successful ruler (primarily by not getting killed by one’s subjects), Machiavelli advises that you should not trust anyone, at least if you want to remain in power. Nor should you try to act ethically. That won’t do you any good because everyone around you won’t act ethically, either. It is necessary, therefore, to be ruthless and act unethically. Nice guys, as the saying goes, always come last (or get their head chopped off).

However, the trick, according to Machiavelli, is not to brag that you are the toughest Pitbull in the yard. People will eventually hate you for doing so. And if they hate you, they will get rid of you sooner or later. Rather, what you should do is to appear to be an ethical person while acting unethically. Be a smiling assassin but ensure you sink the dagger in. Go to church and pretend to be a good Christian king but be prepared to mercilessly crush your enemies (or any other saboteurs, for that matter).

What does all this mean for the blindfold scenario? To peep or not to peep, that is here the question. Well. If you are a Platonist, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold. You and your teammates will do the right thing. You will play by the rules, even though you cannot be a hundred percent sure that the other team is doing the same. If you lose, you can console yourself that you played by the rules. But will that make you happy? Or will you be a sore loser?

By contrast, if you are a Hobbesian, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold because you trust that the person who supervises the game will enforce the rules. More importantly, you fear that the umpire/Leviathan/Simon will disqualify you if he catches you. (And let’s not even talk about getting a reference for that job application from Simon. ‘I blindfold my students on a regular basis. Student X, however, consistently peeped underneath his/her blindfold. X is untrustworthy and finds it hard to play by the rules. Hence X is completely unsuited to your organisation. Don’t give X a job. Sincerely, Dr U’.)

Finally, if you are a Machiavellian, you will mostly definitely peep underneath the blindfold. Heck, everyone else will be doing it, too. However, what you won’t do is rip the blindfold off at the earliest opportunity to check what the other team is up to. Rather, you will pretend that you are complying with the rules. So, all Machiavelli will allow for are a couple of discrete glances underneath your blindfold. Discrete glances! And of course, if you win, don’t tell anyone you cheated. Remember you stuck to the rules. It was your group’s ingenuity that pulled it off. But what if you get caught? Don’t be a chicken, Machiavelli would say. You were unlucky – fortune abandoned you. But at least you tried to win.

Blindfolds and philosopher asides, are there any repercussions for actual negotiations between governments? Sure, you need to have a strategy and you need to have trust in your teammates and vice versa (which kind of explains Theresa May’s current Brexit predicament: she seems to have neither). But what about the other side? Are they really negotiating in good faith? Do they have a Plan B? Do they have ulterior motives? Do they possess insider information that gives them an advantage? Perhaps it is time to give the intelligence services a call … after all, the other side might do, too.

An Exercise for Teaching Campaigns and Elections

Today’s post comes courtesy of Dr. Julia Azari, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.  Her exercise can be used in American politics classes that include a unit on campaigns and elections.  It can be done in a single class or as a multi-day exercise. These are the instructions she gave to the students, reprinted here in full. Where page numbers are given, they refer to the text used in the class:Matt Grossmann, John Sides, Daron Shaw and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns and Elections, WW Norton, 3rd Edition.


The scenario: In April 2019 (just a few months from now!), President Donald Trump has once again shaken the political world by announcing that he will not seek reelection to a second term. Citing the decisions of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the 72-year-old entertainer-turned-politician said that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren, missed his old life, and was satisfied with his incredibly successful first term.[1]

As a result, we have a 2020 election with no incumbent! After tough primary battles on both sides, in July 2020, Republicans and Democrats are settling in for the general election. And it just so happens that candidates from both major parties are eager to hire consultants who have studied political science at Marquette.

Political conditions: Economic growth is steady and no new wars have begun. Trump’s favorability ratings have improved a bit with his decision not to seek reelection, but have remained around 45%.

Now you have to form a consulting firm (a group with 4-5 classmates) and decide which party’s candidate you are advising.[2] Unfortunately, instead of collecting a handsome fee, your end goal is to turn this sheet into me and get a participation grade for the day.

Here are the decisions you’ll need to advise the candidate about:

  1. Fundraising.

How will you do this? Who will you ask to contribute? Do you want to make promises about your commitment to “clean elections” or resisting a certain kind of contribution?

You can’t coordinate with expenditure-only organizations, but how much are you comfortable with letting them pick up the bulk of the campaign spending? Does their existence give you some breathing room to back off of fundraising in favor of other activities? Can you count on their help? What are some benefits and risks of counting on it?

What kinds of campaign fundraising do you expect from your opponent? How will you respond to attacks from independent expenditure groups?

  • Television ad buys (see page 268). What states/media markets will you focus on? Which states do you consider safe and which will be competitive, but attainable? Will you take a risk on running ads in states where your opponent still has the best chance to win?
  • Travel. Where will you go? How many appearances will you make between Sept. 1 and the election? (See page 269) What are the costs and benefits of this strategy?
  • Messages and priorities. What issues will you emphasize? What will you say about the status quo – knowing what you know about forecasting models? How will you balance your appeals to swing voters and your political base?

[1] Note: I don’t think this is an especially plausible scenario, but I don’t this exercise to be focused on the current president because we have other things we need to discuss.

[2] You can speculate about who your candidate is, but again that’s not really the point of the exercise.

More ice-breaking

It’s good to be back in the classroom. So good, in fact, that within the hour I’d got back out of it.

Of course, this was all in the service of setting up the class for the semester’s work on negotiation, which I finally began at 9AM on Monday morning.

(personally, I like that slot and I do promise to students that I will make it worth their while to be there too)

As well as the usual what’s-the-module-all-about-ery, I use this opener to underline that it’s student-led and that they have to take very active responsibility for their learning.

In past years, Victor’s Hobbes game (which we’ve discussed endlessly here) has served really well, as it has a bit of getting-to-know-each-other as well as its big dollop of people-are-a-pain-to-be-with.

But as I noted last year, it’s not necessarily the freshest take and I knew that I had at least a handful of students who’d taken this module in previous years.

So what to do?

Reaching back into my metaphorical bag of activities, I recalled an activity that was rather good for exploring preparation and communication, both key themes in negotiation.

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Using Hidden Brain to Teach Research Design

Today we have a guest post by Sarah Fisher, assistant professor at Emory & Henry College. She can be reached at sfisher[at]ehc[dot]edu.

For undergraduates, the research methods course is often the most dreaded component of the political science curriculum. Students’ fear of mathematics, gaps in content knowledge, and lack of software experience (I’ve had students who have never opened Microsoft Excel, much less heard of a statistical software package) present pedagogical challenges for an instructor. 

Florian Justwan and I recently published an article about teaching social science research methods, “Scaffolding Assignments and Activities for Undergraduate Research Methods,” in the Journal of Political Science Education. The article, available here, includes instructions on how to use an episode of 30 Rock to teach content analysis, how to teach similar systems design with presidential speeches, and other activities. Teaching materials described in the article are available on my website.

One resource the article references is NPR’s show Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which illustrates social science research for a popular audience with topics like the behavior of baseball umpires in extra innings and ways that colleges try to prevent summer melt. I ask students to identify the theory, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and findings contained in different episodes and then tie this activity to longer articles assigned as homework readings. The program allows me to expand my range of examples beyond political science, important given that many of the students in my course are in majors ranging from sociology to athletic training to mass communication. This kind of content shows students that the scientific method isn’t reserved for academia; it can be used in their daily lives to interpret the world around them.