When the Sky Falls

A colleague recently asked for my opinion on two articles about the pandemic’s effects on higher education. The first is an interview with entrepreneur and NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, who says that the current economic landscape makes higher education a tempting target for tech firms — the same point made by Kevin Carey and many others back in 2012.

I told you it wasn’t just a wooden horse.

The second is an op-ed by Glenn Moots, a philosophy and political science professor at Northwood University. Moots argues that online education lacks the “experiential learning, networking, and in-person collaboration, celebration, and commiseration” that students prefer.

Both Galloway and Moots distinguish between a college education and the college experience. The business model of many U.S. colleges and universities has long relied upon successfully selling the latter—i.e., “come here and you can continue playing the sport you played in high school for four more years while majoring in, oh, I don’t know, whatever.” The credential of the bachelor’s degree is an ancillary benefit one gets at the end, not the main product.

This is a business model that works until it doesn’t. The model is highly fragile because it assumes a static environment that conforms to one’s expectations. Given stagnant or declining household incomes, and shrinking numbers of 18-year old high school graduates in some regions, it has been an untenable financial strategy for many higher ed institutions for quite some time. The pandemic only made the model’s flaws more obvious. And thus we are now faced with an interesting economics question: how much are people willing to pay for the credential of a college diploma when the experience with which it has been historically bundled no longer exists? And which schools can survive at the price point they are now able to charge?

As Galloway points out, a few hyper-elite institutions offer credentials with such a high reputational value that they don’t need to worry about the college experience, or even, really, the education. Universities like MIT figured out nearly two decades ago that they could give away their curricular content for free and not damage their brands.

As a contrasting example, IPEDS data and IRS filings show that Northwood University lost 25% of its FTE undergraduate enrollment between 2007-08 and 2017-18 and suffered budget deficits in fiscal years 2012-2014 and 2018. Positive net revenue for the years in between came mainly from sales of assets. It looks like the demand for Moots’ “own little corner of academe”—the experience provided to full-time, campus-residing 18-22 year old students—was in decline long before Covid-19.

What will Classes Look Like in the Fall?

As semesters come to a close, it’s a good time to take some deep breaths before we dive back in and start thinking about the fall and what classes will look like. This requires serious consideration of whether faculty should prepare to have part or all of their classes online in the fall. My short answer: yes.

Foretelling the Fall

’15 Fall Scenarios‘ set off much of the discussion regarding what classes will look like in the fall. It examines a range of options from ‘back to normal’ to ‘fully remote’, meandering through delayed starts, block scheduling, bringing some students back to campus but not others, and various hybrid and HyFlex models. According to the Chronicle, 68% of the 630+ higher education institutions they are tracking are planning to hold in-person classes in the fall. Given the uncertainties regarding the trajectory of the coronavirus in the US, and the near-certainty that we won’t have readily-available vaccines or treatments by August, at first glance its hard to understand why so many schools are engaging in what seems like wishful thinking. Certainly, that may be part of what is going on here–optimism in the face of pandemic is in some ways a good thing. Seen in a more negative light, this can be viewed as putting financial interests of universities ahead of the health of students, faculty, and staff. Covid-19 exacerbates existing financial problems at universities, with numerous reports of faculty and staff being furloughed or laid off, even at elite universities. Or perhaps universities are simply responding to what students want. A recent survey of students indicated that most of them want to return to in-person classes.

Another explanation is that this is largely strategic. Robert Kelchen lays out three explanations (link requires premium access) for why colleges have said they are reopening in the fall: sheer optimism, political posturing, and to keep students enrolled. As the deposit deadline shifted to June 1 for many institutions, students have more time to weigh their options. If campuses will be closed and classes online, why pay a premium to attend one institution when they could take online classes at a cheaper place closer to home? This is particularly the case as the hit to the economy will have made college harder to afford for many students and their families. Community colleges in particular are likely to be online in the fall; as a frequent safe haven during times of economic hardship, more and more students may shy away from attending a university that announces in May that students cannot return in August. Institutions that have announced they currently ‘plan’ on having classes in-person are therefore likely keeping a publicly positive outlook while they try to secure enrollments; I expect many to announce a change in their plans come the fall, whether before the semester starts or soon after, if an outbreak occurs. Several institutions are trying a third way, announcing that they plan to have socially distant in-person classes until Thanksgiving, or like Cambridge University are moving lectures online but not tutorials or smaller seminars.

Planning for Fall

Given the expectation that most classes in the fall will be online, either from the start or partway through, faculty should start preparing now for moving their courses online. In the spring, faculty had little or no notice before moving an in-person course online. Despite what your university may be announcing it intends to do in the fall, faculty should prepare their courses now, while there is time, to be effective in an online, remote environment.

Luckily, lots of professors and educational developers have started identifying best practices and are putting out articles on how to do this. Here are a few to get you started.

Planning for Virtual Courses. This is a guide to planning a virtual lesson and how to combine synchronous and asynchronous activities effectively.

Move to Online Learning: 12 Key Ideas, Dave Cormier, Dave’s Educational Blog

Online Teaching Toolkit, Association of College and University Educators

Turning Remote Education into Online Education this Fall, Elizabeth Johnson, Inside Higher Ed.

How College Students Viewed this Spring’s Remote Learning, Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed.

This post represents solely the views of the author, and does not in any way reflect the views or policy of the US Naval War College or US Department of Defense.

How to run a webinar?

analog Zoom

Pretty much every time I’m talking about L&T these days, I find myself saying that we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up about being perfect, but we should be thinking about ways to improve.

It’s for that reason I’m going to reflect a bit on my webinar for the PSA, part of their Teaching Politics Online series (do sign up: lots of excellent speakers still to come).

And also because I wasn’t totally satisfied with how I did.

Part of the issue was that rather than the just-about-manage-a-conversation registration of 20 people, we instead got nearly 70 joining in (and a bunch more who’d registered). Fortunately, I’d been able to think about that beforehand, but not to a reassuringly tidy conclusion.

At the back of my mind was the message that we’ve all been writing about on this blog for years – what’s your objective?

The point

Yes, I’d been asked to talk about the impact of the online-shift on us as teachers, but what was the message I was trying to communicate?

Oddly – and I use that word sarcastically – thinking about it in those terms was a big help, getting me to fix more on the core points and working through to possible ways to reinforce them.

Here I got to something of a dilemma. On the one hand, 70+ people is too much to do much that’s interactive. On the other, who wants to listen to a talking head for 45 minutes (plus Q&A)?

So, a compromise.

As well as some (nominal) slides, I put together a couple of short quizzes and activities (you can see them all here).

These each only took a few minutes, and provided some input from the audience and some focus for my headline messages.

For instance, seeing that institutional uncertainty was a big barrier/problem meant I spent more time on that than on more nebulous concerns about personal motivation.

Plus the meme-making activity is quite enjoyable.

And the point is?

On the plus side, I think these did give something more to the session, and helped to keep some people more engaged, but that was at a cost of keeping it tight and focused: it turns out academics are just as good at staying focused as everyone else, so various people raced ahead on the activities, or lingered in making memes. And some people didn’t really do any of them.

As much as comments I’ve had have been very positive, I’m not sure I’d do it like that again, mainly because I’m coming back to my evolving thinking about online instruction.

In particular, I’m not sure about how much of a role synchronous formats can/should play. I feel I could have provided a much more concentrated pre-recorded lecture, asked for engagement with some brief activities and then followed up with another pre-record and/or a live Q&A.

That said, I know how hard it is to get and keep peoples’ attention: I’d guess I’ve have gotten much less engagement with the activities in that format than I did when I had them right there.

So it’s a trade-off, and we come back to the question of what we’re trying to achieve.

If I take this across to my teaching, does it matter more that I work with those who are present, or with creating content that is more passive, but is there for everyone, whenever they access it?

The ideal answer is that you maximise both tracks, creating compelling learning moments that students want to take part in, but also providing a more rigorous safety net for those that can’t/won’t.

Get to the point

I’m drifting from the original purpose of this post, but it’s useful to return to the question of how could I have improved on my webinar.

A couple of people said it had been a useful place to think about their situation in the round, to reflect on how they might draw on what they already knew. That’s good, because part of my core objective was to try and make All This look more manageable, because it’s actually primarily just another example of working around the constraints we’ve always faced with our teaching.

And maybe that’s a good point to try to end on: each of us has a different path of learning.

Just as creating varied learning environments can be useful in creating more points of access for students, so too might we have to learn how to create that variety in remote settings. No one way of doings is going to work for all learners and all subjects, so exploring the possibilities is essential.

And hopefully the reflecting on that exploration can open our eyes to how we might make the most of what we do.

Rethinking Remote Teaching for an Uncertain Fall

Today we have a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.

Faculty have certainly earned their down time this Summer, and that is certainly crucial. But the sad fact is for many of us, preparing for the Fall now becomes a heavier lift. We face the challenge of a semester that might start in person but revert to remote learning, or one that may be taught entirely remotely. The good news is that unlike the Spring, we now have ample lead time to get ready. It is important, then, to reflect on the lessons of the Great Remote Learning Experiment of Spring 2020.  Below are four thoughts to consider in preparing for a semester that may be marked by continued improvisation more than a return to normal.

Adding asynchronous learning. Some faculty tried to keep the number of changes to their spring classes down, running in-person sessions synchronously. The downside of this minimal course overhaul is that it can be a sure recipe for Zoom fatigue. It might be worth thinking about how to use asynchronous learning – like discussion boards – to the repertoire. This format extends class discussion outside of class time. In this manner, it can not only enliven the seminar format, but it also ensure that everyone has a chance to participate. 

Working with technology (and not against it). Some of my colleagues chose not to use Microsoft Teams, which the university supported, and used Zoom instead, which my university does not support. Test-driving different systems and finding one that that works organically with how you teach is essential. Take the extra time to make sure that the platform you use helps you do your best work. Take the time to get extra comfortable with it, just in case.

Accept that things won’t be the same (and that’s fine). One of my biggest challenges was realizing that I was not covering all the material in depth as in previous semesters, and that this was okay. I relied on news articles to jumpstart our conversations into the course material. Over the weeks, I realized this was an important way to demonstrate that our class work had real value in helping students make connections to what was going on in the world, and that if it meant that our coverage of the readings was more shallow, that was fine. The benefits of getting them engaged, and keeping them talking, as well as helping them to see the intrinsic value in their learning, far outweighed the costs.

Focus on student contact. Faculty faced a two-fold challenge this Spring. Not only did we need to learn a new technological toolkit, but we also had to deal with the traumas of having our students scattered and their lives disrupted. In the worst case (a continuation of remote learning into the fall) the challenge will be to build rapport with students we will not see in person. This will place a premium on making personal connections on the first day of class. The use of meta-cognitive reflections can be a useful tool to build these ties, and the attendance features in online meeting software can be used to reach out when students are missing class for additional follow-ups.

Some L&T events to help you

As someone noted to me recently, we’re finally moving from removing things from our diaries, to adding them in.

That’s particularly true for activities to help you rework your teaching practice for the new state of affairs.

From this Thursday, the PSA will be running a series of seminars – open to all for free – on various aspects of this shift, starting off with me. I will be excellent, but not so excellent as the other presenters in the series, who I heartily recommend to you.

In June, the EuroTLC will be having its fourth outing, this time as a fully-virtual operation, running over two days. That includes plenary discussions, workshops, presentations and more, with lots of content on making online teaching work better.

Registration is again free and you should sign up soon, so you can access the various pre-event materials.

More Looking Backward

Continuing with my recent theme of evaluating my teaching over the previous semester:

My courses on comparative politics and Asia both concluded with simulations. I’ll discuss the latter in a future post. As I mentioned last month, I heavily modified my old Gerkhania exercise for comparative politics. The changes were based on a brilliant democratic government simulation that Kristina Flores-Victor of CSU-Sacramento presented at the 2020 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

As in previous versions of Gerkhania, students each received fictional identities as members of a newly-formed legislature in a multi-ethnic country with a history of civil strife (think Afghanistan). Over a series of three Webex sessions, I fed the class nine legislative proposals. Action on each proposal caused students to earn or lose political constituency points (representing support from voters) and political capital points (influence within the legislature). These effects varied in ways that corresponded to the identity of each participant.

At the opening and closing of each session, students could exchange constituency points at a 2:1 ratio for either political capital points or reward points that could contribute toward their course grades. Political capital points could be used to remove a proposal from the agenda, to prevent the legislators from voting on it, or to return it to the agenda. Students took a trivia quiz before the simulation began and prior to the second session so that they could acquire constituency and capital points to work with.

Every proposal that was voted down increased the probability that Gerkhania returned to a state of civil war at the end of the simulation by 1:18. If civil war occurred, legislators would lose all accumulated reward points.

Considerations for the future:

The effects of each successive legislative proposal, in terms of point changes, increased as the simulation progressed. The stakes associated with the initial proposals turned out to be too small to generate contention among students and need to be increased. The second trivia quiz can be scrapped for this reason.

I had built a very complicated Excel spreadsheet to track each student’s points as the simulation progressed. Using this spreadsheet for the first time, for a simulation that I had originally intended to run in the classroom, proved slightly problematic. I found it difficult to always correctly update spreadsheet cells with my eyeballs bouncing between windows on two different monitors. Also editing webpages so that students could track developments created delays during which students were idle.

A larger problem: although the simulation’s online environment seemed to negatively affect the amount of interaction between students, I think the small size of the class was the major contributing factor. As I’ve discussed before, these kinds of exercises seem to require a critical mass of participants, which this class didn’t have.

The pandemic most likely also had consequences. Campus classes ended at spring break, students scattered hither and yon, and the semester was extended by an extra week to make up for time lost in the transition to online instruction. By the last week, many students were probably just trying to finish the semester, had other concerns, and may not have been motivated to become heavily invested in the simulation.

Nothing so permanent as ‘temporary’

Among the most minor of effects of this pandemic is the delay of the (second) move of our Department to a new building on campus.

As part of a more general reorganisation, we were due to be spending a year in temporary digs, with a very big pile of packing crates holding most of our stuff until we could get into our final stop.

I mention this not because I’m complaining – I have a very good view from my office on the days that I am in it – but to illustrate the basic notion that temporary arrangements have a way of becoming rather more permanent, just like that thing you’ve been meaning to do in your home, but haven’t quite gotten around to.

That crack (and some yukky textured skimming too)…

[This reminds me to look up at our dining room ceiling, at the huge crack that stretches across it, just as it has done for the past 11 years. meh]

Any way, this all comes back to our shared situation, where a bunch of stuff has been thrown up in short order, without much thought to its durability.

I’ve already written about why we need to revisit our online practices for the autumn/fall, so I won’t go over that again. But I will ask you to consider the personal dimension of this.

For myself, as much as this lockdown has been very manageable, I do now notice the longer-term effects.

Sure, I know not to try and sit on the sofa for a day of typing, so I don’t get really bad backache, but the dining table and (hard) chair still don’t make such a conducive space for getting into writing/working.

Likewise, I think it’s been really good that the family has a routine to the day, but it’s not one that sits all that well with when I might produce work: it’s often at the points I’m just about get into the thing I’m procrastinating about (and I’m procrastinating a lot) that it’s time for a cuppa, or lunch, or a walk.

Yeah, I need to do stuff, but so does everyone else in the house.

But mostly, it’s the gnawing sense that I’m missing out on the soft aspects of being in my office – the interactions, the cues, the sense of a space as being for ‘work’.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad problem, but it’s one that is certainly there, and I get the feeling that most of us have it in some form.

Certainly if I had crappy internet, or had to share a working room with another family member, or if our finances were badly affected by the lockdown, or a family member were stricken, then I’d be finding it a whole lot harder.

Sadly, lots of us (and lots of our students) are in just those kinds of situations.

Making something work for a few weeks is one thing, but if this how things are going to be for the foreseeable future, then that’s a whole new ballgame.

Dealing with that is going to be an ever more important part of this process, which is why I’m heartened to see growing amounts of support from employers, study associations, colleagues, friends and family out there.

But we also need to talk about such things, to help make it easier for others to do the same. You might be coping, but coping isn’t the same as thriving, and there’s not a lot of thriving going on right now.

Yes, we’ll need robust processes and practices to make the coming year work, but an essential part of that is our own emotional and professional resilience: however we teach, or facilitate learning, we still need to be in the room, both literally and metaphorically.

Maybe the trick is to pretend that would just be a temporary thing; and that way we can make it stick for good.

Looking Backward and Forward

Expanding on my last post on failures from this semester:

From where I stand, information literacy skills are important, because they help one identify and demolish specious claims made by authority figures. An assignment that, for example, forces students to locate three peer-reviewed journal articles is practice in finding credible information. It also allows students to determine whether a topic is suitable for a semester-long research project.

To me, these outcomes are both beneficial and rather obvious. But from the students’ perspective, the assignment could simply be yet another meaningless hoop to jump through on the way to getting another A+ on a transcript. Given the sources many students cited in the different stages of their storymap projects, it looks like too many of them customarily take the latter approach to research.

Therefore, in future courses that involve research projects, I should create assignments that are limited to the task of locating scholarly sources and place those assignments at the beginning of the semester. I should demonstrate why this skill is useful outside of the classroom.

I’ve noticed a similar problem with student writing — really basic errors that indicate a lack of proofreading. I don’t expend more effort evaluating a student’s work than the student did creating it. But I do know that sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking and that the former advertises one’s propensity for the latter to the rest of the world. Again, I should demonstrate early in the semester why it’s important to proofread one’s work before it reaches an audience. My favorite example? The missing Oxford comma that cost a dairy company US$5 million.

I’m also seeing, from the last few journal article worksheets students are submitting, that many still do not have a clear understanding of how evidence-based arguments are constructed in academic literature. An author typically poses a research hypothesis or question at the beginning of a journal article and concludes with the same hypothesis or question reworded as declarative statement. I.e., “Why is the sky blue?” in the introduction with “The sky is blue because . . . ” as the conclusion. Yet on worksheets some students are writing that the hypothesis is about one thing while the conclusion is about some other thing. So again, students need practice in understanding the components of a written argument in scholarly literature, and that practice needs to happen early in the semester.

In principle I’m talking about scaffolding. But many of my assignments are attempts at getting students to builds several different skills simultaneously. I think I need to disentangle my goals for these assignments so that they target only one skill at a time.

Carpe lectionem

Don’t ask me…

Well. This is fun, isn’t it?

Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I get the distinct impression that we’ve moved to the second phase of lockdown: boredom.

Those first weeks of frantic adjustment, of adding an extra tin or one into our shop (because none of us stockpile), of working out the un-mute keyboard shortcut for Zoom, of deciding whether the walk to go shop should also count as the walk for exercise, all those are done.

Now, it’s routine. You probably even know what day of the week it is.

That’s good, because it’s now the time to get focused on what’s still to come.

I’ve written before about the autumn/fall semester, which is going to be a global challenge for HE: there will almost certainly be massive disruption on student recruitment, both in terms of overall numbers and of their location, plus lockdown elements are going to linger for a long time yet, so we have to assume that we’ll all be doing some form of online instruction.

Right now, my impression is that this is still a bit up in the air. Partly that’s because this situation is too fluid to encourage much strategic planning; partly it’s because we habour hopes that this will all be a distant memory by September; and partly it’s because we’re all up to our eyeballs in stuff right now.

It’s that last element I want to focus on this time.

Many of us still have a few weeks of teaching left, which is why we’re so busy. But that’s also an opportunity.

If we are going to have to sort ourselves out for the autumn, when we’ll need to have a much more robust offering to students, then we’ll want to have as much confidence as possible in different approaches.

That’s why this period, right now, is really useful. It’s a time to try out ideas we might want to pursue more further down the line.

It’s with that in mind that me and my colleagues here at Surrey are trying to be a bit more systematic about this.

For context, we’ve already worked up a draft plan for the autumn, with both general principles for delivery of our provision for both online and onsite students, as well as worked examples of different types of courses.

The aim is to ensure all colleagues have a robust, and evidenced basis for transforming their teaching, to ensure all students can access the same high-quality learning environments, not matter how they participate.

The next step is now to work on some more specific activities, to get a proper feel for them. That includes some remote simulations, groupwork exercises and asynchronous presentations.

When our semester ends, we’re all going to write up [OK, we’ve asked everyone to write up, so, you know] these trials, with practicalities, strengths and weaknesses and options for adaptation. Just short, one-pagers to capture the essentials.

That will give us a more grounded sense of how things work in remote settings and allow us to think more clearly about these can relate to in-class work that might be in parallel.

It’s not a perfect process and we’re still going to make some missteps on the way – which is why we’re also going to have lots of running reviews now and in the autumn – but it’s an effort to make our lives easier this summer.

As a student of politics, I’ll also note it keeps us ahead of the institutional process that’s unfurling for us (and for you), so we’re more likely to see our plans (which are not particularly disciplinary) getting picked up by others, rather than us having to cleave to other people’s ideas.

It’s been one of the more enjoyable aspects of all this that L&T has plonked itself in the centre of people’s attentions, but now we need to make the most of that opportunity right now, before it passes.

And, as always, if you have an idea you’d like to share with a global audience, then just drop us a line here at ALPS blog.

Game of Peace: A Conflict Resolution Simulation

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

Teaching international relations is a very difficult task. Although I love interacting with my students, convincing them that theories and concepts are necessary for understanding current international events is not easy. To address this problem, I’ve been using a simulation on conflict resolution that I developed called Game of Peace. The outcome of this simulation is the creation of a sustainable peace plan, based on a power-sharing agreement and responses to side effects, like refugee management, human rights and minorities protection. I use this simulation in my Global Civil Society course, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM), at the University of Catania.

Game of Peace is a face-to-face, theory-driven, role-based simulation that requires participants to settle a civil conflict through negotiations at a peace conference. It consists of several phases. One week prior the simulation, students receive a political scenario and detailed instructions, and are assigned specific roles. The conflicts are real and intractable, like Syria, the Donbass, Afghanistan, and Darfur. I split students into groups, corresponding to real political actors. They are asked to study the scenario, to get familiar with their groups and, in conformity with their assigned roles, identify a policy plan. One of the groups is a diplomatic mediator, the United Nations or the European Union representative, who is expected to facilitate contacts among political actors and promote their agreement.

After this preparatory period, the simulation itself last two rounds, distributed over two days. The first one is based on informal interactions among groups. Political actors can use all diplomatic tools, including secret diplomacy, whereas the mediator can use sanctions or conditionality to convince parties to identify common positions. Students are expected to play according to their roles.

The second round is a formal peace conference chaired by the mediator, usually lasting two hours, during which all political actors submit their positions. It ideally ends with the signature of an agreement (not necessarily sustainable, but in any case, showing some kind of commitment on the part of political actors involved in the conflict). I then hold a debriefing session.

In my experience, Game of Peace allows my students to learn how political concepts apply to real problems. The simulation also provides them with the opportunity to develop soft skills in persuasion and negotiation.