Making Games As Teaching Tools

Today we have a guest post by Dr. Andrew Biro, Head of the Department of Politics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at andrew [dot] biro [at] acadiau [dot] ca.

Chad Raymond recently wrote a couple of posts (herehere, and here) about having students create board games based on course content. I did something similar in my Politics of Water class last fall, as a capstone exercise in the last couple of weeks of the course. It was a fun way to end the course, and by inviting high school students to play the games, it gave my students the sense that they really could use games to engage in a teaching exercise.

Students worked in groups of 4-6 to design a board game that incorporated some “lesson” from the course. The course is rather eclectic. Topics include geopolitical conflicts over water, municipal water privatization, engineering mega-projects (big dams), and gendered access to water in the household. This gave students lots of choices, and they produced eight fairly diverse games. Continue reading

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

Using social media as an academic

A slightly different post this week, off the back of a session I led in Brussels for TEPSA’s PONT project, on how to use social media. I talked with a group of 15 young professionals, planning academic or think-tanky careers, about why social media can be of use to them.

The key message was that even if you don’t really care about social media, it cares about you.

If you’d like a demonstration, then google yourself and see what comes up. I did that for the group and put up a slide with the first photo that appeared on google images. Suffice to say that everyone had a photo, just not necessarily of them, or a particularly relevant one.

Put differently, even if you’re not created a virtual profile, others might be, so you need to engage with things enough to address misrepresentation.

But if we’re going beyond that kind of hygiene model, then what’s important?

Be active

Social media relies on content, so if you want to have a meaningful profile on a given platform, then you need to create content. There’s little worse than setting up a platform, making a few desultory contributions and then leaving it to rot.

The speed of decay is much higher than in other media, so my recommendation is to plan and get into the habit of regular new content production. For me, that means weekly diary slots for blogging (like this), fairly standard points in the day for checking news sites to tweet, plus a slightly more flexible schedule for podcasting. Especially when starting out, being strict about producing is really important, otherwise it’s very easy to fall out of the habit.

If you are giving up on a platform, then give up clearly. If it’s early days, then try to delete your efforts, but it there’s any substance you should produce something to make it clear to any visitors that you’ve actively decided to stop (rather than just drifting off).

Be yourself

My primary social media audience is me: I assume that no one else is very interested in what I have to say, so it’s an opportunity for me to understand my thoughts on a subject.

That means I think of Twitter in large part as a public bookmarking of interesting content, and blogging as working through contentious issues, en route to more formal outputs and discussions.

Of course, over time that has changed and I have had many excellent interactions online with people about ideas and developments. And it bleeds over into real life [sic], where people want to talk with me about stuff I’ve written online.

But still I try to stay close to me and my interests.

In part that’s because I know that once I produce something, I lose control over it. Over the years, I’ve seen stuff I’ve made appear in all manner of random places, used to bolster all kinds of arguments, and not always in a way that I intended. However, because I feel that I’ve tried to be internally consistent, and frank about the limitations of what I produce, then I won’t get a nasty bite on the bum down the line.

Which is why I never produce content when I’m drunk. And to write nothing I won’t be happy showing my mother.

Be interesting/useful

The final idea to share is about focus. Don’t try to be some kind of master-commentator, opining on everything and anything: pick out what you’re good at and stick to that.

Sure, there are individuals who can cover vast tracts of social/political/cultural issues in an interesting way, but you’ll note that they are very rare and they always have a strong underlying philosophy or mentality that ties it all together.

I know I don’t have that, so I stick to what I know I can do: learning & teaching; and euroscepticism. Many are the ills of the world on which I have personal opinions, but nothing useful to say, so I say nothing.

If you’re starting out on social media, the temptation is to get stuck into everything. Resist, and build up a reputation and profile in something specific: that’s the best way to build your profile and credibility as a commentator, researcher and professional.


Social media’s huge attraction is that it’s in your control: you can build a presence that doesn’t rely on anyone else. But to make it work for you, you need to know your limits and know your objectives.

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 2

In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.

Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.

The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.

Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:

  • concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
  • farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
  • farm productivity (average yield)
  • technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)

Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?

Data Visualization in the Classroom

Today’s post is guest-authored by Alexander Von Hagen-Jamar, a postdoctoral researcher with the STANCE research program, in the  Department of Political Science at Lund University. His research and teaching focus on international relations, international security, state building and capacity, and empirical methodology.

In 2013, I spent two trimesters teaching at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. While there, I had the opportunity to design a course about any subject I wished (within my expertise). I choose to organize the class topically around the consequences of violent political conflict. The other core learning goal was skill-oriented: I wanted to help the students develop applied quantitative literacy in context, and through doing so, encourage them to think deliberately about communication in a variety of mediums. To do that, I designed a series of assignments, centered around a group data visualization assignment. Continue reading

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 1

The good old days.

Last semester I was finally somewhat satisfied with the way I had organized my comparative politics course, after much failed experimentation (described, for example, here, here, and here). However, I would like to replace one of the books, Around the Bloc by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Around the Bloc is a good fit for my course for a number of reasons. First, the author is Tejana, and I like students to read authors with different cultural backgrounds. Second, the book recounts Ms. Griest’s experiences in Russia, China, and Cuba, which automatically serve as fodder for comparison. Third, students learn about someone who at their age ventured forth into unfamiliar environments and came back better for it. Fourth, the book is stylistically well-written. The problem? Griest’s adventures took place twenty years ago, and they are described across 400+ pages. While I think students need to have some grasp of history to understand contemporary politics, I prefer that a book of that size include more recent events.

I would love to hear suggestions about possible replacements for Around the Bloc.