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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

More Reasons to Go Back to Basics?

Per my philosophy of never letting a good crisis go to waste, I’ve already started thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in this unusual semester.

In my globalization course, students seem to have sufficiently mastered the tools needed to create storymaps. To my surprise, nearly all of them learned how to use the software during two in-class lessons led by our digital scholarship librarian.

Yet with the semester almost over many still don’t seem to understand that U.S. News and Forbes are not peer-reviewed academic journals. If I teach this course again — it’s rotating to a colleague next year — I should probably include assignments at the beginning of the semester in which students are explicitly graded on their ability to locate appropriate sources. Currently this information literacy skill is only assessed through the rubric attached to the three storymap assignments.

In my comparative politics course, I will soon try to run my Gerkhania simulation online for the first time. To make things even more interesting, the class is down to eight students and the simulation is heavily modified from previous versions. I’ll report what happens in a few weeks.

When I moved this course online a month ago, I converted a classroom exercise in analyzing journal articles into several graded assignments. In this type of assignment, students have to answer these questions:

  1. Article’s subject—what is the question, puzzle, or problem examined?
  2. What and where is the thesis?
  3. What is the theoretical perspective (rational actor, culture, structure)? How do you know this?
  4. What are the independent variables (causes) examined?
  5. What is the dependent variable (effect) examined?
  6. What is the conclusion of the author(s)?

My reason for doing this, other than filling up the remainder of an extended semester? It had become clear before the campus closed that students were often skipping over assigned journal articles and reading only the accompanying news stories that illustrated the articles’ theoretical arguments.

Some students are still unable to correctly identify an author’s thesis or conclusions — despite the classroom exercises during the first half of the semester. So in the future, students are going to get more instruction and more (graded) practice in how to read academic literature.

Monday Morning Advice

A few items from elsewhere that might be of help for instructors who are new to teaching online:

First, here are five reasons not to use timed exams. In my opinion thse arguments apply whether one is teaching online or face-to-face.

Second, here are some very practical, easy-to-implement techniques for becoming a better writer — suitable for both professors and students.

Last, methods of identifying whether your employer’s financial viability has suddenly gotten much worse — editorials that I wrote in 2017 and 2019.

Institutional Design Exercise using Slack

Today we have a guest post from Keith A. Preble, Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Albany, SUNY. He can be reached at kpreble [at] albany [dot] edu.

Instructions

Instructor should create a Slack workspace (or something comparable). The exercise below can work with a class/lecture of any size and requires minimal instructor involvement. I suggest dividing your class/lecture into groups of 6-8 students by creating private channels for each group on Slack. Instructors can review the interactions on Slack for grading, too.

Preparatory Work

None required. Students should have some understanding of international institutions/organizations.

Premise for Students

While the World Health Organization is charged with addressing public health emergencies and issues, member states, medical interest groups, the press, pundits, commentators, and ordinary citizens believe that the organization lacks agility and authority to address pandemics like COVID-19.

Imagine that your group is has been charged with designing a new international institution. Your goal is to develop a new international institution that deals not only with COVID-19 but also future pandemics.

Political scientists often debate how international institutions should be designed. Koremenos et al. (2001) have argued that “states use international institutions to further their own goals, and they design institutions accordingly” (762).

Whether international institutions are “false promises,” simply reflect state power, help regulate cheating and cooperation, or are independent is a matter for debate. With these ideas in mind, each group should think about how you might design an international institution to deal with a transboundary problem (like a pandemic/COVID-19).

Group Instructions

Each group should elect a facilitator/team leader to lead the discussion questions below. Team leader should send a short debriefing email to the instructor at the end of the exercise outlining the name of the institution they developed, some key provisions, and an assessment on the effectiveness of the exercise.

Discussion Questions

Each group should discuss and debate each of the questions below:

1.      What are the membership rules for your organization – who can/will be a member? Think carefully about asymmetries among the member states.

2.      How will states and other actors who are a part of your institution deal with assessing the various outcomes and choosing the best outcome?

3.      What issues will your international institution deal with? Will you restrict your international institution to simply responding to pandemics or do you think there are other issues that your institutions?

4.      Do you envision creating a regime? An IGO? A mix? Something ad hoc? Defend your choice.

5.      Will there be a headquarters? Where will tasks be centralized? Will states create their own domestic institutions that will liaison with other states through this organization/regime/etc.? Remember that of all the questions you address, this question is the most political. Think about why the answer to this question is problematic.

6.      How will collective decisions be made? Think about who will run the organization? How will this person be selected? Will membership be universal or more restricted? Will there be a body akin to the General Assembly or other fora for debates? What role will experts or other nonstate actors play (if any)?

7.      Pandemics can be “new circumstances.” What happens to the institution if something happens that hasn’t been thought of? How will your institution adapt?

8.      How will you enforce the rules of your organization? In other words, if a state fails to adapt the necessary public health protocols, what can/will your organization/institution be able to do?

9.      How will your organization cope with uncertainty about other members in the organization? Is there a way an institution can be designed to help deal with these problems?

The Benefits of Rubrics

Today we have a guest post from Sarah E. James (sarah [dot] james [at] g [dot] harvard [dot] edu), Colin Brown (colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu), and George Soroka (soroka [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.)

At the 2020 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, we led a workshop on writing rubrics for the political science classroom. Rubrics may not be a cure-all for student writing, but we do believe that college faculty underestimate their benefits for teaching advanced writing skills. They can also be a powerful tool for developing a mindful teaching practice.

The use of rubrics is extremely common at the K-12 level (at least here in the U.S.), and there is considerable evidence to support their effectiveness at teaching beginning writing skills (Heidi Andrade’s work is a good starting point, for example, here, here, and here). There has been less evidence for their effectiveness at the university level, but the few existing studies point in the same general direction as the elementary ed studies:

  • Rubrics help students learn specific skills, and make them aware of their own learning processes.
  • Rubrics make grading more efficient, while simultaneously increasing student perceptions of how fair the grading is.
  • Rubrics help expose aspects of the “hidden curriculum” in our writing expectations and may help the most disadvantaged writers the most.

Our key takeaway for participants in our workshop: rubrics let you deal with subjective measures, but in a transparent way, and without being arbitrary. Generating a good rubric requires you to be clear about what you actually value, and on what you expect students to be able to demonstrate. From the students’ side, this is a clear signal of where you want them to spend most of their time. From the instructor’s side, this is a good way to make sure that you’re following the adage of “if you didn’t teach it, don’t test it.” And when we think of the kind of genre-specific writing skills we demand of students, this sort of clarity can be extremely helpful for students who may “write well” in a general sense but who may have no experience in how things like evidence, counterarguments, citations, and literature reviews work in political science specifically.

Rubrics can only capture so much, and when you use one, you are limited to only a certain number of skills or aspects in your assessment. At our TLC workshop, the most common concern our participants had was, “what happens if we end up having to give a good grade to a bad paper?” This is a (small) risk, but we encouraged our participants to step back for a second and think about the rubric as a mindful teaching exercise. If a paper feels like it should get a lower grade than the rubric suggests, are there skills that should be included explicitly in the rubric? (They can be added next time!) If not, then what’s causing you to think the grade should be lower—and is it really something that should be entering into your assessment?

For those interested in designing their own rubrics, we provided examples for an introductory and an upper-level course, as well as a worksheet to help in setting it up. Our examples are designed to focus much more on discipline-specific skills (using evidence, critical thinking, professional norms) than on the quality of prose itself, and our instinct (tested to limited effect in our JPSE article) is that this is the most productive use of rubrics in the college-level classroom. But the structure of rubrics allows them to be adapted to the instructor’s aims, whatever they are—and they force the instructor to make those aims clear to themselves and to their students.

Back to Basics

Probably most of the readers of this blog are now or will soon be teaching online, after the suspension of face-to-face classes on campus. For many, the change has been a frenzy of altering syllabi, searching for digital content, and learning how to use new tools. For me, it’s been the opposite — a welcome respite from routine distractions, and an opportunity to experiment.

I will admit that years of online teaching at the graduate level made moving my undergraduate courses online a straightforward process. And as one of my dear colleagues said about my habit of planning for potential worst case scenarios, “you’ve been waiting for this moment your entire life.” But I do see too many people frantically adopting technologies with which they are totally unfamiliar, because of the assumption that they have to replicate what they do in the physical classroom. And so they plan on live streaming video of themselves lecturing in fifty or seventy-five minute increments, which usually isn’t nearly as effective in meatspace as they think it is, and will certainly work even less well online.

To echo what Amanda and Simon have said — simply scroll back a bit to their most recent posts — job one is to figure out what students need to learn, and what will give them the best chance of learning it, given existing constraints. It’s not staying front and center to confirm for yourself how important you are.

That leads me to the larger, more ominous questions that Simon raises and their long-term implications for higher education. Is this a crisis, or an opportunity? Will the immediate responses to Covid-19 lead to permanent transformation, and if so, how can we best get from the former to the latter? As an anonymous author recently wrote on a discussion board for academics:

“After completing my first week in this new reality, I’ve realized that I’ve spent the majority of my time on actual teaching. All those other things like superfluous meetings, public events, admin-busy-body activities created only to justify someone’s frivolous job, extracurricular things that I get guilted into, etc. were all canceled because their delivery was face-to-face. And, you know what, it’s starting to become obvious that all that stuff was unnecessary in the first place.”