Does Active Learning actually work?

I’m continuing my on-going project to find stupid places to write blog-posts, I’m coming to you from 10668m, somewhere over the Austrian Alps, heading to the ECPR’s Joint Sessions in Nicosia.

Once I’m there, I’ve got three full days of discussing whether Active Learning actually works, with a workshop of colleagues from across the EU. Reading through the draft papers makes for much reflection.

And with that in mind, this is a preliminary set of thoughts, which I’ll revisit next week once we’ve had those discussions.

On a personal note, it’s nice to see my various articles being cited, although less positively it’s mostly in the context of how little we know about this subject: too much still rests on the “I tried it and I liked it” approach (to use one colleague’s citation of Chin).

The challenges appear to be three-fold. Continue reading

Limits to public engagement

Surprise! Or surprise?

This week I’m at the PSA annual conference in Cardiff. Aside from getting to catch up with colleagues, there have also been some good discussions in sessions.

One of these was a plenary roundtable on “Bursting Filter Bubbles and Opening Up Echo Chambers: The Role of the Academic in Public Debate”, with speakers talking about how much progress British academics have made – more than in other countries – and all the potential that there is to be utilised: here are my live-tweets.

For me, as someone who spends a lot of time doing this kind of thing, it was great to see this becoming more of a mainstream activity.

However, as the session continued, a niggling doubt crept into the back of my head: is public engagement an unreserved good?

I’d be thinking about how to phrase this, when up popped a more specific instance on my timeline. To be clear, I know neither Leighton nor Morgan, but that’s not really relevant to my niggle.

In the end, I asked if there were any limits to public engagement; things that we shouldn’t be doing. As you’ll see from my thread, we ended up with a bunch of practical tips, rather philosophical considerations. Add to that my desire not to be that guy who ‘asks’ a ‘question’ that turns into a long statement (also it meant I’d get to save it for here), and the matter slid.

My concern is that while it’s wrong that expertise should be seen as irrelevant, that shouldn’t mean that everything ‘experts’ say should be taken as The Truth.

As a simple test of this, think of your academic colleagues and ask yourself whether they’ve ever talked bullshit. I know I have, and so too has pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with, at some point or other.

That’s not a criticism by the way, just an observation that experts are experts in something.

This came up in an online discussion the other day, when someone complained about a famous TV physicist not understanding the difference between a customs union and the EEA: As I responded: expert in something not expert in something else. You don’t expect me to be able to explain the niceties of Hawking radiation, to flip this around.

But as we reassert the importance of experts there will always be a danger of mission-creep, especially in an area like politics. It’s all too easy to end talking about stuff we don’t really get. It’s easy for me to say no to offers to talk about American politics, when I get them, but less easy to do the same when invited to opine on aspects of British politics beyond Brexit (and sometimes even within Brexit).

And this is the second issue: opinion.

In my current role, I’m bound to be impartial and evidence-led. But I know colleagues with very strong normative positions on the things they research, and media channels that favour stylised clashes of opinion. Both those things make it easy to end up with partisan readings that don’t serve an agenda of expertise as being able interpretation.

You’ll cry foul at this point, because all research is interpretation: and you’d be right. But there are ways and means of communicating that in a transparent manner, most of them not very ‘media-friendly’.

If experts are to make the most of their opportunities then it needs to be done with a degree of self-awareness and self-effacement, separating clearly to those they talk with the split between evidence and interpretation.

That’s a tough ask, and one that I’ve not always got right, but in an age where it’s become all too easy to criticise experts as ‘establishment voices’ and reject them because of who they are, rather than what they say, we have to respond and react. Otherwise our marginalisation will continue and worsen.

More Lego, more production values

Long-standing readers of this blog will know that Lego has been a regular presence in my practice. Whether for creative play or for insights into political theory, it’s a great medium.

Part of my use of it has been in videos. Many years ago, I made a little piece about electoral reform with the help of the university’s comms people, which went down well at the time.

Those very same bricks gave an idea for my work on Brexit, which has now been worked with a professional production company to produce this. The core idea remains the same, namely that the Lego can provide a helpful visualisation of an issue. Continue reading

Simple vs simplistic: Extending TEF

Not much to look at now. Possibly not much to look at later

Paths, once taken, are relatively hard to get away from. Inertia, sunk costs and lack of creativity all play their part in this insight from historical institutionalism.

It’s the case for many areas of life, and education policy is just one of them.

Which brings us to the unfolding of the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Designed to match the more long-standing Research Excellence Framework (REF), TEF was the logical extension of the progressive commodification and marketisation of higher education.

Last year saw the first set of institutional-level results, which I discussed at the time. Now the government has launched the subject-level consultation, which as garnered much interest in the media. Continue reading

Do you need an office?

Apres moi, le deluge…

I’d like to say that this question was prompted by careful reflection over the impact of recent strike action, but actually it’s been triggered by the exciting news over the weekend that my building flooded.

This is even more impressive than it sounds, given that our campus sits on a hill, and my office is on the 5th floor. Some very cold weather, frozen water pipes and a riser have worked to produce some interesting effects that could, in another context, form the basis of a major piece of performance art.

However, beyond this, I find I’m now very rarely in the office in any case. This is the result of my various duties, which see me heading off to different points of the compass on a regular basis, more often than not off-campus.

Apart from the neglect of my plants, I can’t help but feel that not being in the office means I’m loosing something. Continue reading

In the deep midwinter

So, we’re striking here in the UK.

Obviously, it’s not the weather for it, but that’s not really the point. Instead, the scale of the changes being proposed by universities to the national pension scheme calls for a strong response.

Part of that response is education. I’ve now been part of several discussions with people who didn’t realise that striking means not getting paid, for example.

One key group to involve in this education is students. My department, as well as many others I’m aware of, has organised meetings prior to the strike action, to allow students to ask whatever questions they might have.

Just to make the point, this matters for several reasons.

Firstly, students are the group most affected by strikes: their growing weight in universities’ calculations (through student satisfaction surveys and consumerisation of education, it must be noted) mean that it through disruption of classes that the staff union sees the most effective leverage.

Secondly, students are part of the university community. Even if they weren’t directly affected, they work in symbiosis with staff, so it’s important they can feel they understand what’s going on. With universities focusing on messages solely on the efforts to minimise disruption of classes, there’s a communication gap that deserves to be filled.

And thirdly, one of the key messages of higher education is surely that we never stop learning.

Casting my mind back a few years, our department was threatened with extensive cutbacks, as part of an organisational review. You, the academic community, done sterling work in giving support in opposing this, but just as important was the role our students played. The thoughtfulness and informed nature of their interventions proved not only very helpful in the specific instance, but also in giving them a learning moment. We still see the echoes of that with those students still with us.

And so it is here. Our meetings with students have been marked by them talking through the issues themselves, rather than just taking what we say.

Our students don’t all agree a common line on the strike, and that’s fine, because we now feel much more confident that they are discussing from a position of reflection and understanding.

Civics doesn’t have the same kind of tradition it does in the US, but moments like these should remind us that we are all part of a society and of a polity: if we don’t act, then others will act for (or on) us.

It should also make us think about the conditions under which cooperation makes more sense than competition: that alone is more than enough for a day on the picket line.

UPDATE – Here’s a piece that captures much better these points.

Keeping it fresh IV: sense-check

Mmm. Maybe I need a certified sense-check, from Germany.

I’m (slowly) rebuilding my negotiation module for the autumn (starting here), and am toying with different ways of doing this.

Apparently, it’s the season for this, and reading the recent posts from Chad and from Natascha I think it’s a good moment to try to get out of my furrow and look around.

Chad pointed to the work by Erin Baumann and John FitzGibbon on the utility of stripping back content: focusing on what’s not needed, rather than what’s good/nice to add. This is very much an issue for mature provision, where the barnacles of “a bright idea I had 5 years ago” impair the sleek running lines of the original design.

Typically, I’ve approached this problem from the other end, telling people that it’s best to start out with something simple, then add in complexity as you go along and feel more confident about what’s what. What Baumann and FitzGibbon are doing is asking us to sense-check as we go, and not just add for the sake of adding.

In either case, it’s a matter of keeping your learning objectives crystal-clear, wherever you are in the journey.

For me and my particular case, a central objective has been to develop self-awareness and self-reflection on the part of students, so they can make their own judgements about their negotiating practice.

Over the years, that’s meant trying to carve out more space for practice and for debriefing, which is where Natascha’s post comes in.

Natascha writes about flipping a research methods class and turning it into more of a tool-box: students come in with diverse needs, so why try to fit them all into the same format?

Clearly, there’s an issue here with present and future needs – it might be great to be able to avoid learning about a particular technique that you don’t like, but much less great if it turns out you need that technique down the line.  For me that’s an issue, as someone who thinks methods follow questions, not the other way around.

However, in the more limited context of negotiation, I think this issue is much smaller. Partly that’s because all the elements interlink and partly it’s because the practical activity of negotiation tends to play up that interlinkage. To take an obvious example, any negotiation can be understood better by focusing on preparation, just as any negotiation can be understood by looking at communication: both are essential and pervasive.

With this in mind, I’m very tempted by the toolbox approach that Natascha sets out – parking my delivered content in podcasts and/or online elements – and using contact time to run exercises that are less driven by different factors. Indeed, this might help with the joined-exercises approach I discussed last time around.

But the most important message I’m taking from this stage is that the wheel has already been invented.

Rather than having to go back to the drawing board every time, and do it all from scratch, there is a great community out there, with ideas and approaches. And because most people are happy to share, we should make the most of that.

So my next stage is to go hunting and found out more of what’s going on, and thinking about how I can re-use it.

Marketisation in the UK

Do ya feel lucky about the potential range of educational choices?

As Chad’s posts over the years has all too often shown, one consequence of introducing a market for Higher Education is that sometimes providers fail.

Of course, this also partly depends on the market in question: the US has always had a mixed economy, whereas here in the UK things have been rather different. In particular, the state has been the predominant actor for the whole of the post-war period, and even now continues to hold pretty much all the cards, albeit at arm’s length.

That’s meant that until now, the collapse of providers has not been allowed to happen, with mergers or emergency support hiding the issue.

But that’s now changing.

As a recent report in The Guardian highlighted, several institutions are facing big drops in student numbers, just at the time that the government appears to be ready to let some failures occur, mostly to underline their resolve to allow for changing patterns of provision.

The basic shift in government funding has been from institutions to students: money now follows the latter. That’s meant a series of waves of change in recruitment, as universities competed for both quality (needed for league table performances) and quantity (needed to pay the bills). Most recently, we’ve seen a big rise in the number of unconditional offers – students getting places before their final school exam results – as a way of locking them into an institution.

As in any market, students get attracted by reputations, league tables and the kind of offers available: they become consumers. and that produces institutions that become uncompetitive.

I’ll pass on the opportunity to rehash the student-as-consumer discussion, not least because I guess you already have views on this (and Chad and I have both written about some applied consequences of late), but moving back out to the macro-level, it’s evident that government wishes to see a dynamic set of providers.

Reading the article, I will admit to feeling rather conflicted, not least because I work in one of the universities that has benefited from this dynamic situation. However, I’ve seen enough – in my university and in others – to know that everything is contingent and that things can change very quickly.

The upshot is that we all have to be much more aware of our surroundings and of the conditionalities upon which we work.

More importantly, it should remind us that education is a collective enterprise: we are strongest and most effective when we work together. That’s true for research, teaching and everything else. Indeed, without dialogue and collaboration, academia does not work at all.

Something to chew on, especially in the coming months, as British universities face another major challenge to their pension schemes.

Knowing your audience

Any questions?

As part of my other duties, I work with “UK in a Changing Europe“, trying to contribute evidence-led research to the debate on UK-EU relations, in which Brexit is a particular focus.

We’re branching out a bit on the programme these days, having built a very good reputation with journalists and policy-makers in Westminster. Very much conscious that influential though these people are, they’re not the be-all and end-all of things, we’re getting out across the UK to public events and to talk with as many different groups as we can.

One upshot of that has been the creation of masses of materials, on our website and our various flash publications. Which raises an interesting opportunity for us: talking to students. Continue reading

Keeping it fresh III: what model to follow?

I’ll admit now that I’m rather enjoying working through this refresh of my negotiation module (here and here), both because it’s intrinsically satisfying and because it’s giving me a bit of focus on L&T these days, when there’s much else I have to think about with the rest of my research.

So far, we’ve established that, while generally good, my module has got a bit stale (for me), so I need to consider how to renew it all, without losing the good stuff.

This brings us to the next big question. If I’m keeping the same core logic – flipped lectures and using the contact time for student negotiation activities – then how might I run both elements?

The flipped part certainly needs to be re-recorded, for the technical reasons I discussed last time around, but do I need to keep the same basic material? Continue reading