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.”

Ripples/Waves

Like a coronavirus, but more manageable

Let’s start by saying that so far I’ve not been too concerned about coronavirus: my classes this semester were already flipped and my immediate colleagues seemed to be managing the digital transition pretty well, given everything.

But now, I’m less sanguine.

This is mainly because I’ve fallen into my own trap of anxiety-management. This states that usually it’s too early to worry about stuff, and then it’s usually too late.

Of course, right now turns out to be exactly when I need to worry about a number of coming issues.

Stupid reasoning, with its rationalising.

My worries come in three distinct packages, so it’s not even a single thing.

Worry one, the smallest one, is assessment. My institution is keeping its end-of-semester assessment, although asking everyone to replace exams under controlled conditions with something else. That’s fair enough, although obviously more involved than the pass-fail model others are using, or even the general scrubbing of anything.

It’s only a small concern because I was using an open-book exam with our software pilot, so it should be that I can continue to use it, but maybe with a 24 hour window, rather than 2 hours, so students now spread around the world (and maybe with shonky internet) have plenty of time to complete it.

But it’s still a concern: remember that these grades are going to hang around the students’ transcripts for a long time and memories will fade of the scale of the impact, so I need to think about ensuring I continue to provide fair and transparent assessment.

Worry two is much bigger, if also much less defined: recruitment.

Coronavirus is likely to result in medium-term disruption to international movement and extended national restrictions. Universities are obvious sites of concern for those worried about bringing together people from around the world for extended periods.

All of that suggests that the global market for students is going to be hard-hit, which is a problem if your institution relies on overseas fees to prop up business models.

Even with domestic students, things are going to be tough. Here in the UK, there is talk of capping numbers, to stop some institutions making up international shortfalls by going to town in accepting a lot more locals. That might seem to fit with the progressive marketisation of the sector here, but apparently it’s not the kind of clear-out of universities that was being looked for.

In any case, finances for universities in any country are going to be hit, which means more tough times after a decade of, um tough times caused by the financial crisis.

If that’s all a bit too big, then maybe worry three is more manageable, if also the one I’m least clear about how I can resolve it: my teaching next semester.

I’ll be running two classes in the autumn/fall: one on European integration and one on negotiation. The former I can see reasonably easily how I could run it in a virtual form, but the latter is going to be a massive pain in the arse.

Even the one habitual online exercise I currently have doesn’t really work any more, since it requires people to make use of existing travel options to move around; and that’s quite aside from the game objective, namely to meet up in a group ASAP – not really the look to be going for in these social distancing times.

But more profoundly, all of the key things I would want students to know about seem to require face-to-face, in-person interaction. I can’t simply just move my exercises online.

And this is going to be the big meta-challenge for teaching later this year: we can’t simply repeat the current crash-to-digital option.

Instead, we are going to have to create genuinely effective digital learning environments, which is rather different from stick-it-on-Zoom. And that’s not even getting into a situation where we might be allowed back into the classrooms half-way through semester. This all needs ground-up work and effort, the kind that needs maybe half-a-year to do.

Oh.

And there you have it, why I’m worried. These are things we have to get to work on now if we are going to pull through what will certainly be one of the less pleasant professional summers of our lives.

Because while these might be my worries, they are probably also your worries, and the worries of those around you.

Which is why we are going to have to help and support each other a lot in the coming months. Here at ALPS blog, we’re always ready to share thoughts and ideas and to give space for those who want to do the same, but each of you might also think about how you can do that with colleagues, near and far.

They say a crisis should never go to waste, but right now I’m going more with that line from Jurassic Park: “Life always finds a way”. Let’s make that way a bit easier for each other.

Coping by learning

It’s been one of the more heartening sides of all this that colleagues have been so forthcoming in sharing their ideas about how to move teaching online: I’m guessing you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen pieces on models and techniques and how-tos in the past week alone.

Rather than add to that, I want to think about another aspect of this crisis: coping.

This matters not only because it’s a very stressful time, but also because the move to self-isolation has deprived us of one of the most powerful tools for managing that stress: face-to-face interaction.

Sitting around your home, with time on your hands and limited options, is not a good recipe for positive thinking.

But learning can be a help in all this.

Giving people the tools to rationalise and explore their situation more dispassionately can be support more general efforts to keep our shit together.

In essence this is about Type I and II thinking [I’m not even going to put a link to that – it can be your task for the day, to lose yourself in some behavioural psychology]: we can balance our gut reaction to the situation with some more systematic and unemotional reasoning.

Indeed, all this time we have on our hands will be the perfect opportunity.

So what does that look like, in practical terms.

To take one example, I used my (online) class last week to ask students to do some quick digging on what the different institutions of the EU had done so far in the crisis, putting their notes into a Google Doc. 5 minutes later we had a good list of elements and the basis of a discussion about it.

That discussion was partly about why some institutions had done lots and others had done nothing, but also it become a discussion about more abstractedly models of how political systems react in such situations and how it taps into our feelings about it all.

In particular, we ending up talking about “something must be done” as a social/media demand and how that balanced with what could actually usefully be done.

As a result, we moved from a comment about the European Parliament doing nothing – except stopping plenary sessions – to a recognition that its role as law-making and overseer of due process means its time will come a bit further down the line.

None of this was an attempt to say “everything’s fine”, but rather to help students have more tools for making sense of what’s going on around them.

And this can be more generally applied: as one of the many who has had to deal with the vast complexity and rapid mutability of Brexit over the past few years, the principles are much the same.

Think of your subject area as a set of analytical skills and models more than as a description of ‘how things are’: give students tools and language to get a grip on it all.

Invite students to put themselves in the position of others, so they can see why those others reach the decisions that they do: your own way of making sense of the world isn’t the only way.

Get them to consider hypothetical extensions of the current situation and how they might act then: this can help make more sense of choices being now.

And remind students that politics – and life – is rather tricky. Even with the best available information and the most rational decision-making, missteps happen and costs are incurred.

Those costs are human lives and that is a terrible thing and cannot – should not – be smoothed away (especially as this pandemic comes ever closer to us individually), but it does not mean we have to stop trying to help our students, our families and ourselves from becoming better equipped to get through these exceptional times.

Yet more tips on moving teaching online

Chad and Amanda have already given their ideas on the crash move to online, so here’s my version too, in graphic form.

You can download a PDF version here.

As the others have said, you need to triage your teaching: what absolutely must happen and what’s just nice to have?

If you’re struggling, then ask colleagues, both within your institution and beyond: there are lots of great people on Twitter (start with the @ALPSblog follow list).

What’s the point of student engagement anyway?

So, we’re doing a thing in our Department.

FFS Google, with your heteronormativity…

Despite doing lots of L&T innovation, we’re making a point of going to our university-organised training sessions, to scope and refresh our practice. Just because we think we’re doing good things, doesn’t mean we aren’t potentially missing stuff.

So last week I went with my colleague to a workshop on student engagement.

It was really good to spend time devoted to this, because it’s one of those topics that floats in the background, but often fails to get enough attention in of itself.

Much of the session was ‘how to get and keep students engaged in a classroom’ [spoiler: keep things active and reinforce positive behaviour], but for me the best bit was considering the question of what ‘engagement’ might actually be.

This might seem odd, since it’s almost axiomatically good to have student engagement, so why even bother going there?

But with even a moments’ thought (and we gave noticeably more than that), it’s really difficult to pin down what it might involve.

Sure, part of it is ‘are they paying attention’, but it’s also about their attitude towards learning, their emotions. We want them to be participating, but also to be actually really into it.

Which is odd.

Because once you start to unpack engagement, you have to also start unpacking the paths of that engagement. And those paths don’t have to run through your classroom or your activities.

I’m sure you, like I do, examples of students who really never turned up, or contributed, but totally aced their exams. Or students who were passionate about the subject, but never could formalise that into performances in assessment.

Yes, we offer students a framework for learning to help them make the most of their potential and their motivation, but it’s a framework that has a pretty reductive palate of outcomes, based around formal assessment. You might be able to write them a glowing reference, but it’s not quite the same (nor does it carry the same weight) as an A in their assessment.

Education systems are simultaneously liberating and constraining.

I can easily say that I learnt much more from the non-assessed aspects of my time in education than from the stuff I revised and sat exam for. Things about myself, and about people, and about the work (about teaching even) that just weren’t on the syllabus (and never will be).

And that’s fine.

The most rewarding experiences I have had as an instructor/teacher/facilitator have come from seeing individuals discover themselves and their world, from taking their steps into their futures, almost totally disconnected from how they did in tests.

Perhaps that’s why I love active learning; for its potential to open up new paths for individuals to act, without prejudice about what’s right or wrong.

That’s not an abrogation of responsibility, but rather a reconfiguration of our role relative to our students. We have many ways to become ourselves, so surely we have to respect that diversity and to acknowledge that what works, works.

None of this is to say that I don’t love it when I see an entire class of super-focused students, lasered-in on the task. But it’s also to recognise that this is rare and that the value of education lies as least as much in what students construct as in what we build for them.

So next time you through in the line about the centrality of student engagement, maybe consider what that actually means.

Simulating for Instructional Continuity

My university is feverishly* trying to prepare for the disruptive effects of Covid-19. The main concern is a campus shutdown while the semester is still underway. I have created a table-top exercise on instructional continuity that I’ll be using for a hastily-scheduled faculty training workshop on Wednesday afternoon. The willingness of our library staff to host this event on such extremely short notice is greatly appreciated.

Don’t be this

My plan is for small groups of faculty members to sit at different tables with copies of the disruption worksheet linked above available for everyone. I’ll bring dice so that people at each table can generate random numbers. Faculty will discuss their answers to the questions with their table-mates and then I’ll convene the entire room for a short debriefing. There should be time for me to do some quick and dirty teaching on using a few basic Canvas LMS features to increase instructional resilience.

Feel free to use this simulation exercise for disaster preparedness efforts on your own campus.

*Yes, that’s an attempt at wordplay.

Curriculum design in European Studies, International Relations and Political Science

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen, Maastricht University.

We are going to be honest with you from the outset: this blog is not concerned with our teaching experience, but rather with an ongoing research project that we are working on with our colleague Johan Adriaensen and our student assistant Caterina Pozzi (both also Maastricht University). And it gets worse: this is a blog that ends with a cry for help.

We are working on a research project studying undergraduate curriculum design in European Studies, International Relations and Political Science. Surprisingly, there is relatively little research on actual curriculum design within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, in particular when it comes to such broad fields.

Sure, there has been a debate about what curriculums in these fields should look like. Some of our colleagues have, for instance, asked whether there is, or should be, such a thing as a core curriculum in European Studies, while others have looked at interdisciplinarity in the field of Politics. Similarly, at the policy level there have been some attempts to flesh out benchmarks and standards in European Studies, and International Relations and Politics.

But what is missing is a thorough attempt to build a database of programmes in European Studies, International Relations and Politics, and to compare the characteristics of these programmes.

This is where our ongoing research project comes in. The project builds on previous work by Johan and us, published in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies and European Political Science (in production). Both articles concern the training and monitoring of generic skills in active learning environments. Our new project takes a broader perspective on skills and methods in curriculum design. We conduct a meta-study of undergraduate programmes offered by the member institutions of APSA, ECPR and UACES. We particularly explore three key themes: (1) the teaching of skills, practical experience and employability; (2) the degree of interdisciplinarity; and (3) the flexibility and coherence of the programme.

All in all, we hope to provide (1) a unique and comprehensive database of how curricula are organised in practice. On this basis, (2) we will distinguish various types of curriculums and evaluate their advantages and disadvantages. Our final objective is to (3) formulate best practices for university teachers and programme developers. As such, the database also promises to be a useful resource for university policies, in particular in light of challenges such as the constantly changing objects of study in European Studies, International Relations and Politics and an increasingly diverse and international student body.

Although we are still in the phase of gathering data, we can already share a couple of interesting observations with you. For one, while some universities seem to think that programmes in European Studies, Politics and International Relations are no longer really necessary, it is good to see that this has certainly not meant that future students cannot choose from a wide array of such programmes.

Indeed, the curriculums that we have coded so far look quite different. For instance, our own BA in European Studies seems to pay much more specific attention to methods and skills development through separate courses (and many of them). Another striking difference between programmes, is the extent of choice offered to students; while some programmes consist of large, compulsory courses mostly, others include a wide array of electives or ‘tracks’ from diverse fields of studies (sometimes with over 100 or even 200 optional courses!).

The latter is also one of our main challenges: it is not always clear what exactly constitutes a programme’s curriculum. Often, the respective websites are not very clear – generally university websites are rather dense – and it is impossible to find core programme documents that might help us here. This is particularly the case for Eastern European and US programmes, which often revolve around a major/minor set-up.

Hence, we need your help! If you are based at a university and/or are teaching in a programme that is a member of APSA, ECPR and UACES, your input would be very welcome. If there is any documentation that you think might help us code Eastern European and US programmes, we would be very grateful if you could send it to patrick.bijsmans@maastrichtuniversity.nl.

We do offer something in return. First, we will keep you posted through Twitter and blogs. Second, we hope to organise panels and workshops on curriculum design at conferences, such as during this year’s European Teaching & Learning Conference in Amsterdam. If you would like to contribute to such get-togethers, do let us know. Finally, our aim is to eventually provide colleagues with access to our database, starting with those of you who help us move the project forward!

Habit-forming

At least it’s not filthy

As APSA TLC heaves into sight once more, I’m reminded that it was the last time it rolled into Albuquerque that the idea for this blog was formed. Possibly over the consumption of various items of local cuisine.

I can’t attend in person this year, due to the weight of obligations back here, but it’s still a good moment to reflect on the nine years (!) that have followed.

In particular, I’m struck by the way in which I’ve formed a habit around posting over the years. And it’s something that I’ve been asked about several times recently.

As I’ve possibly related beforehand, we started off with a weekly rota, since we recognised that content is king. I got Tuesdays, and I did it for a couple of months, very assiduously, as did we all.

Then I went on holiday – it’s a European thing – and didn’t have posts lined up. This was commented on, and I was sufficiently peeved to be called out on it that I made sure I posted every single week for the next couple of years (including other periods of leave (having discovered the ‘delay posting’ option)).

In retrospect, that was possibly the best nudge I could have got to stick with this.

I’m a bit more sensible about it all now, taking breaks when I’m away, but this is now one of the bedrocks of my diary, along with my Thursday morning slot for my other blog. And my Monday morning reminder to do a vlog, and my Friday morning note about adding stuff to ResearchFish (if you don’t know, don’t ask).

As my resident psychologist tells me, it takes a long time for habits to form and stick and that’s certainly been true here.

With time, it’s gotten easier to write a blog post, in terms of just getting going and pulling it together quickly, even as it’s gotten hard to find a new thing to say. Indeed, I have a vague sense that I’ve written something like this before at some point.

Practically speaking, there is a pattern that seems to emerge. At first, it’s new and fun and you have things you know you want to do or say, so it’s not a problem. But then there’s the sticky patch, where you’ve satisfied your initial curiousity and where the harder issues creep in: the most obvious is that the new thing takes time away from other things.

It’s only by working through that patch that one gets to the habit stage: where you find a new balance and the more structural benefit of what you do.

And this isn’t just about blogging, but the sum of your practice. I’ve been the same with trying new teaching methods or with new elements in my research.

So as much I always encourage people to try new things, I’d also encourage you to stick with them beyond that first rush.

If I’d have given up on this blog, then I’d probably not have gotten into half the other stuff I’ve done since and I’d have missed out on a bunch of great experiences.

You’ve gotta start somewhere and you’ve gotta start sometime, so why not now?

Stress and active learning

One for the EU specialists…

This weekend I caught up with an old friend. He works for a software company, overseeing the sales team.

Recently, he’s been doing some work with occupational psychologists, to get a better handle on the team’s stress levels. He told me about all this over a cuppa, including the SCARF model, which I’d not heard of.

SCARF is a diagnostic framework for identifying sources of stress, where individuals encounter challenges to their Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (being part of the group) and Fairness.

There’s a useful summary (and diagram) here.

Listening to my friend, telling me how this works for his team (status is the big thing, apparently), I was struck by how this works in the educational context.

For example, one of the reasons why assessment is so stressful is that it hits most of these areas: students might feel success brings status with teaching staff, it’s relatively uncertain, it’s out of their control, and it’s not necessarily a fair way to judge achievement. The gain of a shared experience with other students pales next to all this.

Clearly, there are general lessons about student welfare to be picked up from this model, but it’s also useful to consider how it relates to active learning.

In traditional, transmission-centred approaches, life might appear to be relatively stress-free: most of the time you sit then, soaking up material, with the occasional bouts of panic at assessment time.

By contrast, active learning might be more challenging.

The biggest issue is likely to be the increased requirement for autonomy: active learning requires participation and the production of contributions on a rolling basis. This front-loads requirements on students, at a point where they might feel they know relatively little (raising issues of status (you want to look good in front of friends) and relatedness (you don’t want to get marginalised in the group if you fail)).

Similarly, the relative absence of the instructor means students have to self-regulate more than usual, so fairness might become more of a factor than in a situation where fairness gets imposed from above.

And it’s also worth highlighting that the model points to active learning being more stressful for teaching staff too, with lower status, higher uncertainty and a big hit to autonomy: no longer is everyone doing just what you want of them.

Despite this, I think that active learning’s benefits outweigh these costs.

Firstly, precisely because students are brought actively into the process from the start, they have much more time to prepare themselves for any summative assessment, both in terms of having to consider materials and of practising producing ideas. The stress is spread out, rather than concentrated at the back end.

But equally, if stress is managed properly, it also comes with raised engagement. If we are making our active learning spaces safe (as we always should be), then we are offering students both the opportunity and the tools to manage stress better, which not only points them to thinking more about the matter in hand, but also how to deal with other sources of stress in their life.

We’re helping our students to learn about the world and how to engage with it. That means skills matter at least as much as substantive knowledge. And handling stress is one of those skills. Yes, active learning is more stressful for all involved, but the benefits that flow from that are ones that might serve us all well.

Back in the saddle

Apart from a dull ache from the thought that the 1990s are now, on average, a quarter-century ago, it’s been a good break.

It’s been especially good to get away from all those social media posts about how much one has changed over the past decade, complete with youthful/haggard profile pics to chart one’s maturation/decline.

The usual thing to think about at this time of year is what you’ll change.

I’ve already had one colleague inform me they’ll be focusing on writing every Friday, even as they undermined it by querying whether it will actually happen.

So I’m going to suggest you try not changing things right now.

Instead, focus on what you do that works. It’s a bit harder than picking out what’s not working, but it’s a more positive starting point.

In practice, it’s what most of us do in any case: building out from successes and chipping away at the problems around the edges. Sure, it’s probably not as likely to treat root causes of those problems, but if the latter are really ramping your style, then we should be having a different conversation.

Part of this is about perspective.

Writing personally, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how I manage my work and my career, probably as a result of a podcast interview I’ve discussed already.

I’m aware that I’ve got various pressing deadlines right now, and that this post is another element of my avoidance strategy, and I’m aware that I could be doing a whole bunch of other things that would be Good Things To Do too.

But instead of succumbing to the winter blues, I’m trying to pull myself out of it, reminding myself that I am reasonably competent and have handled much worse situations than this before.

It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or particularly enjoyable, but the prospect of what is to come cheers me up.

As one trivial example, I made a simple wall-planner for the half-year, listing my various events and talks. Not only does it remind me of More Stuff To Be Done, but it also makes me think about how much I enjoy sharing my work with others.

So, stick your head out the door and notice the days getting longer*, and think on reasons to be cheerful.

* – Sorry to any Southern Hemisphere readers on this one