What support do you need to teach online? Take this short survey!

This guest post comes from Alexandra Mihai (VUB) and was originally posted on The Educationalist blog.

Although it may seem like a long time ago, it’s been just a few weeks since universities were forced by the coronavirus crisis to move their activities online. Many discussions are currently taking place, especially on social media, on the effect of this sudden change on students, teachers and universities in general. New networks are being built and older ones are revived; most importantly, online learning experts are doing their best to pool resources that can be helpful for teachers in this emergency transition. I reflected on the newly found fame of online education and the impact the crisis has on Higher Education herehere and here. Now it’s time to focus our efforts on coming up with solutions that enable teachers and universities to offer quality online education in the near future. Ideally, instructional designers and educational technologists should be available to support teachers as they (re)design their courses.

What’s the problem? And how to fix it.

We easily forget that not all universities have resources to provide support for teaching online and unfortunately this is not likely to change soon. There is a lot of valuable expertise out there, but often supply and demand don’t match- either for geographical/ time zone reasons, or due to language barriers. Or sometimes it’s just about each of us living in our own filter bubbles and often being unaware of resources and ideas we could use that belong to other bubbles.

I am currently working on ideas to increase access to valuable knowledge and expertise on online teaching and learning. This could be very useful in the short term and it would also provide teachers with tools and resources they can use in the future to rethink their courses.

In order to design the right channel for providing accessible support I created a short survey to find out more about the needs of Higher Education teaching staff in terms of support for teaching online. If you are teaching at university, it would be great if you could fill in this short survey and share it with your network. It only takes 5 minutes and your contribution will help shed light on a topic that is becoming increasingly important. I would also welcome any comments in response to this article or via email: alexandra.mihai@vub.be. And if you are interested in the results, I would be happy to share them with you in the following weeks.

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).

Brain meet meme

So we did the meme thing in class.

As I discussed last week, I wanted to check whether it did really bring anything to the discussion, given my doubts.

And it did. Just not what I thought it would.

I’d asked students in the lecture to drop memes into the collaborative document, on the theme of “the EU as it was, the EU as it is.” (not the most meme-y title, but whatever).

From what we got, I can tell you a number of things.

Firstly, most students clearly just googled “EU meme” to see what they could find, rather than making their own memes. Perhaps that’s a refinement to consider, using something like this.

Secondly, most of my students aren’t that well disposed to the EU.

Thirdly, the EU isn’t the subject of much meme-making.

And fourthly, most of those memes are about the EU banning memes.

[sic]

We talked about this last point the most, mainly because there was a long struggle on their part to consider the most logical reason for why, despite the EU banning memes, we were a) able to find lots of memes, and b) I was allowed to run a session in class about memes.

If you’ve not worked it out, I’ll leave it to you to go and check (hint: look for news sources that talk about what happened, rather than what might happen).

Any way, it became a good opportunity to talk about being a rigorous researcher and sense-checking what you find. That’s not a point just about the EU, but about everything you study.

The jury is still out on using memes like this, but it was good to have this discussion. My concern is whether we might have it again.

Memes or graphics?

My first-year introduction to the EU class continues to test my creativity.

Last week’s lecture didn’t see a pick-up in attendance – but also didn’t drop further – so I’m working through my plans to entice students in by the quality of what happens in the classroom.

As I discussed before, I’m trying to make more of the flipped format by getting students to create collaborative work on the go, as I discussed in my post.

The first attempt went alright, but pointed up some issues:

Firstly, it’s important to be very clear about what you want students to do. I under-specified a bit with my first title, and got more of a range of responses than I’d thought I would, but also a fair few that missed what I was looking for. So that’s on me, to think more carefully about how a title might be read by students.

Secondly, Google Docs might be simple to set up, but they’re not great for graphic content: Students ended up uploading photos and JPGs into the document which is OK, but not super easy. My hunt for a better option continues.

Thirdly, I’d asked for a graphic representation of the factors important in explaining European integration. I got some of those, but I also got a bunch of memes (all very negatively EU, but that’s another post) too.

I did ask at the end whether they’d rather meme than create graphics: they said yes.

I’m torn on this one, since memes might well be more engaging (see my former colleague Jack’s work on this), but I’m not sure I can see how it’ll allow them to pull together the various elements that I would like them to cover.

But let’s see. Maybe I try it one week and see if it produces useful outputs. If you’ve experience of this, I’d love to hear it.

Red flag

The first week of any course/module matters. It’s your first and best chance to make a good impression on your students, to engage them with what is to come.

So you might imagine that I was a bit concerned to find that less than half my students turned up for the lecture last week.

And you’d be right.

Yes, 0900 on a Friday is a shitty timeslot, especially if you’re the kind of student whose weekend starts on Thursday evening (as I seem to recall mine did), but that’s hardly enough to explain it.

Looking at the VLE, a lot of students still haven’t visited the module pages, so it also can’t be that they saw we were flipping and decided lectures were dispensable (see last week’s post on this).

Oddly, my seminar tutor tells me turnout was not bad through the rest of the day for the seminars.

My concern is that having started off on a not-turning-up foot, that will only continue and get worse, even with all the great stuff that’s going on in those sessions.

This isn’t so much narcissism as it is anxiety that if most students miss the sessions where we explain how the online assessment tool works, then we’ll have a bit of a car crash in a month’s time when they have to use, um, the online assessment tool.

Nil desperandum.

Usually, my hope is that this is where one of you comes up with a good idea, but in the meantime, I’ve got a couple of strategies to try out.

Firstly, I’n going to be making more of the lectures to demonstrate to those present their value, in the hope of them spreading the word. Part of that will be thinking about how only those that attend can get easy access to the graphics we’re building together (see last week’s post again).

Secondly, I’ll be upping my work in messaging to everyone on the module why the lecture is useful to them, via emails and the VLE. I’ll also be talking with my seminar tutor about how we can make a stronger link of substantive content between lecture and seminar.

I travel hopefully, but also realistically: to have missed out on being able to hook people in week 1 is a big challenge, but let’s see what we can do with it all.

Trying to make more of our time together

For reasons now lost in the minutes of a senior suite meeting, it’s the first week of our second semester here. On the plus side, the weekend’s storm didn’t do any damage; on the minus, it’s been nearly two months since our students last sat in class.

Bold

Second semester means it’s also time for my first-year UG module on European integration. You might recall that last year I flipped it all around.

One of the big issues with that format was that very few students ended up coming to class. A large part of that seemed to be that they felt they were getting enough information from the video lecture, not least as I was using the lecture slot to deal with Q&A [not much Q, a lot of ex-temporising A].

With that in mind, I’m going to try a slightly different approach this time round.

I’ll still be leaving space for Q&A in the lecture, but most of the session will be filled with getting the students to draw assorted visual representations of elements of the European Union.

Thus, one week I might ask them to produce a diagram of the EU, or the factors that need to be considered when analysing it.

Since I’ve got 120 bodies in the class, my idea is to have a Google Doc they can access and then upload their picture (either by drawing directly on it, or by adding a photo of something they’ve done by hand). That way, I’ll get their work real-time and can display it back to them for discussion and further refinement.

At the end of the lecture, I plan to go away and produce something to summarise their contributions: maybe with a little commentary too.

Doing this will, I hope, generate more interest than simply waiting for someone to ask a question, and produce material that cuts across the rest of the provision, so they see value in contributing.

The danger is, of course, that if I’m summarising afterwards, then students might not see so much point in attending the lecture session itself, since they’ll still get access to it all. But I’ll cross that bridge as and when we get to it.

In the meantime, it’s off to the QR code generator…

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?

Thoughts on Thought Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico. He can be contacted through his faculty webpage at https://www.csuchico.edu/pols/people/tenure-line-faculty/irish-adam.shtml.

During graduate school I worked at the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. Fresh from Teach For America and surrounded by EdD’s, I internalized the pedagogical research that supports active learning. As I sifted through the variety of techniques – each promising a marginal gain – I began to fill my lessons with more and more learning activities. Initially, this strategy of accumulation worked. It differentiated me from other TA’s, won me teaching awards, landed me a teaching post-doc, and then a tenure-track job at a teaching-focused university.

Yet designing and teaching classes that leap from activity to activity can be exhausting – start with a quick write, then a mini-lecture, next a think-pair-share, now group discussions, back to whole class review and on and on. Lately I find myself asking: does including more learning activities equal better teaching?

My suspicion is that, in many cases, less may be more.

Consider the humble thought experiment. A student imagines a given scenario and reasons. Popular among ancient Greek philosophers and turn of the century physicists alike, thought experiments persist in today’s classrooms. For example, Harvard professor Michael Sandel begins his popular course – Justice – with the Trolley Problem. You are aboard a runaway trolley, standing at the controls. You could turn the trolley down a sidetrack and kill one lone worker or allow the trolley to barrel into five workers straight ahead. What is the right thing to do? Every semester in a packed lecture hall, hundreds take hold of the trolley controls, reasoning about justice – no trolley required.

But could a well-crafted thought experiment generate enough discussion for an entire political science class? I have found Peter Singer’s “drowning child” experiment pairs well with foreign aid and John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” drapes easily over discussions of welfare state politics. Beyond borrowing from philosophers, we can create our own thought experiments: Imagine you awoke this morning to find that five years had passed and the U.S. is no longer a democracy. What events do you suspect caused US democracy to collapse? In this authoritarian U.S., how might your life be different?

I recently designed a thought experiment to encourage thinking like a multi-national corporation (MNC) – a perennial difficult perspective for my students.

“Imagine that you just had a striking insight. You figured out something the world desperately needs. Fast forward through time. See the montage of days and nights spent building up your business, hiring and firing people, spending your first million dollars. Who bought a massive house? How about a nice car? Chartered jets for vacations abroad? Where did you go? Good.

But wait, the global economy is highly competitive. Earnings statements are due every quarter. Your company has taken on shareholders. They want more profit, more growth – so you opened offices and factories abroad. Still your competitors are circling, threatening to steal customers or that next big contract. The media is digging into your business practices. If you want to keep your job as CEO, you have beat your competitors. Can you see yourself sitting at that gleaming conference table, leading this month’s global strategy meeting?”

In the hour-long discussion that follows I ask what sort of business empires my students imagined building. From there we explore the overlapping and conflicting interests of MNCs and host states. Repeatedly, we return to their imagined Facebook-like successes to analyze the fraught international relations of MNCs.  Beyond examples from the reading, this activity lures student into the position of a CEO – one perhaps willing to fight against environmental or labor regulations. 

In my experience, doing more with less via thought experiments slows down the classroom. Students need time to create a rich narrative to draw from, whether they are steering a trolley, wandering an authoritarian U.S., or running their own MNC. Likewise, professors must spend time crafting and then presenting robust narrative structures that students can inhabit.  For example, see how Sandel builds tension in the trolley problem.

What if the next time you sat down to plan a lesson – a coffee cup steaming beside your keyboard, notes and books scattered about – you tried building that lesson around a single activity? Imagine that.