Return of the Information Diet

Returning to a topic I mentioned at the end of a post from 2014:

Spring has sprung in this part of the world, sort of, and there are four weeks left in the semester. So, in addition to (slightly) warmer weather and more daylight, the workload is ratcheting up — giving me a stronger urge to procrastinate. I compensate by doing some spring cleaning. And simplifying my information environment does allow me to be more productive.

So far I have I unsubscribed to a half dozen mailing lists — that generate emails I don’t read or that announce events I never attend — and deleted perhaps a few hundred electronic files. I’ve also started weeding through paper files in my office. A photocopy of a policy from 2012? There’s either a new policy, or the old policy is available online, so into the recycling bin it goes. And I’m setting aside books for eventual sale on eBay. The end result? I waste less time searching for what I’m trying to find and am less distracted.

And on the subject of distraction, I have been deliberately shutting down my email for long periods of time during the day. As a department chair, I have a “respond within twenty-four hours” policy with students, but for the most part they email to schedule in-office appointments so that I can sign forms (we lack modern conveniences like electronic signature capability for even the simplest bureaucratic tasks). I propose a few potential times in my replies and the appointments get scheduled with little fuss. Other faculty prefer to have appointment sign-up sheets on their office doors, an equally efficient method. But the bulk of the email I receive from official university sources can either be immediately deleted or does not require my immediate attention.

Another aspect of this process for any faculty member who will eventually be applying for tenure or promotion: when sorting through files, whether paper or digital, set aside material that demonstrates your contributions to the university and to the discipline. Store it in a safe, marked location. In my case, the material includes that classroom observation report from a senior colleague in 2015, the smattering of appreciative emails from alumni who enter graduate school, and the advertising flyers for campus presentations of my research. All of it goes into a box or a backed-up digital file folder for me to sort through once I start putting my application together and need reminders of all that I’ve accomplished. Until then, I can forget about it.

The Not-So-Pop Quiz and Absent Students

More thoughts on the management of extremely small classes . . . especially those that convene at 8:00 a.m. Mine has only ten students, and recently attendance has sometimes been as low as 40 percent, which empirically demonstrates that a substantial portion of the class thinks regularly attending class is unimportant.

I am not one of those professors who penalizes students’ grades for non-attendance — my students are legal adults with their own lives and get to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I also don’t give many in-class exams. For the subjects that I teach, I believe that writing is a better assessment tool than tests composed of multiple choice questions.

I also believe that reading and writing before class, and discussion during class, are in and of themselves critical for learning. But, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, what is to be done?

Last night I remembered the physics exams I had as an undergraduate. Often students were allowed to bring along a single sheet of paper with notes written on it, to reference during the exam. The real purpose of the “crib sheet” was to get students to review their notes and identify for themselves the concepts and processes that were important for an understanding of physics. Also the act of writing and rewriting to make the most critical information fit on a single piece of paper helped strengthen memories of this information.

I decided to employ a similar method. This morning I announced that class on Tuesday of next week would include a quiz. I explained in detail the format of the quiz, its intent, and the fact that it would be an extremely low-stakes event — worth only 10 points out of an available total of 1,200 from all other assignments. I gave each student a blank 3 X 5 note card to write notes on; they can use the card during the quiz.

The downside is that I now have to create and grade a quiz. But even if the entire class decides to show up, I will still have only ten quizzes to grade. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion.

I’ll report on how this goes next week.

First Annual Teach, Play, Learn Conference

Announcing the first annual Teach, Play, Learn Conference on Friday, June 22, 2018, at Indiana University South Bend. The goals of the conference are to:

  • generate awareness and interest in the changing technologies and pedagogies in the quickly evolving area of educational games and playful learning.
  • demonstrate benefits of using games as part of classroom education.
  • showcase practical solutions for the design and implementation of games in the educational context.

Deadline for proposal submission is April 27. Details are here.

The Tyranny of Small Numbers At Intermediate Scale

I have written previously about the negative effects of small class size on how I teach, which I’m noticing again this semester in a class of only ten students. I have also written about low-enrollment institutions like Mills College. If your employer is small, tuition-dependent, and the surrounding area is losing population, it is time for you to worry. But today I am going to explore size effects at the intermediate level by looking at how enrollments affect curricula.

As the chair of a small department that manages three separate majors, none of which graduates more than a dozen students per year, I am hypothetically responsible for balancing two  competing agendas — filling classrooms with students who will likely never again take a course in the same disciplinary area, and offering a sufficiently diverse menu of advanced courses for students majoring in that disciplinary area.

In a recent discussion about one of my department’s programs and the upcoming academic year, I advocated in favor of offering a number of introductory course sections that is similar to the number that has been offered previously. These course sections typically enroll thirty to thirty-five students each, in contrast to upper-level courses that might enroll a dozen or fewer. The higher head count per class reduces overload and adjunct compensation, a cost that has exploded at my university because of a lack of oversight by deans and provosts. It also means more students are exposed to this particular field of study, increasing the chance that some might select it as a first or second major in a future semester.

Someone else instead supported an increase in the number of upper-level courses. This, the person claimed, would better serve students in the major — by giving them more topics to choose from — and perhaps increase the attractiveness of the major to current and potential future students at the university. Continue reading

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 5

Today we have the final post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso, assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Our previous posts discussed why we wanted a blended learning approach to our research methods course, the design of the course’s online modules and offline workshops, and the involvement in colleagues. We have saved the best for last: what did students think of our redesigned course?

Because of the time and energy required by this project, we became very invested in it. We thought the flipped classroom was awesome. So when the course evaluations came back in, we were happy to read that students generally liked the flexibility that the new course design gave them, the look of the online environment, and research methods content. A few students even mentioned their appreciation for the academic skills modules — they had been struggling with certain skills like academic writing, but as graduate students they had felt too embarrassed to ask for help. Continue reading

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 4

Today we have the fourth post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Online, Open and Collaborative?

So far, we have written about the general idea behind our flipped classroom, the online environment we designed for this course, and the offline workshops that we organized around our online modules. Throughout this project, we wanted to design a course that would be as open and transferable as possible. On the one hand, this meant creating content under a Creative Commons Share Alike license, so it could easily be shared online. We also wanted to involve our colleagues who know much more about certain specialized research methods than we do.

When we designed the course’s online component, we included a section in which our colleagues told our students about their own research projects: which methods they used, what they thought were the advantages or disadvantages of these methods, and what they wished they had known before doing their research. We initially wanted to ask our colleagues to write on a blog, but we didn’t want to increase what students had to read or watch, so we eventually settled on podcasts. Alex has now recorded a number of podcasts with some of our colleagues on a range of topics, such as the comparative approach in researching tax policy, doing interviews with EU and Commission officials, or social network analysis applied to fair trade networks.

Involving colleagues created a new problem for us. Interviewing a colleague on something like social network analysis is one thing. But if a student subsequently asked us to teach social network analysis, we would not have the relevant expertise. So when applying for additional funding for this project, we asked for and received money for colleagues to design modules for us in their areas of expertise. This meant that we could broaden the range of methods included in our course quite extensively, while reducing our own role in it – something we felt would contribute to the project’s continuity of we stopped teaching the course at some future point in time.

Then things got out of hand. Our faculty board was happy to oblige with our funding request on one condition: could we use the project to do research within our faculty on open and collaborative teaching? Fast forward to September 2017, when a research team of four frantically bombarded colleagues in the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs with e-mails and flyers to ask that they please, please participate in our survey on online and open educational resources. We are still analyzing the survey data but here are some insights that we can already share with you:

  • A blend of online and offline is the preferred method among students for a course on research methods: interestingly, there is very little support for an exclusively online format.
  • 92 percent of staff consider using open and online materials in their teaching, showing a high potential for these tools if the right infrastructure is made available.
  • Staff often thought online materials saved time—they can be re-used, while lectures have to be delivered identically year after year.

Our last post in this series will discuss what students thought about the course.

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 3

Today we have the third post in a series on building a flipped course by Natascha van der Zwan and Alexandre Afonso. Both are assistant professors at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands. They can be reached by emailing Natascha at n.a.j.van.der[dot]zwan[at]fgga[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl.

Going Offline 

In our two previous posts, we wrote about the general idea behind our flipped classroom in Research Methods and producing the content for our online modules. Today we will discuss the offline series of workshops in which students gain hands-on experience with the research methods or skills they studied online.

When you do a big blended learning project such as this one, it’s very easy to get carried away by the new and shiny part: your attention will go predominantly to the online content. This makes sense: the online component is often not only the novelty aspect of the course, but also the more time-consuming part to produce, and the one that will last. It’s very easy then to fall into the trap, as we did, of not paying enough attention to the more familiar offline part of the course.

When we applied for funding to set up the flipped classroom, our idea about the offline component was as follows:

Students will be stimulated to go back and forth between the theoretical material online and the concrete application of the methods in class. This course design will stimulate a much more experiential learning process than in a traditional research methods courses, as the course will assist the students in “learning by doing” research. The learning experience is also much more interactive than in a traditional course setting, as students are actively involved in each other’s research projects, jointly handling common challenges involved in doing research during the course seminars.

We were wrong. Our initial idea – to have students do the workshops, as they were writing their thesis – presumed that all students would at the same stage of the thesis project by the time they took our course. This was not the case: some had started but switched topics, others were already quite advanced and still others had not even started thinking about a thesis topic yet. In other words: the activities we envisioned them to do (e.g. carry out a qualitative interview with a respondent) simply bombed. We had to find a plan B. Continue reading