Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

Continue reading

Using Hidden Brain to Teach Research Design

Today we have a guest post by Sarah Fisher, assistant professor at Emory & Henry College. She can be reached at sfisher[at]ehc[dot]edu.

For undergraduates, the research methods course is often the most dreaded component of the political science curriculum. Students’ fear of mathematics, gaps in content knowledge, and lack of software experience (I’ve had students who have never opened Microsoft Excel, much less heard of a statistical software package) present pedagogical challenges for an instructor. 

Florian Justwan and I recently published an article about teaching social science research methods, “Scaffolding Assignments and Activities for Undergraduate Research Methods,” in the Journal of Political Science Education. The article, available here, includes instructions on how to use an episode of 30 Rock to teach content analysis, how to teach similar systems design with presidential speeches, and other activities. Teaching materials described in the article are available on my website.

One resource the article references is NPR’s show Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which illustrates social science research for a popular audience with topics like the behavior of baseball umpires in extra innings and ways that colleges try to prevent summer melt. I ask students to identify the theory, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and findings contained in different episodes and then tie this activity to longer articles assigned as homework readings. The program allows me to expand my range of examples beyond political science, important given that many of the students in my course are in majors ranging from sociology to athletic training to mass communication. This kind of content shows students that the scientific method isn’t reserved for academia; it can be used in their daily lives to interpret the world around them.

Crowd-Sourcing and Self-Instruction

Today we have a guest post from Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University and a visiting researcher at the University of Gothenburg as part of the Varieties of Democracy Project. He can be reached at matthew[dot]wilson1[at]mail[dot]wvu[dot]edu.

Sometimes, existing teaching materials can be too narrow or too broad. This was the problem that I encountered when designing a lower-level undergraduate course on Latin American Politics. Many textbooks on Latin American politics are organized around conceptual issues with specific chapters on topics such as economic inequality or race. However, I wanted students to also learn about the unique paths by which countries in the region developed, without limiting the discussion or using a handful of countries to characterize the rest.  Rather than cobbling together different materials myself, I saw this as an opportunity for active learning.

My idea was to create teams of students with each team seeking out information on a different country outside of class. This approach drew on distributed learning, which aims to decouple learning from the classroom constraints of time and place, by creating a learning objective outside of class that differs from but contributes to what students learn in class. The approach also reflected crowd-sourcing, where a good is produced by many people performing relatively small tasks. The assignment therefore had to involve a large number of students.

Students listed their top three preferences for countries and I matched them up as best I could. I aimed to control the quality of sources and focus of the assignment, while at the same time encouraging students to teach themselves by conducting independent research.  I personally vetted the content that students used by selecting five books that covered each of the roughly twenty countries—for a total of 100 books—and placed them on hold in the university library.  I also required each student to submit a list of ten additional online sources for my approval.

The assignment had two parts, for which students received separate grades.  First, students had one month to consult the source materials and document major events that occurred in their respective countries. I created a spreadsheet with four tabs that corresponded to heads of state, conflicts, laws, and important documents.  For each, students had to skim the respective material and fill in basic information about the event, denoted by column headings:

  • The year in which an event occurred (when)
  • The event (what)
  • The actors involved (who)
  • The source(s) consulted

I discouraged students from providing any sort of explanation.  Moreover, I was purposely vague about what constituted an event to encourage them to seriously consider what mattered. I graded students’ spreadsheets in terms of thoroughness; in large part, this was determined by comparing the spreadsheets of students who were assigned the same country.

In the second step, I grouped students into teams according to the country they had researched, and each team created a combined, revised timeline that described in only a few sentences each event that had been included. I checked the accuracy of the content in the timelines with the help of graduate research assistants, and each team received a grade on its combined timeline. At the end of the course, I consolidated students’ timelines into a single manuscript, added public domain images, and handed the final product back to them.

The results of this assignment were quite positive. It enabled me to complement the country-specific knowledge students were acquiring outside of class with lectures on more general themes. Each student became a “country expert” and therefore almost always had something to contribute to in-class discussions, which in turn improved their essay responses. Students were motivated to work on a project that was not the standard research paper. Overall, the distributed learning, self-instruction, and collaboration with teammates enhanced students’ performance in the course. I will definitely use this technique in the future. Additional details can be found in my article about the assignment in the Journal of Political Science Education.

A Nicosian agenda for active learning

So I’m back from Cyprus, land of exceptionally large (and delicious) meals. And the mezze is probably a good metaphor for our ECPR workshop on active learning: lots of tasty and interesting things, but also a lot to digest. It’s fair to say that over the four days of discussion we made some progress, but also came to acknowledge that some substantial barriers stand in our way.

So take this as a first cut (or a second one, if you’re going to be picky).

As I noted in my previous post, our common goal for the workshop was to develop a better understanding of whether and how active learning works.

Our papers – from colleagues across Europe – provided just the kind of starting point that we needed, from simulations to stimulate school pupils’ interest in university to students making their own videos.

From that we’ve got three groups now working on pulling together symposia/special issues to showcase that evidence. Right now we’re pulling together some text to frame each of these, but we’ll be coming out to you – via this platform and at various L&T events in the coming months – to see if you have work that might fit in too.

With that in mind, it’s useful to sketch out the three projects right now. 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

Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 2

Today we have the second 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.

How to Build a Flipped Classroom

University teaching is not very different from the way Adam Smith or Max Weber taught a century or more ago. Aside from the inescapable PowerPoint, there is usually a lecturer standing in front of a group of students who take notes. The reason teaching stayed the same may be purely path dependent: departing from this format may go against administrative rules and habit. Developing new ways to teach requires an investment in resources in time and energy that always run scarce when the new semester looms. At Leiden University, we are lucky to have a great deal of institutional support and a clear commitment from the university for developing innovative forms of teaching.

And this meant . . . going to the film studio!

Leiden University wants to play a leading role in the development of open educational resources. There are several Leiden-originated massive open online courses (MOOCs) on Coursera, including a course on kidney transplants by the Leiden University Medical Center and our colleague Bernard Steunenberg’s MOOC on Politics and Policy in the European Union. Over the years, the university has developed quite an infrastructure to make these MOOCs, with several studios on campus to create instructional videos. Also Leiden’s Online Learning Lab employs professional videographers and instructional designers who specialize in online learning and in helping faculty members such as Alex and myself make the jump to online video content.

We had a list of demands that we wanted for our flipped classroom. These were, in no particular order: Continue reading