Push the tempo

You’ll be shocked to read that people only have short attention spans, especially online.

This not only gives me the occasion to write a short post, but also allows me to remind you of this fact when thinking about your ventures into online L&T.

As part of the work I’ve been doing with colleagues recently on preparing for the autumn, a consistent message from the literature and the practical advice is to keep it concise, and keep it frequent.

That means making your online lectures into 15 minute blocks and group activities that can be broken up into smaller chunks.

It also means talking a lot more to your students, regularly producing interactions and demonstrating the continuing nature of the work. It’ll not be enough to set out a workplan at the top of the semester, then sitting back and waiting for the assessment to roll in.

You know this, both from your previous experience with students and from your current situation.

In both cases, the presence/absence of being co-located means you lose much of the soft interactions that help sustain interest and engagement: the chat in the corridor, the messages relayed through mutual contacts.

Think about how you’re working now, in lockdown: a lot more structured interactions and meetings, alongside a lot more undifferentiated time where you could be doing lots of things (writing that grant bid/article/etc.), but you’re possibly not.

[and yes, blog writing is a good example of this]

Students are in the same boat, and even if lockdowns aren’t as strict, then the nature of distance learning is that it’s really hard to get and keep someone’s attention if they’re down the line.

So if you want to make your teaching work better online, then you’ll have to lean into it: not just reproducing what you’d do in class, but creating a novel structure that guides, supports and interacts with students in a rather different manner to before.

That’s not an exact science, but the most useful rule of thumb is still that you’re not as interesting as you think you are, so you will need to work for students’ attention.

And with that, let’s back to whatever it was we were doing beforehand.

More Reasons to Go Back to Basics?

Per my philosophy of never letting a good crisis go to waste, I’ve already started thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in this unusual semester.

In my globalization course, students seem to have sufficiently mastered the tools needed to create storymaps. To my surprise, nearly all of them learned how to use the software during two in-class lessons led by our digital scholarship librarian.

Yet with the semester almost over many still don’t seem to understand that U.S. News and Forbes are not peer-reviewed academic journals. If I teach this course again — it’s rotating to a colleague next year — I should probably include assignments at the beginning of the semester in which students are explicitly graded on their ability to locate appropriate sources. Currently this information literacy skill is only assessed through the rubric attached to the three storymap assignments.

In my comparative politics course, I will soon try to run my Gerkhania simulation online for the first time. To make things even more interesting, the class is down to eight students and the simulation is heavily modified from previous versions. I’ll report what happens in a few weeks.

When I moved this course online a month ago, I converted a classroom exercise in analyzing journal articles into several graded assignments. In this type of assignment, students have to answer these questions:

  1. Article’s subject—what is the question, puzzle, or problem examined?
  2. What and where is the thesis?
  3. What is the theoretical perspective (rational actor, culture, structure)? How do you know this?
  4. What are the independent variables (causes) examined?
  5. What is the dependent variable (effect) examined?
  6. What is the conclusion of the author(s)?

My reason for doing this, other than filling up the remainder of an extended semester? It had become clear before the campus closed that students were often skipping over assigned journal articles and reading only the accompanying news stories that illustrated the articles’ theoretical arguments.

Some students are still unable to correctly identify an author’s thesis or conclusions — despite the classroom exercises during the first half of the semester. So in the future, students are going to get more instruction and more (graded) practice in how to read academic literature.

Monday Morning Advice

A few items from elsewhere that might be of help for instructors who are new to teaching online:

First, here are five reasons not to use timed exams. In my opinion thse arguments apply whether one is teaching online or face-to-face.

Second, here are some very practical, easy-to-implement techniques for becoming a better writer — suitable for both professors and students.

Last, methods of identifying whether your employer’s financial viability has suddenly gotten much worse — editorials that I wrote in 2017 and 2019.

Institutional Design Exercise using Slack

Today we have a guest post from Keith A. Preble, Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Albany, SUNY. He can be reached at kpreble [at] albany [dot] edu.


Instructor should create a Slack workspace (or something comparable). The exercise below can work with a class/lecture of any size and requires minimal instructor involvement. I suggest dividing your class/lecture into groups of 6-8 students by creating private channels for each group on Slack. Instructors can review the interactions on Slack for grading, too.

Preparatory Work

None required. Students should have some understanding of international institutions/organizations.

Premise for Students

While the World Health Organization is charged with addressing public health emergencies and issues, member states, medical interest groups, the press, pundits, commentators, and ordinary citizens believe that the organization lacks agility and authority to address pandemics like COVID-19.

Imagine that your group is has been charged with designing a new international institution. Your goal is to develop a new international institution that deals not only with COVID-19 but also future pandemics.

Political scientists often debate how international institutions should be designed. Koremenos et al. (2001) have argued that “states use international institutions to further their own goals, and they design institutions accordingly” (762).

Whether international institutions are “false promises,” simply reflect state power, help regulate cheating and cooperation, or are independent is a matter for debate. With these ideas in mind, each group should think about how you might design an international institution to deal with a transboundary problem (like a pandemic/COVID-19).

Group Instructions

Each group should elect a facilitator/team leader to lead the discussion questions below. Team leader should send a short debriefing email to the instructor at the end of the exercise outlining the name of the institution they developed, some key provisions, and an assessment on the effectiveness of the exercise.

Discussion Questions

Each group should discuss and debate each of the questions below:

1.      What are the membership rules for your organization – who can/will be a member? Think carefully about asymmetries among the member states.

2.      How will states and other actors who are a part of your institution deal with assessing the various outcomes and choosing the best outcome?

3.      What issues will your international institution deal with? Will you restrict your international institution to simply responding to pandemics or do you think there are other issues that your institutions?

4.      Do you envision creating a regime? An IGO? A mix? Something ad hoc? Defend your choice.

5.      Will there be a headquarters? Where will tasks be centralized? Will states create their own domestic institutions that will liaison with other states through this organization/regime/etc.? Remember that of all the questions you address, this question is the most political. Think about why the answer to this question is problematic.

6.      How will collective decisions be made? Think about who will run the organization? How will this person be selected? Will membership be universal or more restricted? Will there be a body akin to the General Assembly or other fora for debates? What role will experts or other nonstate actors play (if any)?

7.      Pandemics can be “new circumstances.” What happens to the institution if something happens that hasn’t been thought of? How will your institution adapt?

8.      How will you enforce the rules of your organization? In other words, if a state fails to adapt the necessary public health protocols, what can/will your organization/institution be able to do?

9.      How will your organization cope with uncertainty about other members in the organization? Is there a way an institution can be designed to help deal with these problems?

Prepping for Autumn

Excessive (for now)

Last week I was worrying about stuff. This week I’m, errm, still worrying about it.

Still high up my list is the autumn/fall and how I’m going to teach my course on negotiation, mainly because it’s going to be such a massive pain in the proverbial.

But rather than go, once again, through my agonising about that, I’m going to try to get you to think about the generic points of getting ready for next semester. Because you’re in this too.

The logic is simply that even if we hit peak infections now or in the coming weeks in our respective countries, covid-19 isn’t going to be solved. Instead, much of the local population won’t have been infected, vaccines won’t exist and the scope for a new wave of infections is substantial. Throw in the warm weather thing and the last quarter of this year looks like we well be doing this again, maybe even doing it still, but let’s hope not.

I note in passing that this view is, A) downbeat, and; B) in line with my general teaching practice of assuming that things might not work out as I wish, so I’d better have a fallback. And as I write last week, trying to do online learning properly is not a quick proposition, so we need to get moving now.

But it’s worse than that.

Not only will students’ expectations of provision be that much greater than they have been in the past few weeks, we also have to recognise that any new lockdown might be only intermittently in place during the new semester. So we’re going to have to design and run courses that might have to be simultaneously digital-native and ready to go back into the classroom.

So how to tackle this?

As so often, three ideas come forward.

Firstly, start with the digital. Given the profound uncertainty about It All, it makes sense to plan very conservatively. In this case, that means assuming that there will be some form of significant disruption to delivery at some point during the semester.

Even if there is only a brief lockdown, you may find that effects are more lasting, with travel restrictions on your overseas students, plus unwillingness by all students to return to campuses (especially if they become associated with being sites of infection). That all points to online delivery being useful in any case.

In addition, online is your fallback: there’s no sign that any of this is going to compromise either digital access or electricity generation [goodness, this is cheery, isn’t it?], so online is the sensible plan to start from.

That means building your course with a digital core, and the capacity to run it entirely digitally, but with scope to move elements back into the classroom as needed/possible. However, even when moving back, you probably still need to provide for digital access to those classroom spaces, for those that can’t be there.

Put like that, it’s much simpler to think about the balance of what goes where.

Second idea is that we treat passive and active elements separately. How you handle transmitting knowledge/skills is going to be different from spaces in which students get to explore.

This is a bit more tricky, because the boundary is rather blurred here: active learning is precisely about developing knowledge and skills, but through practice rather than transmission. But let’s work through the thought.

IF you have lectures, then these can be parked into a digital package relatively easily. You park yourself in front of a webcam, set up your preferred/mandated package and record a lecture. That can be kept on your local intranet, for students to watch whenever: the content (at this point) doesn’t need to seen simultaneously, so park it and focus on building spaces for what does need to happen at the same time.

More active elements typically fall into those categories: if you want debate or discussion, especially face-to-face, then you need time-slots and technology to make that happen. But also, that’s not essential: think about the options you have for asynchronous debate (forums, threads, wikis, etc.).

A big part of this is putting yourself in the shoes of the students. How are they going to encounter and interact with your course, if they are sitting at home (again) or if they are sitting in the classroom? Again, given the uncertainty, might you run multiple elements simultaneously, so that you can weight them differently as the situation changes, or so that different students in different situations all have opportunities to learn?

And all of this comes back to the final idea: digital is different. Yes, you can move stuff online, but that’s not the same as creating digital learning spaces.

Partly, that’s about options available to you. There are things you can do online that aren’t really possible in the classroom: the production and use of multimedia, the accessing of asynchronous learning, the manipulation of learning spaces. But equally, there are things you lose: the physical collocation (with all the interpersonal skills development that allows for), the scope to pick up on cues from those struggling, the (relatively) undivided focus.

But also it’s all a reminder that we can’t keep making the same assumptions about our students as before. As you’ve seen in the past weeks, students have many other concerns that your class: in a minor way, that’s been because of the format, but that minor way is likely to grow as they become more comfortable with their changed personal situation and try to get back to ‘normal’. It’s precisely at that point that you have to offer something that is compelling enough to engage and stimulate them.

Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but we have to think about it primarily as just being different, and with that difference comes opportunity. See it as a moment to try out something new, that works in that space.

And that new isn’t going to be the same for all of us.

Just like before, there are many, many different ways to help students learn. You need to find one that works for your objectives, and for your students. So look around, talk with colleagues and students themselves, read the copious materials available online, and lay your plans now.

If nothing else, it’ll help pass the time.

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.

The Benefits of Rubrics

Today we have a guest post from Sarah E. James (sarah [dot] james [at] g [dot] harvard [dot] edu), Colin Brown (colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu), and George Soroka (soroka [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.)

At the 2020 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, we led a workshop on writing rubrics for the political science classroom. Rubrics may not be a cure-all for student writing, but we do believe that college faculty underestimate their benefits for teaching advanced writing skills. They can also be a powerful tool for developing a mindful teaching practice.

The use of rubrics is extremely common at the K-12 level (at least here in the U.S.), and there is considerable evidence to support their effectiveness at teaching beginning writing skills (Heidi Andrade’s work is a good starting point, for example, here, here, and here). There has been less evidence for their effectiveness at the university level, but the few existing studies point in the same general direction as the elementary ed studies:

  • Rubrics help students learn specific skills, and make them aware of their own learning processes.
  • Rubrics make grading more efficient, while simultaneously increasing student perceptions of how fair the grading is.
  • Rubrics help expose aspects of the “hidden curriculum” in our writing expectations and may help the most disadvantaged writers the most.

Our key takeaway for participants in our workshop: rubrics let you deal with subjective measures, but in a transparent way, and without being arbitrary. Generating a good rubric requires you to be clear about what you actually value, and on what you expect students to be able to demonstrate. From the students’ side, this is a clear signal of where you want them to spend most of their time. From the instructor’s side, this is a good way to make sure that you’re following the adage of “if you didn’t teach it, don’t test it.” And when we think of the kind of genre-specific writing skills we demand of students, this sort of clarity can be extremely helpful for students who may “write well” in a general sense but who may have no experience in how things like evidence, counterarguments, citations, and literature reviews work in political science specifically.

Rubrics can only capture so much, and when you use one, you are limited to only a certain number of skills or aspects in your assessment. At our TLC workshop, the most common concern our participants had was, “what happens if we end up having to give a good grade to a bad paper?” This is a (small) risk, but we encouraged our participants to step back for a second and think about the rubric as a mindful teaching exercise. If a paper feels like it should get a lower grade than the rubric suggests, are there skills that should be included explicitly in the rubric? (They can be added next time!) If not, then what’s causing you to think the grade should be lower—and is it really something that should be entering into your assessment?

For those interested in designing their own rubrics, we provided examples for an introductory and an upper-level course, as well as a worksheet to help in setting it up. Our examples are designed to focus much more on discipline-specific skills (using evidence, critical thinking, professional norms) than on the quality of prose itself, and our instinct (tested to limited effect in our JPSE article) is that this is the most productive use of rubrics in the college-level classroom. But the structure of rubrics allows them to be adapted to the instructor’s aims, whatever they are—and they force the instructor to make those aims clear to themselves and to their students.

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.”


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.


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.

Using Model Diplomacy Online

Today we have another guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

In the transition to online teaching, many instructors might be tempted to abandon the use of simulations. While simulations present their own challenges in an online environment, I believe that they are valuable enough to be worth the effort. For example, simulations provide an opportunity for students to collaborate with one another and to interact with the instructor in real time, activities they may otherwise not get in an online course. Simulations can also provide a nice break from asynchronous assignments that are often found in online courses.

I have used the Council on Foreign Relations Model Diplomacy simulations in both face-to-face and online courses. For an online course, I schedule the simulation for a 2-hour synchronous block of time. I conduct a survey of students to find their availability and preferences on simulation topic (I typically give them a couple of choices from the Model Diplomacy catalog). I then divide the class into groups of 5-7 students based first on their availability and second their preferred topic. In case students are not able to participate, they can complete an alternative paper assignment.

Having a reliable technological format for the simulation is very important. I use Collaborate Ultra, which is built into the Desire to Learn (D2L) Brightspace course management software. You could also use Zoom or Google Teams.  Prior to the simulation, I provide students with a quick guide so that they know what to do to log into the software we are using.  I also include “Getting Started Instructions” that ask students to log in early to fix any problems and to have a phone available for back-up audio in case of microphone problems (an option in Collaborate Ultra and other platforms). I tell students how to avoid audio feedback by muting their microphone when not talking and recommend that they use a headset or headphones with a microphone. I don’t require students to use video.

Prior to the simulation, I have students write position memos as usual. During the simulation, flexibility is key, because almost always at least one student has technology problems. I begin the simulation by establishing the rules by, for example, mandating the use of the “hand raise” button. I also let everyone know that the National Security Advisor will run the meeting, calling on people when it is their turn to speak. I am present only to make sure everyone participates and to answer any questions that may arise.

The simulation consists of four “rounds,” with each round on a PowerPoint slide that I display to the students. These rounds are: Presentation of Opening Positions (15-20 minutes); Debate and Deliberation (about 60 minutes); Presidential Decision (15-20 minutes); and Wrap-up and Debriefing (15-20 minutes). More information about each of these rounds can be found on the Model Diplomacy website.

Once the simulation is completed, the students who had the role of President submit the decision reached in writing (having verbally presented the decision during the simulation), and all students write final policy review memos.