The Whys and Why Nots of Using Technology in the Politics Classroom: a Research Framework – Guest post by Alexandra Mihai

downloadThis guest post from Alexandra Mihai (IES, Brussels) was originally published on her blog, The Educationalist

Having been working for about nine years on designing and delivering technology-enhanced courses on European Studies, I became familiar with the community of politics/ IR scholars who adopted technology and integrates it- to different degrees—in their teaching practice. Very soon I came to realise that this is actually “a bubble within a bubble”, a small part of the group of academics interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, i.e. in reflecting on and conducting research activities surrounding their pedagogical practice.

While regularly attending various international e-learning conferences, I quickly became aware of the fact that, while social sciences in general were less represented, politics/ IR were a pretty rare occurrence. This intrigued me and prompted me to look around myself, talk to my colleagues and peers and try to find out if this is indeed the case, if politics scholars are slower and more reluctant in adopting technology and using it in teaching than their peers from other disciplines. A few years and many conferences and workshops later, my experience confirms what I had intuitively known all along.

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Are university students special?

This will mean nothing to many of you, which will be your loss.
This will mean nothing to many of you, which will be your loss.

Let’s try to get past your reflex answer/snort/mutter and consider this question with a bit more thought.

It’s something that occurs as I head to Portland for TLC 2016, leaving behind (for a bit) my new Fellowship, much of which is concerned with disseminating academic research to a wide variety of audiences.

In particular, I wonder whether the teaching we provide in our university classrooms is that different from the teaching we might give elsewhere, or even from the dissemination work that goes beyond this. Continue reading

Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Game: Word Challenge

Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions

Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time
: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes
Play Time: 5 minutes
Class Size: 6-100
Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.

How to Play:

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Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point

Transforming students from passive listeners into actively engaged learners need not be a grand task that requires extensive planning. It can start with a simple decision to reserve a short period of class to review and clarify the lessons of the day.  Taking us beyond the relative uselessness of just asking whether anyone has any questions, and seeing none, moving on, the ‘Muddiest Point’ technique requires students to actually think through what they do and do not understand, and forces us as instructors to ensure that comprehension is universal.

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Engaging Students, Part 1: Quotes

Hello ALPS world!  I’ve been letting Chad and Simon do all the talking lately, and we can’t have that!  I’m back with the new year and ready to share more ideas on how to make our classes more active.  My focus is going to be on techniques, large and small, aimed at engaging students and improving learning, all which you can apply in your classes without a lot of extensive planning.  Many of these ideas are published, but that doesn’t mean they are widely known, so my plan is to feature some of them on this blog.  Try those that appeal and let us know how they work!

This week’s technique comes from Elizabeth Barkley’s (2010) book, the aptly named ‘Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty’.  What I like about this book is that it talks about general tips and strategies for improving engagement as well as specific techniques.  Each of the techniques is explained and categorized, has step by step directions, examples, and ways to vary the technique or apply it in an online environment.  It is a great resource for promoting active learning in your classes. Today’s technique is the fourth in her book, called ‘Quotes’.

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Enough with the problems. Give me solutions!

Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!
Florentine in practical application of political thought shock!

This past week, I got to fly down to Florence, to take part in a workshop on studying the European Union, hosted by the European University Institute and the College of Europe (my alma mater). With a beautiful setting and Italian food and drink aplenty, it was certainly a very convivial environment.

At the same time, we ended up covered a lot of the same ground that all of us have covered many times before. We talked about how multi-/inter-disciplinarity is good, but difficult to actually achieve; we talked about how some basic concepts remain poorly conceptualised (‘euroscepticism’ this time); we even talked about the difficulties of sharing good practice in learning & teaching.

In short, we were good academics: long on the problems, much shorter on the solutions (or even, a solution).

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Framing and re-framing terrorism (with cats)

One of the more awkward things that political scientists have to deal with is the way in which the things that are more likely to stimulate student interest are often the things that are most sensitive/tricky to discuss. And since 9/11 and 7/7, terrorism has occupied the top spot in that list. My department was certainly not alone in finding that enrollments on our IR programmes and terrorism modules has been particularly strong.

The issues around discussing such subjects are (hopefully) pretty obvious: most glaringly, the almost boundless capacity to offend someone, given the subjective nature of the phenomenon (indeed, I’ve had at least one discussion about whether it is subjective and why would I say that…).

At the same time, as well as being of interest to students, terrorism also produces materials. Lots of material, in short time frames. And for a classroom discussion, that is a great opportunity, both for the subject itself and for the development of precising and analytical skills. And potentially it offers a way to handle the sensitivity issue.

To take the topical example, we might look at the Brussels lock-down that is currently running after the Paris attacks. Possibly because so many people haven’t got work to go to, there has been a wave of social media activity, which in turn led police to request that reports of their (the police’s) movements not be mentioned, so as to reduce the warning to potential targeted individuals (although the APC rumbling down your road might also be a clue).

In any case, Bruxellois responded with a meme of cats and kittens. As well as intrinsic interest (I’m going to guess you managed to get the end of that last link), this response provides an excellent stepping stone for a class discussion about popular responses to terrorism, both narrowly in the use of humour and more generally. The meme prompts a number of interesting questions, including what is the typical emotional response to terrorism, how can people frame and re-frame terrorism, and whether Belgians are alone in doing this (they’re not BTW – spend a minute or two reading Charlie Hebdo).

By asking students to map what happens around a terrorist event, we enable them to gain an understanding of the reach and depth of its effects and reconnect it to broader questions of political science. In so doing, we might find that we can channel the interest with fewer of the issues.

It’s not what you say…

2934775218_4edd6d67a5There’s a lot to be said for banality. It’s probably the most under-rated of teaching practices, mainly because it’s so little remarked upon. We always talk about pushing our students to the edge of their knowledge and understanding, so that this edge is pushed further back, and we also keep flagging the core ideas as lodestones, but we only rarely come back to the stuff in-between: the logical corollaries of the core concepts.

Yesterday’s class with my negotiation students was a case in point.

The session was centred on the theme of preparation, and asked them to agree a governmental coalition in the wake of the Spanish elections. This threw up lots of great thoughts and discussions about many points: Spanish politics, coalition-building in general, verisimilitude in simulations (they ended up with a grand coalition), and even stuff about preparation (I’d possibly been less than helpful about what prep they needed to do).

But for me, the big lesson was one that I end up discussing at length every year, but never quite manage to embed explicitly in the module’s work. And it’s a banal point: simply put, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear that matters.

“Sure”, you’re thinking, “that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

Exactly.

Even if you never studied negotiation, then you know enough about constructivism to appreciate the objective weight of subjective interpretations, enough about the importance of clear communication in any sphere of life, and enough about life to know that misunderstandings and talking-at-cross-purposes happens pretty often.

But you also might well have never put those things together to consider the banal point that people will tend to understand things as they understand them, rather than as someone else understands them. So it doesn’t matter if I think I’m being clear, if you don’t think I’m being clear.

Likewise, my students seemed to have a bit of block in understanding why there had been some tension in the negotiations. A couple of groups had left the room to work out some options, and didn’t want to be disturbed by emissaries from the other parties. Unfortunately, since they were the PP and PSOE and ended up with that grand coalition proposal, when they did present it to the others, they didn’t get much joy. Both sides were still quite sore about it, even during the debrief, and we had to work through how this had come to pass before we could get to all that other stuff I mentioned.

I’ve written about this before in a different context and that’s maybe the point: at some stage it becomes so obvious that it’s hard to remember that we need to remember it.

In my case, I’m fortunate that it’s such a pervasive issue that it does always come up at some point in class, but you might not have that. All of us might do well to remember that to leap from central theoretical tenet straight to the boundary can be exciting and engaging, but it can also come with costs.

Defending Powerpoint: The Instructor, Not the Tool, Makes the Lesson

The Guardian’s Andrew Smith recently published a piece in their Technology Blog lamenting the overuse of PowerPoint (PPT) -based lectures in the college classroom, citing as faults both the boredom it causes as well as the critical thinking it supposedly inhibits. I agree that PPT can lead to lectures with such attributes, but as with so many teaching methods, the tool itself should not be blamed for the faults of a lesson.

Powerpoint: the death of critical thinking?

To be as anecdotal as the author, I too have heard terrible, boring lectures grounded in pretty fonts, three or four bullet points, and droning voices that belong in a sleep-aid app. But I’ve also attended PPT lectures that were brilliant and thought provoking, and been put to sleep by a fair share of lectures with no visual aids.

A good lecture has more to do with the skill of the presenter than the tool itself. A dynamic presenter can create an interesting, informative, and provoking lecture using PPT, Prezi, or any other form of presentation software, while the same tool in the hands of a less skilled teacher can of course lead to confusion, boredom, and passivity. The chalk/white board (itself a piece of technology) can be just as misused–Many instructors have limited abilities at what I’ve always called ‘boardcraft’, the art of using the board effectively to clearly communicate with students. A set of prepared notes using the board or no technology at all, can lead to an amazing, provocative lecture–or not. It is the skill and training of the instructor, and how they use their instructional tools, rather than the tools themselves that lead to desirable results in a classroom setting. For example, the ALPS team strongly supports simulations and games as methods of teaching students. The most important part of using a game for learning, though, is the debriefing process that occurs after the activity has ended, which requires the instructor to be able to pull the experiences of the students from them and help them think through how the content lessons are exemplified or challenged by the gameplay.

The teaching tool does not determine the interest level or critical nature of the lesson.

This can be done with prepared PPT slides with provocative questions, or the whiteboard, or online discussion boards, or via old school classroom discussion. The tool is far less important than the instructor’s ability to tie personal experience in the game to the overall lesson.

Another assertion in the article that I find troubling is the implied trade off between using PPT and the board. Yes, PPT is linear in its approach. But there is nothing stopping an instructor from going off-script to follow up on a point made by a student. Depending on the technology set up in your classroom, it can be pretty easy to switch between the two. One of the classrooms I teach in has the projector on a separate wall from the board, so I often use both. In another, the projector blocks the board–but it is the work of a moment to ‘Pic-Mute’ the projector and pull the screen up so I can use the board.

There are other methods of ensuring that PPT does not make your lessons boring and uncritical. Consider avoiding bullet points entirely and instead using images, clips, and questions as the touch points for your lesson, allowing the content for that slide to be more dynamically presented and discussed. Alternatively, you can always include slides at the end that are not necessarily part of the main lesson, but which you can jump to very easily if in the course of the lecture, a relevant point comes up. For example, I will frequently drop polling data in the end of my slides on related topics that students sometimes bring up (say, opinions on various social issues for a lecture on Civil Liberties). This gives me options–I can jump to those slides if they come up, but I’m not required to do so if they do not. Jumping in and out of PPT itself is also very easy, and I will do it readily if I suddenly recall a news clip, video, or primary source that I did not include in the main lecture. No one has to be tied to the pre-prepared slides unless they let themselves be constrained by it.

Clearly, I am a fan of PPT, but like any tool, it has its limitations in the classroom. My philosophy is that we have a toolbox full of methods, of which PPT is one, and we should use the tool that helps us craft the best lesson for a given piece of content. It is our job as instructors to create lessons that are not boring and which provoke critical thinking; the blame for a class that fails to meet that mark falls squarely on us, not on PowerPoint.

The trouble with measurement

IMAG4008So it turns out I’m a Thinker. And a Doer. And a Planner. And a Solver.

Last night, I was administered the learning styles questionnaire of my eldest, which had come home from school earlier on, which revealed that I was a very balanced individual. Possibly.

Now it could be that I am very balanced. Or that my enormous experience and modesty mean that I have learnt to appreciate and internalise these different approaches. Or that the questionnaire is not very good at distinguishing between them. Or that learning styles is possibly unhelpful as a model for understanding individuals.

Of maybe it’s just because I didn’t tick number 33: “I’m fun to be around.” Who knows?

And that’s actually the issue we confront very often in L&T: we just don’t know what we’re measuring and whether it’s meaningful. It’s easy to pock holes in a questionnaire for kids, but it’s just as common an issue in universities, where all these clever people sit around working hard to describe clever ways to resolve precisely such issues.

I’ve observed before that students’ evaluations of modules/courses – which we set such great stock by in the UK – can only ever be part of judged the quality and effectiveness of our teaching. “Have we made a good impression on our students?” is a different question from “have they learnt something useful?”, yet we often conflate the two.

Likewise, as has been noted on this blog many times, we talk about new pedagogies and why they’re great, without much evidence to back it up. Just because I think simulations are great, doesn’t mean they’re great, and my anecdote doesn’t match systematic research of outcomes.

So what to do?

Partly, we have to rein in our enthusiasm and be frank about the limits to our knowledge. I think I speak for all the ALPSblog authors when I say that we talk as much about the costs and limitations of our active learning practice as we do about the benefits: beware anyone who offers you the moon on a stick.

Partly, we have to go out and get that evidence. For my part, I’m going to use some of the money the nice people at the Higher Education Academy gave me to conduct some research into simulations to do just that. I’m still working on the details, but it would seem to be a worthwhile activity, on a number of levels.

To return to a theme we discussed not so long ago, if we are to bring more people along with us in improving pedagogy, then we have to make the case better.

You – as a Thinker, Planner, Doer and Solver – can be part of that too.