Twitter Campaigning, Part 2

Today is the second of a two-part series by guest contributor Tricia Stapleton, Director of the Society, Technology, and Policy Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Twitter ScreenshotI recently wrote about incorporating a social media activity into my Intro to IR class as part of the IRiA sim. For the assignment, students developed Twitter campaigns to support their efforts to win objective points in the game. In order to prepare students for the assignment, I gave an in-class lecture on the uses of social media in politics, followed by an in-class activity on social media audience.

Before the in-class activity, I gave my students a small task for homework. They had to create a Twitter account, if they didn’t already have one, and come to class with a laptop or wifi-enabled device. For the in-class lecture and discussion, I reviewed examples of social media use in politics, such as how ISIS uses social media or how social media users may be ahead of traditional news outlets in reporting events. I wanted to get them thinking about how both citizens and government can use Twitter or other modern technologies, like text messaging, to mobilize. We also reviewed how social media efforts can completely backfire or lead to satirical analyses of politics and culture.

After I completed the lecture/discussion, the students completed an activity based on one that Simon shared. Students were required to find everyone in the room on Twitter and follow them. They weren’t allowed to use any form of direct communication, such as talking, messaging through Blackboard, email, or Facebook, although I did allow them to use the internet. I let them work for about 15 minutes, and then we stopped to discuss how well they had done.

I was surprised to find that about 75 percent of the class had never used Twitter before, and had only created a profile for the first time as homework. I asked several students to share their methods for finding people in the room, and we followed up with a discussion about what key pieces of information needed in order to have a social campaign reach a specific or wide audience. Despite their lack of familiarity with the platform, most of the students found each other fairly quickly by developing and searching for hashtags. The most successful hashtag was our course number (#GOV1320). The activity was a great demonstration of the need to prep students for a Twitter campaign that they would complete for credit. It was also useful in getting students to know each other’s names and engage in discussion before they were split up into teams for the sim.

Twitter Campaigning with IRiA, Part 1

Today is the first of a two-part series by guest contributor Tricia Stapleton, Director of the Society, Technology, and Policy Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

TweetAs I’ve noted in previous posts (here and here), I’m in the process of tweaking my Intro to IR class. I’ve successfully used the International Relations in Action (IRiA) simulation, but I want more out of it in terms of student learning outcomes, in particular student engagement during the rounds and better connections between the sim and scholarly content. After the first round in Spring 2014, I changed the course assignments with the goal of more strongly linking theory to (sim) practice. The new assignments were reflection and research pieces for IRiA scenarios for my Fall 2014 class. In addition to completing background reports before the game started, each team was required to produce an editorial, a response letter to another team’s editorial, and a Twitter campaign during the course of the simulation. The work was posted to a course wiki, and all teams had access to them.

I began thinking about creating a Twitter activity after reading Simon’s post on using Twitter to help build community. This blog also has several other posts on how Twitter can be helpful (here, here, and here). However, I was reluctant to have students actually post to Twitter, where I might not have control over content. Student interactions often become quite intense during the course of the sim, and even though I have a disclaimer on my syllabus regarding appropriate language and respect for others, I was concerned that students might post inappropriate content. Fortunately, I already had the benefit of a developed course wiki that provided some functionality for hosting fake Twitter feeds. Although it wasn’t perfect, the added bonus of the wiki was that all created materials for the scenarios were housed on one website.

Teams completed one “Twitter campaign” during an assigned scenario in the simulation. I dictated which scenario based on a team’s possible points per round. The IRiA text establishes the number of points a team competes for in a scenario: 1, 3, 5, or 10 points. Teams working toward a 10-point objective usually have several tasks to complete, and are very busy in class. Teams on the lower end – fighting for 1-point or 3-point objectives – reported in Spring 2014 that they felt less engaged in those rounds. They simply have less to do to “win” their objective, and end up taking a backseat to other teams’ efforts. The Twitter campaign was a way to think about and participate in a round, even if a team didn’t have much to contribute or gain from negotiations in terms of points. To make sure that students were engaging with the material, and not just posting a few offhand remarks, students were also required to turn in a “campaign strategy” at the start of the round. In this 3-page report, the team explained its strategy for its Twitter campaign in the context of its objectives and potential events in the scenario. The report included any predetermined content (fully-formed tweets, hashtag ideas, etc.). And, the team was asked to consider potential weaknesses in its campaign and address how it might respond to any attempts to exploit these vulnerabilities.

Overall, the students performed well. Their reports showed a good grasp of how to use social media to promote their agenda, as well as explorations of how their campaigns might backfire. Student evaluations of the sim overwhelmingly indicated that the Twitter campaign was really interesting, and it made them think about the connections between media and politics. The IRiA text currently has no role for the media, so it does fill a conspicuous gap. However, teams didn’t engage much with each other on Twitter beyond their assigned scenario. In the future, I might offer extra credit for additional tweets, or figure out a way to designate one team member as the communications director.

Back to the Future with Blended Courses

I recently returned from the Online Learning Consortium’s conference on blended learning. Blended, or hybrid, means a course in which lecture content has been moved online, and less-frequent classroom sessions focus on higher-order tasks of application, evaluation, or synthesis.

Here is the advice that veterans of blended course design gave at the conference:

  • Set student expectations in advance. Students who are new to blended courses frequently conclude that they are a bad combination of the online and face-to-face worlds. It’s up to instructors to frame the experience as one that provides greater access to and more effective interaction with faculty. Pitching the course as an experiment is probably the worst message to send.
  • Online content and face-to-face exercises must correspond to but not duplicate each other. Students’ classroom participation in team- or project-based activities, for example, needs to align with the key concepts of the online content so that both sides of the course unfold in a coherently-scheduled, mutually-reinforcing manner. A frequent method of assessment that prevents non-proficient students from progressing through the content is highly useful in this regard. If online replicates what happens in the classroom, or if they are not integrated with each other, students will either stop engaging with the former or stop being physically present in the latter. 
  • Students need to understand that “online time” does not replace “homework time.” They will still need to devote significant effort outside of class to research, writing, or the completion of problem sets. This message can be highlighted as part of the orientation to using online content that students will need at the beginning of the semester.
  • Conversely, instructors need to be careful not to overwhelm students with material in excess of what students would encounter in the course’s traditional version. 
  • Online video should be in 5-10 minute pieces with Goldilocks-style assessment exercises after each piece — something not too easy nor too difficult. This fosters students’ engagement with the content by giving them the feeling that they’re being fairly challenged. If the assessments are perceived as too difficult or as irrelevant busy work, student motivation to access the content will decrease.
  • When producing video, don’t be afraid to be a real human. Students are not looking for a Taylor Swift-level of production value.
  • Use replicable tools, methods, and content to drive down the financial and emotional costs of creating additional blended courses in the future.

Do it yourself, learn it yourself

brussels sprout atomium blue backgroundI spent an hour last night trying to produce an app. I’m not really happy with what I produced, but I am happy I’ve tried.

Over the past month I’ve been working on a new project, ‘A Diet of Brussels‘. Basically, it’s podcasts about Britain and the EU. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for some time, but the surprising outcome of the general election meant that things suddenly took a new turn.

Perhaps that’s not the right way to express it, since it was more a case of throwing myself in the proverbial deep end, instead of trying to over-think things, which I’ve noticed is one of my less-good habits (alongside not using the word ‘bad’).

Fortunately, I had already secured the main piece of kit, namely a decent voice recorder, at a knock-down price, so I was ready to go.

A couple of hours practising recording in a manageable way and editing (with Audacity‘s excellent freeware) to up the production quality fractionally, and I had something that I could live with other people listening to.

Next step was building a platform. Fortunately, I’d already made a website before (this one, since you ask), so using Wix was quick and easy, as was the purchasing of domain names. Soundcloud provided the main platform for hosting the audio files themselves, and will be good for a few months yet on their free plan: iTunes also was easy enough to set up a mirror for the files, for the trendier end of my audience. Throw in a new Google account and then I could add in a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.

And off I’ve gone. So far, I’ve made 17 podcasts in about a month and am still to settle into a proper rhythm, mainly because once I sit down and start recording, it’s much easier to record a couple more while I’m there. Add to that lots of pushing online to people who will propagate further and I’ve got an audience that is small, but respectable. A huge help with this was a couple of name-checks in the Politico Europe daily Playbook email, so I guess I have to reflect on my previous words on said organisation, at least in part.

In terms of learning, there are several big things here.

Most obviously, this is a form of experiential learning: I’ve got my hands metaphorically dirty in a number of new activities, in a way that ties together my L&T work with my other research. In the past month, I’ve managed to advance my skills and my thinking in ways that certainly wouldn’t have happened otherwise. As someone who other talks about getting students to do this, it’s only right that I should remind myself that this actually works.

I’m also reminded that things are never quite as difficult as one thinks they’ll be. Before I started, I thought that the quality of recording was going to be critical (hence the recorder) and it left me a bit hamstrung. I could blame listening to Serial for excessive expectations, but then I remembered that I’m not a professional broadcast journalist, but an academic, and just got stuck it. Now my model is that I’ll get better as I do more: classic active learning again.

The value of strong networks has become evident too. My logo comes from the most amazing glove-puppet you’ll ever meet, Berlaymonster, and the support from colleagues in Brussels and the UK has been invaluable in making this get as far as it has. I know that when I’m done with this post, I can ask for help with the app I was trying to make last night and get it.

And finally it’s all making me think about the value of patience. If you think you’ll change the world with your first effort, then you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. Instead, these things that time: this very blog has taken several years to get to where it is today (insert punchline here), just as our individual reputations have taken time to develop as they have.

But time is also about timing: I got lucky with the election result (even if it wasn’t one I personally cared for) and I got even luckier with the name-checking. I have the advantage that I know this project is fixed-term (until the referendum happens) and I know that because I’ve started now I’ll be much better placed when more people get interested nearer the time. And given that the key aim of the project is to help inform people about what’s what, that has to be a good thing.

In the last few weeks of class this semester we’ve been discussing life-long and life-wide learning: I’m really glad to be actually doing some of that.

Now then: off to ask a man about an app.

Mad Men of the 19th Century

Chinese MenLast week I gave a brief presentation on John Thompson’s China in one of the small classes I’m teaching this semester. For the second part of class, I gave students this team-based collaborative exercise, which I’ve named Mad Men of the 19th Century:

The year is 1878. You work for the Vanderbilt Exotic Travels Company in Newport, Rhode Island, a company that arranges luxury travel expeditions to foreign lands. The company has launched a new tour: a nine-week expedition to China.

Your team’s task is to choose two images from John Thompson’s photo compendium – one view (a landscape or street scene) and one type (a portrait of an individual) – for a brochure that promotes the tour to China. You team will need to prepare a five to seven minute sales presentation that uses either the five C’s, juxtaposition, or framing to explain why these two photos will convince people to pay $1,489 to join the tour. Teams will deliver their presentations in today’s class.

Your team’s presentation should focus on answering two questions: What sells a product? What will sell this product?

My primary goal for the exercise? Get students to explore the biases contained in what at first glance appears to be an objective visual historical record, through an activity that has more authenticity than an abstract academic essay. Since I thought of this exercise at the last minute, I had low expectations, but it went fairly well. Students did interpret the photographs chosen by their teams in meaningful ways. I did notice that students are generally unfamiliar with tasks that simulate what happens in the workplace — in this case, the use of images to communicate specific messages — which is extremely unfortunate.

Teaching with social media

Facebook_like_thumbReading Casey’s post, I have been reflecting on my own use of social media in the classroom. Here at Surrey, we’ve long been active in this field, because we recognised the value of developing new spaces of communication as a way both of getting more from our teaching and of preparing students for the world outside the classroom.

The value of that has become clearer over time, not least in the facility that our graduates have demonstrated in using those media to make themselves more attractive to employers and to support the community of learning they developed during their time with us. For our part as educators, we have see real benefits from connecting and engaging with a far wider community than might have been possible in the bad old days of the 2000s (sic).

But all of this raises a number of questions, not least of which is the matter of how one gets to a situation where social media can reasonably be brought into the classroom.

In part, this is a transitional issue, since usage of social media becomes more and more pervasive. Certainly, as everyone seems to be using social media, so the pressure to join in becomes ever higher, and the barriers ever lower: the amount of technical expertise needed to use Twitter (for example) is minimal, even if optimal use still requires some work.

However, we have to recognise the limits to this: I still encounter groups of students who have no experience at all with particular media (including my own class, last week). Precisely because there are so many platforms to choose from, there remains a distinct possibility that your students won’t use (or know how to use) the platform you want. Put it like this: none of us use Pinterest.

In such cases, either you have to train people up – as I’ve done for my Twitter negotiation – or you have to use a Bring-Your-Own-Device model, where the substantive content can be accessed via multiple platforms. The latter is more flexible for students, but requires much more technical expertise on your part.

Surrey’s approach has been to create a more general environment in which social media are mainstreaming into different parts of our provision. That means active Twitter and Facebook pages, which get used to connect prospective and current students, programme information and specific content within modules. By trying to link together elements, we raise the overall visibility and introduce the different platforms to users.

A good example of this is our use of hashtags in Twitter, to highlight particular campaigns: currently, our #PoliticsMonth events are bringing in a range of activities to the university, and students can not only see those more easily, but also contribute more easily. When I chaired a hustings for the general election for our Politics Society last month, I could gather questions from the floor using the event hashtag, which meant more efficient gathering and organising of their input to the panel. A similar system could be set up for large classes, with the lecturer getting instantaneous feedback to their device during lectures, which could then be fed more seamlessly into the content.

Likewise, the encouragement of students to use social media to talk with each other and with teaching staff provides a rapid and accessible means of supporting student learning: a tweet or a Facebook post can be read by others who might be in the same situation. In terms of general student support, this has been a great boon, especially for our students out on professional placements, often overseas.

The keystone in all of this is then a degree of engagement by staff. If they don’t use social media, and use it often, then it’s very hard to get students to do the same.

In that, I have been very fortunate to have the group of colleagues I do, since we have had a very high level of buy-in to the social media work. That has covered Twitter, Facebook, blogging and other platforms. Importantly, it’s also required a maintenance of activity over a long time-frame.

Indeed, that time-frame is effectively open-ended: we’re about three years into this and we’ll carry on as long as necessary. That needs someone to keep reminding people to do it, until it becomes almost second-nature: certainly, many of my colleagues use social media very reflexively, which is easy for them and reinforces the message about the value of doing it for others.

Even without the kind of massive investment that some other units have made into this field – LSE is a good example of what can be achieved online – I would hope that our example will show how even a modest application of effort can have significant pay-offs.

Meet the Press

Today is the second of a series of posts by a guest contributor, Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University

Meet the Press 2In my previous post, I argued that larger classes are an opportunity and not a drawback for using simulations: existing roles can be expanded and made more intricate, lending more depth. Large classes also allow instructors to experiment with new roles that can further deepen a simulation while taking some of the work off of the instructor’s hands. In this post, I will share some of my experience with one of these roles: media actors.

Roles for media actors can fit into almost any preexisting simulation and enhance students’ experience in multiple ways. First, making the media a playable actor can help demonstrate the idea that information is limited and that biases held by media actors can drive opinions and behavior. Second, introducing a media actor can bring more “eyes” to events within the simulation, which encourages students to more fully embrace their roles and allows the instructor to more easily keep tabs on a larger classroom via news updates. Finally, media actors can create a written record of events during the simulation, which serves as a reference during debriefs.

Meet the PressHere are some tips on using media actors in simulations:

Embrace technology: In my simulations, I allow media actors to create Twitter accounts, which are displayed in real time at the front of the classroom for all to see (a helpful suggestion picked up from the 2014 APSA TLC Simulations and Role Play Track). This feed allows the entire class to be aware of important events happening around the classroom, and it forces media actors to roam freely with smartphones to cover the latest news.

Make the media relevant: In larger simulations, instructors must often adjudicate the various events from a simulation session and release the results to the classroom. When operating a simulation with media actors, make sure to release as much simulation-related information through the media as is possible. This reinforces the political importance of the media and can help to empower the actors themselves to adhere more closely to their roles. Instructors can also strategically release information through the media that can keep other actors within the spirit of the simulation. For example, if the leader of State X is acting out of character, the instructor can ask the media to cover the growing unrest of State X’s citizenry, encouraging its leaders to react to their constituents.

Create multiple perspectives: While many of the above-described tasks can be accomplished via one media actor, it can also be helpful to create multiple media sources with differing perspectives. This eases the burden on any particular media actor and introduces competition to the media landscape. Differing media perspectives can be included ex-ante within actors’ position descriptions.

Allow room for creativity: Beyond the Twitter feed, I allow each media actor three minutes of “air time,” wherein they can command the attention of the class to present “the news.” Uses of this space can vary from interviews with notable figures in the simulation to investigative pieces on the plight of the downtrodden. The “air time” allows people with media roles to showcase their creativity, inform fellow students, and add realism to the simulation.

Don’t be afraid to require a bit more: In my experience, media roles are some of the most sought-after positions within simulations. As such, instructors can lean on the media actors a bit harder to produce relevant material for the class (for example: a short bulletin-style news brief to be shared with the class). Generally, the same impulses that led students to desire a position as a media actor will drive them to put in a little extra work within the simulation itself.

Feedback is welcome. Questions can be asked by posting a comment here or people can email me directly: cpdelehanty[at]gmail.com.