Process v. outcome in simulations

Chad's simulations were becoming a bit too realistic...
Chad’s simulations were becoming a bit too realistic…

Very occasionally, different parts of one’s life collide with each other, often after you’ve had a bit too much to drink, which further contributes to the further unrolling of the evening.

Any way.

In this case, no drinking (except of cups of tea) was involved for me this week, when I attended a ‘wargame’ of the British renegotiation of European Union membership. Run by Open Europe, the day had two parts, each intended to cast some light on what might happen in, respectively, the current renegotiation and then in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum.

This was a high-rent production. Fancy City venue, live-streaming of the entire event, plus (most importantly) roles being played by People (former ministers and ambassadors): The British were represented by a former Foreign Secretary, Maclom Rifkind, and a former Chancellor, Norman Lamont. All of this built on a previous event in 2013 and given the number of TV camera crews from across Europe, it was not your usual event.

For all that, it was also a very strange affair.

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Cleaning up other people’s mess (in a good way)

3175714614_321ac67ede_bA few weeks ago, I wrote about simulating the Greek crisis. I suggested then that one issue in doing this was the difficulty of carrying things over from year to year in the classroom: students change, curricula change, you never quite know whether it’s still going to be relevant, etc.

As Amanda rightly pointed out in an email to me some time later, you can perfectly well do it, with a bit of thought. So it’s with that bit of thought that I am now doing it.

Last year I created my first online asynchronous simulation for the INOTLES project in which I participate. As you’ll see from the post, it’s a simplified recreation of the East European situation, with a friendly (if ponderous) EU-like structure on one side and a confident (if worryingly so) Russia-like country on the other.

I played this with my students too, with the upshot that the ‘Russians’ produced a surprising success in sealing a deal with the ‘East Europeans’ (largely over a misunderstanding, but let’s not pretend that doesn’t happen in real life too). I put the simulation back on the shelf, mused on what had happened and then basically forgot about it.

Until Amanda’s email. There’s no reason why this year’s students can’t pick up where their predecessors left off.

It’s a fictional scenario, with all the requisite information provided. Since it allows for a wide-ranging set of actions, there is no obvious end-point or stable equilibrium. Indeed, one might imagine that some students might take the opportunity to revise the actions of the past, just because they can. Certainly, given the rather devil-may-care approach to a second round of the Hobbes games in class yesterday, that looks like a rather likely outcome.

I’ll quote Amanda at some length here:

Whenever we do a simulation, it tends to be a new run of an old game–how neat would it be to have the simulation just continue, with students acting as the newly appointed representative for that country and having to work with old agreements produced by students who are no longer in power?  I find the idea really interesting, not only for the sense of realism it brings to ongoing negotiations, but also for the real-world skill of having to step into a job vacated by someone else and having to figure out what the prior office holder did and how to incorporate their decisions into your own

Amanda’s last point is perhaps the crucial one: we all have to pick up other people’s stuff and deal with it – it’s a basic stable of professional life – so getting to experience that is a useful opportunity for personal development.

Indeed, in this game the original conceit that it opened with no particular situation is clearly unrealistic, so we’ll learn about path dependency directly.

Amanda’s one concern was about record-keeping: how to capture what had happened, so that we can pick it up again. Well, I’ll admit that this isn’t a big issue in this case. The final agreement reached ran to a full four lines of hand-written text and there was nothing else to share. I’m hoping that this time around we’ll have clearer sight of the next year, so that paper-trails can be left, with all the joys that brings.

As usual, this is all new territory for me, so I’ll be reporting back as we progress.

Another way to teach EU politics

Among the various ways new technology has made my life easier is Google Scholar alerts: you just enter a search term and then it sends you regular emails with links to anything academic it finds. For a research area like mine – euroscepticism – that covers a very wide range of disciplines and sub-fields, it’s been a great way to keep aware of the flood of material that exists (even if I don’t already get around to reading).

One thing that I have read was this syllabus by Jacob Buksti from DIS, a non-profit that offers courses in Denmark and Sweden to North Americans. The course is one that aims to explore the European Union, but which also makes use of a study trip to Brussels and the Hague.

I share it as an example of how there is a variety of ways to tackle such subjects. Buksti’s novelty – which I’ve not seen used before in this context – is to get students to interview people in Brussels. From my reading of the syllabus, this helps to reinforce what the students learn from their classes, a simulation of the Council and their more conventional study visit, as well as developing their skill-set for research down the line.

How this works, we’d need to ask Buksti himself (which I will try to do), but as we all start up our teaching for the year, it’s always worth remembering that there’s always another way of doing things.

With that in mind, I’ll be posting some reports early next week from the UACES general conference in Bilbao, where there’s not only a L&T workshop day, but also several panels.

 

Modelling a mess

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Some Greek misunderstanding about having a meal break

One of our perennial themes here at ALPSBlog is the notion of learning from learning, the idea that even when nominal objectives are not achieved, there’s still something (much, even) to be learnt. I get you to try and build a 20m bridge across a lake, using only tissue paper, you fail, but get something from the experience none-the-less.

This past week I was asked (jokingly, I hope) whether I could capture the negotiations on the Greek bailout saga. I’ll assume you’ve heard about this, even if you didn’t follow the details and that, like me, your over-riding impression was one of a chronic failure to find constructive or timely agreement between the various parties. The Onion has its own drole simulation of the forces at work.

Now this is different from the learning from failure model in that it appears to be a situation where failure to find some agreement is not an acceptable option and where all the good options are excluded and all the remaining options come with big costs. Let’s call it a messed-up situation that only gets worse over time.

Now this is really interesting to explore with students, both as a specific case and an example of poor negotiation. As a case-study, the Greek crisis touches on democracy, European integration, party politics, macro-economics and a bunch of other big social science issues: any simulation would be a great entree into these. As a negotiation format, it brings together an interesting combination of domestic and international actors, with varying degrees of resource (and legitimacy) in an environment where rules are highly flexible (which means you could capture much of the fluidity in a classroom).

However, the big question is quite what you want to capture in a simulation.

If the main thing is the inability to find a lasting solution, then you immediately hit an issue with the time and space constraints of the classroom: neither your students nor your university will let you have a simulation that drags on for several years. The only option here would be to have a game where resolution was fundamentally impossible, and each new cohort of students would simply play during their allotted time, to reach a new conditional outcome. However, that comes at a price to the visibility of the whole sequence.

If the aim is to highlight the lack of good options, then it becomes much easier. A few years ago (i.e. nearer the start of the Greek crisis), I wrote a game about austerity politics, modelled very much on the Eurozone’s travails. This game hasn’t got a good outcome (in the sense of optimal for most players), but it could be extended further, either by adding more domestic political constraints/challenges or by creating an external IMF-ish role to make it even more painful. The game already has rounds, so you could just keep on pushing this on, so that everyone get’s even more tetchy with each other.

A third option would be to focus on how the unstructured nature of the negotiation environment matters. Students could be given the task of trying to design a more formalised structure for the participants, with roles and responsibilities, in order to help them see how the different parts fit together. This would then be a critique of the real situation and a way into the underlying tensions.

This last is something that I’m tempted to try with my students this autumn, not least because they will have to learn how to organise themselves in order to be able to discuss productively how others should be organised. Since I’m aware that my students do read these posts, I’ll say no more, other than I can see several ways that they could do this, to better or worse effect.

This last point brings us back to the main issue, namely of identifying your learning objectives. That’s not just true of this, but of all your learning activities. Once you know where you want to end up, the path to get there becomes that much more clear.

 

Politics in Real Time

No ControlStudents often perceive history as a series of unique and disconnected events that are irrelevant to the experience of the present. Subsequently abstract principles seem impossibly vague. A recent column in The New York Times is a brilliant demonstration of how to solve this problem:

What Would Thucydides Say About the Crisis in Greece?

A nice complement is:

Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

That these two essays were written by a historian and an economist, and published online to a global audience, is perhaps illustrative of how political scientists fail to communicate effectively with students and with the wider world about current events.

Flipping conference presentations

IMG_4059
Possible source of confusion

I’m back in the office after a fabulous week of learning & teaching-related events. OK, maybe the exam board I went to wasn’t fabulous, but it was certainly instructive.

However, the big thing was going out to Chisinau in Moldova – the world’s second-least visited country – for a workshop of INOTLES, to discuss how we implement all our fine work in the partner institutions.

As workshops go, it went well: sensible amounts of time of different activities, a healthy mix of presentation and discussion, all facilitated by a positive environment and (ahem) local produce.

But, as is usual in such situations, I got me thinking about how we run such meetings of academics, but least because I was also having conversations about the next European Teaching & Learning Conference (see my posts from the last one).

Asking for ideas about how to be more engaging, I came up with a bunch of very radical stuff. However, it lately transpired that I had been drinking and that very little of it was actually workable, so it was back to the drawing board on the plane home.

The one idea that did seem to have something to it was the notion of a ‘flipped conference presentation’.

Basically, you’d ask people to produce a paper (as usual), but to then record a podcast of their presentation to post online, so that people could watch before the conference, and then use the panel time for discussion.

This would obviate the situation we all know, of a panel that runs out of time for questions. It would also be a learning experience for many, so they could see how simple recording yourself can be, which they could then take into the classroom. They win, we win, lovely.

It’s something I’ve not heard of before, but a quick google search suggests that I’ve far from the first to have the idea – try Jack Yensen, for example, or this example from Michael Seery. And props to Daniel Lambach for the link to Rom’s piece in PS that I’d missed.

Of course, this is not without its challenges. Just as people don’t always read papers before a conference, they might not watch all the podcasts and then they have little to go on when they turn up to the panel. Lots of signposting beforehand might help, as might a panel structure where the chair ‘interviews’ the panellists on common themes in a first section of time, before opening up to questions from the floor.

Technical issues might also pop up. If it’s ‘something not working’ then a conference helpdesk would resolve it. If it’s ‘this is stupid’ then either you have to be flexible, or you could offer another way out.

However, my thought of a way out might not strike you as very desirable.

So, something to think about.

As you’ll note from the two examples of others doing this, it’s not a PoliSci thing, nor even a social science thing, but a pedagogy thing. Another good reason to cast your net widely.

Guest Post: European Studies for Business Students (Natalia Timus)

 

timusToday’s guest post comes from Natalia Timus (Maastricht):

One of the challenges of teaching European studies apart from its multidisciplinary character, is a wide target audience interested in this field of studies. This requires a certain degree of flexibility on the part of the instructor in adapting their knowledge and skills to be transferred during the learning process to the specific audience, be it political scientists, historians, economists, or lawyers, for example.

For the second year in a row I have been invited to teach a crash course on the ‘EU and its outsiders’, with a focus on Eastern European neighbourhood, for a summer program of a business school. This represented a new adventure for me and a major challenge for my teaching approach. I was well aware that I have to keep it simple, interactive, and get most of the things done during the classroom, since the course consisted of three days intensive teaching (15 hours) and everyone was looking forward for some beach or sightseeing time in Nice, France.

My first concern in defining my teaching approach was how to optimally talk about business and economic developments from the perspective of a political scientist that I am, and not sliding into the business field that might represent a big mystery to me. For the beginning, I considered important identifying major issues within the field of political economy that might provide a fertile ground for the study of business and political science. Taking into account the multinational profile of my students, as well as the high probability of their lack of any previous background on Eastern Europe or EU external relations, I decided to balance between the time devoted to cover the domestic level transition to democracy and market economy and the external influence, covering both the EU  and Russia.

Now that half of the job has been done, I still had to define the appropriate pedagogical approach I would use. Although I knew little about students’ background, I was informed that there is a large majority coming from the United States higher indication system, but half of them were Chinese, many of them being enrolled both at the BA and MA levels within business calls, some of them were practitioners that decided to use the summer as an opportunity for personal development, and their age varied from early twenties to forties. There was also the division between native and non-native English speakers that I had to be taken into account. In these circumstances, I reflected upon the pedagogical strategy that would provide enough room for everyone to feel comfortable raising questions and taking part in class activities, as well as balancing between individual and team work.

Knowing that case study is a widespread pedagogical approach within the business education, I have conducted a small research for better understanding the use of this method and ended up adapting it to my specific content to be delivered and the time constraints. I chose to work on four case studies engaging students in face-to-face group work during the classrooms and devoting around one hour for each case study.

Apart from that, being a fan of debates, which I have acquired as a learning approach during my high school years, I also inserted two open class debates, where individual student participation was assessed, and one final debate, like a desert for the course, which has been structured as a parliamentary debate and the two groups shared the grade based on their performance.

As I was new with teaching EU studies to business students, their feedback was very important to me. Therefore I have devoted 5 to 10 minutes for debriefing after each day for a joint reflection on the teaching of the learning process, and the final debriefing when I asked the students to reflect on two questions: 1) what course element did you like the most and why? and 2) what could be further improved and how?

I was glad to see that the students felt comfortable enough with providing an open face-to-face feedback additional to the formal evaluation forms that they had to provide to the administration. Overall, they shared the view that the course was well paced, with a good balance between lecturing and interactive parts, as well as regular breaks of five minutes once an hour. They also appreciated the case studies and their class material that they had to prepare on the spot and then take part in group and class discussions. Some of them suggested as a potential improvement a more focused lecture on Russia, taking into account their personal interests in the country, or would have welcomed more in-depth information on the EU, which largely  represented a mystery for them. But all of them liked the fact that there was enough room to ask questions and that I, as an instructor, was feeling comfortable with addressing them, even if they were going somehow beyond the focus of the course.

I must confess I truly enjoyed this unique experience although it required a considerable amount of time and effort for preparing the tailor-made course for teaching the ES to business students. I felt empowered by their positive feedback and it motivated me to improve further for the second year and get more comfortable with my teaching approach. And finally, it just feels special when one as an instructor has the opportunity of introducing for the first time some knowledge to the students and know that it will have a significant impact on their personal development and the way they perceive the world 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.

“You can’t even see the join…” *

For the next few weeks I’m covering for a colleague on sick leave. It’s a module/course I’ve taught before, so I’m comfortable with the material and the subject matter. What I’m less comfortable with is how to make a connection with the students.

In all our writing, we’re making the assumption that you know what’s coming, at least at the basic level that your line manager tells you at the start of the year or semester what you’ve got lined up to deliver: if they don’t, then your timetabling system must be even more messed up then everyone else’s.

But there’s always some element of uncertainty: illness is the obvious case. Students still need their content delivered, assessment still needs grading.

The problem is an obvious one: if you walk in when most of the module/course has been delivered, how can you know what’s been said and (more importantly, I think) how it’s been said?

In my case, I have the powerpoints from all the weeks and I know pretty well my colleague’s views on the big questions, but I still can’t really know about the fit of it all. Even with the support of the seminar leader – who very helpfully talked with me both before and after the first lecture – I’m still feeling my way around in the dark.

A large part of it is asking questions: did you cover this? are you comfortable with these sorts of ideas? can you see how this links to something you’ve done earlier? Even just some nodding or shaking of heads (which is what I got) gives a steer. Likewise, trying to be (even more) friendly and accessible.

If I were feeling more bold – and, to be clear, I’m not in that sort of mood these days – I might have asked someone to stand up and explain something they’d already learnt back to me, so I could gauge their level and the kind of language that they use. But as I say, I’m not that way inclined at this point.

There’s another thing I’m going to try, though.

I’m experimenting with podcasts for a general audience, on the same subject matter as this class. It’s very early days, but essentially I want to produce a series of 5 minute ‘casts that are framed by simple questions that people ask of it all.

My idea is simply to encourage some interaction with the students by asking them what questions they would like answered: they might be a bit too technical for what I’m planning, but it would stimulate my thinking, as well as giving me more of an ‘in’ into how they understand (or don’t understand, more pertinently) the topic.

Whether that works, I’ll have to report back, but if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear/read them.

 

* – old joke, watch the clip.