Building critical media skills

A logo, yesterday.

Today sees the launch of a major new venture in reporting the European Union: US-based Politico has opened a large Brussels office.

American readers will be more familiar with Politico than those elsewhere, but essentially the new bureau aims to provide coverage of the EU without getting lost in the national contexts that most European media operate in.

I mention this partly as a public-service announcement, for those looking for more detailed reporting on the EU, which has previously been rather patchy. The last best source was The European Voice – originally set up by The Economist, before going it alone – which Politico bought out and has now rolled into its new venture. On a first glance, there is a lot of material available to stimulate debate and discussion.

However, I also mention it, because it provides a good opportunity to help students develop their critical reading skills. Politico does fill a gap, but it remains the gorilla in the room, with a staffing base far in excess of other outfits. Some concern has been raised in the previous months about whether such a dominant position risks abuse of that position, but it in terms of killing or promoting certain stories or in terms of framing debate.

It’s obviously too early to tell, but as an exercise in asking students to reflect on how the media shape our understanding, we might ask them to look at the materials posted up and identify any patterns or themes in coverage. These could be compared to outlets such as EUObserver or the FT.

Such meta-criticality has to be part of our work with students if we want to fully develop their understanding of the world. Recognising that the media is part of that is thus no bad thing.

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.

Digital Skills Quiz

Digital SecretaryI try to model the information literacy skills we think are important for students to acquire. I also heed Nina’s caution against fostering learned helplessness. Yet I’m seeing students who lack even the most rudimentary technological skills like knowing how to download a document file so that they can read it off-line. This puts me in a bind.

My first thought was to specify the fundamental digital knowledge and skills that students must possess to get through any of my courses:

  • Regularly access your university email account and the online course management platform with your username and password.
  • Download files to a device, with names and to locations that enable you to easily find them later.
  • Save/save as/export files in required formats, with files appropriately named, to personal computing devices and the course management platform.
  • Proofread your writing without using automated spell-check features.
  • Back up work on external devices (USB drives) or cloud services like the course management platform, Google Drive, or DropBox.
  • Set the preferences in your course management platform account so that you are notified of course updates in a timely fashion.
  • Use the library’s website and databases to locate assigned readings.
  • Contact the IT Help Desk, librarians, and other campus technology support services when you have questions about any of the above.

I could put that list on the first page of all my syllabi, but that essentially goes against what we at ALPS stand for. Reading a list once doesn’t change behavior, and my students don’t really read the verbiage on a syllabus anyway. The real reason for me to include such language in a syllabus (which is a perfectly valid one) is that it helps protect me when a student fails a course.

A better approach might be to format the list as a quiz at the beginning of the semester that is worth a tiny fraction of students’ final grades. The quiz questions could require some action by the student that demonstrates that he or she is actually able to perform the skill that is referenced by the question; for example, “download this one-page file, insert your name at the top, and then upload the new version as a pdf to this file folder.”

The above option assumes that students actually take such a quiz, and that they try to remedy any skill deficiencies that the quiz identifies. This may not happen. I re-instituted an open-book syllabus quiz in all my courses this semester and a few students chose not to complete it, while others scored badly. Given that I already see a loose correlation between students’ scores on the syllabus quiz and their overall course performance, a quiz on digital skills might provide additional support for my hypothesis that I can accurately predict any student’s final grade after only the first two weeks of a semester — but that’s a subject for another post.

There goes the neighbourhood

Who can you trust these days?

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing an online, asynchronous game with a couple of different groups.

One of these is the INOTLES trainers that I’m training in the use of simulations, while the other is my final year undergraduate students here at Surrey.

As we come towards the end of the INOTLES cycle, I thought I’d finally share my game with you (Neighbourhood Game) and would talk about how it worked.

The game is essentially a simple model of the EU’s Eastern relations, with a three country Union, a big unhelpful country that likes to exert its influence, and a couple of smaller states in-between. In the attached version, I’ve put two players per country, but that can easily be expanded.

The gameplay is very open, with lots of options for activity, coupled to a long period in which to play (using a weekly cycle of posting on a forum).

The aim is to get students thinking about collective action problems in an international context, as well as to cope with the vagaries of online discussion: the INOTLES version has been running with players from six countries.

So how’d it go?

In a word, fitfully.

Online games require a hook, to keep people involved and active. My ability to do this with the INOTLES group was less than with my students (who I see every week for class), but in both cases the level of engagement has been less than with comparable face-to-face exercises. In short, the ability to coerce action is very limited.

That in turn highlights the importance of the game leader in motivating players: if you’re not pushing, then who’s going to do it for you? Again, the online nature of the game means that it’s easy to forget to prod people, and this is something that I’d say needs careful thought.

A second issue seems to be linked to the openness of the game play. Because players can do pretty much anything from writing a terse communique to launching world war 3, I’ve noted a certain hesitancy about doing anything. This ‘jam choice overload‘ problem is well-known in psychology, but raises an interesting problem for us. Too much choice might be inhibiting, but it also reflects the real world, so we might want players to feel inhibited. As always, this will depends much on what you aim to achieve.

Thirdly, while this is a fictional situation, it is also obviously close to the real-world (I took most of the data from real countries). This adds a different dimension to the game, as people apply what they know of that real-world into their actions. Thus Novy Putonova acts rather like Russia, Bigistan like Germany and the Squashed Republic like Ukraine. To be more accurate, people acted like they thought those countries act like. This offers lots of opportunity to get into a discussion about how we understand the real world: are Russians really that sneaky, to take one obvious example? Either way, it opens a door to discussion of the substantive material.

On the level of skills, there is also a lot to think about. How did people work in their teams? How did they deal with each new development? How much did they try to take control of what was happening? How did they cope with some groups being very passive/silent? Again, in all of this, the large range of possible actions meant that there was also a big question about why they chose to do what they did, and not something else?

Next steps

This game has been a trial for me (in at least one sense of the word). It’s been my first effort in this type of game and, as always, I’m not totally happy with it.

On the plus side, players have played, and it’s shown that one can model an international system with some quite simple elements. Feedback to date from both groups has been positive and – importantly – I can see how I would change things in future.

On the down side, engagement has been relatively low (compared to face-to-face) and my input has been more than planned. The inhibition to take more drastic action in either game (they’ve largely been polite and pretty constructive) means that I don’t know how the more radical options might play out.

With my students, I now plan to use our final session before the Christmas break to play the game in class for a couple of hours, to connect it more strongly to the rest of the module, and to let me see how that changes the interactions.

If you’d like to use the game, please do – I’ve popped it up on my other website already. If you’d like to feedback on how it works for you, then I’d also love to hear about that.

Know Your Audience

The message is clear.
The message is clear.

I recently read an article that appeared in a prestigious political science journal. The article contained the findings of some interesting research that had relevance to other academic disciplines. But the article was written in dry, convoluted, mind-numbing prose. The writing was so impenetrable that my colleague in another department, someone who knows the literature on the article’s subject, couldn’t even get past the first page.

This led me to wonder again about the function of writing, but for our profession rather than for our students. We tell our students that clear, concise writing is an important skill for the world of work, yet it’s often a case of do as I say, not as I do. Why? Because we are incentivized by academia to write for an audience of just a few dozen fellow academics who conduct research in the same arcane sub-specialty that we do. Some of us have figured out that writing for a broader audience can be quite rewarding, but this is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of our work is too badly written to be relevant to policymakers or the general public. We toil away in self-isolation, garnering little attention from the public, so it is no surprise that most students are uninterested in the field. They wouldn’t care or even notice if political science sank back into the primordial slime from which it first emerged.

The team at Information is Beautiful, run by David McCandless, understands that properly-designed information is more easily understood by society at large and is thus more effective than awkward, jargon-laden prose or reams of numeric statistical results. For example, this diagram shows that Ebola is less deadly and less infectious than HIV, but more deadly and more infectious than bubonic plague. Another infographic shows the truth about Twitter. Then there is the classic table of rhetological fallacies, now available in multiple languages.

It would be nice if information design was a standard component of undergraduate and graduate curricula in political science. Until it is standard, I’ll continue to recommend that my students take courses in art, creative writing, psychology, and marketing.

Having a media element in your simulation game

A while back I was having an email exchange with Philippe Perchoc at my alma mater, the College of Europe, on the use of media elements in simulations. I’ve been thinking about it a bit more, so I thought I’d share it here.

Press Conference In Amstetten On New Details

Essentially, what this covers is having some participants play a role of journalists in a simulation, providing another channel of information exchange alongside the more conventional ones.

The reasons for doing this a multiple.

Firstly, in the context of politics/IR games, it reflects the reality of a situation, where political negotiations are covered by the media. That’s sometimes a passive aspect, but increasingly (and especially in international contexts) media strategy becomes an active part of the process, with selective release of information to bolster your position.

Secondly – and more generically – it highlights to students that they do not control a negotiation. That information release might seem to give control, but once something’s out there, you don’t own it or its interpretation. Likewise, the other side(s) will also be releasing information, just as the media itself will be rooting around for what it can find.

Thirdly, on a practical level, it creates more roles to be played: when you have large numbers of students, this can be a simple (and flexible) way to give people something to do without just further sub-division of roles.

What the media function looks like will very much depend on the game itself. Typically, you need to have a game that is big in some way, if only because otherwise its value is minimal: journalists will need time and space to collect, process and disseminate information, and more time is needed for to have an impact. Therefore we usually encounter it in games that last at least a day and/or where there are multiple negotiating parties (e.g. MUN-type affairs). I’ve used a ‘market’ function that does something a bit similar in my two-hour long austerity game, but that is much more limited in what it can achieve.

Typically, journalists will get a free hand to find whatever they think is interesting/useful and then have an outlet. The free hand involves them having to find information, so they practise interviewing people, extrapolating from materials provided and (occasionally) finding ways to discover things they aren’t supposed to know: this last often provides a learning moment about data security for a player! Of course, it’s also possible to make your media more partisan, either in favour of one negotiating party or of its own interests: just pick your own local real-world example of this to work out how you might play this out.

The outlet can either be something relatively static and fixed – regular bulletins on a noticeboard in the corner – or much more dynamic and speedy – a twitter account or a blog. The classic form would have been a short newspaper printed once or twice a day, but with new technologies, I’d think it makes more sense to capture the new dynamism, especially because it also teaches about the consequences of mis-/dis-information in a rapid news cycle.

Of course, in all of this, it’s important to remember that a media function is not without its challenges.

Depends the main difficulty is that it means some players are not ‘in’ the same simulation as the rest: they won’t get the same opportunities as the others and that might be a problem if you’re assessing them on the same basis. Two solutions offer themselves up: either you don’t assess anyone, or you assess in a differentiated way. Philippe’s solution has been one that I’ve seen elsewhere, namely to find some willing journalism students to play these roles, which they do very professionally. If that’s not an option for you, then you need to consider how you might handle it all.

The other big challenge is one of distortion. While it’s good to learn about the power of the media, if that power becomes the main game dynamic, you risk losing out on learning about the object/process that the game is nominally about. This takes us back to our old friend, learning outcomes: what do you want to achieve? To manage this, you might consider imposing some kind of limit on what the media can do: they might have to get at least two sources for stories before publication; they might be restricted to time-delays or fixed periods/cycles of publication; they might be subject to official censorship. The difficulty is obviously one of balance: having a media that does something, but not too much.

Ultimately, having a media function can be deeper enrichening for a game, adding another layer of activity and space for reflection. If you’ve got ideas about how you can use (or have used) media in games, then we’d love to hear about it.

Building networks: we’re on Facebook now!

download (1)As a mark of our desire to build the community of users/readers that we already have here at ALPS, we’ve finally decided (a mere three years in) to set up a Facebook page.

The page will have all the latest blog posts linked in [sic – we’ll do that one another time], plus we hope we can get more of you to chip in with links, comments and ideas.

Do remember we also have our Twitter feed, so you really have no excuse for missing anything we do.

The ALPS team