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

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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
“Errrm…”

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

The joy of contestation: using technology to scope political ideas

After some big thinking (here and here), I’m back in the office, so it’s world of more mundane matters, mainly revolving around ‘how do we actually do X?’-type questions.

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Is there nothing that can’t be done with a post-it note?

In among my trips abroad, I squeezed in a day at our summer school, talking about euroscepticism. Quite aside from any observations that doctoral-level students produce a very different classroom experience to undergrads, it was an opportunity to start trying out an idea that’s been bubbling under since my ERASMUS exchange to Maastricht.

The starting point is the contested nature of much/most* of politics: there is no one ‘right’ answer, but many different interpretations, each dependent on one’s world-view and fundamental assumptions.

For me, that’s a great source of interest and engagement, trying to get into other peoples’ heads to appreciate better how they see things. It’s something that runs all areas of my professional work, from simulations, to negotiation, to euroscepticism.

Sadly, for my students, it’s a source of frustration and confusion: ‘why don’t you just tell us what to write down?’ in the refrain.

A key difficulty is students’ unwillingness to accept that their ideas might be just as valid as those of someone who has written a book or a journal article. Certainly, even when we practice active learning, we often still have the implicit hierarchy of ‘who matters’ behind it, with our reading lists.

So this brings me to the idea I had, which was to embrace the situation and scope the diversity of views.

Very simply put, I was going to ask students to tweet a definition of a key term, with a hashtag, so that they could be collected and discussed.

So in my own case, I planned to do this with the Maastricht students – a couple of hundred – with ‘euroscepticism’, on a hashtag of #scepsis. I’d gather them up with Storify and then maybe make a word cloud with Wordle.

Using Twitter would get students to focus on key elements and be concise. The Storify page would demonstrate the breadth of definitions, while the world cloud would stress common words. And because it’s all driven by a rare hashtag, it could be built upon with subsequent groups of students.

One small problem: Maastricht students don’t really use Twitter. So I did something else with them instead in the class.

But the idea still intrigues me, so at the summer school I ran a low-rent version, using the most important tool in the teaching stationary cupboard, post-it notes. Same deal, but students stick their definition on the whiteboard, we all look at them and we discuss.

I’ve typed up what I’ve got, to get the ball rolling, with a quick page on Google Sites.

In short, we’re using technology to produce communal debates and aggregation of ideas. Obviously, we can do this with any political term, across many individual sites and over time. If you were feeling more ambitious, you could add some extra data to definitions, to see if level of education or location produces differences, although it’s somewhat against I started with, namely the democracy of ideas.

I’m going to come back to this for my word, since it’s actually a pretty good problem for researchers in euroscepticism, but if you use it for your area, then I’d really like to hear about it.

    • this might be just such an example…

‘It all depends…’: Helping students understand normative positions

As you might have noticed this weekend, much of Europe voted in elections for the European Parliament. Notice that I’ve not phrased the first half of that sentence any stronger – that’s a different issue, but one I’m happy to discuss with you at some length.

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They let anyone on these days

Apart from finally giving me my big CNN breakthrough (critically acclaimed by my mum), the elections present an excellent learning moment.

More particularly, the elections can be viewed in a number of very different ways, each of which tells us something about both the event and the observer.

Thus we might – like much of the media – focus on the rise of eurosceptic and far-right parties across the continent.

We might instead talk about the continuing dominance of the centre-right and centre-left coalitions, that between them still hold a working majority.

We might discuss whether any of the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) will become president of the European Commission and what this might mean for the next election in 2019.

And in all of these things, we might very well talk about ‘what it all means’, together with its more jejune colleague, ‘who’s to blame.’

All of this is the very essence of learning about politics.

I spent much of Sunday evening/night at the European Parliament’s offices in London discussing the results and it was very instructive for me to see how narratives and frames got set up, knocked down and rearranged as the event wore on. Added to this the local election results from the UK from Thursday and you have the perfect demonstration of the way in which meaning and consequence is imputed to political events.

This is partly about media coverage and asking ourselves and our students to think very critically about what we are (and aren’t) being told, and how we’re told it. But it’s also about how political actors do the same.

From my perspective, the weekend has been a good sense-check of my social media networks. In my mind, I think I follow a good range of people who can provide an inside perspective across my areas of research, but it has also been apparent that I have tended to focus overly much on those I particularly agree with and those I particularly disagree with, with relatively few in-between.

At one level, that’s not a surprise, since I know the literature tells us about such dynamics in social media, but it’s still instructive to see it at first hand. Indeed, it is that first-handed-ness that we should be striving for more generally in our teaching, given those who are learning something direct to experience and internalise.

And with that thought, I’m off to my other blog to consider how to frame my own piece about what it all means…

My Twitter failure (possibly)

This time last week, I was getting set for the inaugural European Twitter Fight Club, with some big plans about how I would use the opportunity to teach and educate, even as I crushed the opposition.

Sadly, my dreams were to be denied me come the quarter-finals, when I crashed out to Berlaymonster, a glove puppet who works in Brussels in a job that clearly allows it too much free time. Its superior limerick-writing skills eventually did for me, even though I’d managed to land some punches through my powerful use of jpgs.

Tant pis, as my mother used to say.

More important than my personal failure to win (and I’ve discovered what I always knew, which is that I am really much more competitive than I pretend I am), we might consider what I’ve learnt.

  1. Don’t compete against glove puppets. Especially gin-drinking glove puppets.
  2. My plan to educate did not work out at all as planned. The pace of each round, fought over an entire day, coupled to some notional feeling I needed to do my day-job too, meant that the more creative projects I had in mind simply fell by the wayside. Indeed, it was only because of my hubris in assuming I’d get through the next day that meant I could prepare anything to use.
  3. However, I still was able to do some different things. Most substantial was working through a Party Political Broadcast from the UK Independence Party, responding to claims made almost frame-by-frame. This I tweeted, then Storify-ed. As an activity, it generated some interesting interactions with other users and demonstrated how information can be broken up and then re-combined later on, something with obvious applications in the classroom.
  4. The use of humour was particularly important, both specifically and generally. Twitter encourages rapid posting and responses and so lends itself to various forms of humour. In a broader sense, this also offers potential in an educational setting, both by allowing for unconventional contributions and for getting students to unpack insights that humour might contain. To take a small example, as a judge in the semis, I’ve asked the competitors to suggest new policies for UKIP, which could in turn be used to stimulate class debate about how parties formulate policy and about the nature of UKIP specifically. In this case, it’d be a short debate (to look at the suggestions) but it’s a start.
  5. Twitter is very good – in part for the reason above – in building an internal sense of community. The intensity and immediacy of the medium have built a network of interactions and shared experiences that will last for some considerable time. This happens despite (perhaps even because) those interactions are not all serious. Even with the role I was effectively handed of ‘the academic’, my contributions were not all (actually, barely) academic.
  6. Externally, TFC was also very good for making new connections with other non-competitors. as a profile-rising exercise, it has much to commend it. While this might be more marginal for students, the ability to be both professional and playful is one that has its uses.

So overall, a mixed bag. I’m definitely up for it again next year (if they’ll let me). But for use as a framework for learning, one could also see how a smaller version might be used to get students to demonstrate learning in a different way. For example, rounds might only last an hour, with more specified topics for discussion, with classmates voting, and all outputs being captured somewhere, for ex-ante feedback and discussion.

And with that thought, I’ll leave you with some of my pictures, since that’s what most people want to see in these things. I only now notice how unhappy most of the people are in these, which maybe says something about something. One to discuss

Go on Whinge Oh dear Dip Sure sleepy So well

Micro-teaching European integration: a very short project (potentially)

Today is the start of EU Twitter Fight Club, in which I – as the (14) seed (of 23 players) – will endeavour to win deathless fame by being good at said New Social Media. The American organisers of the original #TFC14 finally noticed us last week and we’ve taken their lack of legal action as a blessing on our venture.

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Simon needed to work more on his ‘funny GIF’ making technique

My previous take on TFC was that it offered something in the way of developing online community. In the weeks since then, as the build-up has, well, built up, I can still see that, even as I can also see the potential for much unhappiness (especially I get as far as Thursday, only to be knocked out by a hand-puppet with a tasting for gin).

Such sniping aside [you can beat the hand-puppet, Simon, you can], there’s another aspect that has emerged, which I’m keen to pursue, certainly as long as I’m in the competition.

Twitter is rubbish for many things, as my students will know, but it is great at brevity. So why not try to use that? As a colleague noted to me some time ago, keeping it short means you have to focus on what’s important, rather than on the academic dressing-up thatgoes around it.

TFC doesn’t seem to have many rules, except not being a twerp, and I know well enough that my humour isn’t going to swing matters, so I’m going to pay the ‘being useful’ line, not least since it’s served me well enough so far in my time on Twitter.

Given the pan-European nature of the competitors and the coming European elections, it’s also a good time to think about how to communicate public education messages on the European Union.

So my plan is this: to create brief, useful tweets about the EU, to help other users and (possibly) impress the judges/voters*. That might be key ideas in writing, or producing other media to clarify points. But whatever it is, keeping it brief.

I have no idea if it’ll come to anything, but if I can get through the first round then I’m prepared to apply some ex-post rationalisation to say this was important, and I’ll keep exploring. In the highly-unlikely event I can get to next week’s final rounds, then I’ll have to come up with more specific ideas for what these things might be, but we/I can cross that bridge when we/I get to it.

Doubtless, I’ll be back before too long with an update on this.

* – voting. Yes, very important. Because we Europeans care about democracy so much, the decision-making system for TFC is a bit involved. Judges make a choice between pairs of competitors, but the general public (including you) get to vote on it too, with your decision getting equal weight to the judges’. So if you want more posts about this, then remember to vote for me (somewhere here). And if I win the whole thing, then I’d have to retire from the competition and you’ll never about it again. Win-win, perhaps?

Siege Mentality of the Ivory Tower

Ivory TowerTwo recent stories — in the mass media, no less — on the self-created irrelevancy of academics caught my eye. First, from Inside Higher Ed: the governing council of the International Studies Association will be deciding whether to prohibit the editors of its journals from blogging. How such a policy if adopted could ever be enforced is beyond me.

Second, Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times that:

“Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”

Kristof singles out the discipline of political science as a particularly egregious offender in this regard, and he’s right. I don’t see the folks who work on Capitol Hill, at Department of State, or in the Pentagon closely reading the latest issue of APSR on the Metro during their morning commutes. Nor do I see political scientists regularly shaping public opinion on critical topics.

I’ve written before about the benefits I derive from this blog, so I won’t repeat myself by going into the details. I’m sure the folks who run political science-oriented blogs like Duck of MinervaMonkey Cage, and PAXsims feel similarly about doing what they do. Blogs, other forms of social media, and MOOCs allow us to communicate with an audience that is far larger and more varied than we otherwise would. But oddly, the highly-trained professionals (like us) who make an effort to intelligently inform civic discourse through these venues are typically not rewarded by the academy for doing so. It would be nice if institutional incentives encouraged political scientists and other academics to engage more effectively with the societies that they study, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Edited to add: Daniel Willingham, author of two of the blogs you see links to on the right side of your screen, has also written a response to Nicholas Kristof’s editorial: He’s Partly Right.