Crowd-Sourcing and Self-Instruction

Today we have a guest post from Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University and a visiting researcher at the University of Gothenburg as part of the Varieties of Democracy Project. He can be reached at matthew[dot]wilson1[at]mail[dot]wvu[dot]edu.

Sometimes, existing teaching materials can be too narrow or too broad. This was the problem that I encountered when designing a lower-level undergraduate course on Latin American Politics. Many textbooks on Latin American politics are organized around conceptual issues with specific chapters on topics such as economic inequality or race. However, I wanted students to also learn about the unique paths by which countries in the region developed, without limiting the discussion or using a handful of countries to characterize the rest.  Rather than cobbling together different materials myself, I saw this as an opportunity for active learning.

My idea was to create teams of students with each team seeking out information on a different country outside of class. This approach drew on distributed learning, which aims to decouple learning from the classroom constraints of time and place, by creating a learning objective outside of class that differs from but contributes to what students learn in class. The approach also reflected crowd-sourcing, where a good is produced by many people performing relatively small tasks. The assignment therefore had to involve a large number of students.

Students listed their top three preferences for countries and I matched them up as best I could. I aimed to control the quality of sources and focus of the assignment, while at the same time encouraging students to teach themselves by conducting independent research.  I personally vetted the content that students used by selecting five books that covered each of the roughly twenty countries—for a total of 100 books—and placed them on hold in the university library.  I also required each student to submit a list of ten additional online sources for my approval.

The assignment had two parts, for which students received separate grades.  First, students had one month to consult the source materials and document major events that occurred in their respective countries. I created a spreadsheet with four tabs that corresponded to heads of state, conflicts, laws, and important documents.  For each, students had to skim the respective material and fill in basic information about the event, denoted by column headings:

  • The year in which an event occurred (when)
  • The event (what)
  • The actors involved (who)
  • The source(s) consulted

I discouraged students from providing any sort of explanation.  Moreover, I was purposely vague about what constituted an event to encourage them to seriously consider what mattered. I graded students’ spreadsheets in terms of thoroughness; in large part, this was determined by comparing the spreadsheets of students who were assigned the same country.

In the second step, I grouped students into teams according to the country they had researched, and each team created a combined, revised timeline that described in only a few sentences each event that had been included. I checked the accuracy of the content in the timelines with the help of graduate research assistants, and each team received a grade on its combined timeline. At the end of the course, I consolidated students’ timelines into a single manuscript, added public domain images, and handed the final product back to them.

The results of this assignment were quite positive. It enabled me to complement the country-specific knowledge students were acquiring outside of class with lectures on more general themes. Each student became a “country expert” and therefore almost always had something to contribute to in-class discussions, which in turn improved their essay responses. Students were motivated to work on a project that was not the standard research paper. Overall, the distributed learning, self-instruction, and collaboration with teammates enhanced students’ performance in the course. I will definitely use this technique in the future. Additional details can be found in my article about the assignment in the Journal of Political Science Education.

Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

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Death of a Simulation . . . ? Inside Disaster/Haiti

Inside Disaster Screenshot

Over the last few years I’ve been using the Inside Disaster website for teaching about humanitarian emergencies, poverty, and other subjects. Inside Disaster was created by a Canadian team that followed the Red Cross into Haiti in 2010 to document its post-earthquake relief operations. The results of the team’s work included a three-part film documentary, an interactive first-person role-play video simulation, and other original content that it made available for free online. The documentary provided an emotionally-gripping inside look into disaster response operations. The simulation was the best that I’ve seen in its genre. The entire site functioned as an extremely high-quality educational resource. More details about the project can be found in the documentary trailer and in its press kit.

I put the preceding paragraph in the past tense because a few days ago I discovered that the website was down. After some poking around I connected with Katie McKenna, the producer for Inside Disaster and currently the founder and principal of Working Knowledge. Here is her response to my query (published here with her permission):

Inside Disaster is dear to everyone who put it together and we’re so happy it’s been of use to you and other educators.

The problem we’ve run into is that the hosting and streaming costs have gotten prohibitive.  My colleagues who created it have since closed down their company and moved on to other projects. They’ve been paying the hosting costs out of pocket because we all care about Inside Disaster so much.

It costs approximately CAD$2000 (about US$1500) a year for the streaming and hosting charges.  If folks could come up two-thirds of that I’m sure I could raise the rest through allies here. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in contributing a portion of the hosting costs as a license fee to keep things going? If so, they can contact me at katie[at]getworkingknowledge[dot]com.

So I throw this plea out to the digital void: If you have an interest in keeping alive an online tool for teaching about emergency management, humanitarian assistance, journalism, international politics, or Haiti, or just want your students to have access to a great simulation on decision making during a crisis, feel free to contact Ms. McKenna.

IR Special Issue – Call For Submissions

RBPIRevista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI (http://www.scielo.br/rbpi)  will publish in April 2016 a special issue organized by Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue (Professor of International Relations of the Institute of International Relations, University of Brasilia, Brazil), Arlene Beth Tickner (Professor of International Relations in the Political Science Department at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia) and Antônio Carlos Lessa (Professor of International Relations of the Institute of International Relations, University of Brasilia, and editor-in-chief of RBPI). This special issue aims at contributing to construct a more global or plural IR, and to bring to light IR views from South America and beyond.

We welcome submissions that discuss the following questions and themes: What do theories mean in South America and other regions? Are there Latin American theories of IR? Is metatheory dead? Are there different ways of thinking theoretically foreign policy? Is it possible to think beyond state centrism? Teaching IR: does context matter? Theory and the BRICS, global south and post-colonial theorizing, governance, governmentality and theory, ethics and relativism, feminist theories go South, universalism and pluriversalism.

All submissions should be original and unpublished, must be written in English, including an abstract of less then 70 words (and three keywords in English), and follow the Chicago System. They must be in the range of 8.000 words. The deadline for submissions is September 30th 2015. Submissions must be done at http://www.scielo.br/rbpi.

Haiti Simulation After-Action Report

Martelly HaitiThis the second installment in a series of posts about the Chasing Chaos simulations that I created for a fall semester course. The final simulation was on Haiti. Students prepared by writing a briefing memo that drew from these readings:

On the day of the simulation, I provided students with this crisis scenario for which they were to find a solution:

Following the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, approximately 1.5 million Haitians became Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who congregated in makeshift camps. The camps are located on flat areas of privately-owned and public land. Currently about 350,000 Haitians still reside in IDP camps where they lack a supply of clean water, electricity, permanent dwellings, and access to health care and education. The camps and the IDPs within them are to a large degree dependent upon supplies from international aid organizations. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to occur in one year, and candidates are declaring that the IDP camps should be closed and their residents resettled elsewhere.

I grouped students into teams with these goals to achieve during negotiations:

  • Haitian IDP camp residents
    1. Convince Haitian parliament members to keep IDP camps open
    2. Receive aid from international NGOs free of interference from Haitian and foreign government agencies
  • International NGOs:
    1. Distribute aid to IDP camp residents without interference from Haitian or U.S. government agencies
    2. Convince U.S. government agencies to help publicize NGO activities in Haiti
  • Haitian parliament members
    1. Get re-elected by gaining support of IDP camp residents
    2. Bring foreign aid under the control of the Haitian government and direct the finances of international NGO operations in Haiti
  • Haitian landowners
    1. Convince the Haitian parliament to close the IDP camps and remove camp residents
    2. Convince the Haitian parliament to pass a law that allows U.S. investors to purchase land in Haiti
  • U.S. government
    1. Convince the Haitian parliament to pass a law granting control of foreign aid to U.S. government agencies
    2. Convince the Haitian parliament to pass a law that allows U.S. investors to purchase land in Haiti

In the third and fourth Chasing Chaos simulations, teams took an instrumentalist approach by revealing all of their goals at the beginning of negotiations and working toward a unanimous agreement that would earn students the maximum number of points  (40, out of 1,000 point scale for the course grade). Before the Haiti simulation began, I rewrote the teams’ goals in a deliberate attempt to frustrate this ploy, but failed — students were still able to figure out a way to craft a single agreement that accomplished at least one of each team’s goals. During the debriefing, students stated that the artificial incentive of points made them more willing than the real-world actors they portrayed to modify their negotiating positions. I’ll speak more to this subject in a later post.

This simulation was based on work presented by Daniel Beers at a previous TLC, honed by subsequent research collaboration with him and another TLC presenter, Tina Zappile of Stockton College. This is just one of the many ways in which the TLC has been a great opportunity for me to learn about and share ideas about teaching.

 

I’ll Have the Merlot Please

A brief mention of the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT), which I stumbled upon while in a training workshop for teaching blended/hybrid courses:

MERLOT is an immense searchable directory of learning materials that are available online for free. These materials are suitable for both online and face-to-face teaching environments.

I was particularly interested in political science simulations on MERLOT, and among them I found Ayiti: The Cost of Life.

Ayiti is a simple but fiendishly challenging simulation of poverty in Haiti, created through a partnership between Gamelab and Global Kids, with support from UNICEF and Microsoft. It’s a great demonstration of the effects of productivity shocks in conditions of poverty. The setting is a poor Haitian family that is struggling to survive; the player must decide how to allocate the family’s limited resources, manage risk, and pursue goals. I’ll admit that so far I haven’t been able to crack the simulation’s algorithm — every time I’ve played, the game ends with family members dead of cholera and any surviving children sent off to live with relatives.