Rethinking Remote Teaching for an Uncertain Fall

Today we have a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.

Faculty have certainly earned their down time this Summer, and that is certainly crucial. But the sad fact is for many of us, preparing for the Fall now becomes a heavier lift. We face the challenge of a semester that might start in person but revert to remote learning, or one that may be taught entirely remotely. The good news is that unlike the Spring, we now have ample lead time to get ready. It is important, then, to reflect on the lessons of the Great Remote Learning Experiment of Spring 2020.  Below are four thoughts to consider in preparing for a semester that may be marked by continued improvisation more than a return to normal.

Adding asynchronous learning. Some faculty tried to keep the number of changes to their spring classes down, running in-person sessions synchronously. The downside of this minimal course overhaul is that it can be a sure recipe for Zoom fatigue. It might be worth thinking about how to use asynchronous learning – like discussion boards – to the repertoire. This format extends class discussion outside of class time. In this manner, it can not only enliven the seminar format, but it also ensure that everyone has a chance to participate. 

Working with technology (and not against it). Some of my colleagues chose not to use Microsoft Teams, which the university supported, and used Zoom instead, which my university does not support. Test-driving different systems and finding one that that works organically with how you teach is essential. Take the extra time to make sure that the platform you use helps you do your best work. Take the time to get extra comfortable with it, just in case.

Accept that things won’t be the same (and that’s fine). One of my biggest challenges was realizing that I was not covering all the material in depth as in previous semesters, and that this was okay. I relied on news articles to jumpstart our conversations into the course material. Over the weeks, I realized this was an important way to demonstrate that our class work had real value in helping students make connections to what was going on in the world, and that if it meant that our coverage of the readings was more shallow, that was fine. The benefits of getting them engaged, and keeping them talking, as well as helping them to see the intrinsic value in their learning, far outweighed the costs.

Focus on student contact. Faculty faced a two-fold challenge this Spring. Not only did we need to learn a new technological toolkit, but we also had to deal with the traumas of having our students scattered and their lives disrupted. In the worst case (a continuation of remote learning into the fall) the challenge will be to build rapport with students we will not see in person. This will place a premium on making personal connections on the first day of class. The use of meta-cognitive reflections can be a useful tool to build these ties, and the attendance features in online meeting software can be used to reach out when students are missing class for additional follow-ups.

More Looking Backward

Continuing with my recent theme of evaluating my teaching over the previous semester:

My courses on comparative politics and Asia both concluded with simulations. I’ll discuss the latter in a future post. As I mentioned last month, I heavily modified my old Gerkhania exercise for comparative politics. The changes were based on a brilliant democratic government simulation that Kristina Flores-Victor of CSU-Sacramento presented at the 2020 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

As in previous versions of Gerkhania, students each received fictional identities as members of a newly-formed legislature in a multi-ethnic country with a history of civil strife (think Afghanistan). Over a series of three Webex sessions, I fed the class nine legislative proposals. Action on each proposal caused students to earn or lose political constituency points (representing support from voters) and political capital points (influence within the legislature). These effects varied in ways that corresponded to the identity of each participant.

At the opening and closing of each session, students could exchange constituency points at a 2:1 ratio for either political capital points or reward points that could contribute toward their course grades. Political capital points could be used to remove a proposal from the agenda, to prevent the legislators from voting on it, or to return it to the agenda. Students took a trivia quiz before the simulation began and prior to the second session so that they could acquire constituency and capital points to work with.

Every proposal that was voted down increased the probability that Gerkhania returned to a state of civil war at the end of the simulation by 1:18. If civil war occurred, legislators would lose all accumulated reward points.

Considerations for the future:

The effects of each successive legislative proposal, in terms of point changes, increased as the simulation progressed. The stakes associated with the initial proposals turned out to be too small to generate contention among students and need to be increased. The second trivia quiz can be scrapped for this reason.

I had built a very complicated Excel spreadsheet to track each student’s points as the simulation progressed. Using this spreadsheet for the first time, for a simulation that I had originally intended to run in the classroom, proved slightly problematic. I found it difficult to always correctly update spreadsheet cells with my eyeballs bouncing between windows on two different monitors. Also editing webpages so that students could track developments created delays during which students were idle.

A larger problem: although the simulation’s online environment seemed to negatively affect the amount of interaction between students, I think the small size of the class was the major contributing factor. As I’ve discussed before, these kinds of exercises seem to require a critical mass of participants, which this class didn’t have.

The pandemic most likely also had consequences. Campus classes ended at spring break, students scattered hither and yon, and the semester was extended by an extra week to make up for time lost in the transition to online instruction. By the last week, many students were probably just trying to finish the semester, had other concerns, and may not have been motivated to become heavily invested in the simulation.

Institutional Design Exercise using Slack

Today we have a guest post from Keith A. Preble, Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Albany, SUNY. He can be reached at kpreble [at] albany [dot] edu.

Instructions

Instructor should create a Slack workspace (or something comparable). The exercise below can work with a class/lecture of any size and requires minimal instructor involvement. I suggest dividing your class/lecture into groups of 6-8 students by creating private channels for each group on Slack. Instructors can review the interactions on Slack for grading, too.

Preparatory Work

None required. Students should have some understanding of international institutions/organizations.

Premise for Students

While the World Health Organization is charged with addressing public health emergencies and issues, member states, medical interest groups, the press, pundits, commentators, and ordinary citizens believe that the organization lacks agility and authority to address pandemics like COVID-19.

Imagine that your group is has been charged with designing a new international institution. Your goal is to develop a new international institution that deals not only with COVID-19 but also future pandemics.

Political scientists often debate how international institutions should be designed. Koremenos et al. (2001) have argued that “states use international institutions to further their own goals, and they design institutions accordingly” (762).

Whether international institutions are “false promises,” simply reflect state power, help regulate cheating and cooperation, or are independent is a matter for debate. With these ideas in mind, each group should think about how you might design an international institution to deal with a transboundary problem (like a pandemic/COVID-19).

Group Instructions

Each group should elect a facilitator/team leader to lead the discussion questions below. Team leader should send a short debriefing email to the instructor at the end of the exercise outlining the name of the institution they developed, some key provisions, and an assessment on the effectiveness of the exercise.

Discussion Questions

Each group should discuss and debate each of the questions below:

1.      What are the membership rules for your organization – who can/will be a member? Think carefully about asymmetries among the member states.

2.      How will states and other actors who are a part of your institution deal with assessing the various outcomes and choosing the best outcome?

3.      What issues will your international institution deal with? Will you restrict your international institution to simply responding to pandemics or do you think there are other issues that your institutions?

4.      Do you envision creating a regime? An IGO? A mix? Something ad hoc? Defend your choice.

5.      Will there be a headquarters? Where will tasks be centralized? Will states create their own domestic institutions that will liaison with other states through this organization/regime/etc.? Remember that of all the questions you address, this question is the most political. Think about why the answer to this question is problematic.

6.      How will collective decisions be made? Think about who will run the organization? How will this person be selected? Will membership be universal or more restricted? Will there be a body akin to the General Assembly or other fora for debates? What role will experts or other nonstate actors play (if any)?

7.      Pandemics can be “new circumstances.” What happens to the institution if something happens that hasn’t been thought of? How will your institution adapt?

8.      How will you enforce the rules of your organization? In other words, if a state fails to adapt the necessary public health protocols, what can/will your organization/institution be able to do?

9.      How will your organization cope with uncertainty about other members in the organization? Is there a way an institution can be designed to help deal with these problems?

Using Model Diplomacy Online

Today we have another guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

In the transition to online teaching, many instructors might be tempted to abandon the use of simulations. While simulations present their own challenges in an online environment, I believe that they are valuable enough to be worth the effort. For example, simulations provide an opportunity for students to collaborate with one another and to interact with the instructor in real time, activities they may otherwise not get in an online course. Simulations can also provide a nice break from asynchronous assignments that are often found in online courses.

I have used the Council on Foreign Relations Model Diplomacy simulations in both face-to-face and online courses. For an online course, I schedule the simulation for a 2-hour synchronous block of time. I conduct a survey of students to find their availability and preferences on simulation topic (I typically give them a couple of choices from the Model Diplomacy catalog). I then divide the class into groups of 5-7 students based first on their availability and second their preferred topic. In case students are not able to participate, they can complete an alternative paper assignment.

Having a reliable technological format for the simulation is very important. I use Collaborate Ultra, which is built into the Desire to Learn (D2L) Brightspace course management software. You could also use Zoom or Google Teams.  Prior to the simulation, I provide students with a quick guide so that they know what to do to log into the software we are using.  I also include “Getting Started Instructions” that ask students to log in early to fix any problems and to have a phone available for back-up audio in case of microphone problems (an option in Collaborate Ultra and other platforms). I tell students how to avoid audio feedback by muting their microphone when not talking and recommend that they use a headset or headphones with a microphone. I don’t require students to use video.

Prior to the simulation, I have students write position memos as usual. During the simulation, flexibility is key, because almost always at least one student has technology problems. I begin the simulation by establishing the rules by, for example, mandating the use of the “hand raise” button. I also let everyone know that the National Security Advisor will run the meeting, calling on people when it is their turn to speak. I am present only to make sure everyone participates and to answer any questions that may arise.

The simulation consists of four “rounds,” with each round on a PowerPoint slide that I display to the students. These rounds are: Presentation of Opening Positions (15-20 minutes); Debate and Deliberation (about 60 minutes); Presidential Decision (15-20 minutes); and Wrap-up and Debriefing (15-20 minutes). More information about each of these rounds can be found on the Model Diplomacy website.

Once the simulation is completed, the students who had the role of President submit the decision reached in writing (having verbally presented the decision during the simulation), and all students write final policy review memos. 

Syllabus Boilerplate for Online Teaching

You are welcome to copy and paste any of this text into your new syllabi. Documenting these types of policies at the beginning will save you time and trouble later on.

Time Commitment

Although this course does not require your physical presence on campus, it still requires that you commit the same amount of time as you would to an on-campus course. Per federal requirements, a 3-credit course equates to, on average, a minimum of 3 hours per week engaging with course instruction and an additional 6 hours per week completing assigned work outside of class. You will need to devote the same time and effort to an online course that you would to a course that meets in a physical classroom. 

Self-Directed Learning

This course may require independently engaging with information in text, video, or audio format; contributing to online discussion; completing writing assignments; and/or conducting research. While there might not be mandatory simultaneous interaction with the instructor or other students, regular and substantial participation in the course is required.  

Communication Plan

Contact me with questions about the course using your university email account or [LMS] communication tool (a [LMS] mail message, comment in a designated course discussion). I check my university email and the [LMS] course website daily during normal business hours and you can expect a response to your question within 24 hours, except on weekends or official holidays. 

Confidentiality

Students might connect concepts being studied in the course with personal experience. Confidentiality is necessary for a welcoming and effective learning environment. Students should not repeat, forward, or otherwise communicate information about other students to individuals not enrolled in the course, nor should they allow others access to the course. Violation of this policy can result in removal from the course. Do not reveal personal information that you do not want made public or that might place yourself or others in legal jeopardy.  

Civility 

The university is committed to maintaining a respectful learning environment in which students can express a variety of ideas and opinions. Uncivil, obscene, or disrespectful communication negatively affects the learning of other students and is not allowed. Disruptive behavior can result in removal from the course. 

Technology

This course might require the use of hardware and software that meets certain university-established compatibility standards; the ability to access, securely store, and export files in specified formats; the use of integrated video, anti-plagiarism, or other applications; or the access of externally-hosted course materials. Contact the university’s [insert name of IT support office and contact info] if you experience difficulties with any of the above. The instructor is not able to diagnose technical problems.

Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

Continue reading

Where Do Flash Games Go to Die?

Related to my recent post on replacing traditional textbooks with digital content:

For the last two years, I have used the Stop Disasters! game in my course on humanitarian emergencies, which is online. A significant number of the students are outside the USA when they take it. Stop Disasters! runs on Flash. Flash is an application that has been incompatible with Apple devices for years and its owner, Adobe, will cease supporting it entirely in 2020. Web browsers now require installation of special plugins and whatnot to run it. This means that my students may not be able to play this game without jumping through a bunch of technological hoops, a burden that I can’t justify imposing on them.

Unfortunately a lot of online pedagogical games and simulations are Flash-based; a few that have been discussed on this blog include Ayiti: The Game of Life3rd World Farmer, and Inside Disaster. Clicking on the link for the simulation at the Inside Disaster website produces a black screen, so it is no longer accessible whether one has Flash running or not.

These online tools have an irritating tendency to have short lifespans, which to me greatly lessons their convenience. Board games don’t end up in the technological dustbin of history at anywhere near the same speed. Maybe it’s time to switch back to exercises based on tangible objects rather than software applications. But how does one do that in the online environment?

 

Using Slack for Online Teaching

Today’s post is by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching Law Courts and Politics as an online course this summer. In the past, I have used email and the Blackboard LMS for communication in online courses. Students don’t respond to email as they once did, and while Blackboard has about every tool you could imagine, discussion forums are clunky and the mobile app is unsatisfactory. After listening to a podcast interview with political scientist Steven Michels, I decided to give Slack a try. My wife uses Slack at work as an officer of a professional association board and she had good things to say about it. Examples of teaching with Slack are described here and here.

Slack is an integrated team communication tool. Only invited participants can be part of a team workspace, and it has tools for group discussion that can be divided into forums that are called channels. Channels can be open to the entire team or part of the team. Slack also has features like direct messaging, file sharing, video conferencing, and tagging of individuals. The free version works great for most purposes and its apps are fully compatible across platforms. Continue reading

Specification Grading In An Online Course

Today we have another post by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

This summer for the first time I am teaching an online version of my judicial process course, Law Courts and Politics. I adopted a specifications grading system, something that has been discussed by people like Linda Nilson at Inside Higher Ed and Amanda Rosen on this blog. With specifications grading all assignments are graded on a satisfactory or unsatisfactory basis and course grades are based on assignment bundles.

My course is five weeks long with a distinct theme for each week’s lesson. Each lesson includes an online quiz made up of multiple choice and short essay questions on the textbook (Corley, Ward and Martinek’s American Judicial Process ), various discussion topics on the text, other assigned readings, video and audio, as well as a 600-750 word writing assignment. Each of these elements—quizzes, discussion, and the writing assignment, along with a summative assignment for those wishing earn a B or an A—are tied to course learning objectives. The grade bundles are as follows: Continue reading

Connected Course in Cultural Anthropology

credit: Chad Raymond, amateur Orientalist

Check out Anth101.com, a free online course in cultural anthropology created/hosted by Michael Wensch of Kansas State University. This project is one of the best designed exercises in online learning I’ve ever seen. Michael and his collaborator, Ryan Klataske, discuss the deep pedagogical principles behind the project at the anthropology blog Savage Minds. As someone with a long history of being a pretend anthropologist — which began by sneaking into an American Anthropology Association meeting long before I started my doctoral studies — I’m very impressed with how the course abandons teaching about anthropology as an academic discipline in favor of presenting it as an understanding of one’s individual and collective existence in the world. I know that sounds like the lofty clap-trap one often hears from idealistic academics, but Wensch has built the course around a series of exercises that show people how to experience the concept in some very practical and relevant ways. And his textbook The Art of Being Human, which accompanies the course for free, is an excellent read.