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.

Twine 3

Twine ScreenshotTen days ago I posted about using Twine, an open-source program, to involve first-year seminar students in the creation of digital interactive texts. Four days ago I posted a follow-up about rubrics and learning outcomes for the course. Now The New York Times has published a long feature story about Twine, complete with examples like Depression Quest that demonstrate the ease with which the software can be used to create “challenging games about subjects many people would prefer to avoid.”

Building Blocks

Twine BallsHave you ever organized an entire course around a single type of simulation? I decided to do exactly this after hearing Nick Vaccaro discuss the use of digital interactive texts at the 2014 TLC. These texts, which are structured like the choose-your-own-adventure books that some of us read as children, are built with Twine, an open-source software program.

In a new first-year seminar, I’ve assigned three non-fiction books about which teams of students produce Twines. I rotate students into different teams for each book, which means that at three points in the semester they assess group dynamics and evaluate each other’s performance in their teams. These worksheets derive from my initial attempt to facilitate team collaboration with in-class writing exercises and so far they seem to be working as intended — as mechanisms for student self-reflection. On the days that teams’ final Twines on a book are due, each team scores another team’s work according to a rubric, which saves me time.

Overall the seminar is organized to function as a meta-application of its topical content: decision making during disasters. Although no team has suffered the equivalent of a civil war or tsunami, there are a handful of students who rarely say anything in class, whether to me or their classmates. Having announced at the beginning of the semester that what one gets out of college is a function of what one puts into it, I made the deliberate decision not to obsess about their lack of engagement with the social aspects of learning. In this particular case, it’s an easy decision to make: individual writing assignments account for a large portion of the final grade and the students who don’t talk also don’t write, or they write very badly without any effort toward improvement. If they aren’t interested in learning how to learn, there is not much I can teach them.

Logic Model Redux

Tree DiagramLast week I had an opportunity to revisit logic models in my course on economic development, where students are working on team projects. I created an exercise designed to show that logic models are a really just a method of mentally organizing answers to the following questions:

  • Why do the project?
  • What does the project involve?
  • How should the project be done?

At the beginning of the semester, I gave students a guide to logic models and had them fill out blank versions in class. Afterward they discussed their thoughts with teammates to identify requirements for the project and create a general game plan for completing it.

In the middle of the semester, students attended a presentation by Mike Behan of Root Capital. Mr. Behan’s presentation serendipitously included an image of a simple logic model, which inspired me to distribute the blank logic model diagram in class once again. I gave students five minutes to write as much as they could in each of the logic model’s boxes, without referring to notes or other resources. After five minutes, students congregated with their teammates to discuss the boxes that they found difficult to complete.

At the end of the exercise, I told students that they needed to have a clear idea of how the different components of their projects fit within the framework of the logic model. If team members found parts of the model too fuzzy and too ill-defined to quickly describe in writing, that was a strong signal that the project would not succeed and that its design needed improvement.


Response to The Real Thing

Fake CokeTracy Lightcap wrote a great comment on The Real Thing. I’ll respond here. He raises three important points about skill development:

  1. When students are working in teams on a collaborative project, often their first instinct is to separate the project into discrete tasks and assign responsibility for the completion of each task to a different each team member. At the end of the semester, students mash the pieces together to produce a malformed whole. None of the students learn the entire process that the project is supposed to teach.
  2. In courses designed around team-based projects, students might not get enough opportunities to adequately learn any single skill.
  3. The prevalence of (1) and (2) can lead to senior seminar or capstone courses that become experiences in emergency triage. Since students did not develop the requisite skills in their first years of college, the instructor is left to focus on one particular skill used in the discipline that he or she thinks students must acquire before graduating.

Although I haven’t completely solved (1), I do scaffold team projects around initial individual assignments that are intended to improve students’ information literacy and prevent free riders. The assignment I use most often is a variation on the analysis of an academic journal article. I often follow this up with what I call an information synthesis, in which I ask each student to read items in his or her team’s reading list and compare them to what he or she wrote in the article analysis in the following fashion:

  • How does the information relate to your team’s project?
  • What perspectives and solutions do these readings suggest are important to the project?
  • What pitfalls or obstacles might your team encounter as it works on the project?

As for (2), I never make a team-based project worth more than about one-third of the final grade, and the project-related individual assignments like the journal article analysis compose a part of that one-third. The final document that represents the culmination of the team’s work accounts for only five to ten percent of the course grade. An equally-sized chunk of the grade consists of spaced repetition in skills such as constructing evidence-based arguments.

Regarding (3), I know of one colleague whose students finally learn — as seniors — how to generate correct citations.

Links to the entire Real Thing series:

The Real Thing

Coke Real ThingAs I’ve said before, the best writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow. Role, audience, and format should reflect the types of tasks students might encounter outside of college; for example, a letter to the editor or a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. The traditional research paper, with an audience of only the course instructor and a format that is not recognized outside of academia, lacks the authenticity that will lead to improvements in students’ writing.

Doctoral programs in political science typically don’t train people in how to write* or how to teach writing to others, and I’ve only recently begun to better incorporate the principles of role, audience, and format into my own teaching. Here is one example, referenced in my last post on project-based learning.

Last semester’s instructions for a project on tourism, for which a team of students wrote a report and delivered a class presentation:

Choose a location outside the USA and design an international volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the participants and the host community derive long term benefit. Make sure you define “benefit” and be aware that it’s possible to have more than one. Also make sure to include a process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the program’s goals are achieved.

These instructions are okay but not great. This semester’s instructions are better:

Your team of hospitality industry consultants has been hired by Hilton Worldwide to complete a study on the feasibility of an international (meaning outside the USA) volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the guests and the host community derive long term benefits. You team needs to report on the following:

♦  The best international location and type of experience for this venture, with an explanation of why the location and experience is the “best.”
♦  An explanation of the “benefits” that guests and the host community will acquire.
♦  A process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the venture’s goals are being achieved.

I have another example in which audience, purpose, and format might be even more obvious; I’ll write about that in my next post.

*one reason for the stilted jargon-laden prose of many political scientists

Links to the entire Real Thing series:

Moving On Up Again to the Projects

Project DemolitionTwo months ago, I described the worksheets that I used for project-based learning in two of my spring courses as a mixed experience. In the spirit of experimentation, I’ve reformulated three worksheets for use in a fall course.

The first worksheet asks each student to identify what skills he or she thinks are important in collaborating with others. The student then rates all team members individually and the team as a whole on these skills with a three-point scale.

The second worksheet asks each student to diagnose whether his or her team is is functioning effectively and write down what he or she can personally do to solve any problems.

In the third worksheet, students rate themselves and their teammates according to criteria I’ve established:

  • writing quality;
  • creativity, problem solving ability, and leadership;
  • responsibility and willingness to overcome challenges.

Each student then reviews what he or she has written for these categories and assigns an average score for each team member. Each score must be a different number.

In contrast to the worksheets from last semester, these worksheets are assignments students do outside of class. Each satisfactorily completed worksheet will add one percent to the student’s final grade. Also I will compute an average score each student from the scores he or she receives on the third worksheet from everyone on his or her team; this score is worth up to three percent of the final grade. So the worksheets’ stakes are low, but I’m hoping high enough to induce students to complete them. My main goal in assigning them is for students to engage in some self-reflection that will improve their collaboration skills.

I’ve also made some changes to the projects themselves, to more clearly communicate role, audience, and format in each project’s final product. I’ll write a separate post about that in the near future.