Creating audio and video resources

A big part of our work here at The Open University is creating materials for distance learning. Our students don’t come on campus and get their teaching in weekly blocks, usually delivered via our Virtual Learning Environment, to be worked through in their own time.

It’s a highly inclusive model, built for people with other commitments in their life and without many of the additional costs that come from spending years on-site.

But it’s also a model that needs a huge amount of work to deliver those materials, something that I’ve been learning more about over my first 18 months here.

While much of our content is text, there’s a strong desire to use audio and video as much as we can. These elements provide a more diverse and engaging experience for students and let us do things that wouldn’t really work otherwise.

At a technical level, that means professional producers working with academics to create individual pieces, much like a broadcast programme: indeed, that’s one of the reasons the University does so much with the BBC, because we’re all relatively experienced in the demands of the media.

However, as a newbie, it’s also a learning curve for me.

Central in that has been working back from my media experience to applying those insights to a more formally pedagogic setting.

Ironically, that has often meant channeling my inner podcaster when making these resources.

I’m going to guess you listen to podcasts and watch TV news or documentaries. Think about what makes those work as engaging and interesting pieces of work.

Part of it is about a strong message or argument, but part of it is also more personal: you empathise with the presenter(s). And that’s the bit which I think is quite crucial when making pieces for students.

Communicating part of yourself matters in audio and video in a way that it doesn’t in text: precisely because it’s you speaking/acting, there is more for students to fix on and that’s work your time to make as much of as possible.

For me, that might be a relatively conversational tone and an attempt to think about why my audience might be interested in anything I have to say. Your style might well be different, but you have to know how you are and want to be if you’re not to come across as someone rushing to get out of the studio.

Just as your lecturing style is something that takes time to find and refine, so too for these different pedagogies, made more complicated by these not being quite the same as each other.

Something to think about next time you create an audio or video piece for your students.

Live From COP 27, Part 2

Maybe

Another on the spot report from COP 27. Again, the opinions expressed here are solely my own.

The Saudi Green Initiative is housed under two large geodesic domes near COP 27, but is not one of the official conference venues. Its purpose? Elaborately showcasing the environmentally-friendly innovations of companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC — some of the world’s largest petrochemical firms headquartered in and capitalized by one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. The people explaining the products being brought to market were all men. Same for the staff at the Saudi Arabia pavilion in the Blue Zone.

Green innovation projects are also on display in the Green Zone space dedicated to Egyptian universities. They are much smaller and obviously receive far less government financial support than their Saudi counterparts. But they are explained to conference attendees, if not headed, by women. Thinking like a comparativist:

The columns could also be labeled as regime type, with monarchy for Saudi Arabia and bureaucratic authoritarianism for Egypt. You get the idea. I’m just wondering if data indicates a relationship between a state’s commitment to green technology and gender parity. One might assume the two are positively correlated (e.g., Germany and Sweden), but maybe in the Middle East it’s an inverse relationship.

While Egypt seems to be doing better than some of its neighbors in how women are treated, I wonder who at the U.N. thought it was a good idea to have COP 27 hosted by a military dictatorship. Egyptian civil society organizations have largely been excluded, and it is simply too dangerous for Egyptian human rights activists to participate. To give a very minor example:

No chickens burger for you

The photo shows an eating establishment that has appeared in the Blue Zone, which is in theory a U.N.-governed space. Note the group seated on the roof deck, consisting of a 60s-ish man surrounded by women half his age. The staircase to seating on top of the shipping container is to the rear. When I tried to ascend these stairs to take in the view from above, I was stopped by a man in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt who said the area was “blocked.” I noticed the attention of a few Mukhabarat (the not-so-secret police) wearing suits and earpieces seated at a nearby ground-level table. I backed off to observe, and saw a few other Mukhabarat milling about. Over the next few minutes, five other people, some of whom were ordinary Egyptians, were prevented from climbing the stairs. My guess is that the man at the table was a government bigwig, and the women he was speaking with were representatives of some kind of business venture.

Last, here is the obligatory Egyptian cat photo:

Pushing back on restructuring

In the spirit of Chad, I’m writing this week about one of the periodic threats to politics research here in the UK.

Birkbeck is both a storied institution and one with a special educational position, delivering most of its programmes through evening classes in London. It reaches a section of society that most universities don’t or can’t.

The plans to restructure have been left rather vague by senior management, but include options to drop significant numbers in a range of departments, including Politics, whose members include names you’ve probably heard of, wherever you’re from.

There are petitions you can sign, and letters you can share, and I’d strongly encourage you to do so.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened, and won’t be the last: the economic downturn and tightening government support for universities have meant a lot of management meetings and opaque comms to staff and students. Despite being relatively cheap courses to run, social sciences and humanities often end up in the firing line, perhaps because there appears to be little sunk cost and because they don’t get the STEM-is-economically-vital style boosterism.

Continue reading “Pushing back on restructuring”

Mekong Dam Simulation, Part 2

Today we have a second guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

In our last post, we described our Mekong River crisis simulation. The assessments that we use for this simulation are designed to reward student preparation and engagement (a detailed breakdown is in this appendix).

Students are initially provided with detailed position descriptions for employment in the organisations to which they’ve been assigned. They are asked to prepare for a mock job interview for that position, which requires them to conduct research and think about their role in the simulation. We have offered this scenario in an applied capstone class, so have required students to identify their own readings and research to be able to fulfil their roles.

Once the simulation begins, students write a weekly strategy memo for the lead member of their organization based on independent research they’ve conducted, an opportunity for them to consider the practical, actionable implications of scholarly work in the social sciences. Students also must also document their interaction with other organisations and the media during the simulation in a reflective journal.

The head of each organization in turn relies on his or her team members to regularly provide advice about the best course of action in the unfolding crisis. If a group suggests a questionable course of action, the instructor uses follow-up questions to prompt students to consider possible negative consequences, e.g. how would investors view a decision to cancel the project?

At the end of the course, students analyze their experience of the simulation in a writing assignment.

The simulation is designed to make it difficult for students to upset the status quo. Local and international NGOs usually must settle for limited gains based on a government’s willingness to placate its critics. While this sometimes leads to frustration and disillusionment for students, it allows them to gain a better understanding of the power disparity between governmental and nongovernmental actors. While students sometimes initially attempt to resolve the crisis by reaching a consensus among all parties involved, they quickly realize that this is impossible due to conflicting interests. While students are allowed to make risky decisions if they are well considered and not purposely disruptive, successfully negotiated political and policy changes in the simulation have always been limited and incremental. 

In past iterations of the simulation, the incumbent Thai leadership has usually been able to retain control of the government and dominate issue framing, in some cases solidifying its position in the process. Thai opposition groups have had to navigate between outright rejection of government policies and a more conciliatory and constructive criticism. Students have learned that political change is difficult to accomplish without a broad anti-government bloc that includes civil society organisations.

Changes at the international level have also been limited, accurately reflecting the shortcomings of the Lower Mekong  governance regime and ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference. Students’ attempts to amend the 1995 Mekong Agreement have been hindered by states’ competing foreign policy objectives and the strict application of sovereignty. At most, parties have agreed on a controlled and gradual extension of the Mekong River Commission’s supervisory apparatus.

We have identified a few ways in which the simulation can be further improved. Students’ concerns about free riding within teams, while partially mitigated through the use of a team member evaluation tool (e.g. CATME or Feedback Fruits, we used one developed for this class by Joel), have continued. A possible solution could be a “divorce option,” where students would be allowed to “fire” a free riding member. We have also observed that students’ insufficient background knowledge can lead to unrealistic behaviour in the simulation. This could be mitigated by an increased redundancy within groups (multiple students being given the same or similar role) and an added criterion of academic performance in determining group allocation (Joel’s tool for the allocation of students into groups for class assignments has also been used to allocate students into roles for this class). 

Live From COP 27

As usual, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

I’m attending the COP 27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, courtesy of my university. For the general vibe, read this cheeky article (plus a follow-up!) from The Guardian. In its design and operation, the event models some major international relations and comparative politics concepts.

The Blue Zone, the main conference site, is sprawling and chaotic, yet has only one entrance and one exit where attendees badges are scanned. You’re either in or out. The Blue Zone is dominated by meeting rooms and exhibition spaces for state actors and a few U.N. organizations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, petroleum exporting rentier states, have the largest and most glitzy exhibits. Egypt, military dictatorship and conference host, ranks third in this respect. The U.S. pavilion is good-sized and neatly organized, but extremely loud, as is typical for Americans. Canada? Friendly and free coffee for passersby. The pavilions of African states are quite welcoming, despite their organizers’ histories of exploitation by foreign powers.

Potemkin coffee kiosk

Power hierarchy is apparent in other ways. One Blue Zone area is the preserve of high-ranking officials who meet behind closed doors after arriving in limousines. Occasionally dignitaries stroll through the mass chaos elsewhere in the Blue Zone, flanked by plainclothes protective teams. My compliments to the bodyguard who expertly guided me into a non-threatening position by gently touching my upper arm with only three fingers.

The Green Zone is a smaller space for Egypt’s government ministries and universities, along with international civil society groups, to showcase their environmental sustainability efforts. It is located directly across a road from the Blue Zone, ostensibly allowing attendees to conveniently pass back and forth. But the Blue Zone’s gate that faces this road is closed for the duration of COP 27 because of “security,” and the promised shuttle bus running between the Blue and Green Zones did not materialize until a few days after the conference had started. The conference venue includes a third building, dedicated to public-private partnerships, that also requires a shuttle or taxi to access because of surrounding walls, despite being only a short distance away as the crow flies. My prior international travel experience in authoritarian states leads me to believe that these impediments to movement and communication are a feature, not a bug.

My final comment, more directly pertinent to the subject of this blog: so far, COP 27 has resembled the typical academic conference at which information is dumped onto a passive audience via speeches and panel presentations. I have not yet encountered any Blue Zone events designed with active learning in mind. This is probably not the most effective strategy for teaching about an existential threat.

Self-publishing academic work

This guest post comes from Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London.

I can’t be the only person to have experienced this: you’re writing a book and you realise that it’s either getting too long and/or that some of the stuff you thought should go into it doesn’t really fit any more.  So, reluctantly but also with a sigh of relief, you cut it.

But then what do you do?  Bin it completely in spite of all the hard work you put into it?  Really? Sure, that’s the sensible thing to do – the thing you’d be perfectly happy doing if you were a totally rational individual rather than a living, breathing human being prone to practically all the cognitive biases under the sun: in this case the so-called sunk cost fallacy.

In reality, what you often do, if you’re anything like me, is to think whether there’s something you could do with it somewhere else.  I mean, you could always turn it into a journal article, right?

Wrong!  At least in my case.  At 18,000 words and with a whole bunch of endnotes, it was going to be agony trying to cut it in order to make it short enough for a decent journal.  I did explore the possibility of going in the opposite direction and beefing it up to come up with the 25,000 required for those short (and short turn-around) books that a couple of well-known publishers now seem quite keen on.  But two things about that, put me off.

First, I would have been topping and tailing it with ‘theory’ for the sake of it – something I hate doing.  And, second, have you actually seen how much those things cost!?  Only university libraries could possible afford to buy them, and I’m not really sure (morally speaking) that even they should be spaffing forty or fifty quid on such footling things anyway.

In any case, I had the temerity to think that what I’d written might be the sort of thing that people who were simply interested in, rather than formally studying, British politics, contemporary history and the EU might enjoy reading.  I also thought that, since it was originally written to be ‘approachable’, it might come in handy, too, for anyone teaching those subjects – both at post-16 and post-18.

One alternative would have been to stick it up as a post on my blog.  Yet, to be honest, it wouldn’t really have fitted too well because that’s simply where I collect (mostly for my own memory’s sake rather than because many people read it there) the very short-form stuff I write for newspapers and websites.  But no-one else was going to host it, I was sure – so sure I didn’t even ask anyone.

It was only then I thought about self-publishing it.  Initially, I dismissed the idea – I mean, that’s ‘vanity-publishing’, right?  OK for your pseudonymous erotic novel but, for something academic? Surely not?

Continue reading “Self-publishing academic work”

Setting up on Mastodon, JIC

I use Twitter quite a lot. And have done for a long time (since 2008 apparently). So i’m also quite invested in it.

Perhaps I knew this, but the events of the last few months have definitely confirmed it. We don’t need to rehearse the progress of leveraged buyouts by people with galaxy brains here, suffice to say that I’ve been working on alternative platforms, just in case.

Of course the problem is your classic network effect issue: Twitter’s great for me (and for lots of other academics) because lots of other people use it. So while people might want to go elsewhere, they also want to make sure others also go there too, to rebuild the networks.

Sadly, there’s no definitive choice on this front. In the past fortnight, I’ve seen more activity on Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms, especially from those who use those already for work purposes.

Personally, those don’t do what I want to recreate from Twitter, so it’s been an adventure in the wild woods of open-architecture microblogging sites.

The prime destination so far has been Mastodon, a network so decentralised that if you google it, you get the band, not the thing (hence me linking to the Wikipedia page).

This is my quick guide to setting up there, from your Twitter (while still keeping the latter going, which is what I plan to do).

For those of you on Twitter, you’ll have seen much grumbling about Mastodon, mainly because it’s not Twitter. The user interface is not great and because it’s on lots of little servers, there’s bandwidth issues.

However, it’s nothing that a smart person like yourself can’t handle.

First up, you can to create an account.

This needs you to pick a server: it really doesn’t matter which, since you can see all the other servers’ outputs and it’s the same interface, so either follow a colleague’s recommendation (I’m on mastodon.social) or pick whatever comes up on a search.

Second, connect it to your Twitter.

The thread below shows you how to really easily scrape Twitter for others on Mastodon, so you can avoid dull searching on the latter, and how to cross-post on both networks simultaneously: this all took me 5 minutes to sort.

And that’s about it. You’re covered for now.

At this stage, I’m taking this as a precautionary move: Twitter remains my (and others’) primary network, so as long as it doesn’t descend into abject chaos, I’ll be sticking there.

That said, having a lifeboat – smaller, less pretty – is a sensible move, especially since we appear to be at the whim of an individual unable to accept either market forces or the power of parody accounts.

So take a bit of time to consider your position on this and if you have any good suggestions, then stick them in the comments below.

Mekong Dam Simulation

Today we have a guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

We developed a six weeks long simulation with three contact hours per week about international competition over freshwater resources of the lower Mekong River. The simulation, which we call the Riparian Dam Crisis, is designed to provide students with the opportunity to build collaboration, communication, and negotiation skills while learning about Southeast Asia. Students are introduced to select theories before the start of the simulation and incentivised to conduct independent research and source other relevant materials to inform actions of their groups throughout. 

The simulation involves a Thai-funded hydroelectric dam project in Laos. Most of the dam’s electricity will be purchased by Thailand. Shortly before the dam goes into operation, a drought reduces downstream water to its lowest level in living memory. This scenario, which resembles the real-life Xayaburi dam a few years ago, reflects competing economic and environmental demands, weak regional regimes for dispute resolution, domestic political considerations, and transnational advocacy networks. Students assume the roles of various stakeholders that must try to achieve specific objectives in an evolving situation, such as the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian ministries of foreign affairs, rural NGOs, the regional Mekong River Commission, Thai political parties, and journalists. For example, the dam has been constructed wholly within Laos’s borders, which paradoxically gives the smallest country the largest say in the simulation’s outcome. Cambodia is the most negatively affected by upstream dams in Laos, but it has limited influence over Laos and Thailand because it is not a participant in the project. Meanwhile Thailand is very susceptible to domestic pressure from interests that either support or oppose the dam.

During the simulation, student journalists representing two Thai media outlets conduct interviews and create stories targeting different audiences. The simulation’s other stakeholders need to engage strategically with reporters to have their actions framed in a positive manner. 

Thus, there is one constellation of groups that broadly favours pushing forward with the dam, another one that generally wants to halt the dam, and a third whose position is flexible. After an initial feeling-out period, students identify aligned groups and develop strategies to achieve their objectives. Each time we have run this simulation, students have focused on their efforts on preserving or creating a sympathetic ruling coalition in Thailand after they had exhausted other diplomatic avenues. Students have been quite creative in creating novel strategies to achieve group objectives, such as staging mock mass protest campaigns, lobbying global powers, and bringing down Thailand’s ruling coalition with a vote of no confidence.

In a future post, we will describe how we assess student learning from the simulation and how we adapted it over time in response to student experience.

Less is more

Painfully aware as I am that I’m writing this in the 11th year of almost weekly blog posts, it’s still worth considering when the best thing you can do is nothing.

This is going to be focused on the classroom, but you can draw your logical extensions to whatever arena you like.

Given we talk and write a lot about increasing participation, it might seem odd to even raise the question of participating less, but the two are necessarily interlinked, in three key ways.

Firstly, drawing back on your participation as an instructor leaves more space for your students to participate more.

No one likes a silence and I’m guessing you’ve noticed this in class. I’m also guessing you went to fill it, because that’s a natural thing to do and because you’re the person ‘in control’: it feels like your duty.

But holding back will encourage your students to step forward and do the filling for you. If they see that you aren’t going to fill the empty void, then they are more likely to do it instead. The moral hazard that comes with you always being the chatty one is that there’s no need to participate as a student.

At the most extreme, you can absent yourself completely from the teaching space, but even just holding back for a few seconds in a seminar might be enough to get students to open up.

Secondly, don’t talk if you’ve nothing to say.

Again, you’ve noticed when other people talk a lot without saying much/anything. Some of them might be in your class; others in meetings you’ve attended. Don’t be that person.

Think about whether your interjection is adding value to the discussion or not. That might be about new substantive information, or about resolving misunderstandings, or about different solutions to issues, or something else that moves things along. But it should always be about purposeful intention.

Again, this is practice that can help students too: they learn from your practice as much as from your discourse, so model the kind of debate you want to get out of them. Signal where there is more to be extracted from a discussion and when it’s time to move on.

Finally, there is a developmental aspect to this as well. As your class progresses, you might want to redraw the line of where to hold back, to give more space to them and less to you.

Behind all of this is a model of student learning that places them in the centre of things: you adjust to them as much as – if not more – them to you. Knowledge, ability and confidence all should be growing through their time with you, so your teaching interactions should usefully reflect that.

Ultimately, this is yet another post about being a reflective educator; thinking about what you do, why and how you do it. Thinking about when silence might be the best choice is certainly part of that process.

Update on CHAMP Forecasting Project

My impressions so far of the political forecasting project (described here, here, and here) that I created for the undergraduate course on the Middle East that I’m teaching this semester:

The quality of student writing on the different elements of CHAMP has improved over the first three iterations of the assignment. Their analyses are more specific and relevant to what they are trying to predict. I’m hoping that this is a sign of students’ increasing interest in the project. Citation of sources remains problematic for some students. No, a string of URLs is not a bibliography.

The quality of no-stakes classroom presentations has similarly improved. After each forecast, one member of each team presents his or her team’s collective conclusions without using any visual aids. The first two rounds of presentations were terrible. The third round was adequate. I’m now wondering, if I use this project in the future, whether I should grade the presentations against a simple rubric and introduce a rule that a different team member presents each round.

As for the forecasts themselves, here are the average probabilities assigned to each event for the three rounds of predictions students in the class have made so far: