Virtual conferencing

This morning finds me in Antwerpen, where yesterday I was very pleased to sit on the jury of Dorothy Duchatelet’s thesis. Dorothy – occasionally of this parish – did as excellent a job in her defence as her thesis, plus she even managed to get most of the jury on the dance floor afterwards, so that’s got to count for something.

Literally missing the point

When we weren’t viva-ing, or dancing, we were all having various conversations about learning and teaching. And one of those was with fellow juror Heidi Maurer about conferencing.

As Heidi rightly noted, the cost of attending conferences can be prohibitive for more junior colleagues, especially if it’s in L&T, which they might see as less of a priority area.

Quite aside from any registration fees, there’s the travel, accommodation and subsistence to factor in, and that’s even before the carbon footprint of it all. Sure, it’s lovely to travel the globe to exotic locales, but it’s certainly not cost-free, even if we are lucky enough to have someone to pick up the tab.

Hence a discussion about a virtual conference format.

Heidi noted that while online might solve one problem, it created another: format. Losing the physical co-location means losing a lot of the freedom you have when you’ve got people in a room.

Or does it?

Part of addressing this is trying to work with the advantages that virtual spaces have. Central to that seems to be the capacity to time-shift.

Imagine a conference format that lasts a week. From an initially-rather-basic website, you establish a programme for that week with some very different activities.

You could certainly have a keynote and or conventional panels – both as live-streams and as replayable content – with space for Q&A. Such communal events might be good bookends for the conference, helping to generate a sense of ‘who we all are’, but without necessarily having to commit everyone to being online at the same time the whole time.

Alongside that, you could also run some asynchronous workshops, where people could dip in and out through the week to experience different activities and cross paths with others. The obvious examples here would be online simulation exercises, where delegates could get their hands dirty, or design workshops, where you could get communal feedback on addressing your L&T challenges.

Throw in some spaces for more informal discussion and you’ve got something that’s not a normal conference, but which does something else.

And the cost? Some for a website and the event organisation, but very much less than usual. Maybe you ask people to chip in via PayPal, or just tell them to set aside $20 to buy themselves nice coffee, instead of that stuff you normally find in the breaks.

Of course, there are issues. First, you still need people to organise and facilitate. Second, the loss of co-location means you risk people signing up and then never showing up, or drifting away. Third, there’s all the concern about encouraging and policing appropriate behaviour. Fourth, could the format work on a recurring format: you’d do it once, but would you do any more often?

But similar problems exist for ‘normal’ conferences.

So, something for someone to think about. I’d really welcome your thoughts on it all in the comments below.

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 2

My original design for this course included a design thinking component organized in two stages. In the first stage, teams applied SCAMPER to California Water Crisis, a freeware board game. Although the subject of water scarcity was quite relevant to the course, the game’s mechanics were not the most engaging. This should have made it easy for students to think of significant SCAMPER-based improvements, but their recommended changes were relatively superficial. The graded writing assignment tied to this activity also left much to be desired.

In the second stage, students were asked to apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than California Water Crisis. Two problems popped up here. First, teams chose very simple games to modify — think Chutes and Ladders (and without even any awareness of its Indian origins or its connection to British imperialism). Second, although I specifically directed them to place the new game in a specific context, like a city, this didn’t happen.

This time around, I’ll be having students play Stop Disasters and Wingspan. Teams will have to apply SCAMPER to one of these two games. Although they both connect well to the course’s subject, neither game is ideal. Stop Disasters is problematic because it is Flash-based. Wingspan requires, where I work, a significant departmental budget outlay of $100 per game, and I have to purchase five of them. Given the dimensions of Wingspan’s box, transporting all five at once could be a problem. The campus building in which I work is not ADA-compliant (my office, perhaps appropriately, is at the top of what originally was the servants’ stairwell).

Instead of selecting something different for the second design round, teams will stick with whichever of the two games they chose for the first round. While students will be free to choose any subject related to the course for the new game they are designing, it will have to be set in the city in which the university is located. I hope to locate some online data visualizations — maps of flood zones, public transportation routes, property tax assessments, etc. — to help students with this.

After the initial SCAMPER-based redesign, each team will play another team’s game. In an individual writing assignment, students will evaluate the games they played according to the game design principles referenced in the same assignment from last year. I will provide each team with the feedback it receives from the other students.

For the next phase, teams will, I hope, use SCAMPER as a means of applying feedback to improve their game designs. Then there will be another round of play testing, with another written evaluation. I might make this second evaluation a mechanism by which teams earn points on the quality of their games, as assessed by other students. That could heighten students’ investment in the design process. I will probably also need to include a means for students to evaluate the work of their teammates on this project over the semester — something I do regularly in my other courses.

The most irregular podcast in the world…

We’re great at many things here at ALPS, but producing regular episodes of our podcast is not one of them.

Sure, we could actually do something about that, but where’s the fun?

Instead, Amanda and I took a moment out of #IntTLC2019 to discuss various things, including how to avoid re-inventing the wheel, what it is we love about using sims, and why more of us should be bringing our students to conferences.

Listen here:

What’s it for?

Amanda and I are here in Brighton at the first International Teaching & Learning Conference, co-organised by APSA, ECPR, BISA and PSA: I’m hoping we’ll be bringing you a podcast shortly, once we can find a bit of spare time.

A symbol, today

Cheapskate that I am, I’m not in the conference hotel, but in a, um, particular little place along the seafront. It’s a bit bizarre, but it’s got the best view from the front door.

For those that don’t know, the thing is the BA i360 and the donut bit goes up and down, so people can check out the views of the coast.

It’s one of those civic projects that you either love or hate: I’m in the former camp.

But what’s it got to do with L&T?

Well, it took an age to build, with both technical and planning issues a-plenty. And quite a few people wondered whether it was worth it, because the view’s alright, but it’s not that special (remember half of it is sea).

But that’s to miss the intention behind it. It’s also a symbol of how this city is progressing, re-inventing itself, creating new focuses and opportunities. It is art and it is confidence. It’s also very phallic, in case you thought the gendered aspect had passed me by.

And all that – OK, maybe not the phallic bit – echoes with the discussions we have about moving L&T on.

One of the big concerns at the conference is about how to cope with populism, fake news and the changing nature of society.

As our keynote, Alison McCartney, pointed out, it’s not enough to be transmitters of knowledge: we also need to be supporting our students to become active and engaged citizens, by giving them skills, and opportunities to use those skills.

I’m totally on-board with that: it’s been a cornerstone of my advocacy of simulations for a long time now, as it has been for everyone I know in the field.

But it’s easy to forget that.

Last week, I was running a workshop on sims at an institution that has never really put L&T high on its list of priorities. I talked quite a bit then about how to make sims work and I found myself posing the question of whether it’s worth it.

Simulations take time and effort and they come with a lot of hassles. Over the years, I’ve met various people who have jumped into using one and then given up, because that hassle was too much.

And I totally sympathise with that. With all the other pressures colleagues face, it might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But the potential mistake we make is to confuse problems. Simulations are not a silver bullet: they don’t solve all the problems in teaching. They should be a tool in your tool-box, but not the only one. I don’t use them all the time, and I’d be surprised if anyone else did.

But that’s a different problem for sims being a hassle.

We need to come back to the big phallus outside my hotel front door: there are a multiplicity of meanings and intents, and if we are to make a rounded and informed judgement on it all, then we need to keep that breadth in mind.

In the case of simulations, I use them despite being a pain, precisely because it lets me achieve learning objectives that extend well beyond those that get listed in the module description.

I may not frame it in my institution as helping to prepare our students to go out into the world and be an active part of it, but maybe I should. As Alison said in her talk, if we don’t fill the political spaces, then others will.

The Business of Small Colleges Is . . . Not Business

Four recent news items that I believe are additional evidence of a trend that is going to poke a large hole in the finances of many small, private colleges and universities in the U.S. — a hole that is going to help make some of these institutions insolvent:

First, an online program will replace the residential MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Second, Iowa Wesleyan University has signed an articulation agreement with Kishwaukee College, a community college located three hundred miles away in another state, whereby students complete three years of study at Kishwaukee and obtain a bachelor’s degree in business from Iowa Wesleyan with a fourth year of online courses.

Third, Linfield College is shedding approximately one-fifth of its tenured and tenure-track faculty positions. Undergraduate enrollments at Linfield’s main campus and in its online programs have declined precipitously, while the size of its nursing program in Portland has been flat. My guess is that the college’s leadership has decided to radically shrink its liberal arts curriculum and focus on offering degrees in business in addition to nursing.

Fourth, as described in this New York Times article, data indicates that there is often an inverse relationship between the cost of a graduate program and its quality.

Business programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have been cash cows for small U.S. colleges and universities for decades. But in 2019, why pursue this field of study at a small, struggling, largely-unknown college when one can get the same degree online at less expense from a much larger, better-resourced, nationally-reputable state university? Iowa Wesleyan has been in a death spiral for some time. The chances of its articulation agreement attracting enough business degree-completion students to pull the school back from the brink are slim to none. The same is true of an institution like Linfield College. Offering business degrees at a higher price than more-prestigious competitors does nothing to differentiate either institution in the market.

Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

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More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 1

The coming fall semester marks the second iteration of my “new” course on economic development and environmental politics. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I am making more changes. The complete original series of posts on how I built the course is here.

I am reducing my learning objectives slightly by eliminating an assignment on market externalities. I might return to the topic in the future, but last year I was not able to do it justice. Given the overall architecture of the course, it fell into the category of “what students don’t absolutely need.” I can keep it in my back pocket as something I can always lecture about at an appropriate time.

I am keeping the meta-prompts for assignments because, in my opinion, they serve as cues to students about the learning objectives. I don’t have any direct evidence that the meta-prompts actually register in students’ minds, but they might help.

As previously discussed, in-class quizzes did not work well. Students performed poorly on them, they consumed an excessive amount of classroom time, and they were a pain for me to grade. This time the quizzes will be timed at ten minutes, reside on our Canvas LMS, and consist of machine-graded multiple choice questions. I’ll have immediate feedback on students’ understanding and will be able to revisit subjects as needed. Each quiz is scheduled for the class after the corresponding learning objective has concluded.

In my next post, I’ll discuss changes to the design thinking aspect of the course.

An Augar of a hard future

Nope

One of the things that British HE loves is a good review: we have them all the time, to help wile away the hours until our next Research Evaluation.

Best of all, reviews mean you don’t have to actually do anything: just wait for the report, then ‘consider it’, then hope that no one pushes you too hard for actual action.

The latest in the long line is the Augar report, which looks at the (sorry) state of financing the sector. It would be fair to say that no-one is too keen on its findings in the round.

The problem is money: there’s not really enough of it and right now too much is felt to come from students. The big shift from direct funding to student-attached money took place a decade or more ago, but opposition to rising fees has become a shibboleth of those who worry about access and form an easy political target.

But if you cut back how much students have to pay in directly – as Augar suggests, by cutting back fees – there’s a shortfall. Either the government picks up the tab – Augar’s preference – or the sector contracts and consolidates to generate efficiencies.

Oddly, the government doesn’t seem mad-keen on the former, even as it’s not quite yet ready to do the latter.

Throw in a leadership contest in the governing party and you have the ideal recipe for “let’s not deal with it now”, that old favourite of HE policy.

I’m interested in this at multiple levels, not least as someone with a job in the sector. But it also points to the challenges facing the UK in its state of Brexiting.

One of the big sells for a post-EU UK has been its role as a global leader in HE: the country punches well above its weight on any metric you care to mention and no Brexiteers’ speech is complete without reference to our global universities.

But this doesn’t happen by itself: the sector has never been self-sustaining and autonomous: student fees are guaranteed by the government, who also provide the money for many of the major research councils. Yes, universities are run as businesses, but none could cope without that public support.

Partly, that reflects the nature of HE. Augar decries ‘mickey mouse’ degrees (back in the news again) for their lack of commercial value. But education isn’t just (or even, particularly) about narrow financial gain: it’s about helping people become more than they were, to make sense of the world around them. Learning is its own reward (which is nice, but still needs money to make it happen).

So the dilemma remains: stick with the current (unpopular) system; increase central funding (when belts might need tightening); or risk compromising the eco-system of British HE that is generally acclaimed to be A Good Thing.

In this, it’s a bit like Brexit: there are no good choices and there are no cost-free choices.

Maybe we need another review to sort it out.

Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Just What Is Your Best Exam Format?

Now that I’m done with hours upon hours of post-semester meetings and painting my house’s front door, I can comment on Simon’s recent post about open-book exams.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

One’s choice of exam format reflects two questions that are often in conflict. Will the exam give students a reasonable chance of demonstrating whether they have acquired the knowledge that they were supposed to have acquired? Can the instructor accurately, impartially, and practically assess the exam results? For example . . .

  • Oral exam: great for testing exegetical ability on the fly, but extremely tiresome and unfeasible if the instructor is teaching more than a couple dozen students in a course.
  • Multiple choice questions: very easy for the instructor to grade, minimizes student complaints, but encourages binge and purge memorization.
  • The timed essay exam, whether open- or closed-book: also tiresome to grade, often susceptible to instructor bias, and, perhaps most importantly, reinforces the unproductive notion that writing (and thus thinking) does not need to be a careful, deliberative process.

How does all this affect me? Over the years I have moved away from formal exams and toward a final culminating assignment — such as a take-home essay question that I reveal in the last week of the semester — intended to test how well students are able to apply concepts to an unfamiliar situation. But lately I’ve become disenchanted with this format, too.

Simon’s post prompted me to think back to my own days as a student. Exams in physics, mathematics, and engineering consisted of, essentially, solving a variety of puzzles — full marks required both supplying the correct solution and documenting how one arrived at it. The primary ability being tested was concept application. One prepared for these exams by working on practice puzzles involving the same concepts. Courses in political science, history, and whatnot had timed essay exams. To prepare for these, I would guess at likely questions and create outlines of essays that answered these questions. I would repeatedly hand-write an outline to memorize it, then turn it into prose during the exam. Even if my guesses weren’t entirely accurate, they were often close enough for the outlines to be very useful.

I’m now wondering if there is a way to turn the outline creation process into the equivalent of an exam. Something that gets graded, but not as part of a scaffolded research paper assignment.