And They’re Off

We are now nearly three full weeks into our fall semester. My teaching duties include two fully online synchronous undergraduate courses that contain a total of fifty-five students. I reformulated these courses for online delivery because of the pandemic; in-person instruction has been, until now, the norm for undergraduate education at my university. Here are a few early-semester observations:

Given the faces that appear on my screen and Zoom usage reports, class sessions have been well-attended. I do see a few students connecting from their beds; obviously they are not fully awake. One student is connecting from her workplace, while on the job. But while some students might be less engaged than they are in a physical classroom, at minimum they are “present.” I regularly teach early in the morning, and for face-to-face classes, typically 5-10% of my students are absent on any given day.

I’m a believer in assessing early and often. I provide all assignments and deadlines to students at the start of the semester — via the syllabus and the LMS. Both of my courses have had five assignments due so far. Five out of the fifty-five students chose not to submit at least one assignment by its deadline. Four students did not submit two assignments. Three did not submit three, and one student chose not to complete any of the five. This matches what happens when I teach face-to-face. My courses often end up with a bimodal grade distribution; while it’s really hard for students to achieve D and F grades, a few always manage to succeed, and they are invariably the ones who do poorly at the beginning of the semester. Probably this pattern is consistent regardless of instructional delivery method.

Learned helplessness seems to have increased compared to past semesters, but only slightly, so I don’t know whether this is associated with online instruction. I’m getting the usual excuses: I can’t submit an assignment to the LMS. I can’t upload a photo to an asynchronous online discussion. I didn’t know the class was on Zoom rather than Webex even though you sent three emails with instructions before the semester started. As I state in my syllabi, these are not my problems. Figure it out.

In sum, my experience so far this semester hasn’t been that different than previous semesters. Yes, there have been a few technical glitches on my end, and there are some new complexities that I’m still learning how to manage. But at least from my perspective (which might be different from that of my students), things are going ok.

We would like to hear what you’re encountering this semester, especially if you are in a “hy-flex” environment simultaneously teaching in-person and remotely-connected students. How is it going? Send us a potential guest post at alps@activelearningps.com.

Never forget

The jacket was this pattern. I wore it nowhere near as stylishly.

I was going to write about why you should never try to run a simultaneous in-class/online session, but if you’ve not already learnt that from this and this, then really it’s going to have to be personal experience that teaches you. Enjoy.

Instead, since it’s Induction Week here, I’d share my memories of my first days at University, because it’s easy to forget what it’s like.

The first morning in our halls of residence I strode into the canteen, dressed my smartest clothes: certainly there was a jacket, possibly even a tie involved.

Five minutes later I was back in my room, changing into the jeans and t-shirt that everyone was wearing.

And then…

Well, I remember nothing else from my first week. I assume I had various induction sessions, and that I got to know a bit about others on my course, and I’d be very surprised if I didn’t end up in the student union at some point.

But still, the overriding thing that I took from starting university was that it wasn’t like I’d thought it would be. Not so much because I had some family-/friend-based telling of it all, or because I’d watched movies set in universities, but because I’d not really thought about it too much.

All of this came back to me again yesterday, as I introduced myself to our first-years and then took some of them around campus.

The only advice I could offer them was to talk with others, because it’s a lot to take in. Now, much more than my first year, we pile up huge amounts of policy, procedure and learning contracts, even before we get to the world of infection control.

Put it like this, my happiest moment was being asked to point out where the loos can be found on campus: super mundane, but obviously important to everyone.

So just remember how it felt when you started out, think about all that your students are dealing with right now, and try to keep the lines of communication open permanently: we never stop learning about being at university.

As I found out when I pointed the student to the wrong place for a wee.

Caveat Emptor

An open letter to current and potential future graduate students:

The bottom has now completely fallen out of the academic labor market in the USA. Over the last several years, I’ve written about the deteriorating financial situation of many U.S. colleges and universities. At the micro scale, two for four institutions profiled in that post have closed. At the macro scale, there is this 2013 overview of pending structural change in higher education by a former provost. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has simply accelerated the process.

I have also discussed what this means for people planning on a career in academia. The outlook has gone from very bad to worse. The University of Pennsylvania has reacted responsibly by suspending admission to its graduate programs in arts and sciences. More universities should do the same. But they probably won’t, because graduate tuition and labor are part of the university business model. My advice? Don’t enter a graduate program with expectations of becoming a professor unless you are granted full funding for the length of the program.

What should current graduate students do? Become proficient in skills that have been and will continue to be in demand outside of academia — statistics, data visualization, coding, and writing for policymakers and the public rather than the dozen people who might read your journal article. Also, a master’s degree in instructional design is a very useful credential. Note that political science graduate programs often don’t provide students with formal, effective training in any of these skills. That’s because they are preparing people for a career that, statistically-speaking, no longer exists.

Some reflections on hybrid vs online lectures

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

We have just entered the third week of the new academic year here. With regards to the Covid-19 challenges, our faculty has decided that we should offer students one on-campus meeting per week. This particularly concerns our new BA and MA students, who want to help adapt to this new environment. Obviously, this comes with huge challenges as to how to organise teaching, including students who have simply not been able to come to Maastricht.

I myself am currently in the process of designing a new course and updating an old one. So far, I have given lectures in two different set-ups: once completely online and once in a hybrid setting with on-campus and online students.

I have experience with Zoom lectures and decided for a similar approach for my online lecture on interdisciplinarity for our new BA students. This included a short video introducing topic and initial questions for discussion. This worked well. Many students seemed to have prepared the questions, which resulted in some good ideas and suggestions (including some funny memes about academic research and writing):

The only real problem was that I was only co-hosting the session, which complicated things a bit as far as technicalities (breakout groups, integrating Wooclap) were concerned and which, hence, created a bit of fuss. Something to avoid in the future. Yet, with all students being at the other side of the screen, it was easy to engage with all of them in a  similar way.

My hybrid experience was vastly different, though. Engaging with students was just one of the problems.

Going hybrid

My hybrid lecture was part of our Research Master. The lecture took place in ‘Tent 1’ – the faculty has set up tents to allow for more on-campus activities. The acoustics were awful. And the A/C, despite making lots of noise, was unable to keep the temperature below boiling point…

This was a lecture that I have just inherited from a colleague, which meant I had to adapt it. This, together with the fact that some students would be online and some on-campus, made me opt for a plainer set-up. Following Chad’s experience with breakout rooms I decided not to use audience response tools. As the group was quite small, I thought it would also work to simply ask questions as we went along.

Unfortunately, response was slow and only came from on-campus students. The only comment raised online concerned an echo on the portable mic that I had been asked to use. The latter was not the only challenge resulting from the hybrid setting. As ‘Tent 1’ comes with an in-built laptop camera, I had to stay in front of that laptop. I couldn’t walk around – something that usually helps me to stimulate interaction – and using the (real-world) whiteboard was near impossible, as it meant having to juggle with the laptop camera.

But the most problematic thing of all was me overlooking the online students. When you have real people in front of you, this is whom you engage with. At first, I thought this might be due to the online students not having turned their camera on. I asked them to do so after the break, but, again, my attention drifted towards the on-campus students very quickly.

Lessons learned

I can imagine Simon being anxious towards teaching this semester. At any rate, my hybrid teaching experience was similar to Chad’s: quite terrible.

I will meet most of the Research Master students again from the end of October. At least one of them is unlikely to make it to Maastricht. Hence, given that this will be one of my own courses, I have decided to:

  • Do all lectures in Zoom – i.e. no hybrid lectures.
    • No one benefits from a hybrid setting. It creates extra fuzz, also for the experienced online lecturer.
    • Ask lecturers for short videos to introduce themselves and the topic so as to already raise a couple of questions for discussion.
  • Do all tutorials in a hybrid setting.
    • This should work because of the small group size and tutorials being student-driven and centred around discussion of literature.
    • Create additional online individual and collaborative assignments in Canvas and Wooclap to aid preparation and discussion.

But in any other setting I would certainly suggest not to go hybrid. This may mean having to split up students in on-campus and online groups. Yet, if resources allow you to do so, all students will benefit; either from your best on-campus teaching or from your best online teaching.

Improve Breakout Groups with Collaborative Document Editing in Google Slides or MS Teams

If you are teaching synchronous virtual classes on Zoom, Webex, or any other teleconference platform you are probably using breakout groups for small group discussions or student presentation preparation. Breakout groups are a great technique to break up a session and help build connections between small groups of students, but they suffer from three core problems:

  1. Students don’t remember or understand the prompt and take awhile to get started.
  2. Coordinating how to take notes or otherwise share the group’s work with other groups can be difficult and time-consuming, and may result in a single student doing most of that work.
  3. Students don’t get a quality set of notes from the presentations of other groups, reducing the likelihood that they will get much value from what other groups have done.

Collaborative document editing solves all three of these problems.

This idea is courtesy of Dr. Jenny Cooper of Stonehill College, who has found great success in creating a seamless breakout group experience in her classes. Instructors create a shared slide presentation in MS Teams or Google Slides that contains a slide with the prompt, instructions for the group work, and any expected output. This is followed by individual blank slides for each group to fill in, labeled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ etc. Share the link to the presentation with students, and then every member of each group can access and edit the document in real time during breakout groups, recording notes, images, or graphics in their assigned blank slide. The result is a single shared document that contains the work from each group, eliminating the need to share screens or additional files during presentations and ensuring that students have a complete set of notes they can review after the class.

This method can be used by anyone regardless of what teleconference system you are using. I advise that only those classes already using MS Teams should use the Teams method; everyone else should use Google Slides. This is easy to use for students: Google Slides does not require students to create an account to access or edit a document; all you have to do is send your students a link with editing privileges to the slide presentations, or post one in your LMS/VLE. They will click on the link and immediately be able to edit the document in either platform. As for faculty, if you have ever created a PowerPoint or other slide presentation, then this method will require minimal effort to adopt.

The only drawback is that there can be connectivity issues if a lot of people are accessing the same document at once. If you see that happening, you may want to ask a single student in each group to act as notetaker, and to share their screen within the breakout group so that their group mates can easily see what they are writing. In addition, students accessing Teams or Google Slides on a mobile or tablet may not have full editing functionality, so notetakers should generally be students using a computer.

Here is an in-depth guide with screenshots on how to do this in both MS Teams and Google Slides:

Nail-biting

Because we don’t actually a stock
image of someone looking anxious

I have to admit to being rather anxious about this semester.

It’s not a feeling I usually have, even when taking on a new course or being given some additional duties in short order.

Indeed, I not sure I’ve felt like this since I started out, and even then I at least knew what the thing looked like, because I’d been sitting in those same classes only a short time beforehand.

But this? This is different.

All summer I’ve been working up my courses, attending seminars, talking with colleagues, creating content and triple-checking VLEs. And now I’m starting to get students to log into things, let me know about where they’ll be.

And still I worry.

I worry because this semester is going to be unlike any other I’ve had; even this spring won’t really be a patch on it. Now I’m going to be purposely and deliberately running online and in-class elements in parallel, trying to hit the same learning objectives but with different means and with students potentially moving back and forth between modes.

I’m not going to spell out why that’s worrisome, since your imagination is just as good as mine, but to hear colleagues elsewhere talk about outages, social distancing restrictions or short-order closures of campuses, there’s more than enough for lurid visions of How It Can All Go Wrong.

My own personal – and relatively minor – experience this week was finding that I am going to have to run a Masters-level version of my negotiation course alongside its usual undergraduate one, which means I’m having to rework a bunch of online spaces so that students can work together.

I’m sharing this with you because I think it’s important to acknowledge this.

When I give talks – as I am this week at Southampton – I do focus on why we shouldn’t worry too much, because we’ve got the tools already to hand to deal with it all. But that doesn’t mean we won’t worry in the first place.

So I’m not completely alright and you might not be completely alright, but that’s alright [sic] because we can help each other. Never have I been more thankful for the community of L&T specialists and enthusiasts as I have this year.

Together, we’ll get through all this (and then we can write blogs/journal articles about it all).

Keeping Students on Track

Regardless of how well our autumn checklists prepared us for autumn teaching, there is a good chance the unexpected will introduce the need for change. Or, to paraphrase a philosopher, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. A few tips on how to minimize the pain:

Build an asynchronous component into a synchronous course. If your campus is evacuated, technology fails, or you have to shelter in place, there is at least one part of the course that continues to operate. You can use it as a foundation upon which to construct substitutes for the other parts that are no longer working.

Create routine using repeated cycles of the same activities. For example, I have one undergraduate course meeting twice per week. On Tuesdays, class begins with students discussing an assignment in small groups. A randomly chosen group then reports its findings to the whole class. Then I give a brief lecture. On Thursdays, students take a quiz, work on team projects, and meet with me individually. That’s the pattern for almost the entire semester.

Narrow each class session to teaching a single big idea, preferably one directly related to a course learning outcome. Get rid of the peripheral “it would be nice if students also knew about . . .” content, because it confuses students — they aren’t as good as you are at identifying what they should focus on. If the unexpected disrupts class, the clarity of the lesson will make it easier for you to quickly develop an alternative method of delivery.

Regularly remind students what is headed their way. I’m now sending out “agenda for the coming week” announcements. My intent is simply to reinforce the messages in the syllabus and in the schedule of assignments in the LMS/VLE. Again, if there is an unplanned interruption in any particular week, I can conveniently refer back to that week’s agenda to inform students what is changing and how.

Tweeting for better living

Obviously, it’s a bad move to go for the clickbaiting title when you’re going to write about a discussion that decried clickbait, but how else would I be getting you to read this?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it: how to make an impression when you feel you have no weigh to impress with?

This was part of the discussion we had yesterday as part of the on-going UACES virtual conference, when I got some of the leading lights of the #TradeTwitter community – Anna Jezewska, David Henig and Dmitry Grozoubinski to come and talk about how Twitter figured in their work.

Guided by the equally talented Katy Hayward, the panellists covered a lot of ground about the hows and whys of the platform, which I’ve tried to capture in some live-tweeting here:

The big take-home for me was that engaging in social media can be a big boost to your work, but it takes time and effort.

Certainly, my own experience was that it took a long time to find how I could use Twitter to good effect in improving my understanding and then in being a means to share what I could contribute, but it’s been a central part of my work for many years now.

Like anything else we do in our professional practice, we don’t arrive fully-formed: we need to grow and develop what we do, and to accept that we’ll make missteps on the way.

As the panel have all shown, building up a reputation for informed and impartial insights on the things they know about (laced with the occasional GIF or two) pays off over time. Unless you’re already a household name, then that’s not going to drop in your lap (and maybe not even then), so you need to work at it.

If you’re stuck on how that might look, then the four of them make a great set of contrasts, so why not give them a follow?

Creating Community V: Final Touches

Some final attempts to build community into my courses before they start this week:

I scheduled a few Zoom meetings at different times so students could test their access and ask me questions. I had created a poll with the following questions as a way for them to assess their readiness (possible answers were “yes,” “no,” and “unsure”):

  1. I will have reliable and convenient internet access when the semester begins.
  2. I feel comfortable learning how to use Zoom.
  3. I am looking forward to the fall semester.
  4. I am worried about the possible effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on me or my family members.
  5. I am worried that non-academic demands on my time, such as employment or care for family members, might interfere with my studies.
Continue reading “Creating Community V: Final Touches”

Survey and competition on learning and teaching of international students

The ECPR standing group on Teaching and Learning Politics is collecting data about teaching practices that enhance learning for international students. We particularly seek responses from teaching staff members from the UK. Completing the survey takes between 10 and 15 minutes.

You can also describe your teaching model (part B of the survey) – the best 10 models will be each awarded a €400 prize.

The survey remains open until 18 September 2020 and you can ask for an extension if you want to send your model.

Find out more and fill in the survey here: https://bit.ly/3c4lll2