Let’s play together! Takeaways from five collaborative online simulations

This guest post is by Simon Fink at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Peter Bursens at the University of Antwerp, and Lars Harzem at Planpolitik!

Online simulations are an attractive tool for active learning because they allow student groups to collaborate over long distances, exploiting their diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. As students don’t need to be in one place, teachers can merge groups from different universities for a joint simulation experience. Having supervised five online simulations between the Universities of Antwerp and Göttingen using Planpolitk’s Senaryon platform, we report on some lessons we have learned.

Background

Using the platform Senaryon offered by Planpolitik, we performed a simulation of policymaking and lobbying in the sphere of EU environmental policy. The participants were approximately 40 students from Antwerp (Master of political science) and Göttingen (mostly BA of political science). While both programmes have an international student body by themselves, the joint online game further enhanced the international experience, involving intensive collaboration among students from all over the world.

The simulation is divided into two consecutive parts, with each part lasting one week. In the first week, half of the participants play members of different services of the European Commission. Their task is to draft measures to combat climate change through a decrease of CO2 emissions by cars. They start with vague tasks (develop overarching goals) and work towards concrete policy proposals. In doing this, they have to coordinate within the Commission, reconciling the interests of trade, industry, and climate services, while at the same time interacting with lobbyists representing green, consumer, and industrial interests.

The lobbyists are played by the other half of the participants. Their job is to also work from broad principles towards concrete policy advice, and try to communicate their positions to the Commission. Both sets of roles work in small teams, e.g. DG Environment, Greenpeace, Airlines for Europe, etc. The participants´ tasks are split up into small sub-tasks that are immediately commented on by the supervisors, so that participants can use concise, hands-on feedback to guide them through the next steps of the simulation.

All the interactions between the participants happen online, using joint text pads and a chat system, allowing us to staff all simulated teams with students from both Antwerp and Göttingen.

The final product of the first simulation week is a Commission proposal for legislation on climate change, taking into account the input by the lobbyists to underpin the legislation with facts and arguments, and support for the implementation.

In the second week, the legislative proposal proceeds to the next legislative phase in the European Parliament. At this point, participants switch roles: The former members of the Commission become lobbyists, while the former lobbyists now are Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), organised along political groups. The team logic also applies to the latter: if, for example, the European People’s Party has five MEPs in the simulation, this will be a mixed Göttingen-Antwerp group.

The participants’ job is similar to the first part of the simulation: The MEPs work on the legislative proposal, trying to turn their broad ideological backgrounds into concrete amendments; the lobbyists try to influence the MEP using good arguments. The outcome of the second week is a resolution of the EP, reflecting the amendments of the EP to the Commission proposal of the first stage of the game.

The simulation ends with an encompassing reflection essay, in which students reflect upon the outcome and what they have learned from the game.

What have we learned?

A couple of conclusions are clear. The online simulation is an excellent format for mixing student groups from different universities. Asynchronous communication between the participants is key: students need to devote sufficient time to monitor and digest posts from their colleagues, draft reactions and post contributions themselves. It is crucial to keep all participants active throughout the entire trajectory, ensuring collaboration within and across groups that embody the actors in the game.

While there have been critical comments by students on nearly all aspects of the simulation – students find the time pressure and the word limits for the tasks too restrictive – mixing groups was always the part of the simulation that the students liked. The tasks of the simulation force them to work together in small teams and divide up the work, e.g. one lobby team member doing the research, another team member reaching out to Commissioners, and a third member communicating with other lobby groups.

The asynchronous chat system supported this kind of work-sharing between Antwerp and Göttingen. Crucially, students were not in the same place, and they did not need to be “in the simulation” at the same time. Instead, typical conversations were “Have contacted Commissioner – now I need to go to class – can you make the follow-up? – I´ll be back at 4pm to work on the press release.” Due to the tight deadlines, we did not have the common problem that asynchronous online simulations are sometimes slow. Instead, the deadlines generate a fast-paced simulation. And due to the clear and small tasks the teams had to work on, we also had lively online discussions.

When instructions in the online platform are clear and precise, supervisors can take the back seat during the game and restrict themselves to troubleshooting and providing feedback on students’ input. 

It is important to acknowledge that students are used to working in online environments and on small tasks. If simulation instructions are given in small and intuitive chunks, the simulation is nearly running by itself. Students got clear deadlines, clear tasks, and an online environment in which everything was in one place. They could work from task to task, deadline to deadline, and get feedback from the instructors at fixed intervals (after completing the tasks). Senaryon includes a chat system to request supervisors’ help, but this was seldom used.

We also noticed that the usability of the system is paramount. The fact that students are used to working in online environments also implies that they have specific and outspoken ideas about how such an online environment should look: students’ expectations are formed by user experiences established by large-scale internet companies. This means that the look and feel of an online simulation needs to evolve along with these expectations. If not, there is a risk that students will “leave” the simulation environment and outsource their bilateral and informal interaction to other platforms. This would undermine one of the main benefits of the online simulation, which is that supervisors can monitor how students interact with each other within their teams. Students must have the impression that the communication tools within the platform are the most effective and pleasant way to coordinate. In this respect, quick and responsive technical support from Planpolitik in case of platform issues was very important.

In addition, offline instructions are vital for managing expectations. The online simulation is demanding: Students have tight deadlines, they have to work on complicated policy issues, and they have to coordinate team efforts over two universities. The two simulation weeks are demanding and stressful. Although the simulation itself is self-explanatory once it has started, good offline instructions before the start are vital to set the expectations. On top of a joint introductory session, including a recording, we therefore made sure to extensively brief our respective student groups about the learning objectives, the potential challenges (coordination within the groups, tight deadlines), the topic of the simulation, and the functioning of the platform.

Finally, the teaching staff responsible for the evaluation needs to have user-friendly access to all the content the students have submitted during the game. A valid evaluation of students’ performance, both in terms of skills and knowledge, cannot be done without a clear view of their input, including the conversations that led to positions, amendments, and policy proposals.

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