Creating Community I: Reading Response Discussions

Per Amanda’s last post about platform options for online group projects, over the next several weeks I’ll throw out some of my plans for exercises that I hope will create community in the two fall undergraduate courses I’ll be teaching online. I’ll start simple and gradually get more complex.

In the physical classroom, I still use reading responses to generate discussion among students and minimize formal lecturing. Online, I’ll do this with breakout rooms. In the classroom, I typically ask each group of students to summarize for the rest of the class the consensus position it has reached on the reading response; the pattern that emerges from polling groups in this manner often leads to additional discussion. I think this process will be tedious for students in an online environment, so I will tell students that each breakout room needs to create a document with three bullet points that support its argument. I will randomly choose one group of students to present its conclusions to the rest of the class after the breakout discussions are completed. The group will display its three bullet points to the class via screen share. I can ask that other students submit questions or opposing points of view, perhaps through text chat, for follow-up after the presentation. Throughout the process I’ll be asking “Why?” in Socratic fashion.

Technology note: Zoom has had breakout rooms for a long time. Cisco says that an updated version of Webex with this capability will launch at some point in September. There is apparently a method of creating breakout rooms with Microsoft Teams, but to me it looks complicated.

Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

During Italy’s pandemic-induced lockdown, I found myself having to teach an entirely virtual course on European foreign policy, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM)  at the University of Catania. I usually include simulations in my courses, and given the policy implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, I decided to create Tackling Covid-19 in a Global Perspective—a simulated emergency G20 meeting in Geneva, called to plan a global strategy for managing the pandemic’s health, political, social, and economic effects. Students represented panels of experts for the following policy areas: public health emergency; economic consequences; infrastructure and human mobility; impact on refugees, migrants and non-nationals; and impact on the conflict in Syria.

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The Brand (and Bias) Challenge

Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette of the Department of Political Science at Monmouth College. He can be contacted at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly pushed my classes online, I had to scramble to find ways to incorporate active learning into my online instruction. A unit on ethnocentrism, racism, and religious intolerance in my Religion and Politics course was particularly challenging—a fraught subject even with careful planning for in-person classes, but potentially even more divisive in our current internet culture. I decided to give students a unique “brand challenge.”

Posing it to my students as a replacement for the cancelled March Madness basketball tournament, I took an empty “Sweet 16” bracket and filled it in with classic brand competitions: Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Microsoft, Netflix vs. Disney+, etc. I asked students to comment in a discussion forum about which of their preferred brands should advance to the next round and why. I accompanied this with a video of myself in a sports hoodie offering brief commentary on each of the “matches.”

After a few days of discussion, the “Elite 8” round got even more interesting with pairings like Ford vs. Kate Middleton, Taco Bell vs. Google Chrome, and Target vs. Netflix. Student comments started centering on which brands were “more American” or have better values or were most familiar and useful to them.

By the time we got to the theoretical discussion of ethnocentrism, we had a personal, real-life example of how the students in my class divide their consumer choices into in-groups and out-groups. A similar attraction or aversion to consumer brands, I argued, applies to our interactions with other social groups. Over time, we learn to divide the world into different groups of people (“Coke people” vs. “Pepsi people”), psychologically attach ourselves to our chosen groups, and defend those groups, even when our rationale for doing so is limited or based on bias or stereotypes.

From my vantage point, this activity served the dual purpose of engaging students while preparing them for the difficult conversations about tolerance to come. We were then able to have meaningful discussions about why some religious groups are not represented in American politics, how perceived religious threat affects peoples’ choices, and how religious “brands” compete in the religious marketplace. I believe that in important part of preparing students to have these conversations is allowing them to experience some of the psychology and emotions that drive our political and social behaviors.

Early empirical studies in American politics were derived from the disciplines of advertising and marketing. The brand challenge activity draws from this tradition and could work well to teach about a variety of social identities and psychological processes. For example, it may help students think about models of partisanship and how individuals interact with party brands. It could also be a useful activity for encouraging students to think about how politics affects our lifestyle choices and the extent to which politics exists in our everyday lives.

Preparing Students for Online Learning

Students, like many of their professors, dislike change. Much of the student dissatisfaction with last semester’s shift to “remote instruction” ultimately derives from the fact that online education is different from what they had previously experienced. Well, guess what? The fall semester will also be unlike what many of them have grown to expect.

As a faculty member, you’re probably spending the coming weeks or months thinking about how to teach in an environment of lower enrollments, less frequent face-to-face classroom interaction, and hybrid or fully online course formats. It’s doubtful that students are thinking about how their own behaviors as learners might need to change.

To get students to think about tools and habits that they might need for the next semester, have them do an online readiness self-assessment. Directing them to general advice about online learning either before or after a self-assessment might be helpful also.

Call for Reviewers

The Journal of Political Science Education (JPSE) is looking for manuscript reviewers. JPSE, one of the four main journal of the American Political Science Association, publishes articles on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), political science instruction, reflections on teaching and the academy, and reviews of educational resources.

Manuscripts submitted to JPSE as examples of SoTL discuss empirically-based research and contain a rigorous qualitative or quantitative analysis. Political science instruction manuscripts explain how to use the pedagogical technique being described, but they do not need to include evidence of effectiveness like SoTL pieces. All submissions, regardless of topic area, need to be evaluated with a critical eye for rigor, clarity, and style. Reviewers must be willing to reject manuscripts that do not merit a revise and resubmit. They also need to complete their reviews in a timely manner.

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Diversifying the Discussion: The Classic Debate Exercise for Today’s Diverse Youth

Today we have a guest post from Kirstie Lynn Dobbs, lecturer in the political science and public policy department at Merrimack College. She can be reached at dobbsk [at] merrimack [dot] edu.

As Generation Z—born after 1996—emerges as the most racially and ethnically diverse cohort in America’s history, its members are likely to find themselves engaging with people who possess contrasting opinions. Amplifying the classic debate exercise to strategically include students with vastly different backgrounds serves as an opportunity to socialize college students into being receptive of alternative viewpoints. I found this to be true in my introduction to U.S. politics course at Merrimack College.

Two of my U.S. politics courses are with students in the Early College program at Merrimack. These students are predominantly students of color from immigrant communities and tend to identify as strong Democrats with extremely liberal ideals. My full-time Merrimack students are mostly non-Hispanic whites from the New England area. These students identify mostly as Republican and lean moderate to conservative. These two groups have dramatically different perspectives, ideals, and life experiences that shape their political beliefs.

I developed an exercise in which the Early College and full-time Merrimack students came together to research, form an argument, and debate a political issue. First, students participated in a pre-debate reflection on their perceptions of Democrats/liberals, Republicans/ conservatives, students at Lawrence Highschool (where Early College students are enrolled), and full-time Merrimack students. Next, the full-time Merrimack students joined my Early College courses. These extra classroom hours counted as experiential learning credit. I distributed students from both groups into teams and randomly assigned teams to a pro or con side of their chosen issue (such as legalizing marijuana, abortion, and immigration). Students had two classroom periods to research and form their argument and a third classroom period to debate.

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New and Improved

As I mentioned back in February, there are some glitches in the WordPress software that drives this blog. Probably I need to install an updated version of PHP to increase the blog’s security and stability, and this will force a change in the blog’s appearance. In other words, a new look, but same content and mission.

Along those lines, I would like to invite ideas for guest posts about the new assignments, exams, and techniques that all of you are now developing for an unprecedented fall semester. These ideas can be sent to us at alps@activelearningps.com. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing a radical re-think of teaching, and we all know that even the best-designed experiments often do not perform as desired. We welcome examples of failure as well as success, since the former is often more instructive than the latter.

Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions

[Updated: This post describes my experience delivering a simulated classroom lesson, part of my university’s effort to evaluate potential solutions to the challenges posed by the upcoming fall semester — a process that is, or should be, occurring on your campus as well. Testing is a necessary part of the design process, and the process of evaluating potential solutions rarely goes as expected in its initial iterations.]

Last week I simulated fall semester teaching with some students in the physical classroom and others connected remotely via Webex. My main objective for the demo was to identify possible points of failure in the technology that my university is thinking about purchasing, and in this I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

The lesson was organized as follows:

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Teaching Foreign Policy (Online) With Model Diplomacy

Today we have a guest post by Vincent Druliolle, assistant profesor in the Department of International Relations, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. He can be contacted at vincent [dot] druliolle [at] deusto [dot] es.

Last September I joined a different university, which led to teaching two new modules. This past term I taught foreign policy for the first time and used Model Diplomacy by the Council of Foreign Relations. I had to shift from my initial plan of running Model Diplomacy in class because of Covid-19, but this did not overly worry me, and I was further encouraged by Charity Butcher’s recent post. Like her, I chose the ‘basic’ version of the simulation with a view to devoting only one two-hour class to the activity. I allocated each role to groups of four students, with each group writing a position memo, but I ran the simulation twice with half the class participating each time, so that I could divide each group into pairs. Four students per role is too much for an in-class simulation, and I thought that splitting each group into two was even more necessary for the online format.

I used Google Meet as a platform for the simulation without any technical glitches. Because each role was played by two students, I told the class to connect with their partners through Whatsapp or some other medium so that they could exchange opinions about the proposals put forward by the other actors. I also warned them that I wanted to listen to both members of each pair during the simulation. This worked well and participation was good overall. It was entertaining to see students on various parts of my screen using their mobile phones to debate with their partners while their classmates were speaking. At one point a student was caught speaking on an open mic, which is probably an important lesson to be learned.

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