How can you make your online forum flourish?

You’ve got… a mail

I’m guessing that most of you teaching have some kind of online space, where you post materials like the coursework handbook, Powerpoints and the rest.

I’m also guessing you have a forum, quite possibly with a hopeful message from you from Week 1 encouraging students to share thoughts and ideas.

It might well be the only message.

I know it usually was in my modules, when I taught in-person.

Even now, working at a distance-learning institution, our modules are typically desolate wastelands, where maybe a couple of people post once, maybe twice, before shuffling off.

Students aren’t impressed, we’re not impressed, yet we press on.

What to do about it?

Continue reading “How can you make your online forum flourish?”

How to use Powerpoint in your teaching

Good for wallpaper, maybe less so for British Politics 101

The last few weeks have seen me back at the face-to-face teaching thing, with a number of talks, presentations and briefings.

As someone who mostly sits in his shed in his garden, this is a very positive development, especially since all that face-to-face work is happening in warmer spaces than the shed.

However, it has also reminded me about the importance of getting any Powerpoint usage right.

As Amanda has written before, while it’s easy to dunk on Powerpoint, it is ultimately like any tool we use in the classroom: good for some things, bad for others.

Indeed, that I’m writing this nearly a decade after Amanda’s post suggests that both technology and pedagogical practice change more slowly than we might often think.

So let’s run through the key points once again.

First up, focus on your learning objectives. What are you trying to achieve with your teaching? Who needs to learn what?

If you don’t know the answer to this, then everything else falls apart, because it points you towards optimising the opportunities for your audience to learn the things you want them to learn. And the tools you’ll use.

Hence, I didn’t make a Powerpoint for the ‘in discussion’ session I had one evening recently, even though I was asked to make some structured opening comments: I wanted to reduce the distance with the audience, so we discussed, rather than be the guy who turns up with The Answer.

Secondly, tailor your Powerpoint to your audience.

I vividly remember sitting in a panel presentation, years ago, where a guy opened up his 165 page Powerpoint and then jumped around about 15 of those slides to do the presentation of his paper. I did not feel the love and was mostly interested in what else might be in that huge slide deck.

Make a specific Powerpoint for that specific session. Building on your sense of the learning objectives, recognise that each instance that you teach is different and unique, so your materials will be unique too.

Think about how you might present your paper differently to a departmental seminar, a general conference panel, a workshop or to non-academic audiences: all the same source material, but each with different incentives and interests that feed back into what you offer them.

Thirdly, make your Powerpoint functional.

If you ever have to say “you probably can’t read this” or “this isn’t important”, then you’ve failed on this count.

Anything you put on a slide will be paid attention to, read and considered. It’s why lots of text on a slide results in people not paying attention to you speaking: they’re reading.

So only put in what is necessary and nothing more, remembering that your Powerpoint isn’t the only thing that’s going on when you teach.

Personally, it’s why I switched to mostly images for my slides some years back: students are listening to my explanation/interpretation of those images, plus it gives me a degree of freedom and flexibility to adjust to their needs.

Finally, reflect on your practice.

The only time I’ve ever had to break up fisticuffs was when two colleagues argued (very hard) about the Powerpoint that one of them was about to use in their shared class.

Somehow, the upshot was that I spent the next hour in that class, to give some feedback on the offending article (120 slides for a one hour lecture).

Strangely, and even though it’s totally not how I’d have done it, the colleague made pretty good use of that Powerpoint, because it fitted their style of teaching and the needs of the class. But they’d never really had anyone discuss how that worked (and how it might work better) before.

All of us benefit from thinking back on what we’ve done and from getting input from others, including our students. It’s part of why I’ve writing this post: much as I’d like to say I smashed all those face-to-face sessions I’ve been doing, actually I know there’s still room for improvement, improvement that I can take into my next session (which is this weekend).

Meet the ALPS Blog team!

As part of our new ALPS set-up, we’re trying to get out more to meet up with colleagues, talking active learning and sustaining our community.

If you’d like to chat with any of us, then you find a handy list of events we’re signed/signing up to this year below. We’re all very pleasant, friendly types, so you’re always welcome to have a chat.

We can help with all your learning & teaching queries, and we’re also happy to advise on getting published (both here at the blog and elsewhere).

And if you’re not at these events, then we’re only an email away.

Looking forward to seeing you in 2024!

EventWho’s there?
PSA, Glasgow, 25-27 MarchCathy
PCA, Chicago, 27 – 30 MarchJennifer
ISA, San Francisco, 3-6 AprilAmanda, Pigeon
Freedom to Learn, London, 5 AprilCathy
UCL Education Conference, 17 AprilCathy, Kalina
ECSA-C, Ottawa, 23 – 25 MayJennifer
CEEISA, Rijeka, 18-21 JuneAmanda, Kalina
ECPR SGEU, Lisbon, 19-21 JuneSimon
Connections Wargaming, Carlisle (PA) , 25-27 JunePigeon
UACES, Trento, 1-4 SeptSimon
APSA, Philadelphia, 5-8 SeptAmanda, Jennifer

How do you get students to do something they haven’t done before?

Wall? Gallery? Inefficient note-taking system for that reading on Clauswitz?

This question came up from our own contributor, JP, the other night. He’s got a new module that involves getting students to do some actual activity in their community, applying their learning to try to get something achieved. He can write his own post about how that works in more detail, but one challenge that he asked for thoughts on was the question in the title.

It’s a pretty regular problem, especially in active learning circles: we want to get away from the same-old same-old, but our students get stuck once we’re away from the nice certainties of sitting in a lecture theatre, taking notes (or, at least, we think they’ll be).

Three main points here.

Continue reading “How do you get students to do something they haven’t done before?”

How do you make sense of a country’s politics?

I spent a few days this New Year in Berlin with my family, seeing the sights and eating the food and avoiding the fireworks.

It’s a fabulous city, for so many reasons, not least because the last time I was there was when I interrailed around Europe in 1992 and it’s changed a bit.

But you don’t care about my holidays, I assume. You’re here for the question in the title.

Since there was only the one person in the group who’d studied German history at university and he “kept using his teaching voice” [fine. whatever.], we decided it would be good to sample some of the numerous museums in the city, including the DDR Museum.

This is a private venture, telling people about the life and nature of East Germany.

Aside from the obligatory Trabant and a bit of Wall, that included a mocked-up flat, multimedia resources and – oddly – a diorama of nude sunbathers on the Baltic coast.

It’s maybe best summarised by the fridge magnets in the shop (pictured above): the reduction of forty year’s to a set of atomised images and memories, packaged for your convenience.

We all found it underwhelming. Me because it left out so much; everyone else because they didn’t know how it fitted together at all.

And this is a frequent problem when teaching comparative politics, both in strictly comparative terms and when doing the “politics of X” course. Where do you start? Where do you go? How do you hang it all together?

Continue reading “How do you make sense of a country’s politics?”

Joined-up thinking and British universities

The publication this week of the IFS’ report on education funding reminds us that real-term per capita spending on university students in England is back to the levels it was in 2011-12, before the introduction of the current tuition fees.

Which had been introduced to resolve the funding crisis in HE.

The problem has returned because successive governments refused to wear the political cost of indexing those fees, so their real-term value has sunk, then plummeted, over time.

This has been an obvious issue for many years and one which universities responded to by finding other streams of revenue. Hence lots of shiny new accommodation blocks, to extract more revenue from students.

Hence also lots of recruitment of foreign students, whose fees are not capped.

Problem solved, then? Not really.

Continue reading “Joined-up thinking and British universities”

Stepping in the same river twice?

Not stepped in this river at all: much too cold

I found myself at a dinner with a bunch of academics the other day and we fell, as one goes, into the cultural reference points we use to connect with students.

One colleague had been struck by someone they work using cultural objects from the 1970s; something they felt was a push even for co-workers to understand, let alone the pimply youth in our classrooms.

However, I’ve not let that stop me using an allusion to a saying from the 6th Century BCE as my title. If you don’t get it, then GIYF.

Any way, this saying occurred to me as I continued my exploration of BlueSky, even as Twitter/X/whatever becomes ever more useless.

The immediate prompt was the arrival on the new platform of several of the best Twitter-era politics snark accounts (Berlaymonster and General Boles, if you fancy following them). These are the accounts that helped to make Twitter not simply a great networking site but also an enjoyable one. Doomscrolling is considerably less taxing when you have someone willing and able to skewer it all.

But that was then.

BlueSky isn’t Twitter, for which there are many reasons to be thankful. But that also means recognising that we lose something too. And even if we can frame that as ‘different’, rather than ‘better’ or ‘worse’, it still needs our engagement to recognise and adapt to that.

This is also true for our teaching practice.

Not only do our students change composition over time, but so too do our technological options, our institutional obligations/constraints and we ourselves.

That can be a joy: I love that every time I take a politics-focused class it will be different and unique because of this accumulation of changes. But it’s also rather disorientating.

Central to managing this is our own self-awareness. Just as we want students to be critical learners, so too must we practise this, recognising what the relevant factors and dynamics might be.

That can be understanding that a class late in the semester will have students both more focused on assessment for your class and more distracted by work for other colleagues. It can be reflecting on how recent real-world developments in your field of teaching might impact on how you present cases or theories. It can also be about the lessons you took from the last time you ran the class and where the pinch points of understanding came.

Again, all this falls into a framing of things being different. Hopefully, we all have moments when it all came together and was amazing, but the best way to get that happening again (or for the first time) is to continue flexing and adapting, rather than trying to recreate what is now past.

Remember, the full quote is: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and it’s not the same man.”

Talking about contentious politics, again

Yet again, we find ourselves confronted over the past week by a highly contentious set of political events that simultaneously a) need and require us to analyse and discuss them and b) need and require us to be mindful of how difficult that is to do without people finding and taking offence in the way we do that.

As someone with absolutely no research expertise or teaching activity relating to Israel-Palestine, those challenges are less than they might be for you (although my session on French politics last week did drift more than once onto the topic).

Here at ALPS Blog, we’ve been going long enough to have considered this at various points. As much as each case is specific, we do have some pieces that might prove useful for you to read and draw on.

There’s also a growing literature for you to explore on all of this.

And as always, if you’ve found something else that works – or have found that these ideas don’t work – then we’d love to hear from you, either in the comments or with a guest post.

Getting on to BlueSky

Some sky

Since we are (once again) in a “Twitter is a hell-hole” period, I thought I’d do a short piece on this year’s contender for Twitter replacement, namely BlueSky.

Readers with any memory will recall I did something similar for Mastodon almost a year ago. While there’s certainly a community there, it never really got enough momentum to build the kind of volume needed to make it a realistic home for everyone.

However, it’s still a really pleasant vibe, so do consider it for your more general well-being.

BlueSky comes in as a more direct Twitter-style platform, partly because it’s created by ex-Twitter employees who miss How Things Used To Be, and partly because as a result their GUI is spookily familiar to any Tweep.

The functionality is very similar (although no GIFs, boo!) and there’s a pretty good flow of people both well-known and less-well-known into the site over the past week. Including me. And this blog.

There are really only two difficulties.

Firstly, all those new users mean it’s a pretty slow site, so don’t go expecting the nippiness of Twitter for now, and probably not until the financing model balances out server capacity. Try accessing via a computer rather than mobile, as that seems to help matters.

Secondly, and more pertinent here, you need to be invited to join.

BlueSky generates invite codes for its members based on engagement: I got my first one the other day based on some tweets and talking with the various people who engaged with it. You put in, you get out; so if you’re a lurker then you’re not going to be able to invite friends/colleagues/that person who does that thing.

As you might have seen on Twitter, invites are often tricky to get hold of, so unless you’ve got lucky with your online buds, what can you do?

Well, several people have set up clearing houses for people to donate codes. I used this one, established to get researchers on the site. You pop in your details and you’ll get an email to confirm it all, with a code following not long after.

Remember that this is being done by people out of their generosity, so patience on the timeline, and you can give your codes as you get them to help others (like I’ve just done with that one I got the other day).

Once you’ve got your code, head to BlueSky and set up your account. Again, capacity issues mean it might take overnight for you to be able to access your profile, but you’re a grown-up, so you’ll manage.

Posting is as you think it is, as is everything else, so no special instructions on this. Look for Feeds to see contribute to particular content.

The thing that’s still a bit tricky is finding your fellow migrants from Twitter: until Mastodon, there’s not a quick, bulk way to find-and-follow, so instead you might use this, or this.

And that’s about it.

We’re still at the ‘hello everyone’/’So-and-so’s just joined too!’/’it’s like old-skool Twitter’ phase, but already I see plenty of Poli-Sci and L&T people there, so the initial signs look promising for being able to stop saying that you should leave Twitter.

Breaking: There’s a problem with something

Surely redundant when no one ever takes a phone in the toilets anyway, right?

The discussion that prompted my previous piece also gave me opportunity for more reflection on the long journey back home from the conference: another benefit of using surface transport only.

The position that most of us – I think – would take on AI is that it’s here and we have to live with it. It might be causing our colleagues inconveniences or making us change what we do, but the use-case of the technology is so much broader than university assessment (or applications, for that matter) that the thing will keep on rolling forward.

If that’s so for AI, then it’s also so for other technologies. The noughties cry of “don’t use Wikipedia: it’s trash!” is an obvious example. That site has a lot to condemn it, both in breadth and in ever-more instances depth, as its editorial model has proven its value.

Likewise, we all seem to have accepted students with laptops in our classrooms, after all those years of grumbling that they couldn’t be up to any good and weren’t paying attention. Which they might not be, but again, that say more about what’s happening in class than what’s happening on their screen.

But I’d take it one step further.

There are lots of things about the world that aren’t – how to put this? – helpfully aligned with what we want to happen in our classes. Our students are people, and like people everywhere, they have a bunch of other stuff going on.

Moreover, each of them thinks and acts for themselves. Which is great, but also sets up the possibility that the zone of overlap among the class on How We’ll Be gets smaller.

Often, that’s not an issue, because the range of what a student might have to do in class is itself constrained: drawing down and pulling up knowledge and experience with others.

But as we move towards more active environments, the issue becomes more salient, because we are relying more on the students to create for themselves the space for their learning. At that point, there is a need to have a more engaged approach to Everything That’s Not Directly On The Syllabus.

A case in point was the course on negotiation I used to run at my former institution. Classes were all about students practising their negotiation with each other and then debriefing. My role was to facilitate and support.

A frequent theme was that “So-and-so is an arsehole”. Which, often, they were, in that situation. They didn’t play by the rules, or didn’t know how to, and sometimes they just liked to stir. Like I said, students are people.

The import of this theme was typically that I should stop it happening. Which I understand, but which I always pushed back on.

The course was designed to create a relatively safe place to try out negotiating (none of the behaviours displayed would have merited me seeking disciplinary behaviour under our student code, for clarity), so part of that practice was exactly about handling people who aren’t all conveniently on the same page.

You’ve dealt with arseholes and I’ve dealt with arseholes and it’s not fun, but sometimes you don’t get a choice.

For some of my students, this sounded like just throwing my hands up in the air and saying they had to suck up all the bad things in the world. But that was never the intention.

Debriefings were communal and part of that was about trying to get the arseholes to understand why their actions were counterproductive to their objectives (both academic and personal). Often that did result in them trying out different ways of interacting that were less antagonistic.

Just as important was getting everyone else to reflect on how to manage problems like these. Even if you can’t stop some arseholes being arseholes, you can find ways to limit their impact.

I won’t pretend that everyone came out of the class all on top of such things, but it speaks to the wider point already made that as much as we seek to build agency in our students, that agency will eventually find limits. At those points we want our students to have the self-reflection to make sense of that, the adaptability to continue and the resilience to press on.

We might not be able to stop the world being a problem, but we can work to improve our chances of riding those problems out.