Debrief yourself

“Of course I didn’t play online beer pong with the class: that would be ridiculous…” (image from Beer Boars)

I seem to remember being quite snarky back in the summer about my semester dates.

My institution started relatively late, so I got to watch lots of practical examples of how plans were and weren’t working, so I got to avoid those problems when I got back near to a classroom.

And made some entirely different errors instead.

Any way, the flipside of this is that it’s only now I’m thinking properly about how to capture the learning on our new teaching practice, to use for the new year, whereas you’re probably all over it already.

But just in case you’re not, let’s work together on it for a bit.

It’s one of the safer assumptions to make right now that we’ve all been on a pedagogic journey of rich discovery, even if that does amount to a reasonable level of confidence about the keyboard shortcut to unmute yourself.

Likewise, it’s also safe to assume that you’ve internalised a lot of that into what you do without great reflection, because you’re running at a hundred miles an hour and structured reflection hasn’t been a priority.

But now, at the end of semester, is just the moment to step back and draw all of that out of yourself, for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s good for your practice.

The incremental changes you’ve been making, week on week, are probably more substantial that you realise. In my case, I’ve gone back and forth on synchronous online elements and their relationship to everything else, mainly because certain opportunities presented themselves that I’d not foreseen.

You (and I) need to now step back and consider the arc of that journey, to inform our plans for next semester and more generally: I feel like I might never do another in-person lecture again as part of my standard delivery, regardless of whether there’s a raging pandemic, for example.

Even in the more modest perspective of next semester, if you can mainstream your learning, then you’re more likely to create a package that works better first time, which will be to your (and your students’) advantage, not least when it comes to making materials.

Secondly, it’s good for your pedagogic community.

I’m going sitting down (remotely) with my colleagues to do this reflection and debrief, rather than on my own. That’s partly because we like to natter, but mainly it’s because we’re all aware that we’ve done things in very different ways.

Already this semester I’ve seen some great ideas from others in my department and elsewhere and I want to be able to understand that better; to get the underlying logics behind the materials and activities. If nothing else, I’d welcome some tips on how to come across as less grumpy to students.

Collective discussion is also better from drawing reflection out of yourself: other people tend to ask questions that force you to articulate things (a bit like writing a blog, actually). Plus there’s the bonus that you might have something useful to share with someone else, whether you realise it or not.

And finally, it’s good for your well-being.

This has been both the busiest and most isolating semester of my personal experience: yesterday I bumped into a member of department who I’ve not seen in person since the spring, and I’m not in a big department.

Lockdowns and WFH-ing might be sound epidemiologic practice, but they’re terrible for our social practice. And it turns out that being an academic involves rather more working with, and being around, others than stereotypes might suggest. Sure, we all (apparently) love to be on our own, noses buried in a book, but really our’s is a business of exchange, of sharing ideas and building on them.

Just this thing I’m suggesting you do now.

So pull up a chair, fix yourself some coffee/a beer, and get talking with your colleagues. You’ll thank yourself and each other for it.

What works?

This question is one that has been a central concern of this blog, even since we foolishly listened to Victor and Chad back in Albuquerque all those years ago. All of us, and all our contributors have written tens of thousands of words on how to make effective learning environments for our students, and you the reader have consumed hundreds of thousands of impressions.

And now we have a new contribution to that debate.

Last week, the UK government issued new guidance to universities in England [sic] about how to handle the current lockdown arrangements.

Reading this letter, and the accompanying guidance note, we might note a number of things.

Firstly and probably most importantly, the government doesn’t really know what works either: there’s some implicit language to suggest that face-to-face settings are intrinsically superior to remote arrangements, but it does allow that the latter might be got up to scratch.

Secondly, the government doesn’t really want to make the decision for universities about what to do, even as it tries to make some decisions. Yes, having large groups of people brought together is a bad thing for infection control, but not as bad as sending them all home again, so maybe keep up the face-to-face content to give them a reason to remain (even if that also increases the chances of further infections).

Thirdly, none of this is connected with the other restrictions on social distancing that are in effect too: as many colleagues are finding, running a seminar discussion with students spread out across an entire lecture theatre isn’t the most productive of experiences, for anyone involved.

To some extent, this all reads as if we were in the 1960s, with a student population almost entirely on-site and in far smaller numbers in class, rather than the massified model that we actually run in the almost-complete entirety of the sector (and even Oxbridge isn’t quite the chat-over-some-crumpets-in-the-tutor’s-office model it used to be).

But that’s neither really here nor there.

As much as it would be easy to mock this advice – and I’ve seen a lot of mocking (done a bit too) – that doesn’t really address the fundamental need to continue to work to manage and make the most of this current situation.

The difficulty comes from the various needs of government, institutions and individual educators: we all have different things that we need or value and it’s at points like this that the frictions between these become more evident.

Even if we can find specific adaptations to our work – and I’m deep into coping with a big shift of students from classes to online – that doesn’t necessarily create generic solutions. If I can’t find a model that works for both my classes this semester, why should a university – let alone a government – be able to.

And so we need to remember what we do all agree on: providing the best possible learning environment within the constraints we all operate under.

That requires us to keep on talking with each other, not only to explain what we’re doing, but also to understand what others are doing too. Flexibility to local circumstances is going to be essential to making this all work for any length of time.

And maybe we’ll get to something that functions as we’d all like before the situation changes all over again. Which would need to be soon, with the news that there might be the introduction of mass testing across the sector quite soon.

Made(upia) to measure

Like any university, we’ve got some odd spaces that we use for teaching.

By odd here, I mean simply anything other than a rectangular room with some desks arranged somehow. Usually that’s intentional, because we need computer stations or lab desks or a big machine to do physics-y stuff so visiting schoolkids think STEM is cool.

But sometimes it’s just odd.

A case in point is the room I’ve been stuck a couple of times this semester, as part of someone’s project to see just how much of the campus I can visit with my students.

The room is flat, with individual desks in the middle (currently in a socially-distanced grid), plus a series of booths up each side, each with space for a couple of students.

I have no idea why it’s set up like that, but the key point is that it prompted me to make specific use of that space.

True, I also needed to make a new exercise because I couldn’t use any of my previous ones because of Covid, but it’s also good to refresh more fully from time to time.

The game scenario concerns power in a political system and you’re very welcome to use/modify the document for your own needs.

Here I will only note that I’ve made particular use of those booths and of social distancing requirements. Interestingly, on the latter point, while I thought that giving control to the government to manage movement around the space, their feedback was that it was actually rather anxiety-inducing, for fear of annoying people who might feel they had to wait too long to move.

However, the wider point here is that we can benefit from the constraints we operate under. Feedback on this exercise was very positive and we had a great debrief afterwards on the power dynamics and how it related to negotiation theory, so we hit our learning objectives big time.

I even got to use this as a basis of some work for the online students to consider what might be an optimal strategy to pursue: not quite the same as actually playing the scenario, but still a way into the key issues (and, incidentally, a starting point for a very constructive discussion with one student about what works for online students in this module).

The take home: they’re not constraints, they’re opportunities. Which is lucky, given that we’re all on the verge of getting some more opportunities dumped on us shortly.

Where do we go from here?

I’m already thinking about life after the pandemic, so here are some predictions about higher education, mostly based on pre-existing trends that were simply accelerated by Covid-19.

Personalized, portable technologies for teaching and learning will eclipse standardized physical materials and infrastructure. Probably we all had the pre-pandemic experience of entering a classroom with a detailed, technology-intensive lesson plan only to discover that the computer at the teacher’s podium didn’t work the way we needed it to. After that we carried laptops with us, which were more reliable and configured to meet our specific needs. Now, some faculty find that the video cameras that were installed to live stream classes don’t adequately capture what’s scribbled on wall-mounted whiteboards, so they are using writing tablets and other touchscreen devices instead. Expect the whiteboards, the computer stations, and the ceiling projectors to eventually disappear from many classrooms. Ethernet connections and wifi will remain.

As faculty dependence on classroom equipment decreases, so does the need for the classroom itself. One becomes increasingly able to teach from anywhere, lessening the disruptive effects of hurricanes, fires, and plagues. No more snow days.

Continue reading “Where do we go from here?”



Writing as someone who’s spent three weeks trying to find the right seating pattern for his students, I’m not sure that I’m on top of the current situation.

Certainly, I am spending a very much larger proportion of my working week on teaching-related activity, despite having the same modules I taught in previous years and despite having spent the summer swotting-up on How Tos and webinars.

I don’t need to rehearse the arguments again about this, but instead I’m going to share some practices that have made it all a bit more manageable, in the hope they’re of use to you too.

To recap some important context, we’re running a hybrid model here, with pre-recorded lectures and in-person seminars. We’re also to provide fully online content for those unable to attend on campus. And since I wasn’t too confident about a number of things, I’d only prepared the first 3 weeks of semester prior to its start, so I could make running changes.

Well, we’re into our third week now, so it’s been time to generate more content.

And that’s been where keeping track really comes in.

In a typical week, I’m giving students: a pre-recorded lecture (or several, if I’m breaking it down); notes on what we’ll cover in class; an online activity for those, um, online only; guidance on tasks towards the next assessment; preparation for the following week; plus I’ll be sticking some more procedural items into the news feed and recording some video feedback for the online-only students.

You’ll not be too surprised to find out I have a spreadsheet for all of this. Plus many calendar reminders to release/check content.

This has really come into its own when thinking about the connections between weeks, helping me to build linkages in content (hyperlinks as much as verbal cues in lectures), so students can see the joins. It’s also (so far) helped me avoid forgetting to do something.

I’m also been much more assiduous about getting feedback.

Next week, I’ll be running my usual ABC exercises, but every class I’ve been asking about specific elements of what we’re doing, to see if it’s working for the students. As I told my class yesterday, it doesn’t matter that I think I’m doing all good stuff if it’s not clicking for them.

I’m also trying to get feedback outside of class, when I talk with students in office hours, plus the whole Department is sharing comments (constructively) that we pick up from students about other modules too. I’d like to say this is our normal practice (and it is), but I’m more conscious that we’re pushing for student input rather more.

And finally, I’m talking with people about my teaching as much as possible.

You can feel a modicum of pity for my daughter, who found herself caught in a rather long conversation this weekend about how we might run an activity on the theme of ‘power’ in my negotiation class. Just as I can be proud that it produced some good ideas that I’m working on now.

We spent a lot of time as a community talking about all these things during the summer, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop there. Our collective experiences are all the richer for actually putting our plans into action.

It’s a lot of stuff to keep in the air, but that’s exactly why we need to keep on trying.

And what would you like me to do with this?

This is one of our classrooms right now.

It probably looks quite familiar, with its social distancing and its capture by Big Sticker (note all the notices on the wall, over to the left).

We’ve been given lots of guidance about working in such environments, including this video.

You’ll note that the video is entitled ‘Teaching in a Covid-secure environment’, but that there’s no actual teaching.

So perhaps we can think here about what the teaching element of all of this might look like.

[For those in a rush, the furniture can’t move and the instructor should be staying within their box at the front]

Option 1: lecture. The rooms are set up in a lecture format and this is the obvious route to take. Except we’re not supposed to lecture in person anymore (that all goes into asynchronous chunks on our VLE).

In practice, it’s hard not to revert to doing this. Partly that’s because of the layout, and partly because everyone’s wearing a mask. As a teacher I might have a mic to amplify my voice, but the students don’t get that, so standard voice interaction across the whole room becomes much harder.

So, option 2: small-group work. Students can be encouraged to talk with those nearby and then to feedback to the whole. Either that might involve talking on behalf of the group, or putting materials on a shared resource (e.g. Teams or Google Doc): all those whiteboards are out of action, remember.

This is the obvious way to get around the spacing, but then you’ll need to think about whether you need to mix up people between sessions, so it’s not always talking to the same mate each week. There’s also more difficulty in moving around the room to support groups that need help

Option 3 would be online, in-class. This is a bit like the Twitter game I’ve run in the past: everyone interacts online only, despite being in the same room. I’ll only note that I created that game to show how much harder it was to interact online.

But a softer version of this, with co-creation of online materials, supplemented by in-person conversation, could work, basically shifted the emphasis of option 2 to the online side. It’s certainly something I’ll be used a fair bit in this semester.

The main issue is that is does raise a question of why bother with the class bit if we’re all working online, but that’s something else.

Option 4 is student-led spaces. Here I mean asking students to come up with ways to organise themselves. In effect it’s a bit like a student presentation session, but with the bonus of them shaping the room’s interactions. That draws on their understanding of what’s working, and also helps them to see the limitations we’re operating under.

Presentations themselves are a bit tricky, unless your institution’s alright with individuals coming up to the front of the room to speak.

And beyond that I’ll confess I’m a bit at a loss.

Fish-bowling would be a struggle; any activity that involves physical materials (paper, lego, blindfolds, etc.) is out; Moving around the room is also a no-no.

So you have options, but less than you used to.

Suggestions would be very welcome.

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.


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).