The longer-run effects of Covid for UK universities

On-campus art

It’s lovely that the ambition of some in British politics to produce ‘world-beating’ processes in response to Covid-19 has finally borne fruit in the surprisingly-not-that-contested category of ‘mangling school exam results.’

Whereas other countries simply reinstated some exams, or developed an adjustment regime that had widespread buy-in, or flexed on university provision, the UK has performed a masterclass in closed, unreflective and ultimately unworkable policy-making, with a very large dollop of changing-of-minds.

As may be apparent, I’m not a fan of how this has gone, even if yesterday’s U-turn on English results does (finally) provide a more much adequate degree of social justice for school leavers.

However, it now leaves another set of problems, mainly for universities.

The delay in getting to the current system means that universities have already made many tens of thousands offers to students, who now will be able to revisit their choices. Even in a system used to only discovering its freshman intake six or seven weeks before teaching starts, this is not a good position to be in, especially if you’re an institution trying to make ends meet and considering the position of staff and resourcing.

Even in the least-disruptive scenario, we’re going to end up with a lot of people starting their studies at institutions other than the one they planned to go to, or at their original choice but after being initially rejected.

That’s going to be tough for colleagues, because we know that such students are more likely to have weaker affective links to the university, resulting in poorer engagement and performance than might otherwise be the case.

This isn’t to say it can’t work, since it evidently can, but the chances of disengagement are going to be higher than for those getting unproblematically to where they planned to go, especially in a socially-distanced environment.

Already we knew that we’d have to work harder and more carefully to build and maintain a sense of community with our students in such an environment, but that is now compounded by this additional disruption.

That requires a short- and a long-term response from us.

Short-term, we need to be very alive to the specific composition of our new cohort of students. That means as much 1-2-1 contact through tutors as possible, facilitating the creation of connections within the cohort and between returning and new students, as well as ensuring that our learning spaces are run with ample opportunities to receive and implement feedback on the go.

Long-term, that close engagement needs to endure throughout this cohort’s time with us, even more than usual for our students. But we also need to look again at the admissions process in the round.

A post-qualification system would avoid a lot of the uncertainty and stupidity inherent in the current model (if you’re not familiar with it, Google yourself silly and wonder at how it ever came to be thus), and the likelihood of future disruption to school education in the coming year(s) means this summer’s stop-gap isn’t going to work again.

Part of that is going to have to be about universities working together with schools and students on pushing for change in policy, and developing fairer and more inclusive systems to replace what we have.

Right now, that might seem like a very low bar, but then so have been many others during this pandemic: maybe for once we might try to clear it with a bit of a run-in, rather than by first smacking our heads into it, repeatedly.

A quick checklist for the autumn

I laugh at your measly three-point checklist!

Let’s skip over your summer, since I’m guessing your institution has been like mine: pushing for us to get Covid-ready for the new semester, while not being particularly certain what that might actually look like.

Upshot, a load of prep to be able to cope with a bunch of different and dynamic scenarios and the dawning realisation that whatever room we work in at home is going to become the star of a large number of videos on the local student network [do check what’s on your bookshelf BTW].

Since I’ve had the good fortune to actually get away from work properly for a couple of weeks (albeit only a hour’s drive from home), I’m coming back into this with a bunch of work and a need to get through it efficiently, so I’m going to share my plan of attack in the hope it’s of use to you.

Step 1: Be clear about your teaching obligations this semester. I’m lucky that I know what classes I’m teaching, what support I might be getting for seminars, rough numbers of students, and even a sense of my timetable. You might not be in that situation, so make this your first port of call. Even just some ballpark figures for the latter stuff matters in making some very basic choices about what choices you’ll be making in designing learning objectives and methods of teaching.

Step 2: Remind yourself what your institution’s new protocols are. Again, my university has produced both strategic and more operational guides on what is and isn’t allowed, so I’ve a good baseline to go on. Let’s assume your institution has created such documents in good (pedagogic) faith to optimise both student learning and Covid resilience, so working with these is a positive step forward; plus it keeps you in step with the rest of your colleagues in creating more consistent learning environments for students. Check you’re reading the latest version and whether your local unit has any additional elaborations and principles in place too.

Step 3: Build the overall learning environment for your course. As you’ll remember, it’s not the technology that should lead your designing, but the learning objectives. You have to be clear – with yourself as much as with students – about what you want them to gain from the course, so ensure that the entire package of that course allows them the opportunity to learn that. That includes online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, group and individual elements.

Step 4: Adjust your design to institutional protocols where necessary, while still keeping your learning objectives clearly in sight. This is where I’m up to right now; doing things like breaking up pre-recorded video into smaller chunks and developing more asynchronous online elements that tessellate with in-class work. Talking about this with colleagues is super-useful, both because trying to explain your thoughts can unblock ideas and because your colleagues have some great ideas you can re-use.

Step 5: Do the donkey work for creating all the new content you need. I’m planning to get at least the first four weeks of the semester ready in its entirety for the time that students are due back, since I’m guessing that’s going to be the biggest stress point, as we all try to work stuff out. I’d say to do more if you can, but also remember you will need to carry out running modifications in-semester, so don’t sink too many costs that you can’t recover.

Step 6: Teach. All the other stuff is going to take you through the rest of the summer, so there’s nothing else to suggest than getting into it and then doing those running adaptations I just mentioned. Talk with students regularly and specifically about your course’s design and highlight to them how you’re using their input to modify what you do; that can begin from the second or third week, once everyone’s a bit less fraught and the initial shock of the new has worn off. Also talk with colleagues about how it’s all going too: their ideas are still great and they might be able to head off issues you can see looming in the distance.

And that’s is.

Still a long list, though, so time to crack on with it and remember you’ve got it covered.

Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options

As the fall semester bears down on us and many schools are finally admitting that yes, there will be a substantial amount of online courses (either fully, blended, hybrid, hyflex, etc), I imagine many faculty are experiencing some amount of panic about having to once again suddenly move their courses online. In particular, faculty are concerned about building community in their classes. Online courses can feel very isolating; without physical interaction before and after class, students may not feel connected to either you as the instructor, or their fellow students. One way to combat this and build community is to use team-based learning, where you have set groups working throughout a term on one or a series of projects. This can give students a small group of people that they can come to know well, even if they only work asynchronously with those students. Whether you are interested in adopting a team-based learning model, or just want to use the occasional group project, it’s a good idea to look at what options we have to do this online. On general approaches, I will direct you to this article by Stephanie Smith Budhai in Faculty Focus; here, let’s stick to recommendations on platforms for group or team learning.

First, a caveat: you don’t have to always dictate what platform your students use to collaborate. If all you care about is the end-project or outcomes, then let them use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Give them options, certainly, but don’t dictate–let them communicate in whatever way is going to make it easy for them to work together, whether that’s on a social media platform, texting, WhatsApp, or something else. The main reason to ask students to use a particular platform is if you want to be able to check in on their work in progress and to see how things are developing. Each of the below options would allow you to do that (although students may need to grant you access!). Just be sure to explain why you’ve chosen this platform, take some time to train students in how to use it, and be clear on how and why you’ll be dropping in to check on their progress.

Let’s talk about several platforms you can use for group collaboration or team-based learning.

Continue reading “Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options”

Pandemic Pedagogy Webinar and Workshop

Colleagues, I want to invite you to an upcoming opportunity that I am involved in.

The International Studies Association’s Innovative Pedagogy Conference Initiative is creating virtual opportunities for faculty professional development. Teacher-scholars in International Studies around the world are facing unprecedented challenges to adapt our teaching and learning approaches in the COVID-19 era. The Pandemic Pedagogy series is designed to help instructors think critically and creatively about these needs. It includes two key elements:

  1. An asynchronous webinar designed to preview the workshop and related IPC initiatives has been posted on the ISA YouTube channel: (https://youtu.be/2FF3Lr5w7hg).
  1. The IPC invites teacher-scholars around the world to participate in our live, synchronous remote workshop on Pandemic Pedagogy on Monday, August 3, 2020, from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm EDT. The workshop will feature presentations by ISA members and award-winning instructors focused on adapting our teaching and learning strategies in these difficult times. It also provides opportunities for base group dialogues, mentoring, the exchange of creative ideas, and professional networking. The registration portal can be found at: https://www.isanet.org/Conferences/Pedagogy-2020.

Some evidence on online conferences

Retro niche reference

Last month, I helped run the 4th EuroTLC, which we’d switched from Amsterdam to a sofa near you. Fewer canals, but also none of that rolling-your-R nonsense.

Any way, as well as that various posts that have sprung from that, I thought it’d also be useful to share some of the conference feedback that we received. A big thank you to ECPR for letting us use this publicly.

As you might have guessed from this post’s existence, the impression on participants was very positive indeed. It’d be good to pull up some big problems, as talking points, but they really didn’t occur.

From our survey of nearly 70 delegates (of c.250 signed up), there was almost no-one who rated the organisation, communication, technology as unsatisfactory.

Technology is maybe a good place to start on this, since it’s the obvious new challenge as compared to what has come before. A few people reported tech issues, although these were mostly about their local connectivity, which sometimes ended up kicking you out of Zoom sessions. The phrasing of the comments seems pretty understanding, but equally it’s clear that this will become more problematic for those not in a position to get more stable internet connections, which will matter if we want people to get interacting online in such events. Equally clearly, there’s no much we can do about these problems, except keep it in mind when we plan: do we need everything to be synchronous?

Organisationally, we had tried to put a lot of thought into how we could make this event work for participants. That meant breaking up sessions with lots of breaks, and keeping any one part to a maximum of an hour (well-received), plus mixing up formats so that it wasn’t always the same thing, all day long.

As mentioned, the feedback was very positive about all this, although once again I’d note that some of the participants grounded this by saying it was their first such experience of an online conference: that worked in our favour (Zoom burn-out was mentioned more than once during the event), but as we move to do more of this, then expectations might well shift.

One things we’d explored was trying to get materials shared online, both beforehand and during the event. While ratings were very positive for the organisers (both on the academic programme and the more practical aspects handled by ECPR’s very efficient office), there were some comments from people about not knowing where to look for those resources. This rather falls into “what else could we have done?”, since we’d mentioned it multiple times across all our pre-event comms and during the sessions. Maybe the relative novelty of the model is part of this, but as every event organiser knows, there’s never enough comms to be done.

Maybe a bit more of an issue was the difficulty of maintaining the flow of discussion beyond individual sessions. I’ve discussed this before, but I also noticed a couple of comments to this effect here too. I still have no good idea about how to address this, since any online space requires active decisions by individuals to move into them and stay in them, so the (semi-accidental) chat in the corridor outside the panel just doesn’t happen. As a case in point, having mentioned in that post that I’d seen a load of people that I’d like to have caught up, I’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not been in mind long enough to action by pinging off an email or text. Yes, I’m a bit lazy, but we also know that friction to action online is very high: each step we add, there’s a huge drop-out of people (which is why the bingo thing didn’t work).

Any way, that lack of networking opportunities did come out with much more ambivalent survey results (including the only occasion when more than two people chose ‘unsatisfactory’ (but still only 12%)).

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t charge for the event: EuroTLC has always been been either free or with minimal fees to keep it open. Several people noted that being free and online meant they could finally attend: previously, the cost of travel and accommodation had made that impossible. From our side, it also meant we could put together a lunchtime with people from three continents in a way that our resources wouldn’t have allowed beforehand, so online does come with some upsides for all involved.

Opinion was rather split on whether people would have paid to attend this event: those saying no pointed towards tightened budgets and precarious financial situations, while others felt the quality of what they got from it all was worth paying to access. Clearly, while online events are without the costs of dealing with physical spaces, they do still come with personnel costs that have to be covered somehow, so we’re not at the end of that particular discussion.

Also pertinent to note is that EuroTLC has been only every other year, so the suggestion from one person that we alternate online/real-world events is something to consider (although not necessarily an option for others). That said, there did seem to be interest in maintaining a more substantial online presence even with a real-world event, to allow those unwilling/unable to attend in person to still access things.

I’ll glide over the comment that we had too many women in the sessions that one respondent attended, on the basis that perhaps this might heighten awareness of the still-too-common phenomenon of manels and instead focus on the very positive comments across the board for all those who presented work during the two days: as one person wrote “everyone worked hard and did their utmost best”, a sentiment I fully endorse.

So what to take from all of this?

Firstly, just as online teaching isn’t just teaching online, the same is true for conferences. It’s important to think carefully about the objectives that you’re trying to achieve from the event and then work out the best way to hit them, which might not be the same as in face-to-face formats. I think we did a very good job on the sharing of ideas, but less well on the networking/soft community aspects, so this was definitely a learning experience.

Secondly, we have to careful about the assumptions we make. Here that includes access to stable internet, how much people have internalised all the messaging about specifics and why people do/n’t attend conferences. The barriers are all pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve taken them fully into account, or that we can necessarily solve them; however, we can try.

And that’s a final point – nothing’s settled yet, so there’s good reason to keep trying new things. I leave this event wanting to try out a pile of other options with future events, because I want to see if they can provide improved opportunities for all involved. This was a good start, but together we can make it even better.

Teaching with practitioners

This guest post comes from Giulia Tercovich of Vesalius University.

The number of non-tenure-track teachers that are employed because of their significant expertise in their non-academic domain is growing.

On the one hand, these practitioners represent an opportunity for higher education institutions. They add exciting insights to the course, they add a human-element to policy-making, they represent an opportunity for students to think about their future careers and increase the institution’s visibility.

On the other hand, they often lack pedagogical training, they are not familiar with the academic environment and its administration, and the amount of information they can share depends on the rules imposed by their employer.

This post draws on my own experience as Coordinator for student learning and faculty support, and it benefited from several discussions with colleagues from my institution and the inputs received during the workshop recently hosted during the EuroTLC conference.

In my experience, when a practitioner (co-)teach an academic course, four actors are actively involved in the process: the students, the practitioner him/herself, the administration and the co-teacher or mentor. This complex relationship between these four actors is not always easy to navigate. Therefore, I would like to share with you the five lessons I have learned in the past years to make the co-teaching with a practitioner running more smoothly.

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A stitch in time

One of the recurringly useful ideas that I discuss with students is the notion of concept stretching.

Ironically, I find uses for it all over the place, even as I think I’m being true to the definitional core of its meaning.

I was reminded of this when I found myself offering up an agenda of ‘leaning in’ at a Learning & Teaching event last week.

As you’ll recall, the phrase ‘lean in’ comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book of the same name – exhorting women to do this to overcome the barriers they face – an idea that has come under increased critique, not least because it got stretched out to a bunch of stuff that it was never originally intended for.

And sure enough, I wasn’t talking about women or structural inequalities in the workplace, but rather about how to get your teaching ready for the autumn.

I mention all of this because it’s important to think about how we communicate our practice to others, not just in teaching but more generally. In the deathless subtitle of Luntz’s book ‘Words that work‘, it’s not what you say, but what people hear.

One of the challenges that I’ve skirted around in previous posts has been the question of institutional pressures. How much of what you’re going to be doing this autumn is your choice and how much is stuff being imposed on you?

Of course, this tension is always present – you always to work around the timetable, or the rooming, or the student numbers, or the university regulations on X, Y and Z. But this case is one where you’re going to feel a much bigger potential effect, not least because it’s all so novel and uncertain.

I’m happy to say that my department has found live in the re-organising world relatively simple. We drew up strategic plans some months ahead of the university, shared them around, made sure those making decisions above us knew about it all, our local L&T leads producing detailed materials and operationalisations very early on, precisely so that no one is on our back.

I’m going to guess that most of you are in a similar situation, if only because you’re the kind of person that reads L&T blogs and so are relatively motivated.

But imagine – if you can – a colleague who doesn’t really place their teaching in a position of any priority. Given that they will have to provide a different package of teaching in a few months, because the university requires it, then one of two things is going to be happening. Either they’ll do a bare minimum – probably to the detriment of their students’ learning opportunities – or someone else will make some changes for them – probably again to students’ detriment. In both cases, that colleague has lost the opportunity to make something positive of the moment, and probably reinforces higher levels of the administration to become more interventionist across the board.

Generally, my impression is that colleagues prefer to sort out their work in their own ways, whether that’s teaching or research (or even running meetings), rather than wanting others to do it for them.

And that’s why it’s important that you lean in on this: the more you do – and, critically, the more you show you do – the less others will be on your back about this.

The flipside of all the uncertainty of these times is that management has got a lot on its plate right now, so the threshold for them to feel confident that you’ve got things is relatively low. But that is only a passing situation.

As semester comes closer, the more there will be a desire to present a full package to students, regulators, journalists and all the rest. And once semester starts, the price of failures of practice will increase significantly and continuously: what good, reputationally-speaking, is a institution built to learning that can’t learn itself?

So, the short version of this is the same thing we tell our students – a bit of work now will save you a lot of work down the line.

Maybe that message will carry more weight if we demonstrate it in our own practice.

Redesigning methods teaching: parallel workshops for interdisciplinary learning

This guest post comes from Dr Viviane Gravey and Dr Heather Johnson, both of Queen’s University Belfast

Research methods are crucial, particularly in Graduate learning, but methods modules are often the most unpopular with students and staff alike.

This makes methods modules prime candidates for either offloading onto temporary staff, or confining to designated ‘methods heavy’ positions for often isolated staff. This shunting of methods teaching onto precarious staff communicates unspoken but negative messages to students about the importance of this training, while consistently lower-than-average student evaluations (regardless of actual teaching excellence) negatively impact the profiles of vulnerable colleagues. 

At a time where we see silly op-eds calling for a Deliveroo approach to higher education (students deciding what they want to learn at MA level, and taught by temporary providers hired ‘on demand’), methods module would be first on the chopping block. Yet these unloved offerings provide, or at least should provide, the building blocks for that much-loved rite of passage: independent research and the MA dissertation. Beyond the dissertation, a deep engagement with methods is needed to better understand where we position ourselves in our respective fields, and so provide critical insights into both the mainstream and its critics.

Redesigning how we teach methods is far from a new topic on ALPS, with examples from using games to make students’ introduction to methods less frightening, to a series of posts on flipping the methods classroom.

This post draws on our own experiences, alongside reflections from EUROTLC discussions on curriculum design. Usual caveats apply: this is not a silver bullet. It depends on our local conditions and is still very much a work in progress. But at a time where the pandemic is forcing a rethink in how, what, and even where we teach, our stranded, workshop-based module can offer a useful starting point.

Context and problem

Following an administrative merger in 2016 we are a bigger school, with a growing number of MA students across 11 programs in Politics/International Relations, Anthropology, and History. Many students have backgrounds in other disciplines, and a growing proportion come from overseas. Some programmes are interdisciplinary, some more discipline-specific, with significant variation in student numbers from 6 up to 80+.    

Teaching different methods modules for each pathway is impractical, and while the merger offers opportunities for interdisciplinarity, combining methods teaching raises three dilemmas. First, should we aim for depth and specialization, or breadth and variety? Second, could we agree core teaching across the disciplinary boundaries?  Finally, how might we achieve student-led learning that encourages exploration and recognizes diverse backgrounds?

An innovative stranded, workshop-based module

Core or optional, breadth or depth? Instead of choosing we opted for both, via two simple design choices (a) ditching the one week/one topic model in favour of parallel workshops and (b) designing ‘strands’ to organise these workshops. Instead of covering 10 to 12 topics in as many weeks, we offer a wide range of parallel workshops, limited only by staff and room availability (and our collective imagination). Last year we offered 40 workshops, delivered in 8 weeks, taught by a team of over 25 colleagues according to their expertise, for close to 200 students. This also served to engage staff at all levels and in all areas of the School, centralizing rather than isolating methods teaching in the curriculum.

Workshops are organized across 6 strands (see examples in Figure 1) – from epistemology to case studies, whereby colleagues walk students through their own research design in a recent project.  These strands are populated according to the demands of our different MA programs, and also reflect the best practices of RCUK graduate training by exposing students to philosophy of science, and to both quantitative and qualitative methods.  They seek to enable flexibility for students according to their prior experience, with workshops that build upon one another in complexity and with different entry points.  A good example is the quantitative methods strand, which offers both basic training for primarily qualitative-focused researchers, alongside both beginner and advanced workshops for students who wish to specialize.

Figure 1

Students can, in effect, design their own path through the module: guided by their own interests and goals, they must take at least 9 workshops, including at least one from each strand.  Each individual program has designated compulsory workshops that students must include in their schedule in order to meet any specialization requirements. Thus, students have the opportunity to specialize, for example, by comparing different approaches to research interviews (5 workshops), or to explore new methods or move beyond their disciplinary boundaries.

Students are assessed on an applied methods portfolio of two items such as a short essay on epistemology, a data analysis exercise, or a practice interview or observation – and a research design proposal, bringing together content from the entire module (literature review, research questions, methods choices, ethical considerations). This proposal can be linked to the MA dissertation, and students are encouraged to treat it as preparation for their own independent research, working with their dissertation supervisors where possible.

Where next?

Reflecting on the first two years of this module, the welcome increase in student choice came at three costs – which we working to offset.

First, we need to ensure we do not ask students to run before they can walk: some students have no background in either methods or epistemological debates, and the kind of writing required in research design is often different than in a traditional essay.  As general training in writing skills is offered elsewhere in the university, this is difficult to address.  Nevertheless, we can both develop more ‘nuts and bolts’ workshops, and also sign-post students early on to outside support.

Second, the workshop model plays havoc with student timetables and our room-booking. Students can have different teaching loads week on week, and our commitment to (relatively) small class sizes means that we often need to add duplicate sessions to accommodate workshop popularity. This lack of certainty does not impact our student population equally – students working alongside their studies, those with caring responsibilities, or those living far from campus, will see their choices limited in practice. Providing more sessions online via asynchronous means will solve some, although not all, of these difficulties. We can also commit to publishing the timetable of workshops before term begins to facilitate student planning. 

Third, while the teaching load is shared, such a large and complex module comes with a commensurate administrative load for the course convenor. While some of that burden can be front-loaded in preparing the online learning environment (e.g. online workshop registration), the administrative load will remain large and often invisible.

Methods in a time of coronavirus

How teaching will happen in September remains uncertain. Nevertheless, we can focus on a number of ‘no regrets’ options.

First, we can ‘flip’ lectures, with pre-recorded, asynchronous introductions to different methods, and focusing any in-person class time on application. This would also allow students to discover a wider range of methods, and provide long term resources for their dissertation.

Second, it will be important to provide some dedicated training towards online research methods and ways to adapt traditional methods to social distancing. 

Finally, we can draw on external sources to broaden workshop options and resources. There is a wealth of methods teaching resources online – for example podcast series such as the UK National Centre for Research Methods podcast, or the Give Methods a Chance series.

In these trying times, it is time for universities to collaborate – where better than on methods teaching?

Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn

Pretty things

As well as the technical side of things, EuroTLC was a great opportunity to think more about the pedagogic way forward in what I’m going to call our Leap Online.

Like you, recent months have been a mass of institutional briefings and meetings, plus many, many webinars about good online practice. And how what we’re going to be doing it not actually fully online, because we hope we’ll be getting most of our students back into classes come the autumn.

This hope is tempered by, well, evidence that COVID-19 isn’t going to be disappearing from our lives any time soon, so plans have to be made with some flexibility and resilience.

For us, that’s meant a ‘hybrid model’, with much content online and scope to become fully online as and when we need to. That’s reasonable enough given the circumstances, even if it means having to accept students moving between modes (in class or online) within semesters, with all the issues that creates for ensuring equity of learning opportunities for all.

At its heart, this perfectly captures a medium-term dilemma.

Short-term, we can – and have – make huge changes to our practice, because conditions require us to and because everyone involved is understanding and accommodating of that. I don’t think anyone thought this past semester was very pretty, pedagogically, but we got through it.

Long-term, we can also make big changes, becauses we can work through proper planning and consultation and trialling and all the other things we do to make effective learning spaces happen. Indeed, it’s probably our usual way of doing things.

The problem is the bit in between. We have now a situation that imposes major new constraints on us, while also being of indeterminate duration. If wherever we happen to work gets a vaccine, or an effective test and trace system, then we could return to something very close to the past (or February, as it’s also known); without those things, we might be looking at years.

Continue reading “Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn”