A (very) positive sum game

This is Maxine:

Maxine David has just won the Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award here at Surrey. She’s also my colleague here in the School of Politics.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I also put in for the Award and (obviously) didn’t win, although I did get short-listed. All of which prompted someone to whom I’d mentioned this to enquire (and this is the key point of this post) whether I was annoyed not to have won.

The short answer is that no, I’m not annoyed at all.  In fact, it’s an excellent decision.

For too long, learning & teaching has been seen as a hobby in the UK, something of secondary importance to the main work of an academic (i.e. research). While that attitude remains (as it still does in many places), then L&T is all too often seen as zero-sum; that one person’s gain comes at a cost, either to their other work or to someone’s teaching.  As my enquiring colleague was putting it, why else would I be interested in L&T if not for the possibility of recognition?

Clearly, this is a very limited view and one that our School does not share.  Because L&T has been a fundamental strand of our work since our foundation nearly a decade ago, me and my colleagues have long understood that personal investment in L&T brings collective benefits, i.e. it’s positive-sum.  The simple fact that each of us is willing to try out new pedagogic techniques and to discuss and share them with each other creates two virtuous circles.  The first is between staff, who are constantly exposed to new opportunities and ideas.  The second is among students, who are similarly exposed and who can develop their own, more rounded learning strategies than in a situation where innovation isn’t the norm.

Thus, Maxine’s winning isn’t a loss to me at all, but a gain to the School: the project she will be working on in the coming year (funded by the Award) will involve several of our colleagues and will make a material benefit to our students, as well as educators elsewhere (through research publications). Moreover, to have half the University’s short-listed candidates come from a School that is at the smaller end of the spectrum still reflects the extent to which we all value L&T.  On a more personal note, I can’t think of anyone else who I’d rather have won.  Well done again, Maxine!

In Politics we tend not to go long on altruism as an element of political action, but in L&T it’s at the heart of what we do: helping someone learn is precisely about to help others get something for themselves.  If we forget that, then we need to take a good look at ourselves.

Crowdsourcing a resource

After an Easter hiatus, I’m back in the office, even if our students are still on break.  One of my activities was attending the annual conference of the Political Studies Association, whose kind funding allowed me to travel to APSA L&T last year and meet my collaborators here on the ALPS blog.  While waiting in the terminal at Belfast City airport for a delayed flight back home, I sketched out an idea I’ve been having for some time about building a resource for running simulations.

From the initial ruminating with colleagues and building up ideas, I’ve set up a website for this project, entitled “How to do Simulation Games” (not very clever, but at least clear).  As you can see, there’s not much there right now, beyond the structure.  My plan is to gradually build up material, as I have the time and inclination, so that there is something of practical use to colleagues, both in Politics and beyond.

The idea comes from an awareness that while there is a burgeoning literature on simulations, there’s still not much of the basic ‘how-to’ stuff that I find many people look for when coming to this pedagogy: it’s all well and good me writing a paper about immersion, but that’s no good to someone who doesn’t know what the basic building blocks of a simulation are (or might be).

As I say on the site, I welcome help since I know I don’t know nearly everything about the various aspects.  That help can be something very small and specific (maybe a game to upload), or if you want to jump on as a co-author type, then I’m cool with that too.  In the longer run, and depending on how this goes, there’s obviously potential for some more conventional publishing opportunity (again recognising everyone’s input), although that’s no more than a thought at this stage.

So if you like what you see, then drop me a line and let’s see where it goes.

Live from the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference @ MIT Media Lab

I’m sitting in a large 6th floor room of the MIT Media Lab at the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference, “Innovative Solutions for a Brighter Egypt.” The conference is an application of active learning principles.

The conference is in part designed to support entrepreneurship, innovation, and social development in Egypt. Ten finalists, selected through an outside expert review process, are competing to have their projects funded by NEGMA’s supporters. Project proposals range from equipping small digital fabrication labs to vocational training for the disabled.

So far I’ve gotten three main lessons from the conference. First, when large sums of money are at stake, presentation skills are crucial. Earlier today competitors were required to pitch their proposals to conference attendees, who then voted on their favorites. People who botched their presentations were left at a distinct disadvantage.

Second, collaboration with peers has value. After the presentations, projects were workshopped among conference participants in small groups — in a process that’s very similar to what happens at the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference. The finalists’ project proposals were strengthened for tomorrow’s presentations before judges.

The third lesson is that the unbundling of higher education will continue apace, whether we like or not. The traditional four-year, full-time, residential model of undergraduate education is dead. The technology of the internet is indeed making it possible for anyone to learn anything at anytime from anyone. As stated this morning by Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, every minute sixty hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube. Every day, 30 million devices connect to the internet in Egypt alone. Globally, Google handles 4 billion searches daily. This digital landscape is how people around the world will be accessing affordable and effective education — even in areas like vocational training.

Teachers as Norm-setters

This week I have a couple of classroom observations in my diary, as part of Surrey’s developmental work in L&T: I sit in on colleagues in different parts of the university and then feedback on practice.  As part of the pre-observation discussion with both observees, I noticed that the question of norms came up, which got me to thinking about what our role as educators should be in this regard, not least given the wide context.

In the first case, the observee told me she would be starting at ten past the hour, “because the students don’t arrive until then.”  Admittedly, it’s a 0900 slot – the first of the day – but the thought did occur that one of the reasons students don’t turn up on time is because they know the lecturer will not start until a bit later.  Speaking as someone with a 0900 lecture, on a Monday, with freshmen, I can only note that because I have made a point of starting exactly on time, I have very few late arrivals.

In the second case, the observee is planning to run a simulation exercise in the class.  We discussed what preparation the students had been asked to do, and when I asked what would happen if the students (Masters level) hadn’t done that preparation, the answer was that “I expect Masters students to have done it.”  This is the opposite situation to the first, in that the lecturer knows what they want, although as we talked further it wasn’t clear what would happen if it transpired that the students hadn’t done what was expected.

This is all potentially very tricky.  My own inclination of late has been to set out my expectations very clearly at the start and then apply sanctions when those expectations are not met.  This means asking students who’ve not prepared presentation notes for my stick exercises to leave the class and do the work during that time, and making clear that a ‘5 minute break’ is actually 5 minutes (instead of its usual academic version, i.e. the time it takes to leisurely consume a coffee).

Much effort these days is put into ‘improving the student experience’, and much of that agenda is somewhat with which I can wholeheartedly agree: Learning & teaching has too long been marginal to universities’ activities.  However, in some cases there is a confusion between giving students what they want and giving them what they need.  This doesn’t justify a culture of “do as I say” in the medieval sense of university as an apprenticeship, but rather that educators need to set out the logic and reasoning behind their pedagogy, so that students can at least understand the interests and values underpinning it, even if they don’t buy into it.

If we want to move away from students wanting to be spoon-fed (and spoon-feeding students), then we need to take control of the learning environment by setting out the basic framework, within which we give students the opportunity to learn for themselves.  Maybe that way, students will come to want what we give them.

Dennis Rodman, Michelle Obama, and Kim Kardashian walk into a bar….

…. it is a moment destined for Twitterdom, all three instantaneously update their statuses….

You panic!!!! This fits your student’s research paper on the leveling nature of social media as a universal conversation among the different stratas of power in the United States!

A teachable moment!


Relax…. you’ll be fine. You are the professor, the wise, the calm, the panicking person who just figured out how to blog and now you have to micro-blog!!!!

Copy this into your browser favorite on your work computer…..


Rest assured that at some point in your contemporary life you are going to have to explain to your student that they will have to cite a tweet if they use it in research.

deep bow to the folks from MLA

Now….. I won’t tell anyone… go on… secretly push the link and memorize the citation. Witness that for the first time in history you not only will be citing a source, but the full text of the source is also fully quotable in your footnotes….. All 120 characters.

Even if you have never tweeted, you have fulfilled your role as the cool professor who now knows how to cite a tweet.

Now that’s some active learning for us!

More or less?

It’s the time of year when I’m putting together my notes for the coming semester’s teaching.  As part of that, I’m making all my powerpoint presentations too, so that they can be posted on our virtual learning environment.  This is in line with my thinking that students should know what’s coming in advance, so they don’t spend their time trying to divine my purpose as they sit in the class itself. However, in this post, I’d like to focus more on the content of the presentations rather than their availability.

Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought that i have encountered over the years.  The first (which is almost completely vanished now) is that powerpoint is the work of the devil and should be fought as such: ‘I was taught using only a blackboard and velum scrolls’ [I characterise slightly here].  The second, and most common, is that powerpoint presentations are useful and should contain all of the key points of the class.  Thirdly, my view and less common, is that presentations are useful, but should only provide a bare framework.

Such distinctions might seem trivial, but powerpoint does still hold the dubious honour of being the only subject about which I have seen an academic colleague (not of this institution, I hasten to add) have a shouting fit – too many words on a slide being the crime in question on this case.  So clearly, it’s something that moves people.

For those that have seen my presentations, they are sparse: much more than a handful of words on a handful of slides for a lecture and I get concerned that I’m tying myself down too rigidly.  But the main concern is that being too prescriptive in my presentation also makes students too prescriptive in their thinking: I want to open up their minds to the possibilities of a subject, not close it down to a ‘right way’ of looking at it.  Thus, since my lectures are often trying to be opening gambits in a subject, it is more useful to give bare dimensions and elements for students to play with, rather than a constrained list.  Moreover, since I’m writing the presentations now, I want to leave myself the flexibility to address additional points that come up through the weeks that are not apparent now, so letting me reflect the students’ learning process.

In brief, I am very comfortable with my approach and I can defend it.  By the same token, colleagues are comfortable defending their more comprehensive approach, as a means of ensuring students have a substantial repository of knowledge.  In my role as School Director of Learning & Teaching, my main concern is that an approach works for the people involved (both faculty and students): in the immortal words of the theme from ‘Diff’rent Strokes’:

The world don’t move
to the beat of just one drum.
What might be right for you
may not be right for some.

Incentivizing Active Teaching

Although I’m not an economist, I’m quite interested in identifying incentives, and faculty usually have few to no material incentives to experiment pedagogically.  Occasionally someone might receive a stipend or grant to vary one’s teaching methods, but these rewards are one-shot deals. Sometimes merit pay exists, but frequently it’s based on student evaluations of teaching, which is a recipe for disaster. This situation is particularly disturbing given the findings in Academically Adrift (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U. of Chicago Press, 2011) that certain writing and reasoning skills fail to improve for over one-third of  students during four years of undergraduate education. Students aren’t learning, and faculty have no incentive to change that.

I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because I’m involved in an effort to redesign an interdisciplinary major. Team teaching has been proposed as a way of delivering content that crosses disciplinary boundaries — something that I wholeheartedly agree with — but at my university there are no incentives for it. The credit hours for a course that is team-taught are regarded as shared between instructors, and any teaching duty that equates to less than a complete three credit hour course is compensated as overload at a drastically reduced pay rate. Unless a full-time faculty member is really desperate for money, the cost of team teaching to faculty in time and effort is greater than the financial reward.

The Age of Non-Exploration

I am continually frustrated by students’ reluctance to experiment with the user-friendly technological tools that I give them. Most recently this has been demonstrated in my blog-based Europe1914 simulation and in a class that is piloting a new learning management system, Canvas by Instructure. (Please note that I have no financial interest in Instructure; my university is also piloting Blackboard’s 9.1 Learn.)

In the Europe1914 simulation, I intended the blogs to function as a platform for student communication and collaboration. The students did learn how to use the blogs – I provided them with specific directions both on the blogs and elsewhere, and I conducted a short in-class training session. But the students’ use of the blogs was limited to posts and occasional comments. No students explored ways of using the blogs for other purposes or even text formatting options. Conversations consisted primarily of each student on a team posting his or her work, which one or two team members consolidated into a single end product. Teams did not use the blogs to develop negotiation strategies or to bargain with each other.

For the other class, I have been pushing students to use with features in Canvas like discussion threads, wikis, and shared Google Docs. It’s been a tough slog. Many of the students are completely unfamiliar with these tools, and it seems that once they stumble upon one method of communication, they are reluctant to use another, even if it might meet their needs more effectively.

It appears to me that students today are socialized to view learning as a top-down, regimented process in which they do not have to exercise initiative. They expect to be told both what to learn and how to learn. I wish I knew how to break students out of this mindset, but I don’t.

The Advantage of the Long Course

Last night my 8 week US politics course finished up–its the same credits as a 16 week course, but we meet once a week for 4 hours for 8 weeks, so everything is condensed. These types of courses are primarily aimed at the non-traditional student who works during the day, although many traditional aged students take them as well.

Three or four hour courses are not uncommon in colleges today, and when we tell job candidates about them, the reaction typically varies from mild horror to ‘thanks, i’d rather not have a job right now’.  My reaction was similar at first, but I’ve come to love these courses.  Here are my top five reasons to perk up at the chance to teach a long night class.

5. It counts as part of your load.

We have a 3-3 teaching load, with no more than 25 students per class.  The 8 week class counts as part of the load–which means that the other 8 weeks, I only have two courses.  Teach two night classes a semester, and you either have a 2-2 the entire year, or if you teach them at the same time, the odd 3-1.  And if you want to pick up some extra cash via an overload, a night class in your ‘off’ term is the way to do it.

4. You Can Take Advantage of the Down Time

You have to break up the time anyway–the best lecturer in the world is not going to keep students on their toes for 4 hours week after week. Sure you can give them ‘breaks’ but why not take it further?  In the middle of each class I give the students a 15 minute break followed by ‘current issues discussion’.  The break is long enough for them to scour the local food options for dinner; then we sit down and eat while talking politics for 20-30 minutes.  Each week 3-4 students are responsible for choosing the issue and leading the discussion, which has the added bonus of giving me a break and time to eat my own dinner. Its a great way to take a ‘break’ from the class while still giving the students time to talk and learn.

3. Active Learning Bonanza

Four hour classes offer an amazing opportunity to try out active learning principles.  There is so much room for simulations and games in these classes–finally you have the time to brief, play the game, and debrief.  You can get the students out of their seats and moving around, and still have plenty of time to hit the highlights of the week’s topic.  In a four hour class, active learning becomes a necessary part of the course.

2. Students Can Really Learn The Material

I don’t find any difference in student learning in the 16 and 8 week version of my US politics course.  As previously posted, I use the US citizenship test as a pre- and post- test in this class, and the 8 week students do just as well as the 16 week students (last nights crop was no different: on the pre-test only 1 student passed; on the post-test everyone passed).  Students sometimes feel that they are missing out by only having 8 weeks instead of 16, and indeed they have to learn the material twice as quickly.  But I can be confident that these students aren’t being cheated in any way.

1. They Push You as a Teacher

I may feel exhausted both before and after I step into the classroom, but while I’m there, I’m completely energized. Four hours isn’t a hardship: its an opportunity–an opportunity to figure out the essential ideas of each content area and how to deliver it to the students.  I can experiment with new types of assessment, with new games and simulations, with readings, and with different technologies.  The challenges of this kind of course have led me to engage in more reflection on my teaching than any other course.

Are there downsides?  Sure.  Its exhausting.  The students are sometimes late to class due to traffic or work or kid issues; and sometimes they power down despite your best efforts.  But these hassles are no different than those faced in day time classes.  So my advice?  If you get a chance to teach a non-traditionally timed class, jump at it.  You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it!



Best of Both Worlds Model at APSA

We make our students work in groups to learn from each other right?

Michael Brintnall has done amazing things for the APSA conference in a way that few appear to realize. There are, in fact, working groups at APSA, and although I was uncertain what might be helpful about attending one…I quickly learned.

“Understanding Terrorist Change” was the working group to which I assigned myself. At first we stood around, admittedly some of us had other papers written, and were somewhat uncertain as to what exactly we needed to do.

Our moderator treated the first meeting like a social. He told us to go out and listen, talk, and report back on the last day about what we saw and heard. Then we ended the formal part of the meeting. And the magic began…..We began to talk, and talk, and talk. What we found in our first meeting, was a vast spectrum of scholars who had expertise or curiosity for some part of thinking about the title.

In our second meeting we managed to synthesize the panels we all observed and in doing so capitalized on the multiple eyes and ears in the rooms.  Rather than having to pick and choose what I might find interesting, we got to distill what was being presented at all the APSA panels concerning terrorism.

From here we talked more.  We all became excited about the collaboration and contributions each member had to offer. We resolved to create an edited volume of papers that celebrated the interdisciplinarity, the vast array of perspectives, and approaches. Moreover we agreed that our moderator would assign us a set of definitions from which to begin our work. (Please do this, it will help create a cohesive project)

In short, something actually productive, collaborative, and important came out of the APSA working group.

More importantly, also in the room were professors of classes on terrorism, seeking to bring home the insights generated from the working group.  They were tasked with developing syllabi that rest on the forefront of of research, rather than exemplifying the coattails of a dusty old literature.

The working group.  What a novel idea…. It seems that teaching has taught us once again, how to learn from one another and it took Michael Britnall to show us that.

Next year, make a working group, or join one. It will make your APSA worth it.