Creating Community I: Reading Response Discussions

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

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

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

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.

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The Brand (and Bias) Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Conferencing online

Only the one person struggling to wave with both hands then…

Lots and lots to talk about off the back of EuroTLC last week, so I’m going to chunk it up over the coming weeks. But the starting point has to be some reflecting on whether and how you can have a conference online.

As a top line, I think our event went well. The feedback has been positive; we’ve reached a wider audience than with the physical events beforehand; we had no major technology issues; and I’ve come away with as much to think about (and act on) as before.

But it’s still a different thing to what it was.

Naturally, being good pedagogues, we had thought about that a lot beforehand, and tried a number of things to make it work as well as it could.

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That’s a wrap: Reflections on the process of teaching and learning video production

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University), offering some practical insights from his use of video in L&T.

During these strange months in cyber-space, I personally was keen on using videos to support my students’ learning; something I already considered doing pre-Corona, but never actually came round to trying. Now I had to redesign several lectures that were ideal for introducing video.

Overall, I was very satisfied and this experience makes me want to use more videos in the future to contribute to (but not replace) my lectures, also when on-campus teaching resumes. There are a couple of challenges, of course. Here are a few things that I’ve learned:

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