Back up, back up

It’s been one of those days when major portals have been on the blink, with the result that my Twitter timeline is full of Facebookers stumbling into the (much less curated) light.

That even such mighty beasts can be felled (again) by the vagaries of technology is a good reminder that as a teacher you need to assume your tech isn’t infallible.

Most obviously, that means having a Plan B for when you can’t log into your classroom’s system, or the bulb of the projector is broken.

But it also means thinking a bit about how to handle your institution’s IT being on the blink (I know, hard to believe such a thing could happen, but just play along): even if something like that is someone else’s problem to solve, it’s also your problem to manage, especially in our hybrid era.

It also includes all the non-electric tech you use. I still have a unpleasant memory of trying to do an activity using post-its that wouldn’t stick to any surface, for example.

Like all these things, there’s a sliding scale of responses, dependent upon the nature, severity and duration of the tech glitch.

Yes, most of the problems you’ll encounter can be fixed with a bit of effort (and a call to a helpline), but if you’ve done your prep then you can either cut that effort or even cut it out altogether.

The crappy-classroom-set-up is something we’ve all come across, probably both as student and as instructor: the rebooting; the missing cable; the software update; the screen-(not)sharing; the sound quality.

So take some steps to address that proactively.

If it’s a room you’ve not used before, go and check it all out beforehand.

Take your own device with key files, just in case the classroom machine is an issue. Remember to bring a power cable and (if you can get one) your own HDMI/VGA cable/adaptor.

I’m old-school (OK, I’m old), so I like to print out my class notes, so that’s disconnected from any tech issues. And I put them in a protective sleeve, to disconnect from wayward beverages (yes, I’ve seen notes disappear in a latte-ish mush).

When I do class, I pick up my back-up bag, which has whiteboard markers (that I check at least once a semester), post-its, chalk, spare biro and sometimes some blindfolds.

Moreover, when tech goes wrong, I’m just as likely to switch about my class, so we don’t have to use tech, as I am to phone for help. If nothing else, students seem to respond well to a different classroom set-up, especially if PowerPoint isn’t to be seen.

It’s a bit like deciding to do your class outside if the weather’s nice: that’s a cinch if you’ve got your back up plans together.

If it all sounds a bit excessive, then you’re right: 19 times out of 20, I don’t use any of this stuff, because things work.

But sometimes, well, sometimes things don’t work.

More active learning resources

As we might have mentioned before, one of the loveliest things about working in pedagogic circles is the generosity of spirit that colleagues display.

You see it here with the numerous contributions from our guest authors (and you’re always welcome to drop us a line with something new), but more generally there is a strong culture of sharing materials.

One relatively recent addition to this is the Active Learning Network, run by an international group that cuts across a number of disciplinary boundaries.

They have a good selection of materials and activities, plus the option to share resources of your own. Certainly worth some time to have a look and, hopefully, to contribute.

Write Your Own Headlines Activity

This post comes from Chelsea Kaufman, assistant professor of political science at Wingate University. She can be contacted at c[dot]kaufman[at]wingate[dot]edu.

In teaching undergraduate research methods, I often find that the students are intimidated by the subject matter and don’t see its relevance to their lives. I have increasingly emphasized to students that it prepares them to be savvy consumers of political information wherever they might encounter it. This approach introduces an additional challenge, however: students often lack the information literacy skills to evaluate the sources that they access. If I want students to have the skills to evaluate the political information they encounter, I obviously need to teach them these skills. How exactly can this be accomplished? 

It is not enough to tell students which sources are acceptable, because people tend to trust information that aligns with their political predispositions. Simply lecturing to students about the dangers of misinformation can reinforce false beliefs and increase their distrust of reliable sources. 

To avoid this conundrum, I have students write their own headlines based on public opinion poll data. I first find a poll with results covered in several media outlets. I then send students a link to (or print out) the results of the poll, without providing them any context as to how it was covered in the media. After writing the headlines, students share them and compare theirs with those of their classmates and with published headlines about the data. Students learn to interpret data and evaluate whether it was given accurate coverage in the media. As the final part of the lesson, I then ask them to evaluate the polling methods used to obtain the data, by, for example, considering how a question’s wording might have impacted the responses. 

You can view detailed instructions for the activity on APSA Educate. You can also read more about this topic and find examples of additional activities in my article Civic Education in a Fake News Era: Lessons for the Methods Classroom or my chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of Political Research Pedagogy

Is it that hard to depict teaching on screen? Anyone? Anyone?

For the past few weeks, my Twitter stream has been filled with colleagues noted their feelings about The Chair, Netflix’s excursion into Liberal Arts. The mix of joy at finally seeing ‘people like us’ on screen and trauma at the reliving memories of their day job certainly made a change from the usual psephologists-arguing-with-each-other.

I’m sure someone else can better comment on the politics of the show, even if much of it feels all too familiar, but here I’m going to think about another aspect: the teaching.

TV and film have been pretty consistently bad about convening the reality of teaching a class, despite every person involved having sat in classes at some point in their life. My personal low spot was the round of spontaneous applause for Stanley Tucci’s lecture in The Children Act: maybe you’ve seen that happen, but I doubt you’ve seen it happen for that.

The Chair has a bunch of teaching, mainly falling into the two classic camps of such things: the overly dry and the super-hip. Partly this is about conveying the tensions among the faculty, but throughout the teaching is problematic, a source of issues rather than solutions. The old guard are set in their ways and their knowledge, the young are not rigorous enough, it suggests.

Of course, much is not depicted, but what we do see invites questions, about respect for students as learners, about team-teaching, about the (mis)use of technology, about finishing classes with key takeaways. And, of course, the entire series hangs on an incident in class that is, at best, unthinking.

Much as I understand that teaching isn’t necessarily the most conducive of things to portray, and that it’s also at the service of some dramatic arc, it matters inasmuch as it shapes students’ expectations of how things might be.

Maybe teaching is about performance: ours and theirs. But ultimately it has to be about learning, and the tropes of on-screen aren’t really a way forward.

That means that the priority isn’t about being down with the kids or having published the definitive study, or even about being a famous actor who’s also done some academic work: no, the priority is about building a space that works for you and your students to explore and understanding the subject. It’s not that lectures are bad per se, or that you have to get your students perform humorous songs about Moby Dick, but that any activity you have is connected clearly to your learning objectives.

This won’t be the same each time you do it, because it’s a contingent process and one that you have to find your way to.

And because you’ve stuck through the post, I offer you the archetypes of the film options of ‘what’s teaching like?; nice Ethan Hawke on a desk in Dead Poets’ Society and Econ with Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. You can decide if either is realistic or useful.

Keep fit, online

I’m deep into our annual UACES conference today, which means lots of sitting in front of a screen, with periodic dashes to make a cup of tea.

Since I recognise this isn’t going to suffice for three days straight, I’m happy to share a video from the organisers from someone who’s got some better ideas about keeping it together.

There’s more content coming in later days, but it’s a great resource even if you’re not WFH’ing.

Learning is forever/scarred for life

A particularly rewarding part of being an educator is when someone you’ve taught comes back to you, years down the line, and recounts the experience they had with you and how it changed them.

Usually I like to illustrate this with the case of a former student who told me how my negotiation class had been front-and-centre of their thinking when sacking someone at their business, but now I get to add a new example. Not much better, I fear.

Some years ago, I ran an exercise with colleagues during an awayday.

They still remember it:

You might recall that I wrote it all up at the time. And yes, I do still have the other photos and video, before you ask.

As you’ll see for the responses to the tweet, they all remember the point of the exercise, which I think makes it a success. The exercise took under 30 minutes, and no clown costumes were needed.

And this is maybe the key point.

Looking at the dress-up-as-a-clown thing, I’m not sure if that would necessarily be the take-home from that activity. Yes, you’d rapidly forget about your outfit as you did other stuff, but is that ‘losing inhibitions’? Not really: maybe more about being reminded about how much you have to put up with stuff in your job.

So what to take from this?

As so often, it’s all about clarity of purpose: what are you trying to get the participants to learn?

It’s super-easy to get lost in the mechanics and the (metaphorical) dressing-up of your class, but you always, always have to come back to whether it helps improve the likelihood of your learning objectives being reached. If that doesn’t happen, then you’ve failed the most basic test of efficacy.

Feel free to point this out next time you’re sat in a wood in a clown outfit.

Keeping up with the literature

OK, actually a bookshop, but the same idea

I don’t know about you, but this is one of the hardest things to do.

Being of an age that I can remember trawling through the card index at the university library, and then spending a day or three browsing the stacks to discover some interesting piece in a journal I’d not heard of until that point [which is how I ended up with my PhD topic, but that’s another story], I am now swamped by a constant wave of new publications.

Which is great, but also problematic. Maybe because of that struggle to find stuff I now worry that I might be missing something, even as I now find I don’t have enough time to read it all, let alone ruminate on it.

Currently, my system works like this.

I’m signed up to about 50 journals for new issue alerts. I keep a spreadsheet of these journals, so I know that I’ve not missed anything from them: some of the alerts are a bit ropey, so maybe twice a year I’ll go to my library website and go check for missing back issues.

Right now, I’d totally recommend doing that, since many publishers seem to have loosened up access to journals that your place might not usually subscribe to.

I’ll download PDFs, reading the abstracts as I go, plus the full piece if it’s particularly salient. You might consider this piece when you write your next piece, because it’s certainly true for me.

In addition, I have a Google Scholar alert set up for a keyword for my research, which produces about an email a day of links to new content. Again, I try to access as much as I can.

And then there’s the stuff that I read about on Twitter or other blogs.

Again, I’m not sure this is the ideal way, but it’s the one I’ve worked with for many years, so it’s comfortable for me, which is also important.

From experience, the most difficult thing is letting stuff build up. A few years ago I left the library ‘visit’ for well over a year and I ended up with several hundred pieces, about which I could tell you pretty much nothing.

Anyone got any better models for doing this? Stick it in the comments below.

Designing to constraints

Seamless integration

It’s summertime, so in between the flood warnings (seriously), it’s time to be doing some Big Thinking about teaching.

As part of my new role at the Open University, I’m contributing to a new Masters in IR, including the development of a simulation exercise.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this simulation in the next couple of years, mainly because the constraints are very different from those I’ve worked to before, with a big pile of knock-on consequences.

As a completely new programme, we’ve got relatively more space to manoeuvre than would be usually the case, but still the constraints loom rather large. As such, I’m dwelling on my third step of my usual approach to such situations.

For those unfamiliar with the OU, it’s the UK’s largest university (nearly the enrolment of the University of California system) working almost entirely on a distance-learning model. We have a lot of adult learners and a very flexible approach to working up to qualifications: you take a module at a time.

The new Masters will be entirely remote, with a taught module that runs for 36 weeks, followed by a dissertation. For most of that 36 weeks, we provide a collection of teaching materials – written and audio/visual – through our website, with structured activities for students, building up to interim and final pieces of assessment.

My role, as part of the central teaching staff, is to create those materials, which have to be able to stand being used by students for several years before a refresh, with activities supervised and moderated by a large team of associates, who handle the bulk of the direct interactions with students.

The upshot here is that I’ve been trying to work up a negotiation simulation that fits a number of requirements that are usually not that conducive to such things:

  • Student numbers will be variable across iterations;
  • I can’t assume all students will be doing this via our website (we have a significant number of students with various accessibility challenges, so they might only be able to learn via a printed version of our materials);
  • As such, synchronous interaction is not an option;
  • Even asynchronous interaction will be a problem for some;
  • And I can’t assume any prior knowledge of negotiation.

As the old joke about getting directions in Ireland goes, you wouldn’t start from here.

But that’s been precisely why I’ve enjoyed my first months here: it’s not run-of-the-mill and I’m being forced to think about how to manage the situation, rather than simply reinvent the wheel.

For those of you not moving jobs, then remember that you too are working to constraints, but you might just have internalised them to a degree. None of us gets a completely free hand, or even something close to one.

The response here is to work with the constraints, not against them.

Whether it’s a oddly-shaped room, or a limit on your timetabled time with students, or making necessary adjustments for students with disabilities, or building in assessment obligations, or a departmental edict against X, Y or Z; then it’s the same thing. Whatever things might be blocked, then other things become possible.

The beauty of education is that it’s not uniform and that there’s no one correct way to do it: variety is a good thing, for so many reasons.

In my case, I’ve used those constraints to explore the options with the rest of the team. That meant presenting a number of basic models to them, with their benefits and disadvantages, all grounded in the question of what purpose this simulation is fulfilling within the programme.

Off the back of that discussion, I’m not working up an approach that combines at least two of those models, which we’ll discuss again in September. And as we settle on things, I’ll write more about how that might work and the further integration and delivery challenges that have to be addressed.

Failing to succeed

One thing that has been really good about being part of ALPS has been the community around it.

For example, this week’s post is inspired by my former colleague and general force of nature, Maxine David, who pushed out this thread the other day (click to read it all):

Essentially, Maxine’s asking the same question that I think we’ve all asked at some point: what are we trying to achieve in our classes?

As you’ll see from the responses to the thread, I started to sketch out a position, but I’d like to expand on it here some more.

Amanda and Nina have long championed failure in the classroom as a valuable learning experience for students. Their argument – which I also hold to – is that hitting nominal targets is good, but not a complete education: not hitting them encourages students to reflect more on the process of learning (and application) that they’ve undertaken. Think of it as being analogous to playing a game, where not hitting the (rather different) target makes you go back and try again, with the thought of why it didn’t work before in your mind.

This model requires us to acknowledge that learning has multiple targets.

Yes, we want students to know stuff and know how to do stuff (which we can catch with summative assessments), but we also want students to know how to know all this. Becoming a reflexive learner and a critical thinker is a core skill for building capacity to learn throughout the rest of one’s life and it’s a skill that has no easy metric, nor any obvious threshold.

And thresholds were my first thought when I read Maxine’s thread.

When we assess, we typically look for evidence of meeting some threshold: does the student demonstrate that they know enough about X or enough about how to do Y? Those thresholds are present in our grading and those institutional matrices that benchmark us all to common standards.


Maxine rightly points out that we cannot really ever separate out the formative and summative elements of assessment: if we genuinely value the development of reflexive learning, then we absolutely shouldn’t be trying to separate them out in the first place.

But this position is vanishingly rare in academia these days. Yes, I tell my doctoral students that a good viva should see every singly person coming out of the room having learnt something, but even that’s not a given.

Easy as it would be to blame the pressures of QA culture and metrification for all this, we also have to recognise that we often don’t create opportunities within our own classes. Even if we aren’t allowed to make adjustments for support received (as Maxine suggests), we should still be trying to instil a culture of collaboration, reflection and development among our students and between them and us.

In so doing we might start to reclaim some of that learning opportunity that will serve everyone in the class well, wherever they are and whatever they do.


You might have seen that England is going through some very pointed discussions about racism, following the European football championships. This tweet from one of the national team players exactly captures the point:

Finding motivation


This past weekend, I went for a walk with my son. Older readers will remember him from his Lego days: he’s a bit taller now.

Our walk went from central London, along the river Thames, heading back to our home. If we’d completed it, then we’d have hit 100,000 steps and walked about 50 miles (80km).

Spoiler: we didn’t complete it.

But what’s this to you?

As I sit here now, with my feet still somewhat tender, I’m thinking about motivation and where we get it from. That applies as much to the classroom as it does to walks.

In the latter case, we tried to it for a variety of reasons. These included:

  • 100,000 is the highest badge that Fitbit offer for daily step count;
  • Last year, we did some similar long walks and only got up to 60,000 steps;
  • Covid – there’s been a lack of other things we might do;
  • It’s nice to sometimes turn the chat into action;
  • It’s nice to have a joint thing to do, together;
  • We each think we’re fitter than the other one.

Now, none of these are particular good reasons to wake up before 4am to catch a train to walk for 10 hours solid, but they were our reasons.

To use more formal language, there’s a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation going on here: more the former than the latter, since we’re not usually that bothered about Fitbit badges. Essentially, we did it because we wanted to do it.


A comparison with our classes is instructive here, because while students are typically not obliged to take a degree programme, they often are bound by course requirements, our syllabus and class set-up to do much as we say.

Even when we try to use active learning, we have to recognise that the boundaries of that are quite narrowly defined. It’s really rare to be offering up something that is broadly unstructured for students to make of it as they will.

For me and my son, our aim was roughly to see if we could get to 100,000 steps in a day. Last year’s effort had involved walking around and around our house (seriously), so we wanted to try something less demoralising. But there’s where we can see the two sides of such potential flexibility.

On the one hand, we could pick any route, done any how, at any time. Yes, I suggested the flattest possible option, and one with multiple bail-out points (luckily), but we might just as well have heading the other way from our house and made for the seaside. That scope to try whatever we want can be very liberating, and also enlightening, since our discussions beforehand made us think a lot about the various factors we’d need to consider (food, drink, loo stops, weather, scenery, maybe walking at night, etc.)

But that freedom can also be inhibiting. To get to the starting line (in both senses) requires much more engagement and reflection. For some that be too much, too daunting.

In the course of getting ready for this, we both did some research. Mine had more online resources about managing feet during long walks; his had more YouTube videos. One thing I did find was a site that organises events, including a river Thames walk of 50 miles. If we’d signed up for that (it’s in a few weeks), we’d have been supported all the way, with proper meals and stewards and a broom wagon to collect us.

But it wouldn’t have been the same. And it wouldn’t have been what we wanted.

Which might be the final point to consider: your motivation isn’t someone else’s.

Look back at that list, up top. It’s my list, not our list. I think it’s not so different from my son’s but that’s for him to know and to articulate (he declined the option to co-author this post). But that difference didn’t stop us from doing the walk, or from enjoying it, or from learning about our current limits.

Maybe the lesson here is that everyone comes to learning experiences with their own priorities and motivations, and as educators it’s for us to work with that. Like a good undergrad, I could note that education literally means ‘drawing out’, which is what this is all about.

If we can recognise what everyone brings and if we can create spaces that resonate with those differences, then we can all gain from it, both students and educators.

One to think about, as we wait for the train back home, if only to take our mind off our soles.