Active Learning is More than Just Simulations

I’ve been in a few sessions recently where well-meaning faculty point out how important active learning is—true!—and then immediately mention ‘simulations and games’ as key examples of active learning (AL). Also true! But let’s be clear, simulations and games aren’t the only kind of active learning. They aren’t the most common kind, the easiest to do, or even what I would recommend that most faculty start with. When the right simulation or game is chosen, executed well, and debriefed effectively, it can be a great learning tool. But games and simulations are neither necessary nor sufficient for active learning, and I want to encourage everyone to think more broadly about how to increase AL in their classes.

Active learning is any tool, technique, or approach that calls on learners to actively engage in the learning process. The point is not the tool itself, but adopting a learner-centric approach that ensures that students are not simply passive recipients of information. ‘Activating’ the students, then, is about asking them to think, process, and make connections about the material, rather than just listen, read, or write down information. In some cases, a passive approach makes sense! Sometimes you really do just have to transmit information. The problem arises when we consistently turn to passive approaches without considering and experimenting with active approaches, which have a solid record of producing better engagement and learning. See for example Deslauriers et al 2019, where even students who thought they learned more from a more passive approach actually learned more from an active one.

Simulations and games, then, can be active or passive, depending on whether everyone has the tools to effectively participate or actively watch and listen. Watching others play a game is only active if the observers are prompted to provide comments and input based on their observations. In such cases, they are active observers. Even participation doesn’t necessarily make the experience ‘active’. A simulation or role-play exercise where a student is too anxious about their performance or grade to pay attention and fully participate is not active for that student. So AL is not just about the activity you do, but how you use it and help students learn from it.

Moreover, AL encompasses so much more than simulations and games. Structuring a lecture around a provocative question, where students are encouraged to think through the steps as you go along, can be active. So can asking good discussion questions that lead to dynamic student to student debates. Asking students at the end of class to reflect on what they learned that day (or what was still confusing) is a method of active learning, and in can be done in one minute at the end of class, or as a written, audio, or video journal they create throughout the term. 

When you consider that active learning can really be just small interventions in teaching (as Jim Lang puts it in his book,Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), it suddenly becomes achievable for everyone. Simulations and games are sometimes a tough sell—they can seem juvenile or take too much time away from other content. But active learning? The benefits are clear and centering such techniques doesn’t actually require much work or time.

Even this blog makes this mistake—we are Active Learning in Political Science, and yet most of our coverage is on games and simulations. So consider this a call for a broader approach, one that brings legions more faculty into the world of active learning, without requiring a conversion to the gaming world. Let’s look for the small interventions that anyone can use—from a great discussion question to a good group activity to great reflective prompts—and be more careful with how we define and explain what active learning really is.

Online Simulations & Games Using Discord

I mentioned Discord about a year ago as we were all turning to virtual instruction at the start of the pandemic. I want to return to it specifically in the games and simulations context, though, as it has some really useful properties that can aid those instructors looking for a way to run their online simulations. If you are ready to start thinking about how to run Model UN, Diplomacy, or other complex simulations online, you should really consider Discord.

Discord is a social media platform used by gamers, podcasters, and other content creators to connect with their communities. Each group has their own discord ‘server’, a private space that you can only enter with an invitation. Inside, you can create text and voice based ‘channels’ that let you structure conversations by topic. These channels can be open to everyone on the server or private and hidden. As the server creator or administrator, you also have a lot of latitude for customizing settings–such as making something read-only or enabling ‘slow mode’, which prevents any one person from dominating the conversation. And server members can message each other individually or create small groups for private conversation. The text conversation is asynchronous, but it is easy to jump into a voice channel for voice-only or video conversations.

This kind of format lends itself very well to running complex simulations. There are several key needs for running an online simulation:

  • Instructors must be able to review rules and procedures, share documents and updates, and take questions from students, publicly and privately.
  • Students need to be able to post in-character public messages for other participants to see.
  • Students need to be able to post privately to their teammates, if they have them.
  • Students need to be able to send private messages to other students for secret negotiations.
  • Students may need to post files or links, share their screen, or jump onto a quick voice conversation.

It is easy to do all of this in Discord, without the constraints of a standard learning management system/virtual learning environment. By creating ‘roles’ in the server with different permissions, you can divide students by their teams or in-game roles and set channels that only they can access and that can identify them within the server. This makes communication much easier. For example, if you are running a UN Security Council simulation, you can create a ‘role’ for each country in Discord. You might not need to set up private channels for each country if there is only one person in each role, but this allows students to message each other without having to check a list of who is playing what role. They could also have a public channel for making speeches, and another where they upload and discuss the wording on resolutions. If you are running a full UN simulation with many different committees, you can have channels dedicated to the General Assembly and each committee, and private channels dedicated to each country so members of the same team can talk privately and share information. Discord therefore supports simulations both large and small.

I’m using Discord right now to run a game of Diplomacy in my ISA Career Course on Games and Simulations in International Relations (with Victor Asal). There are plenty of online platforms that you can use, but I chose to use Discord because I didn’t know in advance if I would have more than 7 players. Most online platforms don’t allow for teams–but Discord does. Here is what the server looks like:

As you can see, I have a general channel for administrative purposes. I’ve since created a new read-only channel called ‘maps and result’s where I post the outcomes of each game turn along with updated maps. The public channels–text and voice–are open to all players if they want to openly communicate. Italy has made a call for peace and protection of the status quo–but no responses so far! the other channels are organized by country category. Each country has a private text and voice channel open only to their team and the facilitators. They also have a private ‘orders’ channel where they submit orders for their units each turn. I use those channels to adjudicate each turn. If they want to message another team, all they have to do is right-click on the name of the person they want to message (their country name is next to their name) and select ‘message’ and that will open up a private conversation for negotiations. The person-shaped icon in the top right of the screen pops up the list of server members for this purpose. It will also tell you who is online in case you want to invite them into a voice chat.

Running the game this way instead of over email or through an online game system gives me several advantages as an instructor. I can keep tabs on most of the gameplay, although some private conversations I would only see if I’m invited to join them (something you can require if you want). I also have a record after the gameplay of everything that happened, which is useful for debriefing, grading, and assessment. The interface is easy to use, and once students get familiar with it, you can reuse it for different games and exercises throughout your course. I can also allow ‘observers’–people who want to watch but not play. I can give them as much access as I want–for example, I can limit them to read- and listen-only so they can’t interfere with the game play.

I’ve used discord for running an monthly trivia game as well as a 200+ person multi day conference, so I can attest to its robust capabilities. It is free, accessible from outside the US, pretty easy to learn, and has a robust mobile app that make it accessible to students. The main downsides are that the server creator needs to put in a bit of work to figure out how to set up the server to meet your needs, and that the video and screen sharing systems aren’t always reliable. Asynchronous text channels and voice channel work just fine though.

I know a lot of faculty want to run simulations but are restricted by social distancing or virtual classrooms. If you are ready to try something new, try Discord. I have no relationship with the company and am not being compensated by them for this post–I just want to recommend something that I’ve found very useful in my own teaching.

Improve Breakout Groups with Collaborative Document Editing in Google Slides or MS Teams

If you are teaching synchronous virtual classes on Zoom, Webex, or any other teleconference platform you are probably using breakout groups for small group discussions or student presentation preparation. Breakout groups are a great technique to break up a session and help build connections between small groups of students, but they suffer from three core problems:

  1. Students don’t remember or understand the prompt and take awhile to get started.
  2. Coordinating how to take notes or otherwise share the group’s work with other groups can be difficult and time-consuming, and may result in a single student doing most of that work.
  3. Students don’t get a quality set of notes from the presentations of other groups, reducing the likelihood that they will get much value from what other groups have done.

Collaborative document editing solves all three of these problems.

This idea is courtesy of Dr. Jenny Cooper of Stonehill College, who has found great success in creating a seamless breakout group experience in her classes. Instructors create a shared slide presentation in MS Teams or Google Slides that contains a slide with the prompt, instructions for the group work, and any expected output. This is followed by individual blank slides for each group to fill in, labeled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ etc. Share the link to the presentation with students, and then every member of each group can access and edit the document in real time during breakout groups, recording notes, images, or graphics in their assigned blank slide. The result is a single shared document that contains the work from each group, eliminating the need to share screens or additional files during presentations and ensuring that students have a complete set of notes they can review after the class.

This method can be used by anyone regardless of what teleconference system you are using. I advise that only those classes already using MS Teams should use the Teams method; everyone else should use Google Slides. This is easy to use for students: Google Slides does not require students to create an account to access or edit a document; all you have to do is send your students a link with editing privileges to the slide presentations, or post one in your LMS/VLE. They will click on the link and immediately be able to edit the document in either platform. As for faculty, if you have ever created a PowerPoint or other slide presentation, then this method will require minimal effort to adopt.

The only drawback is that there can be connectivity issues if a lot of people are accessing the same document at once. If you see that happening, you may want to ask a single student in each group to act as notetaker, and to share their screen within the breakout group so that their group mates can easily see what they are writing. In addition, students accessing Teams or Google Slides on a mobile or tablet may not have full editing functionality, so notetakers should generally be students using a computer.

Here is an in-depth guide with screenshots on how to do this in both MS Teams and Google Slides:

Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!

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.

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.

Continue reading “Conferencing online”

Settling in for EuroTLC 2020

It’s nearly time for the 2020 edition of the European Teaching & Learning Conference. We were going to be in Amsterdam, enjoying all the nice weather we’ve been having, but now we’re doing it at mine.

We’re going to need cushions. Lots of cushions.

And yours.

A fully-virtual conference is new ground for me (and for most of us), so as one of the organisers I’ve wanted to try and make the most of the opportunity to try out some different things to keep people engaged.

During the two days, we’ll be having lots of different types of sessions, with plenty of loo breaks, and nothing more than an hour. We’re flipping stuff and setting challenges, and generally asking all our participants to think about interaction as a key objective.

From the teaser videos we’ve received, it’s already clear that this has really been taken to heart and I think the record-breaking registration figures bear out how much of an impact this has.

Continue reading “Settling in for EuroTLC 2020”

What will Classes Look Like in the Fall?

As semesters come to a close, it’s a good time to take some deep breaths before we dive back in and start thinking about the fall and what classes will look like. This requires serious consideration of whether faculty should prepare to have part or all of their classes online in the fall. My short answer: yes.

Foretelling the Fall

’15 Fall Scenarios‘ set off much of the discussion regarding what classes will look like in the fall. It examines a range of options from ‘back to normal’ to ‘fully remote’, meandering through delayed starts, block scheduling, bringing some students back to campus but not others, and various hybrid and HyFlex models. According to the Chronicle, 68% of the 630+ higher education institutions they are tracking are planning to hold in-person classes in the fall. Given the uncertainties regarding the trajectory of the coronavirus in the US, and the near-certainty that we won’t have readily-available vaccines or treatments by August, at first glance its hard to understand why so many schools are engaging in what seems like wishful thinking. Certainly, that may be part of what is going on here–optimism in the face of pandemic is in some ways a good thing. Seen in a more negative light, this can be viewed as putting financial interests of universities ahead of the health of students, faculty, and staff. Covid-19 exacerbates existing financial problems at universities, with numerous reports of faculty and staff being furloughed or laid off, even at elite universities. Or perhaps universities are simply responding to what students want. A recent survey of students indicated that most of them want to return to in-person classes.

Another explanation is that this is largely strategic. Robert Kelchen lays out three explanations (link requires premium access) for why colleges have said they are reopening in the fall: sheer optimism, political posturing, and to keep students enrolled. As the deposit deadline shifted to June 1 for many institutions, students have more time to weigh their options. If campuses will be closed and classes online, why pay a premium to attend one institution when they could take online classes at a cheaper place closer to home? This is particularly the case as the hit to the economy will have made college harder to afford for many students and their families. Community colleges in particular are likely to be online in the fall; as a frequent safe haven during times of economic hardship, more and more students may shy away from attending a university that announces in May that students cannot return in August. Institutions that have announced they currently ‘plan’ on having classes in-person are therefore likely keeping a publicly positive outlook while they try to secure enrollments; I expect many to announce a change in their plans come the fall, whether before the semester starts or soon after, if an outbreak occurs. Several institutions are trying a third way, announcing that they plan to have socially distant in-person classes until Thanksgiving, or like Cambridge University are moving lectures online but not tutorials or smaller seminars.

Planning for Fall

Given the expectation that most classes in the fall will be online, either from the start or partway through, faculty should start preparing now for moving their courses online. In the spring, faculty had little or no notice before moving an in-person course online. Despite what your university may be announcing it intends to do in the fall, faculty should prepare their courses now, while there is time, to be effective in an online, remote environment.

Luckily, lots of professors and educational developers have started identifying best practices and are putting out articles on how to do this. Here are a few to get you started.

Planning for Virtual Courses. This is a guide to planning a virtual lesson and how to combine synchronous and asynchronous activities effectively.

Move to Online Learning: 12 Key Ideas, Dave Cormier, Dave’s Educational Blog

Online Teaching Toolkit, Association of College and University Educators

Turning Remote Education into Online Education this Fall, Elizabeth Johnson, Inside Higher Ed.

How College Students Viewed this Spring’s Remote Learning, Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed.

This post represents solely the views of the author, and does not in any way reflect the views or policy of the US Naval War College or US Department of Defense.