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.

Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn

Pretty things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions

[Updated: This post describes my experience delivering a simulated classroom lesson, part of my university’s effort to evaluate potential solutions to the challenges posed by the upcoming fall semester — a process that is, or should be, occurring on your campus as well. Testing is a necessary part of the design process, and the process of evaluating potential solutions rarely goes as expected in its initial iterations.]

Last week I simulated fall semester teaching with some students in the physical classroom and others connected remotely via Webex. My main objective for the demo was to identify possible points of failure in the technology that my university is thinking about purchasing, and in this I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

The lesson was organized as follows:

Continue reading “Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions”

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:

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

How deep is your hole?

Tidier than most

One of the more unnerving aspects of All This – professionally speaking – is the coupling of highly localised concerns – how will I teach my class? – with very general ones – will the HE sector survive?

Much as we grumble about the former, and spend hours in webinars and talking with colleagues about tips and options, the latter tends to get less attention. Mainly because it raises all kinds of unpleasant visions and because it’s beyond our control.

However, it’s still useful to reflect a bit on how the big stuff might trickle down to our pedagogic practice.

The main part of this is the impact on student numbers.

As a working assumption, there’s going to be a contraction of numbers next academic year: international students might not be allowed to travel, especially to countries with high Covid-19 infection rates; and students from all locations might decide that going to a place with lots of sweaty teenagers isn’t the best look for staying well. And that’s going to include returning students as well as new ones.

Which is all a bit of a kick in the teeth to any university (or country) that charged down the internationalisation path over the past decade or two.

With international students typically paying higher fees, and all student income subsidising the other stuff that universities do (um, research), not least because students pay lots of money beyond fees (accommodation, food, drink, ents, etc), the question becomes one of how big the budget gap is going to be.

(There’s a very good piece on Tortoise about this in the UK BTW. Recent data from the British Council suggest we still have a lot of uncertain overseas students).

Of course, that funding shortfall also means the sound of belts being tightened.

I’ll assume your institution has reviewed whether provision can be trimmed to keep costs down – not recruiting for smaller programmes, getting rid of the unpopular modules/courses – and maybe it’s also started acting on staff costs – recruitment freezes, non-renewals of short-term contracts, redundancies.

That increased precarity obviously does not help in the effort to concentrate on developing good pedagogic practice for a distanced classroom.

But uncertainty over student numbers is also an issue more directly, in planning what one might do with one’s classes at all.

Usually at this stage in the year, I’d have a good sense of how many people I’d be teaching in the autumn semester and I’d be planning accordingly. This year? Less so. And that’s for programmes that haven’t got that many non-domestic students on them, so our variability is probably less than for others.

And this is even before we consider whether a more local student body means we’ll be losing some of the diversity of experiences and insights that so often generates valuable debate in the class.

Or whether those students that do attend end up being even more likely to have to work to support themselves through university because their families haven’t got the means they once did, in turn reducing students’ study time and focus.

Or whether the increased use of online teaching elements reinforces differences of learning opportunities for those less able to afford suitable equipment or internet connections.

As ever, I haven’t got the answers to these things, but I can suggest that we do need to think about the knock-on effects on our teaching and learning practice.

Good luck, as they say, with that.

More Looking Backward

Continuing with my recent theme of evaluating my teaching over the previous semester:

My courses on comparative politics and Asia both concluded with simulations. I’ll discuss the latter in a future post. As I mentioned last month, I heavily modified my old Gerkhania exercise for comparative politics. The changes were based on a brilliant democratic government simulation that Kristina Flores-Victor of CSU-Sacramento presented at the 2020 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

As in previous versions of Gerkhania, students each received fictional identities as members of a newly-formed legislature in a multi-ethnic country with a history of civil strife (think Afghanistan). Over a series of three Webex sessions, I fed the class nine legislative proposals. Action on each proposal caused students to earn or lose political constituency points (representing support from voters) and political capital points (influence within the legislature). These effects varied in ways that corresponded to the identity of each participant.

At the opening and closing of each session, students could exchange constituency points at a 2:1 ratio for either political capital points or reward points that could contribute toward their course grades. Political capital points could be used to remove a proposal from the agenda, to prevent the legislators from voting on it, or to return it to the agenda. Students took a trivia quiz before the simulation began and prior to the second session so that they could acquire constituency and capital points to work with.

Every proposal that was voted down increased the probability that Gerkhania returned to a state of civil war at the end of the simulation by 1:18. If civil war occurred, legislators would lose all accumulated reward points.

Considerations for the future:

The effects of each successive legislative proposal, in terms of point changes, increased as the simulation progressed. The stakes associated with the initial proposals turned out to be too small to generate contention among students and need to be increased. The second trivia quiz can be scrapped for this reason.

I had built a very complicated Excel spreadsheet to track each student’s points as the simulation progressed. Using this spreadsheet for the first time, for a simulation that I had originally intended to run in the classroom, proved slightly problematic. I found it difficult to always correctly update spreadsheet cells with my eyeballs bouncing between windows on two different monitors. Also editing webpages so that students could track developments created delays during which students were idle.

A larger problem: although the simulation’s online environment seemed to negatively affect the amount of interaction between students, I think the small size of the class was the major contributing factor. As I’ve discussed before, these kinds of exercises seem to require a critical mass of participants, which this class didn’t have.

The pandemic most likely also had consequences. Campus classes ended at spring break, students scattered hither and yon, and the semester was extended by an extra week to make up for time lost in the transition to online instruction. By the last week, many students were probably just trying to finish the semester, had other concerns, and may not have been motivated to become heavily invested in the simulation.

Carpe lectionem

Don’t ask me…

Well. This is fun, isn’t it?

Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I get the distinct impression that we’ve moved to the second phase of lockdown: boredom.

Those first weeks of frantic adjustment, of adding an extra tin or one into our shop (because none of us stockpile), of working out the un-mute keyboard shortcut for Zoom, of deciding whether the walk to go shop should also count as the walk for exercise, all those are done.

Now, it’s routine. You probably even know what day of the week it is.

That’s good, because it’s now the time to get focused on what’s still to come.

I’ve written before about the autumn/fall semester, which is going to be a global challenge for HE: there will almost certainly be massive disruption on student recruitment, both in terms of overall numbers and of their location, plus lockdown elements are going to linger for a long time yet, so we have to assume that we’ll all be doing some form of online instruction.

Right now, my impression is that this is still a bit up in the air. Partly that’s because this situation is too fluid to encourage much strategic planning; partly it’s because we habour hopes that this will all be a distant memory by September; and partly it’s because we’re all up to our eyeballs in stuff right now.

It’s that last element I want to focus on this time.

Many of us still have a few weeks of teaching left, which is why we’re so busy. But that’s also an opportunity.

If we are going to have to sort ourselves out for the autumn, when we’ll need to have a much more robust offering to students, then we’ll want to have as much confidence as possible in different approaches.

That’s why this period, right now, is really useful. It’s a time to try out ideas we might want to pursue more further down the line.

It’s with that in mind that me and my colleagues here at Surrey are trying to be a bit more systematic about this.

For context, we’ve already worked up a draft plan for the autumn, with both general principles for delivery of our provision for both online and onsite students, as well as worked examples of different types of courses.

The aim is to ensure all colleagues have a robust, and evidenced basis for transforming their teaching, to ensure all students can access the same high-quality learning environments, not matter how they participate.

The next step is now to work on some more specific activities, to get a proper feel for them. That includes some remote simulations, groupwork exercises and asynchronous presentations.

When our semester ends, we’re all going to write up [OK, we’ve asked everyone to write up, so, you know] these trials, with practicalities, strengths and weaknesses and options for adaptation. Just short, one-pagers to capture the essentials.

That will give us a more grounded sense of how things work in remote settings and allow us to think more clearly about these can relate to in-class work that might be in parallel.

It’s not a perfect process and we’re still going to make some missteps on the way – which is why we’re also going to have lots of running reviews now and in the autumn – but it’s an effort to make our lives easier this summer.

As a student of politics, I’ll also note it keeps us ahead of the institutional process that’s unfurling for us (and for you), so we’re more likely to see our plans (which are not particularly disciplinary) getting picked up by others, rather than us having to cleave to other people’s ideas.

It’s been one of the more enjoyable aspects of all this that L&T has plonked itself in the centre of people’s attentions, but now we need to make the most of that opportunity right now, before it passes.

And, as always, if you have an idea you’d like to share with a global audience, then just drop us a line here at ALPS blog.


Like a coronavirus, but more manageable

Let’s start by saying that so far I’ve not been too concerned about coronavirus: my classes this semester were already flipped and my immediate colleagues seemed to be managing the digital transition pretty well, given everything.

But now, I’m less sanguine.

This is mainly because I’ve fallen into my own trap of anxiety-management. This states that usually it’s too early to worry about stuff, and then it’s usually too late.

Of course, right now turns out to be exactly when I need to worry about a number of coming issues.

Stupid reasoning, with its rationalising.

My worries come in three distinct packages, so it’s not even a single thing.

Worry one, the smallest one, is assessment. My institution is keeping its end-of-semester assessment, although asking everyone to replace exams under controlled conditions with something else. That’s fair enough, although obviously more involved than the pass-fail model others are using, or even the general scrubbing of anything.

It’s only a small concern because I was using an open-book exam with our software pilot, so it should be that I can continue to use it, but maybe with a 24 hour window, rather than 2 hours, so students now spread around the world (and maybe with shonky internet) have plenty of time to complete it.

But it’s still a concern: remember that these grades are going to hang around the students’ transcripts for a long time and memories will fade of the scale of the impact, so I need to think about ensuring I continue to provide fair and transparent assessment.

Worry two is much bigger, if also much less defined: recruitment.

Coronavirus is likely to result in medium-term disruption to international movement and extended national restrictions. Universities are obvious sites of concern for those worried about bringing together people from around the world for extended periods.

All of that suggests that the global market for students is going to be hard-hit, which is a problem if your institution relies on overseas fees to prop up business models.

Even with domestic students, things are going to be tough. Here in the UK, there is talk of capping numbers, to stop some institutions making up international shortfalls by going to town in accepting a lot more locals. That might seem to fit with the progressive marketisation of the sector here, but apparently it’s not the kind of clear-out of universities that was being looked for.

In any case, finances for universities in any country are going to be hit, which means more tough times after a decade of, um tough times caused by the financial crisis.

If that’s all a bit too big, then maybe worry three is more manageable, if also the one I’m least clear about how I can resolve it: my teaching next semester.

I’ll be running two classes in the autumn/fall: one on European integration and one on negotiation. The former I can see reasonably easily how I could run it in a virtual form, but the latter is going to be a massive pain in the arse.

Even the one habitual online exercise I currently have doesn’t really work any more, since it requires people to make use of existing travel options to move around; and that’s quite aside from the game objective, namely to meet up in a group ASAP – not really the look to be going for in these social distancing times.

But more profoundly, all of the key things I would want students to know about seem to require face-to-face, in-person interaction. I can’t simply just move my exercises online.

And this is going to be the big meta-challenge for teaching later this year: we can’t simply repeat the current crash-to-digital option.

Instead, we are going to have to create genuinely effective digital learning environments, which is rather different from stick-it-on-Zoom. And that’s not even getting into a situation where we might be allowed back into the classrooms half-way through semester. This all needs ground-up work and effort, the kind that needs maybe half-a-year to do.


And there you have it, why I’m worried. These are things we have to get to work on now if we are going to pull through what will certainly be one of the less pleasant professional summers of our lives.

Because while these might be my worries, they are probably also your worries, and the worries of those around you.

Which is why we are going to have to help and support each other a lot in the coming months. Here at ALPS blog, we’re always ready to share thoughts and ideas and to give space for those who want to do the same, but each of you might also think about how you can do that with colleagues, near and far.

They say a crisis should never go to waste, but right now I’m going more with that line from Jurassic Park: “Life always finds a way”. Let’s make that way a bit easier for each other.

Yet more tips on moving teaching online

Chad and Amanda have already given their ideas on the crash move to online, so here’s my version too, in graphic form.

You can download a PDF version here.

As the others have said, you need to triage your teaching: what absolutely must happen and what’s just nice to have?

If you’re struggling, then ask colleagues, both within your institution and beyond: there are lots of great people on Twitter (start with the @ALPSblog follow list).

What’s the point of student engagement anyway?

So, we’re doing a thing in our Department.

FFS Google, with your heteronormativity…

Despite doing lots of L&T innovation, we’re making a point of going to our university-organised training sessions, to scope and refresh our practice. Just because we think we’re doing good things, doesn’t mean we aren’t potentially missing stuff.

So last week I went with my colleague to a workshop on student engagement.

It was really good to spend time devoted to this, because it’s one of those topics that floats in the background, but often fails to get enough attention in of itself.

Much of the session was ‘how to get and keep students engaged in a classroom’ [spoiler: keep things active and reinforce positive behaviour], but for me the best bit was considering the question of what ‘engagement’ might actually be.

This might seem odd, since it’s almost axiomatically good to have student engagement, so why even bother going there?

But with even a moments’ thought (and we gave noticeably more than that), it’s really difficult to pin down what it might involve.

Sure, part of it is ‘are they paying attention’, but it’s also about their attitude towards learning, their emotions. We want them to be participating, but also to be actually really into it.

Which is odd.

Because once you start to unpack engagement, you have to also start unpacking the paths of that engagement. And those paths don’t have to run through your classroom or your activities.

I’m sure you, like I do, examples of students who really never turned up, or contributed, but totally aced their exams. Or students who were passionate about the subject, but never could formalise that into performances in assessment.

Yes, we offer students a framework for learning to help them make the most of their potential and their motivation, but it’s a framework that has a pretty reductive palate of outcomes, based around formal assessment. You might be able to write them a glowing reference, but it’s not quite the same (nor does it carry the same weight) as an A in their assessment.

Education systems are simultaneously liberating and constraining.

I can easily say that I learnt much more from the non-assessed aspects of my time in education than from the stuff I revised and sat exam for. Things about myself, and about people, and about the work (about teaching even) that just weren’t on the syllabus (and never will be).

And that’s fine.

The most rewarding experiences I have had as an instructor/teacher/facilitator have come from seeing individuals discover themselves and their world, from taking their steps into their futures, almost totally disconnected from how they did in tests.

Perhaps that’s why I love active learning; for its potential to open up new paths for individuals to act, without prejudice about what’s right or wrong.

That’s not an abrogation of responsibility, but rather a reconfiguration of our role relative to our students. We have many ways to become ourselves, so surely we have to respect that diversity and to acknowledge that what works, works.

None of this is to say that I don’t love it when I see an entire class of super-focused students, lasered-in on the task. But it’s also to recognise that this is rare and that the value of education lies as least as much in what students construct as in what we build for them.

So next time you through in the line about the centrality of student engagement, maybe consider what that actually means.