Blog-based Simulations

Two years ago I created a role-play simulation for an undergraduate international relations course. Though the simulation includes an in-class component, much of the action occurs on this blog. Feel free to borrow what I’ve created — just please credit me and my employer in the process. A few thoughts on using simulations like this:

Students are increasingly unfamiliar with blogging. Not only do I need to include a training session in how to use the blog for the simulation, I need to discuss the underlying premise of blogging itself. Though students may be regularly reading blog-style publications, social networking and mobile device apps have eclipsed blogs in their collective unconscious.

A blog should have the capability of delivering real-time updates to students’ preferred means of communication. While I do not necessarily need to know that Zachary replied to Kaitlyn’s latest post with “U rock grrl ha ha,” a torrent of messages appearing on students’ smartphones helps keep the simulation at the top of their screens and at the forefront of their minds outside of class.

The instructor must emphasize to students that any communication conducted outside of the blog will not be graded and, if done in lieu of the blog, will harm a student’s grade. This goes for texting, email, and face-to-face meetings. I tell students that I’ve created the blog to be their online workspace, and it’s their responsibility to use it.

Last item, which applies generally to all team-oriented simulations: individual writing assignments prevent free riders. Student who do a task initially on their own will be less likely to think “group project” when doing the same task later on with others.

Solving the Reading Problem: The Weekly Critique

One of the most common complaints that instructors have is that students do not complete the readings.  No matter how interesting or unique or provocative they are, many students fail to crack their books at all prior to an exam, and some of those who do fail to retain any of the information or arguments.  For those of us who use those readings as a foundation for a class session, this behavior can lead anywhere from mild irritation to downright aggravation.

One way to solve this problem in an upper level seminar is to turn the reading from a passive exercise to an active one.  Assign the readings by week, rather than by session, and have your students write an analytical response on the readings each week.  Each critique must also pose a discussion question at the end.  Papers are typically two pages, though that depends on the type and number of readings assigned.  They are posted the day before class and shared online in a discussion forum. The discussion questions and different perspectives can then be used as a basis for discussion that week.  Scoring is based on a check plus/check/check minus/pass/fail system (which loosely corresponds to A-F) but no comments are made by the instructor after the first week or two.

I tried this in Spring 2011 in my Environmental and Energy Security class, an upper level seminar with ten students, with great success.  All of my students came prepared to class having completed and thought about all the readings.  In addition, their writing occurred throughout the semester, allowing multiple grading opportunities and a chance to improve their writing.  The papers also made prep for class very easy: I facilitated a conversation and provided context, but the students drove the discussion.  Quiet students could be drawn in to the conversation without fuss, since their perspective was already public.  Finally, grading is minimal.  It only took a few moments to read through the critiques and see what level of effort and insight students brought to their papers.

The downside is that students will whine about having to actually do the readings and write every week. But in a class that is really built around the readings, my students came to appreciate being forced to do the readings and to think about them, and they liked that their work was brought so obviously into the class through the discussions.  It made them feel like their work was driving the course.  I was able to be a true facilitator and participant rather than just their teacher, and the critiques were cited as a positive on my evaluations rather than a negative.

The Agrarian Society Card Game

I sometimes model life in a poor agrarian society with a deck of cards. I divide students into “peasant households” – one, two, or more students, but each household functions as a single decision-making unit. Each household receives the same number of playing cards, which are dealt face down.

I then explain the structure of the game and write the rules on the board. Each household begins with two adults and three hectares of land. Each hectare can produce two bags of rice each year, but it requires the labor of either one adult or two children. An adult can farm only one hectare per year while a child can only farm half a hectare. Each adult in the household must consume two bags of rice per year to survive; a child must consume half a bag of rice each year. If an adult or child does not get enough rice for the year, that individual dies and no longer supplies labor to the household. Uneaten rice can be saved for consumption in a future year or distributed to other households.

Each household is free to engage in any transaction with another household as long as it falls within the parameters set by the instructor. Typically households will rent out surplus land and labor or sell land in exchange for rice.

At the beginning of each year, all households flip over a card. An ace through a five indicates that nothing happens. A five through ten means that a child is born (for the purposes of the game, that child can immediately be put to work). A jack or a queen indicates a child has died. A king means an adult in the household has died. Households then calculate how best to use their resources.

Due to the cost-benefit relationships in the game, households have to devise strategies for survival. Some households merrily sell excess rice and acquire land, which they then rent out to other households that fall into debt and despair. Occasionally households pool their resources. More often than not a household asks “if we eat a child, how many bags of rice is that?”

The game can be used to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts, such moral economy, rational choice, locus of control, and path dependence. Sometimes I alter a rule (for example, each household begins with two adults and two children) and have the class play a second time, and then we discuss how the change affected the play and outcome of the game.

Doing nothing

One of the simplest games to organise (if not play) is one taught to me by David Jaques, a man of great experience (and greater nerves).  It just involves clearing the teaching room – pushing chairs and tables to one side – then sitting yourself in a corner and waiting for the students to arrive. And then… well, that’s pretty much it.  Once the students arrive, you do not talk, move or engage with them at all. You just leave them to their own devices: whatever happens, happens.

Why would you want to do this? The game is an excellent opportunity to drive reflection on the role of power in its various forms.  Typically, the students don’t know what’s going on: they look for purpose and structure and generate it (arguably akin to Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos).  I find it a very useful corrective to the usual problematisation of power that we find in political science and IR – too often we focus on what happens when there is too much power, rather than talking about the necessity of at least some.

This shouldn’t distract you from the difficulty of playing this: it took me three years to dare to try it, for the simple reason that it is so unbounded.  Indeed, the first time, I felt it necessary to pre-warn the students it would last for 30 minutes, for fear that they would just head to the nearest bar.  They didn’t, but instead set out the tables and chairs again, then tried to get me to engage with them and riffled through my paperwork.  They also started to have discussions about why they might be doing this and what they could learn from it.

In the end, this is a game that leads where it leads and everyone explore a very novel environment. So try doing nothing sometime.