Reflecting on online formats

How we did Zoom back in the day

It’s been a busy period for me for doing online events of various kinds. That ranges from big conferences to much smaller discussions, some for internal audiences and others for whoever wants to tune in.

That variety is perhaps obscured by the online-ness of it all. Whether I’m on a panel in front of an audience of a couple of hundred people or just discussing a draft paper with a few colleagues, I’m still sat at my desk, staring into a webcam and hoping my headphone earpiece doesn’t fall out again.

At some level that isn’t a problem: the flatness of the variation makes it possibly less daunting to do the big stuff. But at all the other levels it’s something we need to take seriously.

Central in this – for me, at least – is the risk of losing sight of learning objectives. Just as our in-person teaching practice is very varied and needs us to think carefully about design and operation of sessions, so too must we do the same for online work.

This was brought home the other day after a chat with a colleague who’s invited me to speak in the spring on an internal webinar series. Most of our discussion focused on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘would I’ or ‘when’ elements, because the ‘how’ comes with a lot more issues than the other two.

In particular, the discussion centred on who would be attending and what they might need from the session. Aside from what substantive content might they want/need, is there also an agenda of developing skills too (the audience is mostly students on our programmes)? Here, that might mean giving more time to Q&A than to a mini-lecture, or even having something that is closer to a discussion, with back-and-forth.

The chat over this underlined something that’s been on my mind for a while, namely our tendency to just cut-and-paste formats across events, with too little thought about it’s right for that new setting.

Some weeks ago I attended a one-day event, with a mix of academics and practitioners. While our panel had taken a more informal model of some questions from the chair and then Q&A, other panels had stuck to the usual academic format. You’ll be shocked* to hear that the latter typically only just squeezed in their presentations before time ran out and no one got to ask a question of them.

The obvious thing to say here would be something about the chair keeping people to time, but I defy you to find where that ever really works, especially in academic settings, online or in-person.

Instead, it is the format that needs to change, so that people don’t even start to think they can produce 50% more content than the space allows.

Indeed, online has more flexibility – for example, allowing parallel conversations – but we have to notice and grasp that.

So next time you’re running an event, ask yourself whether your format is helping you get your audience to where you want them to get to, or simply a model that you know. The answer is going to be different each time, so you have to keep in asking.

Just like you do when you run a class in a classroom.

* – not actually shocked at all.

Teaching negotiation post-Covid

Last week was the Biennale Roundtables on Negotiation, an event old-school enough for me not to have a website to link to.

Kicks like a (hybrid) mule

The event brings together trainers, educators and practitioners to discuss assorted aspects of negotiation, with a pretty impressive breadth of interests and geographies. Plus me.

Together with colleagues from Europe and the US, I was discussing how Covid had shifted our practice of teaching negotiation, something that obviously speaks to many other areas of our HE lives, but with some added issues.

Most notably, the changed ability to ‘see’ what’s happening in a learning environment when working online has been a major concern for all of us. If we are to provide meaningful and holistic feedback and debrief on students’ activities – as we should be – then moving people into different spaces comes with real difficulties.

Most obviously, even with a single platform, we cannot see into the individual spaces that students operate in, nor any other channels they might be using to interact with their colleagues. Whereas in a class you can move around and spot the verbal and non-verbal actions and interactions, in a virtual environment you are cut off from this. Even asking students to share what else they have done (either immediately or later in a debrief piece) is likely to miss a lot out, especially the things that they don’t even realise they’re doing.

But the issues gone beyond this.

Online negotiation – whether synchronous or asynchronous – is not the same as face-to-face in-person negotiation. There is a disintermediation caused by whatever platform or channel that is being used, plus a removal of some of the constraints on how one acts (think of the last angry social media post you read and ask whether that person would say the same to your face).

At the very least, this difference is one that has to be made explicit to students, before and after. When I’ve run online exercises, I’ve tried to get students to reflect on the impact of the medium and consider how things would have been different in person. It’s not perfect, but it is a starting point for building improved understanding.

If these problems are clear for online work, then they are multiplied many times in hybrid online/in-person scenarios. The most vociferous agreement during the entire event was that hybrid is A Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs.

If you’ve done hybrid then you’ll have worked all this out within a couple of minutes of doing it. Your ability to integrate the two groups, to give them equivalent and balanced support and to give everyone a decent learning experience is very much impaired, to the point that you have to wonder why anyone does it.

[Finances, obviously, but still]

Again, what’s true for other areas of teaching is particularly true for negotiation, given the already high demands on close engagement with what students are doing, in order to be able to provide debrief and feedback. While there was some suggestion of getting students to provide peer feedback, that’s still a really tricky task in an environment that most students already find tricky.

So the big take-homes from this were the need to be aware of how working online changes how learning works for students (and for you) and the consequent need to make active adjustments and accommodations.

That, and don’t do hybrid.

(Very) asynchronous online negotiating

Relevant time-keeping device

As I’ve mentioned before, part of my new role involves designing a negotiation exercise of an online, asynchronous programme.

This presents a number of rather basic problems, so consider this a bit of my attempt to try and work them out.

First up is the asynchronicity.

A fundamental part of negotiating is interaction, so if you can’t do that there-and-then, you have to deal with a major challenge. In this case, our usual cycle for students is a week, within which we set work for them to fit around their other commitments. Since most of our students are working, or have other major life obligations, that means it’s really hard to ask for anything speedier.

Even if most could turn things around in a matter of days, we can’t be certain that everyone can, so those not able to would suffer in the exercise.

Secondly, there a debrief issue.

The materials we produce are intended to be used for several years: our role is relatively separate from delivery, as our system of associate lecturers handle most of the pedagogic queries and support. If we accept that negotiation must have debriefing (and I certainly do), then how do we fit that into this system? Is it my work, or associates’, or do we have some generic points to reflect upon, and how would any of these models operate?

Finally, we have the tiny question of scale.

I don’t know how many students will be using this exercise in any given presentation (as we call our delivery), so I need a negotiation that can cope with both a large number of participants and a varying number of participants. Our plans say 80, but that’s neither here nor there, except in the most general of terms.

Oh, and I have to assume none of the students will have any prior experience in negotiating.

So what to do?

I’ve been working around some different abstracted options for a while to handle all of this, and it might be useful to consider these for a while. They vary by how much of a ‘negotiation’ they involve, since that interaction issue strikes me as the most fundamental one.

Obviously, the starting model is a set-up where there is direct student-to-student negotiation: it’s prototypical and best allows them to develop practical skills. But it needs much time, much support and debrief. Plus you have to work out roles.

So maybe you could have instead a ‘negotiation’ with an automated interlocutor: a ‘chose-your-own-adventure’ approach, effectively, but with a computer programme rather than a paper-based text. It can be played individually, paths/outcomes are fixed so feedback is easy, but it’s not so very much like actual negotiating.

A different direction would be to ask students to do the prep work for a negotiation: drawing up negotiating briefs, setting out positions and the like. This is crucial part of negotiating, so it’s prototypical, but without the pointy end of testing out ideas. It’s more manageable for support and debrief, but probably isn’t as engaging.

And most distantly of all, you could ask students to study a real-world negotiation, through the lens of some theory. That’s also a good skill to learn, but it’s not so hands-on as any of the others.

In short, it’s a world of compromises.

For our purposes, we really want to build practical skills, so we’re currently closest to the first option: the ‘proper’ negotiation. As we often discuss here, the purpose of the exercise needs to be clear to you and to the student, otherwise it’s pointless making choices. In that sense, having the discussion with the rest of the team was an essential step in moving this on.

My tentative model right now looks like the following, working within the constraints I have.

In my 4 week block for this, and alongside other work they need to do, I’m planning to give students a crash course in how to negotiate (week 1); two (and maybe three) rounds of negotiating (weeks 2-4); and some debriefing (week 4).

The block topic is international challenges to political stability, so I’ll be using a climate change topic as the substantive focus, which also allows me to use a UNFCC-style format, with a couple of hundred roles that I can allocate to individuals. Those roles will have an order, so we start by populating key representative states (in terms of the different preferences) and then work through to everyone else, so we can accommodate the varying numbers. Probably that means making a generic position pack, plus some headlines for each role, with some requirement to expand on that through their own research.

The training would be some materials on practical negotiating, plus an option to download a small crisis game, to play offline with friends/family or even just to muse upon.

The main section would then require students to post positions/text on a forum each week, ideally to build a single text for final approval. This will require relatively simple technology, but does rely on students to be able to build coalitions and engage in discussion, which will be an issue for some.

To keep debrief viable, we’d probably need to start with a draft text – to keep things within relatively clear bounds – then provide cues to students to aid their own reflection, with some debrief points that could track key issues within the draft. This should make it more possible to keep associates on top of what’s gone on.

And that’s about as far as I’ve got on this.

There are lots of practicalities to work through, at all steps, but we think the basic design is viable. As I work through those, I’ll write more, but I’d love to hear thoughts.

Dog, meet tail

Another reason to be a cat person

Conscious that many of our readers are in even more commercialised HE sectors than my own here in the UK, I hesitate to complain again about commercialisation. At the same time, we seem to be locked into a bit of a vicious circle here about how to teach.

2020 was characterised by endless discussion about how to make remote teaching models work effectively, for the obvious reason.

This year has instead been about the need to move back to in-person instruction as much as possible.

To be very clear, these are not two sides of the same coin.

The former was about optimisation under a particular constraint, while the latter is about pursuing a particular model whatever.

If you like, this is the backlash that we might have expected when the world embraced the potential of remote and online options: a desire to ‘return to normal’ and to throw out all the innovation that has taken place in the past one and a half years.

This was encapsulated in an interview by the head of the UK’s Office for Students – a government body that has some regulatory powers – this last weekend, where in-person was placed firmly as the path to ‘quality teaching’.

The logic behind this isn’t entirely clear from the interview, but it appears to be grounded as much in path dependency and student satisfaction as it is in any objective evaluation of pedagogic value.

‘Student satisfaction’ here is a very slippery concept, based as it is on highly problematic measures such as the UK’s National Student Survey (knock yourself out with the growing literature on this) rather than any systematic data collection on effectiveness of learning. Is it more important that students achieve their full potential as individual learners or that they like what they do/get what they want?, as much of the commercialisation debate goes.

Simple commercial logics will undoubtedly mean more students back in campuses – in the UK, universities make a lot more revenue that way than through tuition fees – but the risk only grows that the need to focus on providing a learning environment that is optimal for learning becomes secondary to other requirements.

Yes, universities need to stay financially viable – as Chad keeps on reminding us – and students who like what they’re offered are probably going to be more engaged, but all of that becomes rather redundant if our pedagogy isn’t up to scratch. And a (small-c) conservative attitude towards ‘what works’ isn’t conducive to finding pedagogic solutions for our learners’ needs: you don’t pick your solution before you start.

Something to consider as we have our next institutional-subsidising coffee on campus.

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.

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.

Writing for others

I had my first writing workshop last week. We were sharing bits of text as part of our work towards a new Masters programme in IR, mainly to make sure we were on the same page on how we go about communicating with our students.

To recap, our programmes are distance-learning only, so it’s a mixture of textbook-like text, online activities, audio and video elements, all bundled up on an online platform. The textbook-type elements are pretty central to all this, as the main location of content delivery, so having a style and structure that is accessible and appropriate is really important.

Obviously, I struggled.

As much as I write a lot of text, it’s for rather different contexts. Here I’m essentially writing to myself and an imagined community of colleagues: it’s very informal and variable in its structuring and content, not least because I can always write another piece next week to unpack anything that didn’t work out now.

Both journal articles and practitioner documents like briefings are pretty well-specified audiences too, so it’s relatively easy to slip into the conventions of those genres.

But here I’m trying to think about creating text that sits within a broader package of content, co-authored with half-a-dozen other people, all going out to a very diverse student body, who’ll be consuming it at distance.

Part of the challenge is finding a voice that works not only for yourself and the student, but also for the other authors. A striking outcome of the workshop was thus having to think about both the substantive content and the register you adopt.

Right now, it’s the latter that is going me pause for thought, since I’m towards the more relaxed end of the spectrum. Yes, I can communicate the content clearly enough and at a level that is felt appropriate, but the way I do that sits rather awkwardly with others’ texts.

Of course, some of this is down to preference. Some people don’t like ‘you’s and ‘I’s in their academic writing, others can’t stand slang (or oblique references to memes). My personal preference has always been to try to keep things as simple as possible and to draw people in with things that might not be the most obvious ways in.

That’s all legitimate, but still doesn’t get to an answer about how to draw that together with other approaches, so that students aren’t experiencing radical changes in voice and style. Which is why the programme leaders are now writing author guidelines about just such questions for us to discuss and agree.

And this is another example of where this method of teaching is perhaps more rigorous than in-person equivalents: all programmes taught by more than one person have this multiplicity within them, but it’s very rare that we explicitly sit down to discuss whether and how that works for students.

In-person teaching tends to leave the question at the point of the value of diversity, when we might usefully think more about the challenges it creates too.

Something that’d need more than the one workshop, I’m guessing.

Migration migraines

More orderly (source)

The great thing about being a historical institutionalist is that – for the vast majority of the time – one’s assumption that things aren’t going to change pays off.

How it was yesterday is how it is today is how it’ll be tomorrow. Simple.

Until it’s not.

And right now I’m in the middle of a big rupture which, even though I’ve known about it and planned for it for some months, is turning out to be more of a pain than I’d thought.

Moving jobs is hardly the most unusual of life events, but it has underlined to me the need to plan carefully in managing your digital footprint. After a decade of blogging not here on ALPS but also on my departmental pages (where I seem to have left a less-than ideal last post that I now can’t delete), there’s a question about how to (re)make a place for me to share my ideas.

And this is the central point: social media is about sharing and discussing, so you need to be able to make contributions and others need to find them and respond.

In the case of ALPS that’s been a long process of building up an audience over 10 years, to point that we have a pretty good profile within our community (if still far short of that of professional associations), mainly through word-of-mouth as we’ve passed through endless conferences and talks. And as long as Chad keeps on bringing in the support to pay for the hosting, we’ve got a long-term proposition.

Universities are long-term propositions too (pace Chad’s regular posts to the contrary), but unless you’ve got a very particular arrangement with your VC/Provost/whatever, your relationship with that university might turn out to be rather short. So are institutional blogs the best bet?

Continue reading “Migration migraines”

Testing 1 – 2 – 3: More reflections on hybrid teaching and learning

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, Maastricht University

I was recently asked to test a new touch screen to check its potential contribution to teaching after the Summer. While we’re all hoping to return to on-campus teaching by then, I used the test to get some additional insights about equipment and hybrid teaching. After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned these past few months, it’s that it’s difficult to predict the development of the pandemic.

The new screen is vast, as you can see from the pictures below (and especially so in that relatively small room). It offers all kinds of options, including a decent hand-writing functionality (including a ‘pen’) and opportunities to add additional apps and equipment. This includes, for instance, the use of airplay to connect your Macbook, but also adding dedicated cameras, mics, etc.

But did the screen have an added value?

I first gave a lecture using the screen. Here its added value was quite apparent to me. I was much less bounded by screen and camera than I would ‘normally’ have been by my (home) office set-up.  This is despite the latter coming with a fairly large screen, plus a height-adjustable desk. I could easily move around and use much more body language. And when students’ faces popped up on the screen for questions, I had the feeling that we were less detached from each other due to the life-size images. The only drawback was that the screen was hooked on to an ethernet cable, which meant that I could not wirelessly connect my Macbook. But I’ve been told that this is going to be solved soon.

So far, so good.

I also organised two hybrid tutorial sessions in one of our first-year undergrad courses, each with 3 students accompanying me in the room, while the rest were online.* Students were informed in advance that this would be a small pilot. I also informed them about some of the possible complications that we might run into, such as those discussed by Chad last June. You should know that in Maastricht we tend to work with student discussion leaders and notetakers. I specifically instructed the discussion leaders to maintain a connection between online and on-campus students. In addition, I arranged to have an online discussion leader with an on-campus notetaker in my first group, whereas in my second group the discussion leader was on-campus and the notetaker online. This would allow me to see if there is a set-up that works best.

So, how did it go?

I asked students to complete a short survey afterward (20 out of the 24 attending students completed the survey). As expected, they had different views on how the hybrid setting impacted the quality of the discussions as compared to our regular online meetings.

In your opinion, how did the hybrid setting impact the quality of the discussions?
 The quality was much worseThe quality was somewhat worseThe quality was about the sameThe quality was somewhat betterThe quality was much better
Online753
On-campus32

Out of six on-campus students, five completed the survey and all thought the experience was better. As one of the students put it, “it was so good to have a class with real people and not through a screen”. All five referred to enjoying the discussions with their fellow students in the actual room. They noticed that not everything went well – some sounds issues, in particular, but also at times a disconnect between on-campus and online students. Yet overall, the on-campus students felt that discussions went better and were more lively, also with the online students.

The online students were less impressed. Plus they all virtually gave the same feedback, whether in the group with the online or the on-campus discussion leader. First, quite a few commented on the sound quality. On-campus contributions to the discussions were not always audible. Second, the on-campus group wasn’t always fully visible to the online students, which was party due to the camera angle and partly due to the need to keep a distance. The size of the room also didn’t offer space for a different seating arrangement. And, thirdly, there was the reoccurring disconnect between on-campus and online students. One online student referred to sometimes feeling like a spectator, which, another student wrote, was partly due to “the participants in real-life not looking at the screen all the time”.

None of this really came as a surprise to me. Yet, unfortunately, I was also unable to prevent these issues from occurring. Clearly the fancy screen with lots of trimmings also did not matter here. But, more importantly, this again raises questions about the viability of hybrid teaching. In my opinion, it is probably better to have separate on-campus and online groups – even though, as Arjan and I wrote before, this too comes with its own challenges. But these can be solved. The potential disconnect between on-campus and online students in a hybrid setting to me is more problematic, as it may result in unequal learning opportunities.

* A huge thank you goes to the students who attended the sessions: Jill Bartholmy, Emma Begas, Jeanne Brunhes, Adam Ceccato, Noah Chebib, Carl Colonius, Boti Czagány, Jos de Heij, Lilian Giebler, Vincent Halder, Xavier Heck, Sanne Hocks, Julia Hufnagel, Leila Kahnt, Anna La Placa, Carolina Lean Santiago, Liam Lodder, Arianne Michopoulou, Mayanne Pagé, Simone Palladino, Emili Stefanova, Mae Thibaut, Tessa Urban and Victoria Wenninger.

Going digital

“This should improve our module evaluations by 0.4…”

Source

The big question of how we forward (not back) in our teaching practice is one that continues to bother me, partly because it’s going to be a major personal challenge for me in the coming years, but also because the variety of discourses about this vary rather more than I’d expect.

As a case in point, I noticed that my VC/President wrote a long blog about this question just the other week. In it, he writes about the possibilities that digital technologies open up and how we need to be receptive and pro-active in making the most of these.

And that’s all fine.

However, what strikes me about the piece is that there’s no mention at any point about pedagogy. Instead it posits a system driven by what the tech can do.

Having gotten to spend some time with him, I know that he does have a genuine and deep interest in teaching in itself, rather than simply as a side-show from research or a money-generating activity (unlike some VCs I’ve encountered), but it’s a bit disappointing to see a senior leader get caught up in the tech.

Tech matters. This past 12 months have demonstrated that all too clearly, but tech is (and can only ever be) a function of pedagogy. More precisely, the fundamentals of good pedagogic practice – clear learning objectives; alignment of content and assessment; responsive design – are just that, fundamentals.

Consider last spring, when you were scrambling around for a means to continue your classes. You probably had an institutional VLE or platform intended specifically for that purpose, plus access to some other tools, either supported by your institution or not.

In the first instance, I’m guessing you took the path of least resistance in setting up ad hoc ways to get content to students and/or having interactions with them.

But then you started to look around at the world of possibilities, just like my VC is suggesting. But in making your new choices, the key driver was likely to have been “what works best for my and my students’ needs” than it was “what amazing thing is possible here”.

In twenty-something years of teaching, I’ve gone from acetates to Zoom, blackboards to Google Docs. But I can think of very few technologies that have fundamentally changed how I teach and only one that changes what I’m trying to achieve with my teaching.

The one change in objectives was the arrival of the digital world and the cornucopia of data that made available. The result was a need to shift from prioritising the acquisition of techniques to find data to stressing ways of managing all-too-much data. And even then, I still find myself telling students how to track down hard-to-find sources.

But otherwise, the bulk of my learning objectives are the same: building substantive knowledge of a topic; acquiring and using skills that make the student into a critical learner; situating all of this within a wider body of understanding.

In short, tech is a means, not an end.

Again, I’ve tried lots of different technological options: some have been great, others alright, a few rubbish. But I could only judge that against the yardstick of my pedagogy and the learning of my students. Great that they can make a whizzy Prezi, but does it actually help them to learn? And I say that as someone who’d love experience more engaging presentations.

So, in the time-honoured cliché of science-fiction, we have to stop wondering what what we can do and start thinking about whether we should do it.

If not, then we risk falling into another cycle of expensive tech acquisition that doesn’t work for our needs, just like we did most of the other times our institutions bought some tech.