How can you make your online forum flourish?

You’ve got… a mail

I’m guessing that most of you teaching have some kind of online space, where you post materials like the coursework handbook, Powerpoints and the rest.

I’m also guessing you have a forum, quite possibly with a hopeful message from you from Week 1 encouraging students to share thoughts and ideas.

It might well be the only message.

I know it usually was in my modules, when I taught in-person.

Even now, working at a distance-learning institution, our modules are typically desolate wastelands, where maybe a couple of people post once, maybe twice, before shuffling off.

Students aren’t impressed, we’re not impressed, yet we press on.

What to do about it?

Continue reading “How can you make your online forum flourish?”

Online panel event: Using technology to teach politics (30 October, 3.30 – 5.00pm)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you will have enjoyed recent posts by some of my colleagues at the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP), Cathy, JP, and Kalina.

You might also be interested to hear about a series of online panel events UCL CPP is organising this year, each of which will bring together a mix of political scientists and political theorists to discuss their work and thoughts on a particular pedagogical theme.

Our first panel event on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’ is taking place this Monday (30 October) from 3.30-5.00pm (UK time).

Our four panellists are: Dr. Natalie Jester (Gloucestershire), Dr. David Roberts (Loughborough), Prof. Georgina Blakeley (Huddersfield), and Dr. Simon Sweeney (York) .

We hope for a wide-ranging discussion, including reflections on effectively incorporating new tech, concerns about certain uses of tech, and ideas for using older tech in new/better ways, with plenty of time set aside for audience Q&A.

If you would like to attend, you can register beforehand at the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: UCL CPP panel event: Using technology to teach politics.

We hope to see some of you there for a thought-provoking discussion. If you are unable to attend, fear not – we will be sharing some of the main insights from the events on this blog throughout the year.

Getting on to BlueSky

Some sky

Since we are (once again) in a “Twitter is a hell-hole” period, I thought I’d do a short piece on this year’s contender for Twitter replacement, namely BlueSky.

Readers with any memory will recall I did something similar for Mastodon almost a year ago. While there’s certainly a community there, it never really got enough momentum to build the kind of volume needed to make it a realistic home for everyone.

However, it’s still a really pleasant vibe, so do consider it for your more general well-being.

BlueSky comes in as a more direct Twitter-style platform, partly because it’s created by ex-Twitter employees who miss How Things Used To Be, and partly because as a result their GUI is spookily familiar to any Tweep.

The functionality is very similar (although no GIFs, boo!) and there’s a pretty good flow of people both well-known and less-well-known into the site over the past week. Including me. And this blog.

There are really only two difficulties.

Firstly, all those new users mean it’s a pretty slow site, so don’t go expecting the nippiness of Twitter for now, and probably not until the financing model balances out server capacity. Try accessing via a computer rather than mobile, as that seems to help matters.

Secondly, and more pertinent here, you need to be invited to join.

BlueSky generates invite codes for its members based on engagement: I got my first one the other day based on some tweets and talking with the various people who engaged with it. You put in, you get out; so if you’re a lurker then you’re not going to be able to invite friends/colleagues/that person who does that thing.

As you might have seen on Twitter, invites are often tricky to get hold of, so unless you’ve got lucky with your online buds, what can you do?

Well, several people have set up clearing houses for people to donate codes. I used this one, established to get researchers on the site. You pop in your details and you’ll get an email to confirm it all, with a code following not long after.

Remember that this is being done by people out of their generosity, so patience on the timeline, and you can give your codes as you get them to help others (like I’ve just done with that one I got the other day).

Once you’ve got your code, head to BlueSky and set up your account. Again, capacity issues mean it might take overnight for you to be able to access your profile, but you’re a grown-up, so you’ll manage.

Posting is as you think it is, as is everything else, so no special instructions on this. Look for Feeds to see contribute to particular content.

The thing that’s still a bit tricky is finding your fellow migrants from Twitter: until Mastodon, there’s not a quick, bulk way to find-and-follow, so instead you might use this, or this.

And that’s about it.

We’re still at the ‘hello everyone’/’So-and-so’s just joined too!’/’it’s like old-skool Twitter’ phase, but already I see plenty of Poli-Sci and L&T people there, so the initial signs look promising for being able to stop saying that you should leave Twitter.

New Contributors (and request for readers’ advice)

Hello, I’m Cathy Elliott and I am joining the ALPS blog as a regular contributor along with my friends and co-conspirators – JP, Kalina and John – from the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics. I’ve written for ALPS once before, which led to some really interesting conversations, so I’m very excited to be blogging more regularly about my favourite subject: active learning (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘learning’, since I very much doubt that passive learning is actually a thing.)

Student in Chelsea Physic Garden for my class last year

Despite that first post on simulations – which was very on-brand for ALPS – I don’t do so much with games and simulations in my teaching at the moment, though there is a always the chance that I might come back to them. However, with the start of the UK autumn term fast approaching, I have lots of exciting plans for my Politics of Nature module this term, which I hope to write about every week or two. In this class, we do outdoor learning, object-based learning, portfolio-based assessment with a strong focus on optionality and choice, and we make lots of use of technology including flipped classrooms, eportfolios and social annotation. So, there will be lots to say!

I’m also a Vice Dean Education at the moment, so it’s quite possible that I will stray into questions of policy and strategy every now and again. However, my heart will always be in the classrom and with my undergraduate students. I’m very happy to hear your thoughts if there’s anything you’d particularly like to read about.

Meanwhile, I have a new and hitherto unexpected problem. I am of an age where I have just acquired my first ever pair of glasses! This is all good news as it’s a miraculous treat to realise that I can see again! However, they are only for reading and everything from the middle distance outwards is hopelessly blurred when I wear them. So, how do I teach now? Luckily, I avoid lecturing as much as possible, but I have to do it sometimes. How will I look at my notes and my slides and the students’ faces? And in the seminar room or other settings, how will I switch from my notes to look at the students? Seasoned spectacle wearers, give me your best tips!

Let there be music!

The sight of a piece whose authors include an erstwhile ALPS colleague on the use of music in teaching politics neatly coincides with the past week’s European extravaganza of music/politics: Eurovision.

I’ll assume that a good number of you know about this, but for the culturally-void here’s a quick run-down.

Each member of the European Broadcast Union gets to submit a song for a competition, where everyone gets to vote, but not for their country. Someone wins.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

‘Each member’ obviously doesn’t mean each member does submit, or is allowed to submit. And Australia (very much neither an EBU member nor in (or near) Europe) get to submit for, well, reasons.

And the whole voting thing is quite involved. and occasionally corrupt. Pardon, ‘irregular‘.

Throw in a revolution-triggering song, landmarks on clipboards and opening of borders and you see why it’s catnip to the passing academic.

A quick squizz on Google Scholar throws up thousands of results, from imagery to regional voting blocks, LGBT+ identities to governance. This year you’ve also had a Zelensky dimension too.

Someone’s even made a lovely dataset of voting for you to play with. To help with things like analysis of the popular v. jury voting.

Throw in the wildly varying conceptions of what might constitute a popular song and if you struggle to make a class out of some aspect of this, then you are really not trying.

And since you didn’t ask, here’s my personal favourite of recent years:

Is my class going to work?

Not the target audience

I’m in the unusual position of getting some feedback from students on some teaching that will be happening at the end of this year.

Our distance-learning model means we build our resources a long way in advance, so we have the opportunity to get some road-testing of new elements beforehand, through a scheme run by the university.

In this case, that meant inviting a bunch of undergrads to try out the asynchronous negotiation exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of years for our new Masters in IR.

Sadly, only a handful of those invites turned into feedback. While all positive, it does still make me wonder whether it’ll work in practice when our students get to it shortly before Christmas.

And it raises the more general question of how we can do this for people in more regular settings: typically, we only find out if our class is going to work when we deliver it.

With that in mind, there are several things we might do to improve the chances of that happening.

Firstly, we can follow good design principles. That means using our generic knowledge about course design to create something new. Having clear learning objectives and ensuring alignment between these, the activity and any assessment is the obvious go-to, but we might also consider what we know about how students behave and about the impact of the various constraints we operate under.

Oddly, this can be harder to remember to do when we have a ‘standard’ session than when we try for something more original or innovative. A lecture might not break any new ground in its delivery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that sucks: you have to work on being clear about your purpose and how you’re using your time to achieve that.

If we follow the insights that basic pedagogy teaches us, then we are already much more likely to hit our goals.

Second up, we can talk it through. Teaching isn’t a heroic struggle, where one woman/man does it all on their own, but a collective endeavour: we help each other to help students learn.

In all the major simulation activities I have built, I have also sought the advice and input of colleagues, both within my institution and beyond it. Their ideas and comments have been a major asset and opened up a lot of ideas that I wouldn’t have had on my own, certainly not before trying things out with my students.

There’s really no downside in sharing your teaching practice: you get useful input, they get a warm glow of being helpful (plus someone they can ask for advice in return), you all get a stronger community of practice. So if you don’t do it already, try it.

Finally, we can wargame it. This is really only necessary for major projects, where the costs of failure are relatively high.

Basically, you become the most pessimistic person you can think to be and ask for each step of your activity ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’, and then think about ways to avoid, minimise and address those things.

You used to do this when you started out teaching and asked yourself ‘what if they ask a question?’: like that, but with the confidence in your abilities that has developed through practice. [Which possibly leads you to ask ‘what if they don’t ask any questions?’, but hey].

Sitting down and working through all the worst-case scenarios is helpful for the same reason as the previous idea: it takes things out of you and places you in someone else’s shoes. Here, you’re actively empathising with the student.

If you want a single take home on this, then it’s that the more you think about how things might (not) work, the more likely it is that they will work when needed. Failure to prepare leads to preparing for failure, and all that.

Self-publishing academic work

This guest post comes from Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London.

I can’t be the only person to have experienced this: you’re writing a book and you realise that it’s either getting too long and/or that some of the stuff you thought should go into it doesn’t really fit any more.  So, reluctantly but also with a sigh of relief, you cut it.

But then what do you do?  Bin it completely in spite of all the hard work you put into it?  Really? Sure, that’s the sensible thing to do – the thing you’d be perfectly happy doing if you were a totally rational individual rather than a living, breathing human being prone to practically all the cognitive biases under the sun: in this case the so-called sunk cost fallacy.

In reality, what you often do, if you’re anything like me, is to think whether there’s something you could do with it somewhere else.  I mean, you could always turn it into a journal article, right?

Wrong!  At least in my case.  At 18,000 words and with a whole bunch of endnotes, it was going to be agony trying to cut it in order to make it short enough for a decent journal.  I did explore the possibility of going in the opposite direction and beefing it up to come up with the 25,000 required for those short (and short turn-around) books that a couple of well-known publishers now seem quite keen on.  But two things about that, put me off.

First, I would have been topping and tailing it with ‘theory’ for the sake of it – something I hate doing.  And, second, have you actually seen how much those things cost!?  Only university libraries could possible afford to buy them, and I’m not really sure (morally speaking) that even they should be spaffing forty or fifty quid on such footling things anyway.

In any case, I had the temerity to think that what I’d written might be the sort of thing that people who were simply interested in, rather than formally studying, British politics, contemporary history and the EU might enjoy reading.  I also thought that, since it was originally written to be ‘approachable’, it might come in handy, too, for anyone teaching those subjects – both at post-16 and post-18.

One alternative would have been to stick it up as a post on my blog.  Yet, to be honest, it wouldn’t really have fitted too well because that’s simply where I collect (mostly for my own memory’s sake rather than because many people read it there) the very short-form stuff I write for newspapers and websites.  But no-one else was going to host it, I was sure – so sure I didn’t even ask anyone.

It was only then I thought about self-publishing it.  Initially, I dismissed the idea – I mean, that’s ‘vanity-publishing’, right?  OK for your pseudonymous erotic novel but, for something academic? Surely not?

Continue reading “Self-publishing academic work”

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.