(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.

Long (educational) Covid

That should do it…

Being of now of an age where I have a growing parental interest in higher education, as my kids get close to making applications, you might understand my worries about what the coming years might bring for universities.

Even if – and it is ‘if’ – we have got on top of containing the worst of Covid in the global North, the impacts of the past two years will be felt for a long time yet.

Most obviously, there is the shift in practice that we’ve discussed and debated at great length: more online, more hybrid, systems that can allow for increased flexibility in matters of co-location. I’ve yet to see an institution that has not sought to embed all that Zooming/MS Teams-ing/Blackboarding into their work patterns on a more standing basis.

That’s all fine, as long as those same institutions can keep their minds on the project and not drift back to the ‘good old days’ of putting research first: these new models demand more of students, staff and universities as a whole, so assuming that it’s just like before will be a recipe for growing problems.

But Covid has also created a long tail of issues elsewhere.

To return to my starting point, admissions for the next several cycles will be out of kilter. The huge disruption for the past two cycles from both changes in school-level grading and in deferrals cannot be smoothed out overnight.

Even if the issues are more pronounced in the UK – where school-leavers have been given teacher-based grades, resulting in much grade inflation that the government wants to crawl back, and where a demographic bubble is working through too – it’s also to be found in other countries. All of us will find that our plans on promoting diversity in our HE student population will come under more strain.

Of course I’m aware that of all the people facing these challenges, my kids will have a head-start on multiple fronts, but if our teaching is to mean anything then it has be about helping others to achieve their full potential, so it’s on all of us to reflect upon – and to act to address – how this plays out.

Business is very much not as usual.

Back up, back up

It’s been one of those days when major portals have been on the blink, with the result that my Twitter timeline is full of Facebookers stumbling into the (much less curated) light.

That even such mighty beasts can be felled (again) by the vagaries of technology is a good reminder that as a teacher you need to assume your tech isn’t infallible.

Most obviously, that means having a Plan B for when you can’t log into your classroom’s system, or the bulb of the projector is broken.

But it also means thinking a bit about how to handle your institution’s IT being on the blink (I know, hard to believe such a thing could happen, but just play along): even if something like that is someone else’s problem to solve, it’s also your problem to manage, especially in our hybrid era.

It also includes all the non-electric tech you use. I still have a unpleasant memory of trying to do an activity using post-its that wouldn’t stick to any surface, for example.

Like all these things, there’s a sliding scale of responses, dependent upon the nature, severity and duration of the tech glitch.

Yes, most of the problems you’ll encounter can be fixed with a bit of effort (and a call to a helpline), but if you’ve done your prep then you can either cut that effort or even cut it out altogether.

The crappy-classroom-set-up is something we’ve all come across, probably both as student and as instructor: the rebooting; the missing cable; the software update; the screen-(not)sharing; the sound quality.

So take some steps to address that proactively.

If it’s a room you’ve not used before, go and check it all out beforehand.

Take your own device with key files, just in case the classroom machine is an issue. Remember to bring a power cable and (if you can get one) your own HDMI/VGA cable/adaptor.

I’m old-school (OK, I’m old), so I like to print out my class notes, so that’s disconnected from any tech issues. And I put them in a protective sleeve, to disconnect from wayward beverages (yes, I’ve seen notes disappear in a latte-ish mush).

When I do class, I pick up my back-up bag, which has whiteboard markers (that I check at least once a semester), post-its, chalk, spare biro and sometimes some blindfolds.

Moreover, when tech goes wrong, I’m just as likely to switch about my class, so we don’t have to use tech, as I am to phone for help. If nothing else, students seem to respond well to a different classroom set-up, especially if PowerPoint isn’t to be seen.

It’s a bit like deciding to do your class outside if the weather’s nice: that’s a cinch if you’ve got your back up plans together.

If it all sounds a bit excessive, then you’re right: 19 times out of 20, I don’t use any of this stuff, because things work.

But sometimes, well, sometimes things don’t work.

More active learning resources

As we might have mentioned before, one of the loveliest things about working in pedagogic circles is the generosity of spirit that colleagues display.

You see it here with the numerous contributions from our guest authors (and you’re always welcome to drop us a line with something new), but more generally there is a strong culture of sharing materials.

One relatively recent addition to this is the Active Learning Network, run by an international group that cuts across a number of disciplinary boundaries.

They have a good selection of materials and activities, plus the option to share resources of your own. Certainly worth some time to have a look and, hopefully, to contribute.

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.

Is it that hard to depict teaching on screen? Anyone? Anyone?

For the past few weeks, my Twitter stream has been filled with colleagues noted their feelings about The Chair, Netflix’s excursion into Liberal Arts. The mix of joy at finally seeing ‘people like us’ on screen and trauma at the reliving memories of their day job certainly made a change from the usual psephologists-arguing-with-each-other.

I’m sure someone else can better comment on the politics of the show, even if much of it feels all too familiar, but here I’m going to think about another aspect: the teaching.

TV and film have been pretty consistently bad about convening the reality of teaching a class, despite every person involved having sat in classes at some point in their life. My personal low spot was the round of spontaneous applause for Stanley Tucci’s lecture in The Children Act: maybe you’ve seen that happen, but I doubt you’ve seen it happen for that.

The Chair has a bunch of teaching, mainly falling into the two classic camps of such things: the overly dry and the super-hip. Partly this is about conveying the tensions among the faculty, but throughout the teaching is problematic, a source of issues rather than solutions. The old guard are set in their ways and their knowledge, the young are not rigorous enough, it suggests.

Of course, much is not depicted, but what we do see invites questions, about respect for students as learners, about team-teaching, about the (mis)use of technology, about finishing classes with key takeaways. And, of course, the entire series hangs on an incident in class that is, at best, unthinking.

Much as I understand that teaching isn’t necessarily the most conducive of things to portray, and that it’s also at the service of some dramatic arc, it matters inasmuch as it shapes students’ expectations of how things might be.

Maybe teaching is about performance: ours and theirs. But ultimately it has to be about learning, and the tropes of on-screen aren’t really a way forward.

That means that the priority isn’t about being down with the kids or having published the definitive study, or even about being a famous actor who’s also done some academic work: no, the priority is about building a space that works for you and your students to explore and understanding the subject. It’s not that lectures are bad per se, or that you have to get your students perform humorous songs about Moby Dick, but that any activity you have is connected clearly to your learning objectives.

This won’t be the same each time you do it, because it’s a contingent process and one that you have to find your way to.

And because you’ve stuck through the post, I offer you the archetypes of the film options of ‘what’s teaching like?; nice Ethan Hawke on a desk in Dead Poets’ Society and Econ with Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. You can decide if either is realistic or useful.

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.

Learning is forever/scarred for life

A particularly rewarding part of being an educator is when someone you’ve taught comes back to you, years down the line, and recounts the experience they had with you and how it changed them.

Usually I like to illustrate this with the case of a former student who told me how my negotiation class had been front-and-centre of their thinking when sacking someone at their business, but now I get to add a new example. Not much better, I fear.

Some years ago, I ran an exercise with colleagues during an awayday.

They still remember it:

You might recall that I wrote it all up at the time. And yes, I do still have the other photos and video, before you ask.

As you’ll see for the responses to the tweet, they all remember the point of the exercise, which I think makes it a success. The exercise took under 30 minutes, and no clown costumes were needed.

And this is maybe the key point.

Looking at the dress-up-as-a-clown thing, I’m not sure if that would necessarily be the take-home from that activity. Yes, you’d rapidly forget about your outfit as you did other stuff, but is that ‘losing inhibitions’? Not really: maybe more about being reminded about how much you have to put up with stuff in your job.

So what to take from this?

As so often, it’s all about clarity of purpose: what are you trying to get the participants to learn?

It’s super-easy to get lost in the mechanics and the (metaphorical) dressing-up of your class, but you always, always have to come back to whether it helps improve the likelihood of your learning objectives being reached. If that doesn’t happen, then you’ve failed the most basic test of efficacy.

Feel free to point this out next time you’re sat in a wood in a clown outfit.

Keeping up with the literature

OK, actually a bookshop, but the same idea

I don’t know about you, but this is one of the hardest things to do.

Being of an age that I can remember trawling through the card index at the university library, and then spending a day or three browsing the stacks to discover some interesting piece in a journal I’d not heard of until that point [which is how I ended up with my PhD topic, but that’s another story], I am now swamped by a constant wave of new publications.

Which is great, but also problematic. Maybe because of that struggle to find stuff I now worry that I might be missing something, even as I now find I don’t have enough time to read it all, let alone ruminate on it.

Currently, my system works like this.

I’m signed up to about 50 journals for new issue alerts. I keep a spreadsheet of these journals, so I know that I’ve not missed anything from them: some of the alerts are a bit ropey, so maybe twice a year I’ll go to my library website and go check for missing back issues.

Right now, I’d totally recommend doing that, since many publishers seem to have loosened up access to journals that your place might not usually subscribe to.

I’ll download PDFs, reading the abstracts as I go, plus the full piece if it’s particularly salient. You might consider this piece when you write your next piece, because it’s certainly true for me.

In addition, I have a Google Scholar alert set up for a keyword for my research, which produces about an email a day of links to new content. Again, I try to access as much as I can.

And then there’s the stuff that I read about on Twitter or other blogs.

Again, I’m not sure this is the ideal way, but it’s the one I’ve worked with for many years, so it’s comfortable for me, which is also important.

From experience, the most difficult thing is letting stuff build up. A few years ago I left the library ‘visit’ for well over a year and I ended up with several hundred pieces, about which I could tell you pretty much nothing.

Anyone got any better models for doing this? Stick it in the comments below.

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.