Never forget

The jacket was this pattern. I wore it nowhere near as stylishly.

I was going to write about why you should never try to run a simultaneous in-class/online session, but if you’ve not already learnt that from this and this, then really it’s going to have to be personal experience that teaches you. Enjoy.

Instead, since it’s Induction Week here, I’d share my memories of my first days at University, because it’s easy to forget what it’s like.

The first morning in our halls of residence I strode into the canteen, dressed my smartest clothes: certainly there was a jacket, possibly even a tie involved.

Five minutes later I was back in my room, changing into the jeans and t-shirt that everyone was wearing.

And then…

Well, I remember nothing else from my first week. I assume I had various induction sessions, and that I got to know a bit about others on my course, and I’d be very surprised if I didn’t end up in the student union at some point.

But still, the overriding thing that I took from starting university was that it wasn’t like I’d thought it would be. Not so much because I had some family-/friend-based telling of it all, or because I’d watched movies set in universities, but because I’d not really thought about it too much.

All of this came back to me again yesterday, as I introduced myself to our first-years and then took some of them around campus.

The only advice I could offer them was to talk with others, because it’s a lot to take in. Now, much more than my first year, we pile up huge amounts of policy, procedure and learning contracts, even before we get to the world of infection control.

Put it like this, my happiest moment was being asked to point out where the loos can be found on campus: super mundane, but obviously important to everyone.

So just remember how it felt when you started out, think about all that your students are dealing with right now, and try to keep the lines of communication open permanently: we never stop learning about being at university.

As I found out when I pointed the student to the wrong place for a wee.

Some reflections on hybrid vs online lectures

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

We have just entered the third week of the new academic year here. With regards to the Covid-19 challenges, our faculty has decided that we should offer students one on-campus meeting per week. This particularly concerns our new BA and MA students, who want to help adapt to this new environment. Obviously, this comes with huge challenges as to how to organise teaching, including students who have simply not been able to come to Maastricht.

I myself am currently in the process of designing a new course and updating an old one. So far, I have given lectures in two different set-ups: once completely online and once in a hybrid setting with on-campus and online students.

I have experience with Zoom lectures and decided for a similar approach for my online lecture on interdisciplinarity for our new BA students. This included a short video introducing topic and initial questions for discussion. This worked well. Many students seemed to have prepared the questions, which resulted in some good ideas and suggestions (including some funny memes about academic research and writing):

The only real problem was that I was only co-hosting the session, which complicated things a bit as far as technicalities (breakout groups, integrating Wooclap) were concerned and which, hence, created a bit of fuss. Something to avoid in the future. Yet, with all students being at the other side of the screen, it was easy to engage with all of them in a  similar way.

My hybrid experience was vastly different, though. Engaging with students was just one of the problems.

Going hybrid

My hybrid lecture was part of our Research Master. The lecture took place in ‘Tent 1’ – the faculty has set up tents to allow for more on-campus activities. The acoustics were awful. And the A/C, despite making lots of noise, was unable to keep the temperature below boiling point…

This was a lecture that I have just inherited from a colleague, which meant I had to adapt it. This, together with the fact that some students would be online and some on-campus, made me opt for a plainer set-up. Following Chad’s experience with breakout rooms I decided not to use audience response tools. As the group was quite small, I thought it would also work to simply ask questions as we went along.

Unfortunately, response was slow and only came from on-campus students. The only comment raised online concerned an echo on the portable mic that I had been asked to use. The latter was not the only challenge resulting from the hybrid setting. As ‘Tent 1’ comes with an in-built laptop camera, I had to stay in front of that laptop. I couldn’t walk around – something that usually helps me to stimulate interaction – and using the (real-world) whiteboard was near impossible, as it meant having to juggle with the laptop camera.

But the most problematic thing of all was me overlooking the online students. When you have real people in front of you, this is whom you engage with. At first, I thought this might be due to the online students not having turned their camera on. I asked them to do so after the break, but, again, my attention drifted towards the on-campus students very quickly.

Lessons learned

I can imagine Simon being anxious towards teaching this semester. At any rate, my hybrid teaching experience was similar to Chad’s: quite terrible.

I will meet most of the Research Master students again from the end of October. At least one of them is unlikely to make it to Maastricht. Hence, given that this will be one of my own courses, I have decided to:

  • Do all lectures in Zoom – i.e. no hybrid lectures.
    • No one benefits from a hybrid setting. It creates extra fuzz, also for the experienced online lecturer.
    • Ask lecturers for short videos to introduce themselves and the topic so as to already raise a couple of questions for discussion.
  • Do all tutorials in a hybrid setting.
    • This should work because of the small group size and tutorials being student-driven and centred around discussion of literature.
    • Create additional online individual and collaborative assignments in Canvas and Wooclap to aid preparation and discussion.

But in any other setting I would certainly suggest not to go hybrid. This may mean having to split up students in on-campus and online groups. Yet, if resources allow you to do so, all students will benefit; either from your best on-campus teaching or from your best online teaching.


Because we don’t actually a stock
image of someone looking anxious

I have to admit to being rather anxious about this semester.

It’s not a feeling I usually have, even when taking on a new course or being given some additional duties in short order.

Indeed, I not sure I’ve felt like this since I started out, and even then I at least knew what the thing looked like, because I’d been sitting in those same classes only a short time beforehand.

But this? This is different.

All summer I’ve been working up my courses, attending seminars, talking with colleagues, creating content and triple-checking VLEs. And now I’m starting to get students to log into things, let me know about where they’ll be.

And still I worry.

I worry because this semester is going to be unlike any other I’ve had; even this spring won’t really be a patch on it. Now I’m going to be purposely and deliberately running online and in-class elements in parallel, trying to hit the same learning objectives but with different means and with students potentially moving back and forth between modes.

I’m not going to spell out why that’s worrisome, since your imagination is just as good as mine, but to hear colleagues elsewhere talk about outages, social distancing restrictions or short-order closures of campuses, there’s more than enough for lurid visions of How It Can All Go Wrong.

My own personal – and relatively minor – experience this week was finding that I am going to have to run a Masters-level version of my negotiation course alongside its usual undergraduate one, which means I’m having to rework a bunch of online spaces so that students can work together.

I’m sharing this with you because I think it’s important to acknowledge this.

When I give talks – as I am this week at Southampton – I do focus on why we shouldn’t worry too much, because we’ve got the tools already to hand to deal with it all. But that doesn’t mean we won’t worry in the first place.

So I’m not completely alright and you might not be completely alright, but that’s alright [sic] because we can help each other. Never have I been more thankful for the community of L&T specialists and enthusiasts as I have this year.

Together, we’ll get through all this (and then we can write blogs/journal articles about it all).

Tweeting for better living

Obviously, it’s a bad move to go for the clickbaiting title when you’re going to write about a discussion that decried clickbait, but how else would I be getting you to read this?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it: how to make an impression when you feel you have no weigh to impress with?

This was part of the discussion we had yesterday as part of the on-going UACES virtual conference, when I got some of the leading lights of the #TradeTwitter community – Anna Jezewska, David Henig and Dmitry Grozoubinski to come and talk about how Twitter figured in their work.

Guided by the equally talented Katy Hayward, the panellists covered a lot of ground about the hows and whys of the platform, which I’ve tried to capture in some live-tweeting here:

The big take-home for me was that engaging in social media can be a big boost to your work, but it takes time and effort.

Certainly, my own experience was that it took a long time to find how I could use Twitter to good effect in improving my understanding and then in being a means to share what I could contribute, but it’s been a central part of my work for many years now.

Like anything else we do in our professional practice, we don’t arrive fully-formed: we need to grow and develop what we do, and to accept that we’ll make missteps on the way.

As the panel have all shown, building up a reputation for informed and impartial insights on the things they know about (laced with the occasional GIF or two) pays off over time. Unless you’re already a household name, then that’s not going to drop in your lap (and maybe not even then), so you need to work at it.

If you’re stuck on how that might look, then the four of them make a great set of contrasts, so why not give them a follow?

Survey and competition on learning and teaching of international students

The ECPR standing group on Teaching and Learning Politics is collecting data about teaching practices that enhance learning for international students. We particularly seek responses from teaching staff members from the UK. Completing the survey takes between 10 and 15 minutes.

You can also describe your teaching model (part B of the survey) – the best 10 models will be each awarded a €400 prize.

The survey remains open until 18 September 2020 and you can ask for an extension if you want to send your model.

Find out more and fill in the survey here:

Back up, back up

Somewhere in these crates is a pile of acetates.

Since I’m older than I like to think about, I remember when data projectors were a new thing. When I started out , we would either use acetates, or write directly on to whiteboards/blackboards (and yes, I’ve certainly been in meetings/arguments about why we MUST KEEP BLACKBOARDS).

Even when I finally switched over to PowerPoint, I kept all my acetates up-to-date for a couple of years after, mostly because the technology wasn’t reliable: kit not working, laptops updating, the kind of thing you’ve probably not had trouble you of late.

But I mention it because we’re going through a similar thing now with the move to on-line/mixed models.

As the big Zoom outage last month showed us – as have various anecdotes from colleagues in recent days – we should always have a back-up plan for tech failures, especially if we’re using that tech across various locations.

Obviously acetates (let alone blackboards) aren’t the solution, but you need to be ready for any one bit of your plans not working as planned.

(and if it’s any help, listen to this on why we might take some different lessons from Murphy’s Law).

PS – you can ask me about how to cope with most of your office being in boxes for a year some other time.


But don’t let this image haunt you at all

Let’s assume that your teaching plans are intact for present and that you’ve not had to work through more changes just yet.

Let’s also assume that you’re the kind of person who can imagine having to change things around in the near future, because situations can change.

I’m certainly one of those people, which is fortunate for this blog, since otherwise I’d never have anything to write about.

So let’s just unpack how we might cope with a student body that’s moving between delivery modes; from in-class to online and (theoretically) the other way round.

The obvious cause of this is another Covid outbreak, locally or nationally, with institution-wide effects, but we shouldn’t ignore the smaller switches too, especially if our institution allows individuals move at will (grounded in changing circumstances/health).

Put more bluntly, we might find that some students chose to study online some weeks rather than come into class. It’d be like those weeks around assessment deadlines, when your classroom suddenly gets a lot less crowded, except students’ll nominally be continuing to do the same workload.

Continue reading “Flip-flops”

The longer-run effects of Covid for UK universities

On-campus art

It’s lovely that the ambition of some in British politics to produce ‘world-beating’ processes in response to Covid-19 has finally borne fruit in the surprisingly-not-that-contested category of ‘mangling school exam results.’

Whereas other countries simply reinstated some exams, or developed an adjustment regime that had widespread buy-in, or flexed on university provision, the UK has performed a masterclass in closed, unreflective and ultimately unworkable policy-making, with a very large dollop of changing-of-minds.

As may be apparent, I’m not a fan of how this has gone, even if yesterday’s U-turn on English results does (finally) provide a more much adequate degree of social justice for school leavers.

However, it now leaves another set of problems, mainly for universities.

The delay in getting to the current system means that universities have already made many tens of thousands offers to students, who now will be able to revisit their choices. Even in a system used to only discovering its freshman intake six or seven weeks before teaching starts, this is not a good position to be in, especially if you’re an institution trying to make ends meet and considering the position of staff and resourcing.

Even in the least-disruptive scenario, we’re going to end up with a lot of people starting their studies at institutions other than the one they planned to go to, or at their original choice but after being initially rejected.

That’s going to be tough for colleagues, because we know that such students are more likely to have weaker affective links to the university, resulting in poorer engagement and performance than might otherwise be the case.

This isn’t to say it can’t work, since it evidently can, but the chances of disengagement are going to be higher than for those getting unproblematically to where they planned to go, especially in a socially-distanced environment.

Already we knew that we’d have to work harder and more carefully to build and maintain a sense of community with our students in such an environment, but that is now compounded by this additional disruption.

That requires a short- and a long-term response from us.

Short-term, we need to be very alive to the specific composition of our new cohort of students. That means as much 1-2-1 contact through tutors as possible, facilitating the creation of connections within the cohort and between returning and new students, as well as ensuring that our learning spaces are run with ample opportunities to receive and implement feedback on the go.

Long-term, that close engagement needs to endure throughout this cohort’s time with us, even more than usual for our students. But we also need to look again at the admissions process in the round.

A post-qualification system would avoid a lot of the uncertainty and stupidity inherent in the current model (if you’re not familiar with it, Google yourself silly and wonder at how it ever came to be thus), and the likelihood of future disruption to school education in the coming year(s) means this summer’s stop-gap isn’t going to work again.

Part of that is going to have to be about universities working together with schools and students on pushing for change in policy, and developing fairer and more inclusive systems to replace what we have.

Right now, that might seem like a very low bar, but then so have been many others during this pandemic: maybe for once we might try to clear it with a bit of a run-in, rather than by first smacking our heads into it, repeatedly.

A quick checklist for the autumn

I laugh at your measly three-point checklist!

Let’s skip over your summer, since I’m guessing your institution has been like mine: pushing for us to get Covid-ready for the new semester, while not being particularly certain what that might actually look like.

Upshot, a load of prep to be able to cope with a bunch of different and dynamic scenarios and the dawning realisation that whatever room we work in at home is going to become the star of a large number of videos on the local student network [do check what’s on your bookshelf BTW].

Since I’ve had the good fortune to actually get away from work properly for a couple of weeks (albeit only a hour’s drive from home), I’m coming back into this with a bunch of work and a need to get through it efficiently, so I’m going to share my plan of attack in the hope it’s of use to you.

Step 1: Be clear about your teaching obligations this semester. I’m lucky that I know what classes I’m teaching, what support I might be getting for seminars, rough numbers of students, and even a sense of my timetable. You might not be in that situation, so make this your first port of call. Even just some ballpark figures for the latter stuff matters in making some very basic choices about what choices you’ll be making in designing learning objectives and methods of teaching.

Step 2: Remind yourself what your institution’s new protocols are. Again, my university has produced both strategic and more operational guides on what is and isn’t allowed, so I’ve a good baseline to go on. Let’s assume your institution has created such documents in good (pedagogic) faith to optimise both student learning and Covid resilience, so working with these is a positive step forward; plus it keeps you in step with the rest of your colleagues in creating more consistent learning environments for students. Check you’re reading the latest version and whether your local unit has any additional elaborations and principles in place too.

Step 3: Build the overall learning environment for your course. As you’ll remember, it’s not the technology that should lead your designing, but the learning objectives. You have to be clear – with yourself as much as with students – about what you want them to gain from the course, so ensure that the entire package of that course allows them the opportunity to learn that. That includes online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, group and individual elements.

Step 4: Adjust your design to institutional protocols where necessary, while still keeping your learning objectives clearly in sight. This is where I’m up to right now; doing things like breaking up pre-recorded video into smaller chunks and developing more asynchronous online elements that tessellate with in-class work. Talking about this with colleagues is super-useful, both because trying to explain your thoughts can unblock ideas and because your colleagues have some great ideas you can re-use.

Step 5: Do the donkey work for creating all the new content you need. I’m planning to get at least the first four weeks of the semester ready in its entirety for the time that students are due back, since I’m guessing that’s going to be the biggest stress point, as we all try to work stuff out. I’d say to do more if you can, but also remember you will need to carry out running modifications in-semester, so don’t sink too many costs that you can’t recover.

Step 6: Teach. All the other stuff is going to take you through the rest of the summer, so there’s nothing else to suggest than getting into it and then doing those running adaptations I just mentioned. Talk with students regularly and specifically about your course’s design and highlight to them how you’re using their input to modify what you do; that can begin from the second or third week, once everyone’s a bit less fraught and the initial shock of the new has worn off. Also talk with colleagues about how it’s all going too: their ideas are still great and they might be able to head off issues you can see looming in the distance.

And that’s is.

Still a long list, though, so time to crack on with it and remember you’ve got it covered.

Some evidence on online conferences

Retro niche reference

Last month, I helped run the 4th EuroTLC, which we’d switched from Amsterdam to a sofa near you. Fewer canals, but also none of that rolling-your-R nonsense.

Any way, as well as that various posts that have sprung from that, I thought it’d also be useful to share some of the conference feedback that we received. A big thank you to ECPR for letting us use this publicly.

As you might have guessed from this post’s existence, the impression on participants was very positive indeed. It’d be good to pull up some big problems, as talking points, but they really didn’t occur.

From our survey of nearly 70 delegates (of c.250 signed up), there was almost no-one who rated the organisation, communication, technology as unsatisfactory.

Technology is maybe a good place to start on this, since it’s the obvious new challenge as compared to what has come before. A few people reported tech issues, although these were mostly about their local connectivity, which sometimes ended up kicking you out of Zoom sessions. The phrasing of the comments seems pretty understanding, but equally it’s clear that this will become more problematic for those not in a position to get more stable internet connections, which will matter if we want people to get interacting online in such events. Equally clearly, there’s no much we can do about these problems, except keep it in mind when we plan: do we need everything to be synchronous?

Organisationally, we had tried to put a lot of thought into how we could make this event work for participants. That meant breaking up sessions with lots of breaks, and keeping any one part to a maximum of an hour (well-received), plus mixing up formats so that it wasn’t always the same thing, all day long.

As mentioned, the feedback was very positive about all this, although once again I’d note that some of the participants grounded this by saying it was their first such experience of an online conference: that worked in our favour (Zoom burn-out was mentioned more than once during the event), but as we move to do more of this, then expectations might well shift.

One things we’d explored was trying to get materials shared online, both beforehand and during the event. While ratings were very positive for the organisers (both on the academic programme and the more practical aspects handled by ECPR’s very efficient office), there were some comments from people about not knowing where to look for those resources. This rather falls into “what else could we have done?”, since we’d mentioned it multiple times across all our pre-event comms and during the sessions. Maybe the relative novelty of the model is part of this, but as every event organiser knows, there’s never enough comms to be done.

Maybe a bit more of an issue was the difficulty of maintaining the flow of discussion beyond individual sessions. I’ve discussed this before, but I also noticed a couple of comments to this effect here too. I still have no good idea about how to address this, since any online space requires active decisions by individuals to move into them and stay in them, so the (semi-accidental) chat in the corridor outside the panel just doesn’t happen. As a case in point, having mentioned in that post that I’d seen a load of people that I’d like to have caught up, I’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not been in mind long enough to action by pinging off an email or text. Yes, I’m a bit lazy, but we also know that friction to action online is very high: each step we add, there’s a huge drop-out of people (which is why the bingo thing didn’t work).

Any way, that lack of networking opportunities did come out with much more ambivalent survey results (including the only occasion when more than two people chose ‘unsatisfactory’ (but still only 12%)).

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t charge for the event: EuroTLC has always been been either free or with minimal fees to keep it open. Several people noted that being free and online meant they could finally attend: previously, the cost of travel and accommodation had made that impossible. From our side, it also meant we could put together a lunchtime with people from three continents in a way that our resources wouldn’t have allowed beforehand, so online does come with some upsides for all involved.

Opinion was rather split on whether people would have paid to attend this event: those saying no pointed towards tightened budgets and precarious financial situations, while others felt the quality of what they got from it all was worth paying to access. Clearly, while online events are without the costs of dealing with physical spaces, they do still come with personnel costs that have to be covered somehow, so we’re not at the end of that particular discussion.

Also pertinent to note is that EuroTLC has been only every other year, so the suggestion from one person that we alternate online/real-world events is something to consider (although not necessarily an option for others). That said, there did seem to be interest in maintaining a more substantial online presence even with a real-world event, to allow those unwilling/unable to attend in person to still access things.

I’ll glide over the comment that we had too many women in the sessions that one respondent attended, on the basis that perhaps this might heighten awareness of the still-too-common phenomenon of manels and instead focus on the very positive comments across the board for all those who presented work during the two days: as one person wrote “everyone worked hard and did their utmost best”, a sentiment I fully endorse.

So what to take from all of this?

Firstly, just as online teaching isn’t just teaching online, the same is true for conferences. It’s important to think carefully about the objectives that you’re trying to achieve from the event and then work out the best way to hit them, which might not be the same as in face-to-face formats. I think we did a very good job on the sharing of ideas, but less well on the networking/soft community aspects, so this was definitely a learning experience.

Secondly, we have to careful about the assumptions we make. Here that includes access to stable internet, how much people have internalised all the messaging about specifics and why people do/n’t attend conferences. The barriers are all pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve taken them fully into account, or that we can necessarily solve them; however, we can try.

And that’s a final point – nothing’s settled yet, so there’s good reason to keep trying new things. I leave this event wanting to try out a pile of other options with future events, because I want to see if they can provide improved opportunities for all involved. This was a good start, but together we can make it even better.