Active Learning is More than Just Simulations

I’ve been in a few sessions recently where well-meaning faculty point out how important active learning is—true!—and then immediately mention ‘simulations and games’ as key examples of active learning (AL). Also true! But let’s be clear, simulations and games aren’t the only kind of active learning. They aren’t the most common kind, the easiest to do, or even what I would recommend that most faculty start with. When the right simulation or game is chosen, executed well, and debriefed effectively, it can be a great learning tool. But games and simulations are neither necessary nor sufficient for active learning, and I want to encourage everyone to think more broadly about how to increase AL in their classes.

Active learning is any tool, technique, or approach that calls on learners to actively engage in the learning process. The point is not the tool itself, but adopting a learner-centric approach that ensures that students are not simply passive recipients of information. ‘Activating’ the students, then, is about asking them to think, process, and make connections about the material, rather than just listen, read, or write down information. In some cases, a passive approach makes sense! Sometimes you really do just have to transmit information. The problem arises when we consistently turn to passive approaches without considering and experimenting with active approaches, which have a solid record of producing better engagement and learning. See for example Deslauriers et al 2019, where even students who thought they learned more from a more passive approach actually learned more from an active one.

Simulations and games, then, can be active or passive, depending on whether everyone has the tools to effectively participate or actively watch and listen. Watching others play a game is only active if the observers are prompted to provide comments and input based on their observations. In such cases, they are active observers. Even participation doesn’t necessarily make the experience ‘active’. A simulation or role-play exercise where a student is too anxious about their performance or grade to pay attention and fully participate is not active for that student. So AL is not just about the activity you do, but how you use it and help students learn from it.

Moreover, AL encompasses so much more than simulations and games. Structuring a lecture around a provocative question, where students are encouraged to think through the steps as you go along, can be active. So can asking good discussion questions that lead to dynamic student to student debates. Asking students at the end of class to reflect on what they learned that day (or what was still confusing) is a method of active learning, and in can be done in one minute at the end of class, or as a written, audio, or video journal they create throughout the term. 

When you consider that active learning can really be just small interventions in teaching (as Jim Lang puts it in his book,Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning), it suddenly becomes achievable for everyone. Simulations and games are sometimes a tough sell—they can seem juvenile or take too much time away from other content. But active learning? The benefits are clear and centering such techniques doesn’t actually require much work or time.

Even this blog makes this mistake—we are Active Learning in Political Science, and yet most of our coverage is on games and simulations. So consider this a call for a broader approach, one that brings legions more faculty into the world of active learning, without requiring a conversion to the gaming world. Let’s look for the small interventions that anyone can use—from a great discussion question to a good group activity to great reflective prompts—and be more careful with how we define and explain what active learning really is.

Online Simulations & Games Using Discord

I mentioned Discord about a year ago as we were all turning to virtual instruction at the start of the pandemic. I want to return to it specifically in the games and simulations context, though, as it has some really useful properties that can aid those instructors looking for a way to run their online simulations. If you are ready to start thinking about how to run Model UN, Diplomacy, or other complex simulations online, you should really consider Discord.

Discord is a social media platform used by gamers, podcasters, and other content creators to connect with their communities. Each group has their own discord ‘server’, a private space that you can only enter with an invitation. Inside, you can create text and voice based ‘channels’ that let you structure conversations by topic. These channels can be open to everyone on the server or private and hidden. As the server creator or administrator, you also have a lot of latitude for customizing settings–such as making something read-only or enabling ‘slow mode’, which prevents any one person from dominating the conversation. And server members can message each other individually or create small groups for private conversation. The text conversation is asynchronous, but it is easy to jump into a voice channel for voice-only or video conversations.

This kind of format lends itself very well to running complex simulations. There are several key needs for running an online simulation:

  • Instructors must be able to review rules and procedures, share documents and updates, and take questions from students, publicly and privately.
  • Students need to be able to post in-character public messages for other participants to see.
  • Students need to be able to post privately to their teammates, if they have them.
  • Students need to be able to send private messages to other students for secret negotiations.
  • Students may need to post files or links, share their screen, or jump onto a quick voice conversation.

It is easy to do all of this in Discord, without the constraints of a standard learning management system/virtual learning environment. By creating ‘roles’ in the server with different permissions, you can divide students by their teams or in-game roles and set channels that only they can access and that can identify them within the server. This makes communication much easier. For example, if you are running a UN Security Council simulation, you can create a ‘role’ for each country in Discord. You might not need to set up private channels for each country if there is only one person in each role, but this allows students to message each other without having to check a list of who is playing what role. They could also have a public channel for making speeches, and another where they upload and discuss the wording on resolutions. If you are running a full UN simulation with many different committees, you can have channels dedicated to the General Assembly and each committee, and private channels dedicated to each country so members of the same team can talk privately and share information. Discord therefore supports simulations both large and small.

I’m using Discord right now to run a game of Diplomacy in my ISA Career Course on Games and Simulations in International Relations (with Victor Asal). There are plenty of online platforms that you can use, but I chose to use Discord because I didn’t know in advance if I would have more than 7 players. Most online platforms don’t allow for teams–but Discord does. Here is what the server looks like:

As you can see, I have a general channel for administrative purposes. I’ve since created a new read-only channel called ‘maps and result’s where I post the outcomes of each game turn along with updated maps. The public channels–text and voice–are open to all players if they want to openly communicate. Italy has made a call for peace and protection of the status quo–but no responses so far! the other channels are organized by country category. Each country has a private text and voice channel open only to their team and the facilitators. They also have a private ‘orders’ channel where they submit orders for their units each turn. I use those channels to adjudicate each turn. If they want to message another team, all they have to do is right-click on the name of the person they want to message (their country name is next to their name) and select ‘message’ and that will open up a private conversation for negotiations. The person-shaped icon in the top right of the screen pops up the list of server members for this purpose. It will also tell you who is online in case you want to invite them into a voice chat.

Running the game this way instead of over email or through an online game system gives me several advantages as an instructor. I can keep tabs on most of the gameplay, although some private conversations I would only see if I’m invited to join them (something you can require if you want). I also have a record after the gameplay of everything that happened, which is useful for debriefing, grading, and assessment. The interface is easy to use, and once students get familiar with it, you can reuse it for different games and exercises throughout your course. I can also allow ‘observers’–people who want to watch but not play. I can give them as much access as I want–for example, I can limit them to read- and listen-only so they can’t interfere with the game play.

I’ve used discord for running an monthly trivia game as well as a 200+ person multi day conference, so I can attest to its robust capabilities. It is free, accessible from outside the US, pretty easy to learn, and has a robust mobile app that make it accessible to students. The main downsides are that the server creator needs to put in a bit of work to figure out how to set up the server to meet your needs, and that the video and screen sharing systems aren’t always reliable. Asynchronous text channels and voice channel work just fine though.

I know a lot of faculty want to run simulations but are restricted by social distancing or virtual classrooms. If you are ready to try something new, try Discord. I have no relationship with the company and am not being compensated by them for this post–I just want to recommend something that I’ve found very useful in my own teaching.

Benefits of Student Reflection

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor, and Jennifer Ostojski, Ph.D. candidate, from the political science department at Northeastern University. They can be contacted at  colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu and ostojski [dot] j [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

This year we have had to adapt the short, focused simulations for reinforcing material that we like to use in the classroom to the virtual environment. This adaptation has caused us to think more about the value of independent student reflection in relation to group debriefings.

Colin had previously developed a simulation of coalition-building in Germany (available here at APSA Educate) for introductory comparative politics, which had two main learning objectives: (1) gain familiarity with German political parties as an example of multipartism, and (2) understand that big, centrist parties can still exert a lot of agenda-setting power in sometimes-chaotic multiparty systems. A key part of the exercise is the bargaining that occurs as students walk around the physical classroom.

In Spring 2020, we switched to online teaching two weeks before Colin had scheduled the simulation in his course. He made it an optional extra-credit online exercise, in which about one-third of the class participated. In lieu of a debriefing, students submitted ungraded answers to three questions:

1. What did you find hardest about reaching a coalition agreement?

2. What new perspective does this give you on the German case in particular?

3. What might be some of the strengths and weaknesses of coalition governments, and how did those play out here?

We used slightly different online versions of the simulation in Fall 2020. In Colin’s course, students stayed muted/invisible and used the private chat function to communicate during simulation sessions. Jennifer’s larger class used breakout rooms with students communicating with one another behind the scenes via Zoom chat, a classroom Slack channel, and social media (which more directly simulated the more intentionally chaotic in-person discussions). Colin assigned students to parties right as the simulation began while Jennifer provided students with party roles beforehand.

Based on the written responses and discussions, students in our courses learned the central lessons of the simulation equally well, and equal to the in-person format in prior years, despite the difference in communication methods and the timing of role assignments. However, Colin’s Spring cohort seemed to demonstrate better knowledge of both the specifics of the German system and broader concepts about multipartism, whereas the students in our Fall courses displayed more learning of broad concepts than of specific details. We found it interesting that the Spring students seemed to pick up more details from the simulation despite it being, well, March 2020. Our hunch is that writing responses to the reflection questions caused students to spend some minimal amount of time and effort checking whether they were correctly using relevant concepts. Although it is hard to rule out selection effects, engaging in independent reflection might benefit students’ learning whether the simulation is online or in-person, even if it is not the most memorable or visible part of the exercise.

Online persistence

This isn’t going to be about trolls who just won’t give up, so apologies from the start about that.

toot toot!

Yesterday I spent my coffee-break reading about trains across Russia. Partly that was from a random thought, partly it’s because I’m a man-child who really struggles to concentrate, partly because the site I was reading about this was really engaging.

For those not in the long-distance-train-journey community, you only need to know that the guy behind this started off many moons ago, putting together some pretty basic info and, well, it rather snowballed from there.

I mention it because the site is a good example of someone not only carving out a niche, but turning it into the kind of resource that is both connected-to and thought-about as a place to go by a wide audience.

Of course, this makes me think about a number of things.

Most immediately, I makes me reflect that while ALPS has built up a considerable profile and reputation within the immediate L&T community in Poli Sci/IR/European Studies, we still have a way to go with other disciplines (or with those less motivated by the prospect of teaching): so do continue your good work of recommending us, and writing for us.

More generally, it touches on a thought that’s bothered me for a while about creating online resources: how do people find stuff?

Our decision here to go for a blog format, made nearly a decade ago in Albuquerque, made sense at the time for our needs and capacities, but we now have over 1400 posts and we didn’t do a particularly assiduous job of tagging stuff. Even I struggle to track down things, especially if different posts have covered different aspects.

It’s also becoming an issue with the Brexit-related graphics I’ve been making for a couple of years now. I tweet these out, and have hosted PDFs on a Google Drive folder, but it’s not searchable and if you don’t know me, or even couldn’t remember my name, then you’d struggle to even track down the things in the first place.

This isn’t an issue of “look at all my work”, but rather of the annoying feature of political life (and L&T) to keep on circling around to the same issues. Getting quick feedback in a class is just as much a problem now as it was in 2011.

It’s also a matter of trying to save colleagues having to reinvent the wheel all the time: if you knew what was out there and could access it easily and quickly, then you might not start from first principles. Sure, in some cases you still would, but at least you’d have more sense of what those first principles might be.

So the open question from all this is how we can build resources that are persistent, visible and useful to audiences?

In the case of ALPS, we have talked at times about making non-blog format material, but keep coming back to the challenge of creating – and, crucially, maintaining – a static site. The Man in Seat 61 has been able to do that, but we’ve not been able to make it work with our other commitments.

As so often, there’s not an easy answer to this, but it is something we’ll all have to keep on working on. Digital materials are only going to become more important with time and as academics we seem to be asked ever more about demonstrating our digital footprint. That means traffic data as much as content production, so that’s another can of worms.

But we can only continue to try. if you have some ideas that have worked for you, then let us know.

Maybe even write us a post and then we can share it with everyone who can find it.

Connecting in-class and online students

‘sssup?

I’m guessing that several of you find yourself in a position of having to offer teaching to a mix of students in person and online. Maybe, like me, you have to do that as part of your university’s delivery model; maybe you’re just a nice person trying to help students cope with the shifting sands of Covid restrictions.

Whatever your reason, I’m also going to assume you find it difficult to make those two groups interact seamlessly.

Certainly, if you’ve ever tried to open up a Zoom call while in class and get everyone to participate on a level footing, you’ll know it doesn’t work.

For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time during the summer creating parallel tracks for my classes: shared pre-recording video lectures for all, then separate activities for those in-class and those online.

But it’s not been as simple as that.

The online students – a minority at present – want to have as much interaction as they can. So I’ve been trying some different things.

Firstly, I’ve been broadcasting most of my in-class sessions on Zoom, so the onliners can listen into the discussion. I say they can ask questions on the chat, but mostly it’s been one-way traffic. Where we’ve had activities, they often form their own group to try it out, aided by the need for the in-classers to use Teams to build joint documents.

Secondly, I’ve tried to ensure feedback to online students makes connections across all content, so any useful insights from class get shared with everyone. I record short (5 min) clips of video and post to our VLE each week, so there’s a bit more character to it than just some bullet-points.

Thirdly, my negotiation course is running a big, semester-long joint activity online. I’ve got all the students enrolled on the course to create and run a renegotiation of the WHO’s founding treaty, using Teams as a common platform and giving them a semi-structured reason to be in constant contact. That’s still quite early on, but they seem to be working pretty well, with the onliners all mixed up with inclassers within groups. I’ll write this up later in the semester.

Finally, I’ve been trying some other ways to make connections.

Last week I got my inclassers to produce a couple of collaborative documents; one each for the Trump and Biden campaigns about how to tackle a disputed vote in Ohio. Within class it was a good way for them to learn about how to prepare for interacting with others: the class was split in half, prepped one document, then swapped over to rework the other one.

I then sent the documents to the onliners, to add into their activity, relating to Trump-Senate interactions in the case of a disputed vote nationwide. They’d already written a first draft, but then were asked to revisit it in the light of the inclassers’ work.

This seemed to work pretty well, in terms of moving text through several stages and getting some appreciation of what others are doing.*

Of course, that was a one-off, and still I worry about keeping the links clear between the two tracks as we continue through the autumn.

But that might be the general take-home from all this: if we keep chipping away at it, maybe we’ll find something that works better. And that’s a pretty good ambition to have.

*- This reminds me of an idea I discussed some years ago about a shared chain of simulations: we never got that off the ground, but maybe we should come back to it some time soon.

Video Tutorial: Taking Simulations Online

Today we have a guest post, actually a guest video, from Sarah Federman, assistant professor in negotiations and conflict management for the College of Public Affairs, University of Baltimore. She can be contacted at sfederman [at] ubalt [dot] edu. 

Sarah has created this brief video tutorial on taking simulations online, especially those that involve negotiation and conflict. The video has much food for thought. For example, one should not necessarily assume that the online environment lessens the simulation experience for students. Online allows interaction between students who attend different universities and can also facilitate the ability of students to design their own simulations — resulting in less work for the instructor.

Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

During Italy’s pandemic-induced lockdown, I found myself having to teach an entirely virtual course on European foreign policy, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM)  at the University of Catania. I usually include simulations in my courses, and given the policy implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, I decided to create Tackling Covid-19 in a Global Perspective—a simulated emergency G20 meeting in Geneva, called to plan a global strategy for managing the pandemic’s health, political, social, and economic effects. Students represented panels of experts for the following policy areas: public health emergency; economic consequences; infrastructure and human mobility; impact on refugees, migrants and non-nationals; and impact on the conflict in Syria.

Continue reading “Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19”

Pandemic Pedagogy Webinar and Workshop

Colleagues, I want to invite you to an upcoming opportunity that I am involved in.

The International Studies Association’s Innovative Pedagogy Conference Initiative is creating virtual opportunities for faculty professional development. Teacher-scholars in International Studies around the world are facing unprecedented challenges to adapt our teaching and learning approaches in the COVID-19 era. The Pandemic Pedagogy series is designed to help instructors think critically and creatively about these needs. It includes two key elements:

  1. An asynchronous webinar designed to preview the workshop and related IPC initiatives has been posted on the ISA YouTube channel: (https://youtu.be/2FF3Lr5w7hg).
  1. The IPC invites teacher-scholars around the world to participate in our live, synchronous remote workshop on Pandemic Pedagogy on Monday, August 3, 2020, from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm EDT. The workshop will feature presentations by ISA members and award-winning instructors focused on adapting our teaching and learning strategies in these difficult times. It also provides opportunities for base group dialogues, mentoring, the exchange of creative ideas, and professional networking. The registration portal can be found at: https://www.isanet.org/Conferences/Pedagogy-2020.

Teaching Foreign Policy (Online) With Model Diplomacy

Today we have a guest post by Vincent Druliolle, assistant profesor in the Department of International Relations, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. He can be contacted at vincent [dot] druliolle [at] deusto [dot] es.

Last September I joined a different university, which led to teaching two new modules. This past term I taught foreign policy for the first time and used Model Diplomacy by the Council of Foreign Relations. I had to shift from my initial plan of running Model Diplomacy in class because of Covid-19, but this did not overly worry me, and I was further encouraged by Charity Butcher’s recent post. Like her, I chose the ‘basic’ version of the simulation with a view to devoting only one two-hour class to the activity. I allocated each role to groups of four students, with each group writing a position memo, but I ran the simulation twice with half the class participating each time, so that I could divide each group into pairs. Four students per role is too much for an in-class simulation, and I thought that splitting each group into two was even more necessary for the online format.

I used Google Meet as a platform for the simulation without any technical glitches. Because each role was played by two students, I told the class to connect with their partners through Whatsapp or some other medium so that they could exchange opinions about the proposals put forward by the other actors. I also warned them that I wanted to listen to both members of each pair during the simulation. This worked well and participation was good overall. It was entertaining to see students on various parts of my screen using their mobile phones to debate with their partners while their classmates were speaking. At one point a student was caught speaking on an open mic, which is probably an important lesson to be learned.

Continue reading “Teaching Foreign Policy (Online) With Model Diplomacy”

Looking Back At Another Simulation

As promised in my last post, a brief review of another self-designed Excel-based simulation that I used this past Spring semester:

The purpose of this simulation was to teach students about freshwater resource use in Asia. I created three preparatory assignments on water scarcity in the region. The twenty-one students in the class were divided into teams that represented countries dependent on rivers that originate in the Himalayan watershed: Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Each team could build dams on the rivers that transited its country’s territory. Dams:

  • Enabled a country to expand the area of irrigated farmland and produce more food.
  • Generated more hydroelectricity, which in turn increased industrial production, per capita income, and, because of urbanization, municipal demand for water.
  • Reduced the amount of water available to downstream countries.

Countries purchased dams with surplus food, which could also be donated to other countries. Because of population growth, each country’s food needs increased annually, and rainfall decreased, reflective of climate change. These processed served as an incentive for countries to build dams. If a country suffered a food deficit in any given year, refugees flowed into neighboring countries, increasing those countries’ food needs — an incentive for some countries to negotiate on dam construction.

Ultimately, however, the demand for water eventually exceeded its supply for several countries — an outcome I had deliberately built into the simulation.

As happened with Gerkhania in my comparative politics course, the need to regularly update a complex Excel spreadsheet created interruptions. And, as with the other class, I made a few errors in the process, which slowed things down even further. But although the design of the spreadsheet needs some improvement, I was generally pleased with how it worked.

I asked students to complete anonymous survey about the simulation after it had ended. Seven of the twenty-one students in the class responded. Six of the seven said they thought that the simulation accurately depicted water resource issues in Asia, and five felt that the simulation improved their understanding of these issues. The seventh student thought that the simulation was a confusing, unproductive exercise.

Several commented that communication within and between teams was problematic because of 1) the constraints of the Webex meeting platform, and 2) lack of participation by teammates. This feedback leads me to wonder if I should include a collaborative team assignment before the simulation begins, perhaps one in which teammates’ contributions derive from more formalized roles (e.g., agricultural minister, foreign minister, etc.). And I do realize that Webex’s chat box is not an ideal tool for conversation, so I need to find some other means by which students can communicate with each other in real time outside of the classroom.

But here is the big change I’m considering: for the last several years, based on Michelle Allendorfer’s reasoning, I have scheduled these simulations for the last week of classes. I’m now wondering if I should move them to the beginning of the semester, in an attempt to quickly engage students with course content before they get tired and distracted. This could become important if Fall semester gets disrupted halfway through by Covid-19 like Spring semester did.