Crowdsourcing a resource

After an Easter hiatus, I’m back in the office, even if our students are still on break.  One of my activities was attending the annual conference of the Political Studies Association, whose kind funding allowed me to travel to APSA L&T last year and meet my collaborators here on the ALPS blog.  While waiting in the terminal at Belfast City airport for a delayed flight back home, I sketched out an idea I’ve been having for some time about building a resource for running simulations.

From the initial ruminating with colleagues and building up ideas, I’ve set up a website for this project, entitled “How to do Simulation Games” (not very clever, but at least clear).  As you can see, there’s not much there right now, beyond the structure.  My plan is to gradually build up material, as I have the time and inclination, so that there is something of practical use to colleagues, both in Politics and beyond.

The idea comes from an awareness that while there is a burgeoning literature on simulations, there’s still not much of the basic ‘how-to’ stuff that I find many people look for when coming to this pedagogy: it’s all well and good me writing a paper about immersion, but that’s no good to someone who doesn’t know what the basic building blocks of a simulation are (or might be).

As I say on the site, I welcome help since I know I don’t know nearly everything about the various aspects.  That help can be something very small and specific (maybe a game to upload), or if you want to jump on as a co-author type, then I’m cool with that too.  In the longer run, and depending on how this goes, there’s obviously potential for some more conventional publishing opportunity (again recognising everyone’s input), although that’s no more than a thought at this stage.

So if you like what you see, then drop me a line and let’s see where it goes.

A Bad Romance ….Gaga over Edutainment

Soomo Publishing’s take on suffrage….it’s such a Bad Romance

A year ago in Albuquerque as I was discussing the games and simulations we play in class at the annual TLC and one of my colleagues winced a little.

So I had to ask about the source of the boggle. In short her frustration was about what she called “edutainment.”  The idea that we may well be using engaging games and YouTube videos as a way to capture the attention and adoration of our students but not much more.

This got me thinking. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be accused of edutaining my students. I want the games and activities we play to provide a platform for their own intellectual development.  Alas I have been guilty, before, of showing the odd documentary as a way to pass time…. but it also got me thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic learners in our classes. (This was the impetus, incidentally, for my work with Amanda Rosen on student motivation and games)

This week, one of my favorite education companies in the world released a music video. (SOOMO Publishing)

It is a cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. But it has a particularly different kind of educational spin on it. Namely women’s suffrage….

Therefore in an effort to repent my edutainmentism…..and on this international day of the Woman I would like to offer this up as a distinctly marvelous example of an asset that is more than simply edutainment. The video, in short, produces so many questions that it almost immediately creates an intrinsic learner of someone who is just watching it for entertainment value.

Bravo SOOMO….

Taking Student Motivations Into Account

Great session at TLC this year, with lots of interesting papers and ideas for simulations and games, including another wonderful workshop by ALPS’ own Victor Asal.

My own paper (with Nina Kollars) dealt with the issue of student motivation and engagement.  Our previous work was on the first principles of simulation and game design: that is, the instructor’s purpose for the game and its function within a classroom.  This new paper is on the next stage of design: taking student motivations into account.  Students approach our classrooms with different skills and motivations.  On the skill side, some may be expert, experienced gamers, while others may have little knowledge of how to work with the rules of the game; they may also differ in their teamwork abilities.  These differing skills–which may have nothing to do with our material or content–may impact the play of the game and the readiness and ability of students to learn from it.

Just as important is the differing motivations that students bring to the classroom.  This is not a groundbreaking observation by any sense of the word–psychologists have known this for decades. To use their terms, some students may be intrinsically motivated–interested in mastery of the material for its own sake–while others may be extrinsically motivated by a grade or some other reward or fear of punishment.  Such students will approach a game very differently, and our design of games should take these differing motivations into account.  An ungraded simulation or grade may fail to elicit full participation or learning in an extrinsically motivated student, but a game that IS graded may focus the intrinsic learner on external rewards, and perhaps lessen their intrinsic interest (see Deci 1971 and 1972 amongst many others).

Our point is that our knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations should impact the way we design our games.  We should not assume that a grade–even one of participation–is necessary to engineer participation in our games.  Games that are used in place or supplemental to lecture should be graded no more than attendance at a lecture.  Grades in fact might produce perverse incentives for students in a game, where they respond to the external motivators and not the game as we have built it.  Thus we must carefully consider how grading and other extrinsic motivators might influence the way students interact with our sim, and design accordingly.

Live from the TLC

A few thoughts from the initial day of the 2012 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

I missed the opening speakers due to a fog-induced flight delay.

The Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, is pretty swank. The conference sessions are being held about four floors below ground level, an ideal location for the Iranian nuclear  development program. One tunnel connects to the Metro Center station, so it’s easy traveling between the hotel and DCA.

This year’s conference track on IR simulations and role-play again promises to be interesting. We’ve already had Dr. Robert P. Amyot of Hastings College present evidence that brings a fundamental premise of pedagogical simulations into question: that simulations in and of themselves significantly enhance student learning. He argued that learning is more a function of how much time students spend writing and thinking about a topic. Instructors should therefore focus their energies on discovering whatever motivates students to do this, rather than on a particular pedagogical style or tool.

Tomorrow Dr. Victor Asal of SUNY-Albany will be reprising his role as the grandfatherly mentor when he presents a variety of gaming exercises related to identity salience and political violence.

The Results Are In

As I’ve discussed here and here, this past semester I ran a role-playing simulation for undergraduates on international relations in Europe on the eve of World War I. Previously I had tested for the simulation’s possible effects on student learning by comparing essay exam grades from a “regular” class that participated in the simulation to grades from an honors class that had not. Grades from the honors class were higher, and in most cases the differences were statistically significant, but the possibility existed that the higher scores were due to the honors students supposed better academic ability.

This semester I finally was able to teach an honors class again and do a more valid comparison. Some preliminary data crunching indicates that the simulation had no effect on essay assignments and exams, not what I’d expected. However, in a 2009 study, Stroessner,  Beckerman, and Whittaker found that students’ “writing ability, at least extemporaneous writing, was not affected” by Barnard’s Reacting to the Past role-playing simulations.* This makes me wonder what can be changed about history-based role-playing simulations so that students become better able to connect their simulation experiences to course content and demonstrate that connection through their writing.

I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s quite possible that your assignments and exams aren’t measuring what you think they are measuring.” Yes, possible, but logic dictates that if (a) we think it’s important for students to learn how to use theory to create a coherent and persuasive written explanation of an event, and (b) a question asks, for example, “did the international system in Europe prior to World War I best reflect liberal or realist IR theory, and why?” then (c) assignments and exams indicate how well students can accomplish (a). In other words, I’m testing for what I think students should know, and the simulation that I’ve been using doesn’t seem to have any effect on how much knowledge students acquire over a semester.

I will be presenting on this subject at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in February. I’ve been attending the TLC  since 2007 and it’s been remarkably rewarding — lots of interesting and pedagogically practical information. I encourage you to attend.

*Stroessner, Steven J, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker (2009) “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3):605-620.

Double your money

Yesterday’s class presented an opportunity to do something that I have previously avoided: parallel games.  Rather than have half the class play and the other half watch, I split the group (and the room) into two, so everyone had a chance to take part (except the one student who turned up late and took up an observer role).

The students were playing a game that modelled the difficulties of cutting budgets, having to coordinate national and single-currency zone responses, in a simplification of the current euro-zone situation, but also speaking to two-level games more generally.  Individuals represented either different ministries or the national government.

The benefits of a parallel game became apparent during the debrief, when we discussed the very different approaches the two games took to achieving their goals: one was very focused on the national-level discussions, while the other concentrated on the international.  This gave us a very good way into questions of how groups form, group-think and logics of appropriateness, all of which are less evident when only playing one game.  This was in addition to more generic reflections on the influence of individual personalities on negotiations and the conflicting tensions of playing on two levels.

If there were downsides, then they would lie with the difficulties in observations.  I had to watch two games at the same time, with only one other person doing the same, instead of the usual situation of one game and a dozen observers.  Likewise, the capacity for individual players to consider what was happening across the room was limited, although I’d expect them to talk to each other outside of class about this.

Overall, I found it a useful experiment and I’d look to doing it again, especially with smaller games.  Having said that, this particular game is set to get a lot more involved next time around, with more roles and much less likelihood of being played in parallel, but that can wait for another post.

Student-Designed Review Games

As final exams approach, I thought I would share an excellent way to get your students to review for their exams.

Its not uncommon to use review games like jeopardy or trivial pursuit as a way of helping students in introductory courses to prepare for their exams.  A colleague of mine takes it to the next level though, and has the students design the review games themselves.  She puts them into small groups and gives them a class period of 1h20 to design the games.  Each group is assigned a chapter or two from the text and the associated material, and is told to design a 20 minute game for the class to play to review that material.  The group with the most creative game is awarded extra credit on the exam.

Some examples of the games they have played include:

-A musical chairs style game, where a rubber chicken in a bikini is thrown around while the music plays, and the person holding the chicken when the music stops has to answer a review question.

-‘Pin the UN on the Geneva”-students blindly try to pin a small model of the United Nations on a map of Europe; the country they land on (if not Switzerland, which presumably earns them a pass) determines the category of question they are asked.

-The Fly Swatter game–answers are posted on post its on the board; the class is divided into teams with a representative from each team at the board with a fly swatter.  When the question is asked, the first person to swat the correct answer wins the points.

-“Soaking Cotton Balls”–this messy game involved wet cotton balls that would be thrown at a dartboard, which determined the number of points awarded for a correct answer.

Variations on standards such as jeopardy, candyland, and trivial pursuit are also common, but the above examples show the creativity the students demonstrate.

There are lots of advantages to this system.  First, it makes the students responsible for their own review.  In preparing their game and the questions for it, they will in fact be studying for the exam.  Second, it makes the learning and reviewing process itself fun, which means that students will be more engaged in the review process during the games themselves. It ends the term (or provides a nice breather midway through) on a fun note. Finally, it saves a lot of work for the instructor, who might otherwise be preparing for and leading the review.

Getting some help in

Yesterday evening after class I had a long discussion with a student about the validity of different people’s opinions: the student felt that my opinion was worth more than that of his peers, because I was the teacher and “had more experience.”  This led into a rather “post-modern” (to quote my wife) discussion about the lack of objective truth and the value of all opinions.

I mention this because last week I took a group up to London to play a European Parliament simulation, at the EP’s UK office.  This is a development of a game I’ve played with students in Brussels, all organised by the EP.  Over the past years, I’ve found this has been an excellent opportunity to relate my class-based work to a more applied and specific context.  In addition, it has highlighted the value of expertise: Gergely Polner at the EP has been able to bring his extensive institutional knowledge to bear on the design of the game and its subject material.  Moreover, his network of contacts meant we were able to get a jury that included both EP officials and representatives from political groups, to give an insight that goes far beyond that which I personally could provide.  Coupled to some of the insights that the students gave into how particular issues might play out, everyone learnt something from the event.

The suggestion here is not that you beat a path to your local EP representation (helpful though they are), but to consider getting institutional buy-in from the organisations you might simulate: press offices abound; you or your colleagues have contacts.  It’s a relatively low-cost way for everyone to gain something useful (expertise, profile) and it underlines my ‘post-modern’ point about the value that different people can bring to the table.

Statecraft: A Simulation for International Relations

I’ve been meaning to write about Statecraft for some time. I was an alpha tester for the simulation last year and thus am very familiar with the team at Digital World Construction, the sim, and the development process.

Statecraft is “an immersive simulation that allows students to experience the challenges, opportunities, and complexities of international relations in a very vivid, intense, and personal way.”  Its based on a long standing pen-and-paper sim run by Dr. Jonathan Keller of James Madison University.

If you haven’t heard about it, check out the link above.  Basically students will play as teams representing fictional countries on a set map.  They have to manage their resources and wealth as well as various political factions in their countries, international organizations, military and diplomatic incursions from other countries, and natural disasters.  Its great fun for the students, and active learning at its best.  There’s a grading system incorporated into the sim, so the burden on the instructor is minimal (beyond, of course, providing the context via the concepts and theories of IR).  There is a fee of $25/student/course for the game, but if you consider the game as a ‘text’, that’s actually quite cheap compared to mainstream textbooks and readers. The sim can be used for classes as small as 7 or as large as needed.

If you’ve been thinking about using a sim in your class and don’t know how to go about creating one of your own, this would be a great choice.  My students loved it when they played, and that was before the onslaught of new changes which have really streamlined the gameplay and made the entire game more user-friendly.  If you are teaching intro IR in the spring, consider adding this to your syllabus.

Making the EU (a bit) simpler

A very recurrent comment from our students is that “the European Union is so complicated to understand”: and certainly, my impression is that colleagues across the sector rarely try to dispell this.  My opinion is simply that telling people something is complicated only puts up barriers to their understanding, so trying to develop a discourse about the ease of it all can only help.

With this in mind, I offer a small game that mimics many of the dynamics of Qualified Majority voting, as used in the Council of Ministers.  There are only ten players (although more can observe) and two issues, defined solely by numerical values.  However, the game does expose the various dimensions of power and the tension between individual and collective gains.  Playing it yesterday with students, we discussed how it was affected by their past behaviour in negotiations and about how the game would have run differently if there were several iterations and/or more opportunities for pay-offs (both of which would be simple to model in this set-up).  Certainly, it was rewarding to see how they managed to develop a negotiating framework that went well beyond the numbers on the sheet.

The game was purposed originally as a demonstration of the role of power in negotiations, but I’m going to be taking into my Intro to EU module in the spring, because I think it offers a different way into the subject and one that will help the students warm to it all, rather than shrink back in fear.