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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Annotation: how to look at a cartoon

This week in class I’ve been using the social annotation software Talis Elevate with students to help them understand what ecofascism is and some of its key features. This is a very important thing to do early on in a module about the politics of nature because ecofascist discourses, as well as materials that might draw unknowingly on some ecofascist tropes, are very common when we talk about nature and landscape. I therefore always want this acvitiy to be almost the first thing we do, so students can recognise and critique far-right narratives as soon as they encounter them. Before delving into the specifics of the exercise, though, I want to acknowledge that it was particularly difficult to talk about the antisemitic elements of ecofascism this week because of the unspeakable, horrific violence taking place in Israel and Gaza. Antisemitism is always hard to talk about, as are the other topics we touched on in class including racism more broadly, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and eugenics. But it was particularly tricky at a moment like this. I will try to write about the charged nature of our classroom conversations another time, when I have had chance to sit with them. For now the difficulty is simply worth noting, so I don’t give the impression that technical fixes like Elevate can enable us to avoid the complexity of some of the conversations that we nevertheless must have.

Returning to social annotation, though, what Elevate does is quite simple. It allows students to click anywhere in a text or an image to create a pin, to which they can add a comment. Students can agree and reply to each other and I can see the conversation as well as judiciously replying or agreeing too. Nothing is anonymous, so it has the feel of a classroom conversation, but it enables students to engage with the image together and in conversation outside of the class.

In this instance, I put a cartoon on Elevate that had previously gone viral among nature-lovers and others on social media and asked them to note any key features, discuss what is going on, what political ideas are being advanced and whether the ideology underlying the cartoon has a name. In the previous week’s work, we had done a reading that touched on ecofascism, so it shouldn’t have been a new concept for most students in the group.

You can see the full exercise and how last year’s students did with it in this video:

The beauty of using a cartoon like this is that it is very concrete and students could pull out lots of individual features of the image from the whiteness and size of the family in the foreground to their heteronormativity; from the implicit racism and homophobia of ideas about ‘shrinking cities’ to the eugenicist implications of the anti-vaccine and mask imagery; from the ableist assumptions to the antisemitic coded langauge. Having noted all these individual elements before class on Elevate, the classroom discussion itself then enabled us to bring them together, to understand how ideologies contain lots of disparate ideas, tropes and discourses, that together produce a vision of the world, and to make sure we would be on the alert to any one of these problematic ideas in future by understanding how they link to all the others. In keeping with my overall focus on what I want students to be able to do as a result of the class, I hope they will be able to recognise, describe and challenge ecofascism in future and quickly understand that it’s not a good thing to ‘like’ or ‘share’.

I’ll write more about my adventures in social annotation later in the term, especially if they work out. (As you can see in the video, I haven’t quite cracked when and how to use it, yet.) Let us know if you have used it yourself and have any thoughts about when it is, or isn’t, useful.

Getting on to BlueSky

Some sky

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

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

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

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

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

There are really only two difficulties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s about it.

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

“No to E! News red carpet events in the classroom!”

I struggle with technology in the classroom. And not in the “should I allow my students to use laptops or not” way. I am firmly in the camp that allows the use of laptops and tablets in my lectures. There is plenty of debate on this issue: some encourage it; others discourage it. There is no right answer, and ultimately how we handle this “problem” is up to each of us. My choice for laptops is largely based on my feeling like a hypocrite if I insist on pen and paper. I use my laptop/smartphone in my teaching, research, and just general existence. The last time I wrote by hand thank you cards, my hand started aching.

My struggle comes from the “appropriate” use of technology in the classroom. Or better: my students’ changing understanding of what is “appropriate”. Or better-better: What is my role in educating young adults on what is appropriate in the classroom regarding technology? Can I expect certain things? Or are we starting at zero?

I am fully aware that on their lists of priorities, attending my class with 100% devotion ranks relatively low: behind the lunch menu, their friends, weekend plans, and whether somebody texts them back. And yet, in the recent past I have encountered a myriad of strange situations in the classroom that required my intervention because students either forgot where they were or thought they could get lost in the anonymity of the crowd. I had to call out a student who was watching four (!) basketball games at the same time on a split-screen, another one for watching an E! News red carpet event during a group assignment, and another who was so furiously typing while we were watching something as a group that I had to inquire whether they were transcribing the clip (they immediately stopped when I said something). At a guest lecture I gave this week in hybrid form, the inviting professor muted me for a second to admonish two students for playing chess and watching soccer respectively on their screens: they hadn’t noticed that the angle of the zoom cameras in the lecture hall meant that their shenanigans were being projected to the big screen.

A newer contender in the distracting technology game is the rise of Air Pods and other small Bluetooth headphones. They disappear under a student’s hoodie or their hair. A colleague and I recently exchanged thoughts on that, and we both agreed that it is strange to tell students to take out their headphones…in class. And yet, we do it. Has the bar been lowered from “pay attention” to “don’t obstruct your only tool to hear”?

As a teacher I can prepare well for class, make sure the activities are pedagogically sound, and I can set clear boundaries of what the purpose of our classroom is. I do that at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and my laptop guidelines, which I reiterate in person. I encourage responsible and positive use, and I also highlight – hopefully in a not intimidating way – that in our learning community I can see what they do, just like they see what I do.

What I don’t want to do is play whack amole with Air Pods and E! News. This frustration that I harbor over the misuse of technology and the disregard for our shared learning space stands in odds with my aims of creating an open, inclusive, and comfortable learning environment. And I am not even certain if my frustration is appropriate as an educator. Even as I am writing this, I keep going back and forth on whether it is okay to be frustrated, whether I should be more understanding, whether my students need even more guidance on appropriate classroom behavior, whether I am too harsh or not harsh enough, and whether I should retrain my hand to write with a pen and demand the same of my students.

Maybe someone here will know how to fix all my problems. Perhaps cut off the Wi-Fi?