Challenging Opportunity Costs in Learning & Teaching

As befits a country that’s about to welcome the world, the weather has been particularly dismal here in England.  With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about economics, and particularly about the notion of opportunity cost.

At one level, this is an obvious truism in the observation that doing one thing means you’re not doing another, especially with its logical conclusion that there are no free lunches.  However, as we come to the end of a first year of this blog (more or less), I have been struck by the potential challenge this throws up.

When I tell people that I write a 400 word piece pretty much every week for this blog – and that I do the same for another blog in my School (which I heartily recommend) – they tend to look aghast, ask how much time this all takes and what the point is. Even when I explain that I have a slot in my calendar on the two days I arrive early at work and a post takes about 30 minutes, they still wonder whether I couldn’t be doing something “more useful” (usually undefined).

From my perspective, this is more useful for me.  It’s helped me get back into the habit of writing regularly, of testing out my thoughts and getting feedback, of laying down markers for future research: indeed, pretty much all the things we tell our students to be doing. Going back through the past year’s posts, I can see things that I want to revisit and things I’d like to write up, as well as links to resources that I might use during next academic year.  For an hour a week, that seems like a good deal to me, especially since I’d otherwise be dealing with some random paperwork or checking my Klout score (42, since you ask).

Economics talks about comparative advantage, optimising the resources and abilities one has available to maximise utility.  In Learning & Teaching we have gone some of the way towards that, setting out learning objectives in curricula and aligning teaching to maximise the chances of achieving them.  But it strikes me that sometimes we need to step back from utility maximisation and instead dwell on alternative utilities. In simulations, for example, I typically do not specific very closely what students should gain from a particular game, since I recognise that each person might get something very different, each of which might be of personal value: my priorities are not necessarily universal. As long as people can recognise what is important to them, then surely we should count that as a success.

So the summer break beckons, including a long trip to South East Asia. I’m going to miss posting again until late August, but I hope that I can bring back some new ideas for you. Until then.

The eBay of Education

In my post on the end of the university as we know it, I outlined the financially unsustainable system of higher education in the USA and how organizations like edX (the soon-to-launch amalgamation of MITx and Harvardx), Coursera, and Udacity offer low- to no-cost education to hundreds of thousands of students through open-source online content. I’ve since stumbled across two other platforms that deserve attention, Udemy and Alison.

Alison’s courses are free, but it uses advertising to generate revenue. The more traffic a particular course gets, the more Alison can charge for advertising on the course’s webpages, and instructors who have designed a course of their own supposedly get a share of that revenue. Students can also pay a fee to avoid advertising or to obtain certificates of course completion.

Udemy uses a different business model. There is no advertising. Some courses are free, while others aren’t. Udemy retains thirty percent of any tuition charged for a course; the instructor gets the remainder.  So Udemy has the potential of functioning as an auction system, similar to eBay, that determines the market clearing price for any course. Like carbon credit markets identify how much companies are willing to pay for the right to pollute, Udemy could reveal what students are willing to pay for instruction on a particular topic. My guess is that for most traditional universities — the ones without prestigious brands — tuition is priced higher than what this new market will bear. Unless universities figure out how to drastically cut costs, they will need to radically alter what happens in the physical classroom to convincingly demonstrate that there is value-added to being on campus. Climbing walls and French Fry Fridays aren’t going to do it — people can already access these products for much less off campus.

For people who want to learn for free, Udemy is a superior platform, simply because its pages aren’t cluttered with advertising. The same free content is often on both Udemy and Alison, as well as at the content’s original online location. If a person wants to watch Khan Academy videos for free, no one is going to choose to go to a website plastered with ads when they can watch them ad-free on Udemy or on Khan Academy’s YouTube channel.

One last note: according to this press release from MIT, of the 155,000 people from 160 countries who enrolled in MITx’s initial course this past spring, only 7,157  successfully completed it — a pass rate of less than five percent. That extremely low percentage signifies how difficult the course was and makes completion a very meaningful credential. Most universities, because of limits on enrollment and grade inflation, can’t provide students with a credential that is as meaningful.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

In the pedagogical battle between The Hunger Games, a book (and now film) by Suzanne Collins, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, the former is the clear winner.

Spoilers for both follow, so fair warning!

Background: I teach a course on Politics in Film and Fiction, which is based on the premise that we can learn about major political concepts by watching and reading non-political works of fiction.  Thus, the syllabus includes no documentaries or ‘political’ films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the closest we get to that genre is 12 Angry Men or Elizabeth.  I’ve used the Hunger Games in the class before, and having heard a similar plot was used in Battle Royale, I figured I would give it a shot.

Both works are about a group of kids forced to fight to the death in a game run by adults.  In Hunger Games (HG), this is a punishment given to outlying provinces for a rebellion, and acts as a tool of oppression.  In Battle Royale (BR), the punishment is aimed at an unruly youthful population who, due to high unemployment rates, are engaging in criminal activity. Both works are enjoyable on their own merits, with the gore content much higher in BR, but for teaching politics, HG stands superior.  Here’s why:

In choosing fiction for the classroom, we need to be sure that the political themes are present, relatively easy to spot, and worthy of lengthy discussion.  Showing an entire film to make a single point wastes the time of our students, as does giving them something so complicated that they need everything spelled out for them.  The sweet spot is the film or book that they enjoy on its own merits and also happen to learn something from.

BR is an enjoyable film at times, but the themes are rather muddled.  There is some interesting stuff on how people respond to authority and violence, and some great work on human nature (I particularly like the scene in the lighthouse, where four girls working happily together end up killing each other on the slightest suspicion of treachery).  But the role of government in what is happening is very weak.  Certainly they passed the original BR law mandating these contests, and they kidnap the students and maintain order–but beyond that we can only speculate as to what the role of the government is and the motivation behind these games. The battle is not televised; indeed, this crop of students had never heard of them.  The winners become fugitives when they return to Japan and are decried as murderers.  Thus there is no real connection between the world within the Battle and world outside, and its completely unclear as to how the BR will solve the problem it aims at.  The world in which BR takes place is simply ill defined, and that leaves us talking solely about events within the game, rather than the broader context of why the games exist at all.

This contrasts with HG, where the themes of oppression, rebellion, wealth inequality, and the role of the media and entertainment in politics are quite clear and consistent throughout, and thus allow us to talk about both what happens within the Games as well as the wider world in which they occur.  Viewing of the games is mandatory, and the participants are treated both as celebrities and prisoners.  Wealth inequalities play a crucial role, as poorer kids are more likely to be selected as tributes, poorer districts are unable to train their kids for the game like wealthier districts, and popular tributes receive expensive gifts during the games that can make the difference between life and death. And HG gives us the added dimension of seeing how the event impacts the wider world, with Katniss becoming a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

I use the HG book in the class (as usual, it is much better than the film) and will continue to do so.  I may show some scenes from BR to benefit from some of the interesting insights it has into social behavior, but overall, if you are looking for a good fictional work to help your students explore themes like revolution, wealth inequality, behavior in a state of nature, information control, and totalitarian governments, think about using either the HG book or film in class.

Lest auld acquaintance…

One of the very best things about contributing to this blog is the way that it has let me maintain contact with a great group of people who – in other times – I would have probably not heard from again: indeed, it’s fair to say that I struggle to keep up with most people I meet at conferences and workshops, except at later conferences and workshops.

This point is been underlined today by the simple fact that I’m meeting one of my fellow bloggers – Amanda – who’s here in the UK discovering some of the joys of Higher Education.  Despite not having see each other since APSA in February 2011, we have had this space to share ideas and maintain a community with colleagues.

“That’s very nice for you, Simon, but what’s it got to do with me?” I hear you ask. Three things spring to mind.

Firstly, it highlights the conditionality of interpersonal relations: not everyone gets on with everyone else. I’m going to guess that you have all met at least one person at an event with whom you would happily never have anything to do again.  Thus, when you do meet “people you can work with” then it’s worth building on that.  This is true both for students and academics, if we give any weight to peer-learning models (which we should).

Secondly, relationships need work.  Our group has been far-sighted (or at least fortunate) is not only having the blog, but also a project to produce a journal special issue on simulations (which we’re hoping to get out before too long).  These activities have given us good reason to talk with each other and to build our collective output.  Likewise, interaction without purpose doesn’t work: ask any student who doesn’t understand why they are doing a particular activity.  Sometimes, we create group tasks from students without really giving that meaning beyond the opportunity to work in groups (the classic here would be to have a seminar discussion without any scope for valorising that peer interaction). This is particularly true in situations without physical co-location.

Thirdly, learning shouldn’t be dull.  This is an enjoyable group of people to work with, which makes it very much easier to do.  Our interactions have allowed us to interact beyond our narrow starting point and have eased the way in following through on future projects.

So there you have it: keep up with those with whom you work well; find purposeful activities and; enjoy it.

Rocket Pitch Redux

In previous semesters I’ve tried without much success to get students to collaborate with each other online. In a moment of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” inspiration, I decided that this fall I will use the same rocket pitch presentations that I used in a spring semester course, but with a twist: teams of students will get 30 minutes of class time to put together their presentations. To prevent advance preparation, I will not list the dates of the rocket pitch competitions on the syllabus — I’ll make a surprise announcement at the beginning of class and see what the students can do.

That Which We Call a Rose…

I have a friend, a linguistics PhD, who on the first day of class completely memorizes all of her FIFTY students’ names.  She has them introduce themselves, and then without consulting her class list she runs through the names forward throw the rows, then  backwards, then has them change seats and does it again.  I call it her superpower.

I can’t do that, but I do learn all of my students names within two weeks of the course starting–although its much easier these days with my classes capped at 25 than it was when I too had 50 students and was still struggling by the time of the first exam.  I have lots of tricks for this, and could cite a number of pedagogical reasons for why learning the names of students is important, particularly when you want to engage in active learning techniques.

But this post is not about the merits of instructors learning the names of students.  Rather, I want to adovocate for forcing our students to learn the names of EACH OTHER.

This is my top pet peeve in the classroom–students engaging in discussion and debate in class after class with each other, and never knowing or using the names of their fellow students.  The implied lack of respect, the disengagement, the lack of true listening skills, and the focus on engaging with the professor directly rather than the group–all of it drives me bonkers.  In debate, students can go wrong in two ways: either they refuse to disagree with or criticize their peers out of politeness, fear of social ostracism, or shyness, or they end up disagreeing very loudly and openly, sometimes falling into the realm of personal attacks. Neither of these is productive.  Forcing them to know–and USE–each others names in the discussion opens up the classroom for true, respectful interaction.  It doesn’t guarantee it, but it does cut down on the ‘yeah, what HE said’ type of responses.

There are several ways to accomplish this.  First, reinforce names by using them yourself in class, and when students respond to each other and say ‘he’ or ‘she’, gently correct them with the name.  This by itself establishes the norm, but does not usually help them learn the names.  Thus we turn to everyone’s favorite type of game: the ice breaker.  In the first class, don’t have students introduce themselves one by one, but play one of the standard games: have them chat with a neighbor for 2 minutes and then introduce each other, or do a person-based BINGO game, or stand in a circle, and everyone has to offer their name with a theme-based adjective (eg, I’m Sporty Simon” or “Charming Chad”) and repeat all the names of everyone before them.  Pick your favorite, as juevinile as you like, but just be clear with the students as to WHY you are doing this, and keep reinforcing the lesson as the semester goes on.  Finally, you can always take advantage of our secret weapon: extra credit.  Offer the students a few points of extra credit if they can put a name to everyone in the class.  That will quickly motivate them more quickly than any of the above!

Location is Everything

Sometimes something as simple as changing our environment can make a big difference in our teaching.  I’ve experienced this twice over this summer in two completely different ways.  First I’ve traded out (too) sunny, (too) hot St. Louis for cool and rainy London, via an exchange program at my university that allows me to teach at our campus here.  The two classes (sorry, ‘modules’) I’m offering are both repeats for me, but they have been sincere creative challenges.  Adapting to a new location required a lot of reflection on my courses and how well they would meet the needs of a different set of students.  Turns out, they required quite a bit of revision: classes here meet for four hours, not two; six weeks rather than sixteen; and Americans are the minority nationality.  Usually I find myself using American politics examples to keep my St. Louis students in familiar territory, and often have to criticize the US to generate their critical thinking skills; here, I had to avoid the too-easy American example, and found myself in the odd position of defending the US to challenge the constant critical stream from my students.  Combine this with learning new technology systems, administrative tasks, and a new campus and city, and its been as much a learning experience for me as my students.  Changing it up a bit in terms of my personal location has done wonders for reinvigorating my teaching.

For the classroom, too, it can make a difference.  Forcing the students to get up and actually move their desks may be a chore, but the physical environment does affect the way students interact in the classroom.  In  groupwork, make the students get up and move their desks so they face each other and are physically separated from other groups.  If playing a game, make them move all the chairs to the side so they can’t stay seated and thus avoid interaction.  And in discussion, sit in a circle (yes, us too) so that they are forced to talk to each other, rather than individually interacting with the professor.  Better yet, if the class is small enough, change the environment entirely and move out of the classroom.  An informal setting at a cafe, park, or study room can shock students out of the classroom norms and get them to really engage with each other.

I was lucky enough to have a small graduate class this summer, just five students after the first class.  This is a discussion-based seminar, so the next class, a sunny day, we sat outside on the campus lawn.  I drew on the back of a sheet of paper when the blackboard would have been used (later I borrowed a student’s Ipad.  I need one of those!).  From then on, we met at the cafe on campus.  The informal setting helped the students relax and they ended up talking to each other, rather than to me–and this never prevented me from taking control of the conversation as needed.  It also made asking ‘hey, what do YOU think?’ seems less of an instructor’s demand for participation than a normal, conversational request for the quiet person’s thoughts.

Driven to Abstraction

I’m deeply conscious that after last week’s post about this being quiet time, I’ve since worked non-stop on a big pile of things: first rule of negotiation, don’t reveal your hand.  Consequently, I find myself today in Norway, teaching at the European Integration Summer School at the University of Agder, where I’ve been playing games with a great bunch of students.

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching with simulations and games is the variety of experiences you get to encounter; no two runs of a game are the same.  And that’s been true here too.

As ways into understanding the logics of the EU’s Council and the European Parliament, I played two short games that I had previously designed for my negotiation course.  The first was a two-level game, where countries have to cut public spending, while the second required players to find a qualified majority on values for a pair of issues (essentially a pareto-optimising type activity).

In both cases, the games broadly worked and led into some useful discussion of the institutions concerned.  However, it was also apparent that each game needed some refinement to meet their purpose in this context.

In particular, the second game was too abstract to make immediate sense.  Usually, abstracting is a useful device in such situations, because it removes some of the normative positioning found in political negotiation, as well as forestalling the need to model many more aspects of a given institution.  In this case, rather than set up an entire EP committee, I wanted to bring out the logic of cooperating with others players with similar positions, rather than from the same country, as well as the benefits of organised bargaining.

Instead, I spent a long time answering questions about what was happening, what should happen and the rest.

The solution has been rather simple, now that I’ve reflected on it: make it less abstract.  Instead of Issue 1 and Issue 2 (each of which needs a value agreed for it), it’s now about how much spending on animal research should there be, made up of spending on Cats and spending on Dogs.  This makes much more instinctive sense, my instructions much shorter and hopefully the whole game much more playable.

So two key lessons.  Firstly, always be ready to change your teaching in the light of experience.  Secondly, remember that abstraction is a double-edged sword.

Instructional Design: Online and Face-to-Face Are Not So Different

On Monday, two of my annual online courses start. I’m also in the midst of designing websites for blended (a.k.a. hybrid) and web-enhanced courses that will begin in the fall semester. Every year I see the firewall between the traditional face-to-face classroom and the online environment disappear a little bit more. Now I’m recognizing that instructional design for online teaching is essentially the same as that for the traditional course.

Articulate.com (I have no financial interest in the company) has a great blog on effective instructional design for  e-learning. The blog has a ton of useful information, such as what we can learn from Post-It™ Notes. Everyone has had the experience of unbearably long training sessions that present reams of complex information in minute detail (academics excel at this). Once we return to our work space, we write the instructions that we really need on a cheat sheet or Post-It Note and stick it somewhere that’s easy to see. Sometimes the process has an intermediate step: stopping at a colleague’s office on the way back from the training session to ask, “how do I do this?”

Tom Kuhlmann, author of the Rapid E-Learning blog, recommends that we keep five simple principles in mind when creating any instructional activity:

  • Determine the objectives
  • Select the information that will help meet them
  • Organize it in a manner that makes sense to the learner
  • Create a learning experience for the learner to practice using it
  • Provide feedback to the learner

These principles lend themselves to course design according to a simple table: create a row for each activity students encounter in a course and five columns with these headings:

  • Learning Objective(s)
  • Assigned Content/Necessary Resources
  • Organization/Delivery Method
  • How Practiced or Applied?
  • Assessment and Feedback

If you can’t easily identify how an activity meets all five criteria, then it’s probably not as pedagogically useful as you initially assumed.

When is the right time to review your teaching provision?

I’m just about to enter that most mystical of times for an academic; the quiet time, when relatively little is urgent and the mind can turn to the long list of ‘priorities’ that have been neglected since the last quiet time.

One of the potential priorities (you see how ephemeral the notion of ‘quiet’ can be) is reviewing my teaching provision for the coming year.  Rather than just getting on with it, I’m moved to write this post, since it seems pertinent: just when should we be doing this?

Last week, I was marking a big pile of final exams, a surprisingly stimulating time for me to be thinking about what had (and hadn’t) worked in that module, as well as what questions I might ask next year.  In the end, I decided to focus on getting my marking done, since that was more urgent, but I’ve got some notes to work from.

Likewise, in preparing for a summer school next week (this time is getting less and less quiet by the minute), I found a game that I had run last November and then immediately re-written for next November.  I re-wrote it again for the summer school, then re-wrote it once more for next November, in light of the ideas I’d had in the second re-writing.

I also know that come September, I’ll be asked for module handbooks, so I’ll be spending a block of time specifying what I’m planning to do, although I also know that I often don’t know what I want to do (precisely) until I’m in the classroom on the day.

The difficulty largely seems to be one of integrating our living ideas about what we will/might do with the relatively rigid structures of HE quality assurance.  In the UK, at least, we can’t decide to chop and change assessment at the last minute (or even a long time before that last minute), so we have to take educated guesses about how things will/might work.  One answer might be to build a living module handbook for oneself, containing not only the information for students, but also the lecture notes, OHPs, activities, resources, etc. that are needed to run the module, all in a form that can be instantly updated.

The downside of this is the start-up cost, not least in the conceptualising of what is necessary to include, but it’s something for me to think about during this quiet time.  Doing it might – sadly – become one of those ‘priorities’ I mentioned.