Building community with students

Today, I’m eating sausage butties [for American readers, like a hot dog, but Britisher] to help develop our learning community. This is the second of our breakfast chats with undergraduate students this semester, designed to provide another channel for talking in a more informal setting.

The idea is that builds on our frequent observation that students often appear to be concerned about talking with us about how things are going. Naturally, we use all the conventional mechanisms that one finds in a British university – boards of study, staff-student liaison committees, individual personal tutor meetings and the like – but still that doesn’t seem to cover the gap.

In particular, as the person responsible for handling all applications for extenuating circumstances (e.g. extensions on coursework submission or non-attendance due to illness), I find that in almost all cases that do get to me, I find myself explaining that claiming extenuation isn’t a sign of weakness. I often have the impression that students think we keep a list of ‘troublemakers’ or talk about ‘problem students’ with our eyes a-rolling.

To be clear, we don’t: instead, we have a very strict process, designed to ensure confidentiality of information and equity of treatment for all applicants for extenuation.

The issue is that evidently we have students who don’t even get to applying. In the cases I know about [sic], that seems to be because of fears about ‘getting an unfair advantage’ or hesitancy about talking to us at all. This means that a perfectly valid mechanism to support their studies is closed off to them.

Hence the breakfast. We spend a lot of time trying to build community and to show students that we’re just people. If we can demonstrate that we are friendly and approachable, then we’re more likely to be approached.

Naturally, it doesn’t help with those students who don’t come to anything we organise, but that’s a different story. Breakfast now beckons, so wish me luck with my social skills.

We Ain’t Got No Badges

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) recently received regional accreditation for an online, competency-based associate’s degree priced at $5,000, which the university plans to launch in January. Competency-based bachelor’s degree programs are also under development.

SNHU’s business model emphasizes convenience for students, who can complete SNHU’s 180 degree programs through courses taken entirely online, on campus, or as a mix. You can watch one of its tv commercials here. (Please note that I do not have any financial relationship with SNHU.)

Competency-based degree programs have the potential of making higher education even more convenient for people with work and family commitments, because they separate the credentialing of skill and knowledge acquisition from time spent sitting in a classroom — the traditional credit hour — as an approximation of academic progress. Given the high cost of post-secondary education in the USA, is probably a good thing.

There are plenty of people who argue that standardized tests that purportedly measure competency do not assess how well students have learned to create, communicate, and analyze new ideas. But does the credit hour actually do this? Rampant grade inflation and the complaints from employers about empty-headed job-seekers suggest otherwise, as does the widespread acceptance of a need for licensing exams for plumbers, electricians, physicians, lawyers, nurses, and public school teachers.

So the interesting question for me is one that relates to the previous posts of my colleagues: is education best delivered as a contact sport, and if so, should the model be cricket or paintball? If one can gain competency at a lower cost by not sitting in a certain number of classrooms for a certain number of hours, and one can get that competency certified in a manner that is widely recognized outside of the university, then some people will choose to play golf.

Learning CAN be a Contact Sport

Simon recently discussed the issue of contact hours with students in the classroom and how that is held up as a benchmark for particular institutions.  One critique he pointed out is that this allows little time for the self discovery students do outside the classroom; I wish to point out a second, which is how valuable co-curricular activities can be to the learning process.  This can include relevant talks, lectures, and conferences as well as experiential pieces like Heifer Ranch, but can also be something much more simple.

Like Paintball.

I am teaching a first year seminar this semester, a required general education course for all freshmen designed around skills rather than content.  The subject matter is at the discretion of the instructor and thus opens doors to courses on Harry Potter, zombies, baseball, tea, marriage, or, in my case, World of Warcraft.

The class has a lot of neat components–they play the game as part of the class; they do creative projects based on the game; and they earn experience points and levels instead of grades.  But the class faces the same problem that I mentioned last week in the Heifer class--that while to me, the class is innovative and intrinsically interesting, to them its just another class.  Escaping this attitude may not be necessary, but creating buy-in when you are trying to do something outside the norm very well might be.

With this class the biggest struggle has been generating a feeling of connection amongst the students and between them and myself.  Discussions dragged, even on a topic like a video game they all play.  Investment in the course seemed low.  My frustration was very high, as I usually have very little trouble engaging students in the material.  Secretly I worried whether my own flagging interest in the game was coming through despite my best efforts.

To shake things up, I scheduled three events: an in-game run of Warsong Gulch, a battleground where two teams try to capture each others’ flag; a ‘real life’ version of Capture the Flag (actually, capture the Build-a-Bear stuffed animal) on the quad; and paintball.  Each successive event has done wonders for generating the buy-in and camaraderie that I wanted to create in the class.  A class that used to be silent when I walked in is now talking and laughing, making plans outside of class and working together on projects.

The key, I think, is not simply having outside of class activities or events, but instead the focus on team sports.  In each of the three events, real and virtual, they had to work together and communicate as a team in order to play and be effective at their task.  Playing three different types of games also helped because they spoke to different skill sets–some of the best online gamers were useless at Capture the Flag, while some of the best runners had terrible aim in Paintball.  Each of them thus got a chance to excel and showcase their talents and feel like a valued part of the group.

I also think it helped that I always played with them (for the record, I’m okay at paintball, pretty good at Warsong Gulch, and awful at Capture the Flag).  For awhile they could forget that I was their teacher and see me as another teammate or competitor.  One of my quietest students and I got into a shootout at paintball this week.  Although I eventually won (ie, killed him) one of his teammates quickly avenged him and we were able to laugh and tell tales of our exploits to the rest of the group when the game was over.

While for this class it makes sense to play these kinds of wargames, as they led to conversations about comparing the virtual and real worlds (a major topic in the class), it may be worth thinking about how learning can be a contact sport and how we can translate out-of-class activities into making our classes run more smoothly.

Learning isn’t a contact sport

Here in the UK, we increasingly worry about contact with our students, about the simple question of how much time do we spend with them in class or supervision.

The driver of this has been the introduction by the government of Key Information Sets (KIS) which provides basic metrics for each and every programme offering in England and Wales: here’s a typical one for a programme that I’ve randomly picked out of nowhere.

As you’ll see, it has a worthy aim at heart: to provide benchmarks for what a student can expect, in terms of costs, teaching delivery and career prospects. Equally obviously, I am going to question the utility of this data.

Firstly, it assumes that aggregated performance of previous cohorts holds some resemblance to the individual performance of future students. Spending, as I do, a lot of time with individual students and their specific learning requirements, I am dubious about the proposition, especially when I consider how the demographics of our current intake looks very different to the students we recruited three or four years ago (who data you now see).

Secondly, it mixes programme-, School- and University-level data, in ways that are not immediately apparent and which again do not give an applicant a meaningful understanding of what things are like. That’s why we invite all our applicants for a day on campus, so that they can make up their own minds.

But it is the third issue that I would like to develop.  One of the metrics is the percentage of ‘time spent in lectures, seminars or similar’, as compared to independent study.  The discourse around this (across the HE sector, I should point out) is that more contact time is A Good Thing.

Certainly, for subjects where lab work is an essential element, it’s easy to see the logic behind this. But for social sciences, much of what we are doing is developing students’ abilities to be self-reflective and critical thinkers, who are able to articulate their own views. In part, this requires opportunities to do that articulation (be it through discussion, or coursework), but it also requires time for students to pursue self-study, in order to begin to know their own mind.

If we want to build students’ self-reliance, then surely we also want to be giving them space to self-organise. This might seem a forlorn hope at times, but over-structuring of time can be counter-productive to initiative.

Ultimately, there is an irony that while observers and league tables might value more contact time, students actually on the programme often don’t treat it as such: despite offering a time-efficient way to get into issues and debate, there are always students who see it either as a distraction or as an irrelevance. Perhaps if we can understand that better, then we might be able to make the most of however much contact time we have.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Like many people who teach undergraduate students, I get a visceral reaction when one of them asks for “extra credit”  opportunities. It’s always a student who won’t even do the bare minimum of what’s assigned in the syllabus. Recently I noticed I was getting the same reaction to colleagues who were encouraging me to me to award students extra credit for attending the lectures of invited speakers. I believed that students should be intrinsically motivated to go to these talks and that rewarding attendance communicated the message that they could safely pay less attention to the real work of reading and writing in my courses. So my usual response, whether spoken aloud or not, was no, this is not going to result in extra credit.

Then I realized that my reaction was the product of an emotional attachment to what I believed the world should be rather than the world that actually exists. I and my course are not what’s most important in my students’ lives, no matter how much I think they should be. And most people retain very little of what they encountered as undergraduates anyway.

Who better for students to learn from than people who are actual practitioners of what I and others teach? Many of my students were trained throughout elementary and high school to think that learning entails nothing but writing definitions on worksheets handed out by a teacher. They need to see the real world applications and consequences of the ideas that they are presented with in the classroom. And if a lecture is a waste of their time because the speaker is an idiot, they need to be able to explain why.

In future semesters, my syllabi will include assignments in which students write about the connections between what they are doing in my courses and what they hear at lectures outside of class. Given the number of speakers who come to campus every semester, it should not be too difficult for students to find two or three lectures to attend. For students who work or have other commitments in the evenings, I can just add some additional reading and writing assignments and include them when calculating grades. Everyone will be doing more work and, I hope, taking more responsibility for their own learning.

My Real World Survivor Experience

I recently returned from a trip to Heifer International’s Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas as part of my experimental new course called Real World Survivor: Experiencing Poverty through Heifer Ranch. After learning about the issues captured by the UN Millennium Development Goals, we–14 college students, 6 local high school students and 8 assorted faculty and staff–headed to Heifer to live in their Global Village for a three day simulation on hunger and poverty. The upper level course is team taught by myself, a philosopher, and an education professor and is the prototype for the interdisciplinary keystone courses that will cap our new general education program.

There are so many things I want to comment on now that we are more than halfway through the class:  How fascinating, enriching and frustrating it is to team-teach with two other faculty, especially with an entire university community watching.  The benefits of working in an environment where courses like this can be developed and put into action in less than a year, coupled with the aggravations of getting paid very little for a lot of work.  The challenge of trying to intentionally incorporate six different skills into the course assignments and assessments. Handling the differing expectations of teachers and students, where the teachers see the course as New, Innovative, and Fundamentally Crucial to the University’s Mission, and the students see it as ‘that class I have on Wednesday evening.’ The new research questions about community development and experiential learning that are running rampant in my head. The joys of watching students handle living in hunger and poverty for three days and come out the other side stronger as individuals and a community–at least for now.  And most importantly: how I managed to sleep on the abandoned school bus rife with hornet nests that served as my ‘home’ during the simulation.
In the coming weeks I plan to comment on all of the above as I think my experience with this course really illustrates the challenges and benefits of building an entire course around active learning principles.

Horses, water, learning

A hardy perennial of staff common room debate is how far to support students in their learning. Put differently, how student-centred should student-centred learning be?

This usually arises because a student (or group of students) either doesn’t avail themselves of the support on offer (e.g. for dissertation supervision) or doesn’t take part in group discussions in class.

If we accept that students have to be at the centre of the learning process and that we – as educators – are there to support, not to ‘teach’, then that requires that students are active and engaged actors. If not, then we are into the realm of failure and its pedagogic value.

My personal feeling is that mistakes and failure are valuable learning moments, since they stick in the mind rather well. Certainly, that is one of the great values of using simulations, since they often contain ‘unsuccessful’ options and even ‘success’ is very rarely ambiguous. But that value can only be realised if there is a process of reflection: why did I fail? how am I going to avoid it next time?

Too often, failure results solely in punishment and hinderance, rather than additional support, certainly at an institutional level: many universities that I know in the UK are tightening regulations to strongly limit the scope for any failure of assessment.

Ultimately, it would seem to boil down to what is reasonable. If we present a system of support that helps students to learn – including mechanisms to monitor engagement, intervene to help in times of difficulty and opportunities to reflect on success and failure – then that is as far as I feel we should go.

No student should be able to ‘buy’ a qualification simply by dint of paying their tuition fees: that merely gives them a seat in the room and access to the support we provide. Like the proverbial horse, if they choose not to drink, then as long as we have taken them to the water, then we cannot – and should not – do more.


When I was a doctoral student, I once spent several weeks teaching Asian history to teenagers at Barrack Obama’s former high school. I vowed never again to put myself in the position of having to prep for class at 1:00 a.m. five nights a week. This is why I’m already tinkering with syllabi for the courses I’ll be teaching in the spring.

In comparative politics, I’m going to repeat my experiment with modular architecture, but I’ve removed the globalization theme — the topic has morphed into an entirely separate course, and conveniently I’ll be able to some of the material I put together last year.

I’m also going to continue using rocket pitch competitions, but with individual rather than group presentations. I’ve noticed that teams of students haven’t figured out how to productively generate a presentation — they tend to share tasks equally across all members of the team, rather than delegate and let people utilize their strengths. The end result is four students standing in the front of the room alternately talking (this is despite my use of Shark Tank as an example of what not to do).

Based on my colleague’s recommendation, part of the final grade will be based on the student’s quality of failure. Here is the syllabus language I’m using, based on what was published in the original Inside Higher Ed column:

This course requires realizing that progress requires curiosity, risk-taking, and failure. Making a mistake leads to the question “Why was that wrong?” and by answering this question, we are better able to develop new insights and eventually succeed. You’ll need to fail regularly to do well in this course because part of your final grade is based on your “quality of failure.” At the end of the semester, you’ll need to write a 2-3 page double-spaced essay analyzing your failures, why they occurred, and what you have learned from them. Your essay must conclude with an assessment of the learning you have gained through your mistakes in the course (a grade that ranges from 0 – meaning “I never failed” or “I learned nothing from failing” to 10 – meaning “I learned in new and creative ways from my failures”).

The Digital Natives Are Not Restless

Somewhat related to Simon’s post about the use of new social media: Hurricane Sandy unexpectedly provided me with experimental environment in which to test student use online communication platforms. I’m currently teaching online courses for our master’s degree program in international relations. I have students on at least three continents and in who knows how many countries. Some reside locally and lost electrical power during the storm. A few might have evacuated to higher ground. Yet all of them were in communication with each other and me through the course websites, email, and phone. Assignments were submitted in a timely fashion even though I announced an extension of deadlines due to the weather.

I’m also teaching three traditional face to face undergraduate courses. All of these courses had tasks that could have or should have been completed using either the online Canvas LMS or the Statecraft simulation. Only six of my students submitted anything. I thought this was especially odd for the thirty-five students who are using Statecraft, since a new turn in the simulation began at 9:00 a.m. yesterday morning. Although classes were canceled, students were in the residence halls and the campus network remained operational. It appears that many undergraduates — at least at my university — still think of an education as something that is dependent on a physical classroom. While these students are quite happy to socialize via text message, they are not effective at using digital communication tools for other purposes. My older students — whose occupations frequently require problem solving  — are much more capable of operating in a globalized electronic environment.

Using New Social Media in Learning & Teaching

Last week, my colleagues and I presented to our Faculty on the School of Politics’ use of new social media (NSM) in our learning & teaching. This covered our work with Twitter, Facebook and blogging, plus some brief excursions into wikis.

The aim of the event was both to share our experiences and to reflect on the utility of NSM, since it remains a relatively new field for all involved.

Our Facebook page for the School has been very useful indeed for connecting with current students, alumni as well as future students and applicants. It provides a relatively stable place to post information about events and news, as well as connecting to colleagues’ research. 

In contrast, our Twitter feeds allow us a much more high-tempo channel of communication. The School’s channel is a site for joining up other users and the Facebook page, especially for reminders of events. Myself and most colleagues (such as Jack Holland) run individual accounts, where we hashtag posts for individual modules and events. For the former, it has been a good way to stimulate debate outside of the classroom, to share resources and to connect teaching to the real world.  For the latter, it has proved a particularly good way of getting in questions during public debates and for sharing those in real time with other people (e.g. our event last week was tagged as #FAHSLT).

Blogs serve a somewhat different market, mainly being aimed at academic colleagues and practitioner groups. Our two Surrey blogs (Politics @ Surrey and Cii), plus my own postings here on ALPS, allow us to post relatively timely contributions to topical debates, connect with new communities and try out new ideas for more substantial research projects.

Overall, we would argue that NSM has brought a number of basic benefits:

  • It offers a much more speedy and timely way of engaging in discussion, with all our users, allowing us to shape those discussions in a way that was very difficult beforehand;
  • It offers huge potential for synergies between teaching and research, as well as programme administration and marketing activities;
  • Finally, it extends our reach and profile well beyond what we could have achieved with old media channels.

However, it is also important to reflect on the costs involved:

  • Time costs are substantial, since NSM is predicated on constant interaction and the creation of new content. This requires many hours a week, however it is spread across individuals;
  • Personnel costs are also significant, especially if the different channels are to interact with each other. We have been very lucky to have a 0.5FTE post for the past two years working on this, which has meant we can constantly update sites, cross-link materials and generally encourage others to contribute;
  • Finally, NSM has the potential for serious reputational costs. We talk with students (and colleagues) about netiquette and the boundary between public and private. Usually that works, but sometimes not, so again that requires management of individuals. Just as good news can be spread very quickly, so too can criticism.

With all this in mind, the three basic questions to ask if you are a unit thinking of getting into NSM (and they are still relatively rare) are:

  • Is it worth it for you to do this?
  • Can you get it started? i.e. are there enough people who will be bothered enough to get over the initial hurdles?
  • Can you keep it going? Nothing is worse that a NSM account that’s not touched for a few months, so you have to have people who can generate content, week after week.