(Very) asynchronous online negotiating

Relevant time-keeping device

As I’ve mentioned before, part of my new role involves designing a negotiation exercise of an online, asynchronous programme.

This presents a number of rather basic problems, so consider this a bit of my attempt to try and work them out.

First up is the asynchronicity.

A fundamental part of negotiating is interaction, so if you can’t do that there-and-then, you have to deal with a major challenge. In this case, our usual cycle for students is a week, within which we set work for them to fit around their other commitments. Since most of our students are working, or have other major life obligations, that means it’s really hard to ask for anything speedier.

Even if most could turn things around in a matter of days, we can’t be certain that everyone can, so those not able to would suffer in the exercise.

Secondly, there a debrief issue.

The materials we produce are intended to be used for several years: our role is relatively separate from delivery, as our system of associate lecturers handle most of the pedagogic queries and support. If we accept that negotiation must have debriefing (and I certainly do), then how do we fit that into this system? Is it my work, or associates’, or do we have some generic points to reflect upon, and how would any of these models operate?

Finally, we have the tiny question of scale.

I don’t know how many students will be using this exercise in any given presentation (as we call our delivery), so I need a negotiation that can cope with both a large number of participants and a varying number of participants. Our plans say 80, but that’s neither here nor there, except in the most general of terms.

Oh, and I have to assume none of the students will have any prior experience in negotiating.

So what to do?

I’ve been working around some different abstracted options for a while to handle all of this, and it might be useful to consider these for a while. They vary by how much of a ‘negotiation’ they involve, since that interaction issue strikes me as the most fundamental one.

Obviously, the starting model is a set-up where there is direct student-to-student negotiation: it’s prototypical and best allows them to develop practical skills. But it needs much time, much support and debrief. Plus you have to work out roles.

So maybe you could have instead a ‘negotiation’ with an automated interlocutor: a ‘chose-your-own-adventure’ approach, effectively, but with a computer programme rather than a paper-based text. It can be played individually, paths/outcomes are fixed so feedback is easy, but it’s not so very much like actual negotiating.

A different direction would be to ask students to do the prep work for a negotiation: drawing up negotiating briefs, setting out positions and the like. This is crucial part of negotiating, so it’s prototypical, but without the pointy end of testing out ideas. It’s more manageable for support and debrief, but probably isn’t as engaging.

And most distantly of all, you could ask students to study a real-world negotiation, through the lens of some theory. That’s also a good skill to learn, but it’s not so hands-on as any of the others.

In short, it’s a world of compromises.

For our purposes, we really want to build practical skills, so we’re currently closest to the first option: the ‘proper’ negotiation. As we often discuss here, the purpose of the exercise needs to be clear to you and to the student, otherwise it’s pointless making choices. In that sense, having the discussion with the rest of the team was an essential step in moving this on.

My tentative model right now looks like the following, working within the constraints I have.

In my 4 week block for this, and alongside other work they need to do, I’m planning to give students a crash course in how to negotiate (week 1); two (and maybe three) rounds of negotiating (weeks 2-4); and some debriefing (week 4).

The block topic is international challenges to political stability, so I’ll be using a climate change topic as the substantive focus, which also allows me to use a UNFCC-style format, with a couple of hundred roles that I can allocate to individuals. Those roles will have an order, so we start by populating key representative states (in terms of the different preferences) and then work through to everyone else, so we can accommodate the varying numbers. Probably that means making a generic position pack, plus some headlines for each role, with some requirement to expand on that through their own research.

The training would be some materials on practical negotiating, plus an option to download a small crisis game, to play offline with friends/family or even just to muse upon.

The main section would then require students to post positions/text on a forum each week, ideally to build a single text for final approval. This will require relatively simple technology, but does rely on students to be able to build coalitions and engage in discussion, which will be an issue for some.

To keep debrief viable, we’d probably need to start with a draft text – to keep things within relatively clear bounds – then provide cues to students to aid their own reflection, with some debrief points that could track key issues within the draft. This should make it more possible to keep associates on top of what’s gone on.

And that’s about as far as I’ve got on this.

There are lots of practicalities to work through, at all steps, but we think the basic design is viable. As I work through those, I’ll write more, but I’d love to hear thoughts.

What You Think Depends On Where You Stand

Our superb librarians survey students and faculty annually. Results from this year’s survey are in. Student responses to one of the questions:

Faculty responses:

Notice that the frequencies of responses from these two groups are essentially mirror images of each other. Students are extrinsically motivated by grades, so they think in instrumental terms: I need correctly formatted citations and the specified minimum number of sources. Otherwise my grade will be negatively affected. Knowing whether a source is reputable is far less important. Faculty think the reverse: the ability to locate scholarly source material and analyze information for bias matters most.

I have tried to solve this problem in the past, and could not find a satisfactory solution. Consequently, I have focused more on curating quality content for student to consume than on marking down students because of their reliance on websites that are top-listed in Google searches. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I decided to stop assigning traditional research papers.

Given the survey results though, the problem extends far beyond my small corner of the curriculum. I’m not going to solve it independently.

Readers might find these other posts on information literacy skills to be of interest:

The Methods Silo Effect and Fixing Poor Research Skills

Googling

Write Your Own Headlines Activity

Op-Ed Writing Workshop

The Virginia USA chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network is sponsoring a free online op-ed writing workshop on Wednesday, October 20, 3:30 – 5:00 pm. This workshop is a hands-on training for scholars who want to learn how to write and pitch compelling, research-based op-eds. Participants will learn how to craft a good lead, identify and incorporate timely news hooks, signal the author’s unique and relevant expertise, increase the likelihood of publication, and structure an op-ed for maximum impact. Participants are asked to come prepared with an idea for an op-ed in mind; they will be guided through shaping their idea into a first draft.

Registration form and additional details are here.

Personal note: as the author of occasional op-eds for local and national publications, I know first hand the benefits of being able to write for a non-academic audience.

Long (educational) Covid

That should do it…

Being of now of an age where I have a growing parental interest in higher education, as my kids get close to making applications, you might understand my worries about what the coming years might bring for universities.

Even if – and it is ‘if’ – we have got on top of containing the worst of Covid in the global North, the impacts of the past two years will be felt for a long time yet.

Most obviously, there is the shift in practice that we’ve discussed and debated at great length: more online, more hybrid, systems that can allow for increased flexibility in matters of co-location. I’ve yet to see an institution that has not sought to embed all that Zooming/MS Teams-ing/Blackboarding into their work patterns on a more standing basis.

That’s all fine, as long as those same institutions can keep their minds on the project and not drift back to the ‘good old days’ of putting research first: these new models demand more of students, staff and universities as a whole, so assuming that it’s just like before will be a recipe for growing problems.

But Covid has also created a long tail of issues elsewhere.

To return to my starting point, admissions for the next several cycles will be out of kilter. The huge disruption for the past two cycles from both changes in school-level grading and in deferrals cannot be smoothed out overnight.

Even if the issues are more pronounced in the UK – where school-leavers have been given teacher-based grades, resulting in much grade inflation that the government wants to crawl back, and where a demographic bubble is working through too – it’s also to be found in other countries. All of us will find that our plans on promoting diversity in our HE student population will come under more strain.

Of course I’m aware that of all the people facing these challenges, my kids will have a head-start on multiple fronts, but if our teaching is to mean anything then it has be about helping others to achieve their full potential, so it’s on all of us to reflect upon – and to act to address – how this plays out.

Business is very much not as usual.

Collecting Data From Students

As previously discussed, this semester I am attempting to research whether metacognitive exercises improve students’ learning — as measured by exam scores. My class completed the first survey and exam. A few initial impressions about the data and the process of collecting it:

Eighteen students completed the pre-exam survey a total of twenty-seven times. Two students submitted responses three times each. This demonstrates the importance of requiring that students include some kind of identifying information when they complete the survey, so that duplicate submissions can be removed from the data set.

I suspect the survey data are skewed because of above average effect or subject bias. By coding the responses from 1 to 5, with 1 being “never” and 5 being “always,” the highest possible sum score from the ten survey questions is 50. The average for this survey was 40. I doubt students actually engaged in the study strategies referenced in the survey as frequently as they said they did.

The average total score on the exams five multiple choice questions was 7.7 out of 10. Given the small sample and the nature of the data, a statistical analysis that compares these scores against survey responses isn’t meaningful, but I did run a correlation in Excel, which resulted in a very non-impressive r of -0.12.

The exams in this course are extremely low stakes — the first and second exams are worth 25 points each, and the final exam is worth only 40 points, out of more than 1,000 points available from all graded items. That might have affected how diligent students were in studying for the exam.

Given the small size of the class and the usual host of possible confounding variables, I can already guess that I won’t be able to identify a relationship between the metacognition surveys and students’ exam performance. Repeatedly asking students about their study techniques might help them learn more, but I’m not going to be able to demonstrate it.

Back up, back up

It’s been one of those days when major portals have been on the blink, with the result that my Twitter timeline is full of Facebookers stumbling into the (much less curated) light.

That even such mighty beasts can be felled (again) by the vagaries of technology is a good reminder that as a teacher you need to assume your tech isn’t infallible.

Most obviously, that means having a Plan B for when you can’t log into your classroom’s system, or the bulb of the projector is broken.

But it also means thinking a bit about how to handle your institution’s IT being on the blink (I know, hard to believe such a thing could happen, but just play along): even if something like that is someone else’s problem to solve, it’s also your problem to manage, especially in our hybrid era.

It also includes all the non-electric tech you use. I still have a unpleasant memory of trying to do an activity using post-its that wouldn’t stick to any surface, for example.

Like all these things, there’s a sliding scale of responses, dependent upon the nature, severity and duration of the tech glitch.

Yes, most of the problems you’ll encounter can be fixed with a bit of effort (and a call to a helpline), but if you’ve done your prep then you can either cut that effort or even cut it out altogether.

The crappy-classroom-set-up is something we’ve all come across, probably both as student and as instructor: the rebooting; the missing cable; the software update; the screen-(not)sharing; the sound quality.

So take some steps to address that proactively.

If it’s a room you’ve not used before, go and check it all out beforehand.

Take your own device with key files, just in case the classroom machine is an issue. Remember to bring a power cable and (if you can get one) your own HDMI/VGA cable/adaptor.

I’m old-school (OK, I’m old), so I like to print out my class notes, so that’s disconnected from any tech issues. And I put them in a protective sleeve, to disconnect from wayward beverages (yes, I’ve seen notes disappear in a latte-ish mush).

When I do class, I pick up my back-up bag, which has whiteboard markers (that I check at least once a semester), post-its, chalk, spare biro and sometimes some blindfolds.

Moreover, when tech goes wrong, I’m just as likely to switch about my class, so we don’t have to use tech, as I am to phone for help. If nothing else, students seem to respond well to a different classroom set-up, especially if PowerPoint isn’t to be seen.

It’s a bit like deciding to do your class outside if the weather’s nice: that’s a cinch if you’ve got your back up plans together.

If it all sounds a bit excessive, then you’re right: 19 times out of 20, I don’t use any of this stuff, because things work.

But sometimes, well, sometimes things don’t work.

Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide

Christopher L. Caterine’s Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton U. Press, 2020) is packed with sound career advice for people who have obtained doctorates. The book is also highly relevant to anyone who is just contemplating post-baccalaureate study, because it points out three systemic flaws in graduate education:

First, graduate programs typically emphasize the production of subject matter experts, leading to what Caterine calls the overspecialization trap:

“[N]obody outside the academy can monetize knowledge of . . . constructions of gender in eighteenth-century French novels. Even scientists aren’t safe on this count . . . many still face hiring bias because of the excessive specialization that graduate school requires. Trying to convince nonacademics to value what you study is probably a losing battle” (p. 89).

Just as doctorate holders should emphasize how they study when applying for jobs, graduate programs need to be oriented around methodological training rather than the delivery of factual knowledge. Any worthwhile graduate program needs to teach its students how to quickly distill large amounts of unfamiliar and often contradictory information down to its essentials and present “a coherent narrative in a public forum on short notice” (p. 123). This skill is in constant demand by employers, whereas being the world’s foremost authority on a post-Augustan Roman poet is not.

Second, the elements of good teaching are also immensely beneficial job skills, yet how many graduate programs train their students to become competent teachers? Good teaching requires one to be adept at project management, public speaking, running meetings, balancing divergent stakeholder interests, and emotional intelligence (p. 104). For example, running a classroom debate on a policy topic for which there are no cut and dried answers is an example of the ability to engineer “discussions that orient people toward a shared understanding or goal” (p. 108). These are the kinds of attributes that employers prize.

Finally, just like anyone else, academics need to present themselves and their expertise in an understandable, unambiguous manner. Judging by the terribly written cover letters and resumes I have seen from job applicants, this is not a skill that people commonly acquire through graduate education.

So, for anyone out there thinking about graduate school, what’s the evidence that a program in which you are interested will adequately prepare you for a non-academic career? If you are already university faculty, what aspects of your work have value outside of academia, and how can you clearly communicate this to potential employers? Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide will show you how to find answers to these questions.

More active learning resources

As we might have mentioned before, one of the loveliest things about working in pedagogic circles is the generosity of spirit that colleagues display.

You see it here with the numerous contributions from our guest authors (and you’re always welcome to drop us a line with something new), but more generally there is a strong culture of sharing materials.

One relatively recent addition to this is the Active Learning Network, run by an international group that cuts across a number of disciplinary boundaries.

They have a good selection of materials and activities, plus the option to share resources of your own. Certainly worth some time to have a look and, hopefully, to contribute.

Write Your Own Headlines Activity

This post comes from Chelsea Kaufman, assistant professor of political science at Wingate University. She can be contacted at c[dot]kaufman[at]wingate[dot]edu.

In teaching undergraduate research methods, I often find that the students are intimidated by the subject matter and don’t see its relevance to their lives. I have increasingly emphasized to students that it prepares them to be savvy consumers of political information wherever they might encounter it. This approach introduces an additional challenge, however: students often lack the information literacy skills to evaluate the sources that they access. If I want students to have the skills to evaluate the political information they encounter, I obviously need to teach them these skills. How exactly can this be accomplished? 

It is not enough to tell students which sources are acceptable, because people tend to trust information that aligns with their political predispositions. Simply lecturing to students about the dangers of misinformation can reinforce false beliefs and increase their distrust of reliable sources. 

To avoid this conundrum, I have students write their own headlines based on public opinion poll data. I first find a poll with results covered in several media outlets. I then send students a link to (or print out) the results of the poll, without providing them any context as to how it was covered in the media. After writing the headlines, students share them and compare theirs with those of their classmates and with published headlines about the data. Students learn to interpret data and evaluate whether it was given accurate coverage in the media. As the final part of the lesson, I then ask them to evaluate the polling methods used to obtain the data, by, for example, considering how a question’s wording might have impacted the responses. 

You can view detailed instructions for the activity on APSA Educate. You can also read more about this topic and find examples of additional activities in my article Civic Education in a Fake News Era: Lessons for the Methods Classroom or my chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of Political Research Pedagogy

Dog, meet tail

Another reason to be a cat person

Conscious that many of our readers are in even more commercialised HE sectors than my own here in the UK, I hesitate to complain again about commercialisation. At the same time, we seem to be locked into a bit of a vicious circle here about how to teach.

2020 was characterised by endless discussion about how to make remote teaching models work effectively, for the obvious reason.

This year has instead been about the need to move back to in-person instruction as much as possible.

To be very clear, these are not two sides of the same coin.

The former was about optimisation under a particular constraint, while the latter is about pursuing a particular model whatever.

If you like, this is the backlash that we might have expected when the world embraced the potential of remote and online options: a desire to ‘return to normal’ and to throw out all the innovation that has taken place in the past one and a half years.

This was encapsulated in an interview by the head of the UK’s Office for Students – a government body that has some regulatory powers – this last weekend, where in-person was placed firmly as the path to ‘quality teaching’.

The logic behind this isn’t entirely clear from the interview, but it appears to be grounded as much in path dependency and student satisfaction as it is in any objective evaluation of pedagogic value.

‘Student satisfaction’ here is a very slippery concept, based as it is on highly problematic measures such as the UK’s National Student Survey (knock yourself out with the growing literature on this) rather than any systematic data collection on effectiveness of learning. Is it more important that students achieve their full potential as individual learners or that they like what they do/get what they want?, as much of the commercialisation debate goes.

Simple commercial logics will undoubtedly mean more students back in campuses – in the UK, universities make a lot more revenue that way than through tuition fees – but the risk only grows that the need to focus on providing a learning environment that is optimal for learning becomes secondary to other requirements.

Yes, universities need to stay financially viable – as Chad keeps on reminding us – and students who like what they’re offered are probably going to be more engaged, but all of that becomes rather redundant if our pedagogy isn’t up to scratch. And a (small-c) conservative attitude towards ‘what works’ isn’t conducive to finding pedagogic solutions for our learners’ needs: you don’t pick your solution before you start.

Something to consider as we have our next institutional-subsidising coffee on campus.