The Hazards of Meat Space

Raw filet steakSome brief thoughts on how the physical environment affects one’s ability to teach and learn, whether one is outdoors or in a classroom.

In part this post is inspired by the slightly unwieldy arrangement of tables and chairs at the recent APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC*), but mostly by what I experienced on the first teaching day of the spring semester.

The classrooms on the top floor of one of our oldest campus buildings were repainted and outfitted with new equipment over the winter holidays. Instead the usual hard-wired computer console, each room has what is literally the largest flat screen TV that I have ever seen, mounted on a wheeled metal stand. Between the wheels and the TV is a small shelf at mid-thigh height. A laptop and DVD player are anchored to the shelf with short lengths of cables that connect to the TV.

To use the laptop, the instructor must kneel on the floor with his or her back to the class. Pedagogically this is about the worst thing that an instructor can do while teaching. Of course whoever is teaching in one of the rooms can bring his or her own laptop, but there are no cables long enough to connect the laptop to the TV and no podium or table to set it on.

There is also no whiteboard in the room. Without one, there is no ability for an instructor to easily communicate unfamiliar terminology or concepts to students, especially to those students who might be hearing impaired.

The rooms are a great example of what happens when people in charge of configuring classrooms don’t bother to communicate with the people who actually teach and learn in the classrooms.

*The 2016 TLC will likely occur on the first or second weekend of February in Portland, Oregon, USA.

One Small Step Forward

Moon LandingThis semester I’m teaching two courses that are consuming most of my creative energy. The first is the introduction to IR course I’ve taught at least once annually for perhaps the last decade. You might think that I should be able to teach this subject on autopilot after so many years, but it’s usually where I do most of my experimentation. This semester I used Statecraft again but have introduced some new simulations of my own design. The person who wrote the book that forms the backdrop for these new simulations, Jessica Alexander, now works for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. With the assistance of Skype and some of our audio-visual staff, I arranged a video call with her during class, which I did not announce to students beforehand. There were quite surprised to hear from the author of the book they’ve been reading, and there were no significant technical glitches during the call. So I’m putting that classroom event in the win column.

The second course that is requiring a lot of mental effort is a section of my university’s new first-year seminar. I’ll talk more about what I’m doing in this course in my next post.

Online asynchronous simulations – challenges and opportunities

For the past month I’ve been running my first online, asynchronous simulation, as part of the INOTLES project. We’re now coming into the final stretch of the game, so I’m thinking about how it went.

The game itself has a set of states who have to find a modus vivendi between themselves. They look a lot like the EU, some East European places and Russia, but with various things changed, so we don’t just reproduce those places and their relations. Players are given a state, some basic stats and interests and then are left to it. Weekly cycles require everyone to post positions and/or actions by Friday lunch, and if I need to intervene, then I’ll post on Monday morning.

One option I didn’t model…

The practical experience has been rather salutary for me.

Beforehand, I knew that getting participation was going to be the real issue and so it’s proved. The closest participant is about 200 miles away and the furthest is more like 1000 miles distant: teams for states were deliberately mixed up, so anyone playing has had to invest quite some time, just to get their team active. It would be fair to say that not all teams managed this.

I’ve not pushed very hard on this, partly because I have little scope so to do, but also because I’m running this as part of a training trainers exercise, so I want the players to think about how they are going to handle similar situations themselves. It’s a bit jujitsu, but there’s enough there for it to work.

The second big issue has been the asynchronisity/asynchronousness/not playing all at the same time. A week might make sense from the perspective of busy people trying to sort out positions, but it means that in four weeks we’ve not moved very far, or very fast. That reinforces the problems of engagement and participation: without a pressing problem, who’s going to feel a urgent need to react?

And this feeds into a final issue, the very open-ended nature of the game itself.

I’ve kept away from IR-type games, because it seemed like there was a lot I was less comfortable with, plus the notion of trying to capture all that international actors can do to each other was a bit daunting, especially in a made-up scenario. However, colleagues in the project had expressed interest in a sim about the European neighbourhood, so in I plunged.

The paradox seems to me to be that by saying to players that they can do pretty much anything, they end up doing little. Perhaps if I’d limited it to diplomatic exchanges then that might have focused minds some more, but that doesn’t necessarily help in building understanding of the complex interplay of factors. Indeed, I almost feel like using the real-world case would have generated more buy-in, even if it would come at a price of heightened emotional factors.

In short, it’s not easy, building games, especially when you’re trying something new, regardless of how much you’ve done it before.

Once I finish the sim, I’ll debrief the players and use that to inform some redesigning (which is also why I’ve not posted any materials yet). In addition, I’m also getting my students here at Surrey to play the game, all through to Christmas, so I’ve got some scope to try out a couple of ideas on them.

By treating a sim as being in a state of permanent beta, I can live with the uncertainty, and I can plan for it. In part that’s possible because I’m as interested in the process of negotiation and of sims as I am in the substance of the game itself, but it requires a bit of fore-thought and a willingness to adapt on the hoof.

Panel Report: Teaching Politics After the Digital Revolution

RobotHere is a brief report on one of last month’s APSA annual meeting panels, Teaching Politics After the Digital Revolution. The report comes from Dave Bridge, the panel’s organizer and chair.

Dave presented on the advantages gained by using Microsoft Excel’s random number generator to create a new breed of political simulations.  Using the example of Rousseau’s stag hunt, he showed how the computer program can deepen students’ knowledge of political philosophy.

Chad Raymond showed the impact of using simulations upon teaching evaluations.  Demonstrating that the use of the Statecraft simulation increased certain evaluation scores, he concluded that the simulation can impact students’ perception of learning—which itself can positively affect their actual learning.

Kerstin Hamann, Hutch Pollock, Bruce Wilson, and Gary Smith reviewed the state of the literature regarding the digital revolution and the scholarship of teaching and learning.  With a content analysis of the three of political science’s most prominent publication outlets for teaching and learning scholarship (PS: Political Science and Politics, Journal of Political Science Education, and International Studies Perspectives), the authors cataloged articles regarding technology and the classroom.

Finally, Nicolas de Zamaroczy introduced results from a pilot study on the effects of computer games and on different attitudes toward global politics.  Surveying those who do and do not play games with global politics implications (e.g., Civilization), he found no significant different between gamers and non-gamers.

Victor Asal and Steven Jackson graciously agreed to be the co-discussants of the panel, and they provided insightful comments on all the papers.

If any of the above information sounds remotely interesting, consider participating in APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC). The TLC for January 2015 is themed Innovations and Expectations for Teaching in the Digital Era.

Innovation? What Innovation?

Something of a response to Simon’s post about teaching innovations:

Rube GoldbergSimon is one of those rare people in a position of authority who, when he’s not plotting to become the next king of Scotland, asks what people have been doing in the classroom and how they’ve been doing it. Many of us don’t get asked, and many of us don’t bother changing how we do things, partly because steps taken to improve one’s teaching don’t directly factor into tenure and promotion decisions. This assumes, of course, that the possibility of promotion exists, which it does not for most college-level instructors in the USA. Given the current political economy on many university campuses,  pedagogical experimentation gone awry can lead to unemployment for the instructor.

The end result is that many of us have structural incentives to play it safe and replicate the classroom environments that our graduate school professors experienced when they were undergraduates. Or we tinker away in self- and institutionally-imposed isolation. The folks here at ALPS have a different approach, of course, but I remain surprised by the lack of institutional mechanisms at many universities for faculty members to share their classroom innovations with each other. In my case, the problem is exemplified by the fact that I can share ideas with people working at universities hundreds or thousands of kilometers away more easily than I can with people on my own small campus.

If these mechanisms did exist, we wouldn’t see expensive outside speakers brought in to tell us about “new” teaching methods that some of us have already made part of our repertoires. Nor would we be expected to shove square technological pegs into round holes of instruction in the name of innovation. Instead faculty would be communicating regularly and directly with each other.

It is somewhat perverse that Daphne Koller, co-founder and president of Coursera, is more attuned (beginning at 14:50) to what good teaching is and how to foster it than many of the people running traditional universities. Academia has had decades to implement systems that identify and reward good teaching, but at many institutions of higher education this opportunity was and continues to be squandered.

Can we do all our learning & teaching using Lego?

Off the back of the great response to my post last week on The Lego Movie (apologies again to Borja Garcia for ruining his enjoyment of said film), I have obviously returned to the subject, albeit in a slightly different way.

While searching for the official movie website, I stumbled across Lego Serious Play. ‘Stumbled’ here should of course be understood as ‘spent ages browsing the online shop, buying a kit, then browsing some more.’ That box has now arrived, so the next step of my investigation continues.

Of course I have even more Lego on my desk. Don’t you?

Essentially, LSP is a system for promoting team interaction and creativity, using the bricks to allow people to visualise and manifest their ideas in a way that lets them explore new ideas. That’s the website’s take on it, anyway.

I’ll freely admit I’m not so sure about this, not least because I’ve still to see it in practice, but I’m willing to have a bash at it.

As readers with long memories might recall, I’ve been using Lego in the classroom for a long time. Some years ago, I made a video explaining different voting systems, using Lego squares, because it made it all much easier to visualise. Similarly, my negotiating class get to use Lego to explore the difficulties of communication, because it allows for very subtle usage.

Whether and how LSP might fit into all this is still unclear to me. The core development attribute seems to be about creativity, which does not easily fit into an applied module in a degree programme. That is actually rather a surprise to me – and probably a topic for another day – but it’s meant in the sense that creativity is a cross-cutting skill, so probably belongs in an early phase of a programme. Moreover, students rarely remain with the same group for any problem beyond one module/course, so even if team skills are developed, then some of them are lost as the group breaks up.

But even as I write this, I recall that I do have one group of students who will be together for a long period and – additionally – will be able to work as a single group: the first cohort of our Liberal Arts and Sciences programme, of which I am director and teacher for the first compulsory element.

My plan then is to use LSP to trigger a discussion about disciplines and about their relationship with each other. I’m not going to get into details just yet, since I’d like to try it out on them first, but essentially I’m using the Lego as a way into the subject, to distract them for the weightiness of it all.

Distracting students is something I really like doing, albeit with care not to get too distracted. Whether it works remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the journey.

To come back to the question in the title, obviously we shouldn’t do ALL our teaching using Lego, but if we can recognise the value of multiple paths to learning and scope for using everyday objects to create an environment for problematising and challenging students, then that can open our eyes to large new areas of pedagogic practice. In essence, Lego is a means, not an end, and we should never lose sight of that.

Having a media element in your simulation game

A while back I was having an email exchange with Philippe Perchoc at my alma mater, the College of Europe, on the use of media elements in simulations. I’ve been thinking about it a bit more, so I thought I’d share it here.

Press Conference In Amstetten On New Details

Essentially, what this covers is having some participants play a role of journalists in a simulation, providing another channel of information exchange alongside the more conventional ones.

The reasons for doing this a multiple.

Firstly, in the context of politics/IR games, it reflects the reality of a situation, where political negotiations are covered by the media. That’s sometimes a passive aspect, but increasingly (and especially in international contexts) media strategy becomes an active part of the process, with selective release of information to bolster your position.

Secondly – and more generically – it highlights to students that they do not control a negotiation. That information release might seem to give control, but once something’s out there, you don’t own it or its interpretation. Likewise, the other side(s) will also be releasing information, just as the media itself will be rooting around for what it can find.

Thirdly, on a practical level, it creates more roles to be played: when you have large numbers of students, this can be a simple (and flexible) way to give people something to do without just further sub-division of roles.

What the media function looks like will very much depend on the game itself. Typically, you need to have a game that is big in some way, if only because otherwise its value is minimal: journalists will need time and space to collect, process and disseminate information, and more time is needed for to have an impact. Therefore we usually encounter it in games that last at least a day and/or where there are multiple negotiating parties (e.g. MUN-type affairs). I’ve used a ‘market’ function that does something a bit similar in my two-hour long austerity game, but that is much more limited in what it can achieve.

Typically, journalists will get a free hand to find whatever they think is interesting/useful and then have an outlet. The free hand involves them having to find information, so they practise interviewing people, extrapolating from materials provided and (occasionally) finding ways to discover things they aren’t supposed to know: this last often provides a learning moment about data security for a player! Of course, it’s also possible to make your media more partisan, either in favour of one negotiating party or of its own interests: just pick your own local real-world example of this to work out how you might play this out.

The outlet can either be something relatively static and fixed – regular bulletins on a noticeboard in the corner – or much more dynamic and speedy – a twitter account or a blog. The classic form would have been a short newspaper printed once or twice a day, but with new technologies, I’d think it makes more sense to capture the new dynamism, especially because it also teaches about the consequences of mis-/dis-information in a rapid news cycle.

Of course, in all of this, it’s important to remember that a media function is not without its challenges.

Depends the main difficulty is that it means some players are not ‘in’ the same simulation as the rest: they won’t get the same opportunities as the others and that might be a problem if you’re assessing them on the same basis. Two solutions offer themselves up: either you don’t assess anyone, or you assess in a differentiated way. Philippe’s solution has been one that I’ve seen elsewhere, namely to find some willing journalism students to play these roles, which they do very professionally. If that’s not an option for you, then you need to consider how you might handle it all.

The other big challenge is one of distortion. While it’s good to learn about the power of the media, if that power becomes the main game dynamic, you risk losing out on learning about the object/process that the game is nominally about. This takes us back to our old friend, learning outcomes: what do you want to achieve? To manage this, you might consider imposing some kind of limit on what the media can do: they might have to get at least two sources for stories before publication; they might be restricted to time-delays or fixed periods/cycles of publication; they might be subject to official censorship. The difficulty is obviously one of balance: having a media that does something, but not too much.

Ultimately, having a media function can be deeper enrichening for a game, adding another layer of activity and space for reflection. If you’ve got ideas about how you can use (or have used) media in games, then we’d love to hear about it.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul for Higher Education


I’ve argued previously that technological innovation is going to sweep away many of the assumptions that underlie the current system of higher education. One of these assumptions is that putting instructors and students in the same place at the same time for a standardized number of hours each week — contact time — ipso facto guarantees a certain amount of learning. One can easily see how this assumption plays out in entry-level courses at many universities —  massive lecture halls, often half-empty, with the students who are in the room half-asleep.

Recent research by Ithaka S+R indicates that that much of what happens in traditional classrooms is the pedagogical equivalent of watching a Japanese cat video.  Ithaka S+R’s study examined the use of interactive online learning platforms — Coursera MOOCs and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative — in courses taught at seven universities in the University System of Maryland. The study compared students’ performance in hybrid sections of the courses with that of students in traditionally-taught sections. The research included ten additional case studies on different applications of MOOCs in campus-based courses.

The research found that students in the hybrid sections, including those belonging to under-represented minorities, who came from low-income families, or who were less prepared academically than their classmates, “did as well or slightly better than students in the traditional sections in terms of pass rates and learning assessments.” However, the students in the hybrid sections spent only about half as much time in class as the students in the traditional sections (p. 4). These outcomes occurred despite the fact that the instructors for these sections were teaching in the hybrid format and using the technology for the first time.

While students in the hybrid sections did report “considerably lower satisfaction with their experience” (p. 5), the lack of a difference in learning outcomes between the groups suggests that this dissatisfaction may have been driven at least in part by students’ preconceptions about what “college” and “learning” entail.

If interactive online content can replace up to half of traditional classroom time without a negative pedagogical effect, what are the implications for us real live humans who currently work at colleges and universities? Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich, of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School, have looked at this question in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion as it pertains to business schools.

Terwiesch and Ulrich reach several interesting conclusions:

  • Online delivery of multimedia interactive content holds an estimated 40 percent cost advantage over traditional instruction in the average MBA program.
  • Any new technology that enables the marginal cost of instruction to drop to zero renders obsolete the scale economies upon which institutions of higher education were built. No longer is it economically necessary to locate education within a massive centralized institution. It becomes affordable for people to learn almost anything whenever and wherever they want.
  • The typical business school classroom session prices out to about $100; anything that expensive “should be a significant event, a true experience” (p. 24). If students find that they can get the same learning through other, less-expensive means, they’ll go elsewhere. To counter this, university faculty — if they want to keep their jobs — need to adopt teaching methods that make the classroom a high-impact learning experience that is difficult to replicate with new technology.
  • “Unlike some areas of higher education, in which knowledge is pursued for its intrinsic value, business schools are focused on providing professional skills that have some future value in the workplace. In that sense, getting an MBA education is like purchasing a Swiss army knife — you buy it today to use it one day in the future — but you know neither when you will use it nor which part of the knife you will use first . . . From the students’ perspective, the [MBA follows the same] pattern: learn-learn-learn-certify-wait-wait-wait-deploy. And that is the best-case scenario, omitting scenarios in which the student learns something that was either useless or forgotten along the way” (p. 21). In other words, once technology allows people to learn what they want in a just-in-time fashion, it is hard to argue that everyone must march in unison through an entire curriculum on the off chance that parts of that curriculum might prove useful years later.

Anant Agarwal, an EECS professor who led the team that designed MIT’s first MOOC, believes that recent technological innovations presage an era in which the university experience incorporates active learning, self-paced learning, instant feedback, and peer learning to a much greater extent than it does now. Universities should be asking themselves whether it is better to be ahead of this curve or behind it.

Are you prepared for the higher ed apocalypse?
Are you prepared for the higher ed apocalypse?


Building networks: we’re on Facebook now!

download (1)As a mark of our desire to build the community of users/readers that we already have here at ALPS, we’ve finally decided (a mere three years in) to set up a Facebook page.

The page will have all the latest blog posts linked in [sic – we’ll do that one another time], plus we hope we can get more of you to chip in with links, comments and ideas.

Do remember we also have our Twitter feed, so you really have no excuse for missing anything we do.

The ALPS team

Birds of a Feather

CanaryAnother canary in the coal mine has fallen off its perch: Wilberforce University, the USA’s oldest historically black institution of higher education. Almost $10 million in debt, it has borrowed from its endowment. Last fall the school had fewer than four hundred students, and enrollment will likely shrink further by the beginning of the upcoming fall semester. Wilberforce will probably lose its accreditation in spring 2015.

Many universities are now in the same financial predicament — decreasing numbers of high school graduates, increased price sensitivity among potential students and their parents, record high tuition discount rates, operational costs that continue to climb, and stagnant levels of net tuition revenue.

It’s not just the traditional non-profits that are having financial problems. The federal government recently turned off the spigot of student financial aid to Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest for-profit education companies in the country. The feds are forcing it to sell off a number of its campuses in exchange for an infusion of $16 million, intended to push existing students through to graduation. Corinthian Colleges is also under investigation by sixteen states. Another for-profit company, Education Management Corporation, has been negotiating a debt-equity swap with creditors in an attempt to stave off default.

Some readers may remember that a few months ago I mentioned the radio program This American Life as one example of the changing consumer narratives created by technological innovation. As of yesterday, the program officially became financially independent of its former distributor, Public Radio International. This is yet another example of how disintermediation is affecting the media industry. The same process is underway in higher education. I’ll write about an example of that in my next post.