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.

Interactive Learning and the 2012 Presidential Debates

The following comes from Rebecca Glazier at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock:

It’s election season again and, as always, an exciting time to be teaching political science. This election year we have an addition tool to use in our efforts to get students actively engaged in learning about politics: a new app that tracks real time reactions to the presidential debates. React Labs: Educate was developed through collaboration between political scientists and computer scientists. It runs on smartphones and allows participants to register their moment-by-moment responses to what candidates are saying during a debate. Instructors who register their classes to participate will be provided with data showing which of your students used the app (handy for providing assignment credit or extra credit), presentation-ready figures of the data from each debate (to facilitate post-debate discussion), and additional educational resources. Not only will you be engaging your students in the debates, you will be helping the political scientists on this project–Amber Boydstun (University of California, Davis), Rebecca Glazier (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and Matthew Pietryka (University of California, Davis)—collect data on  debate responses. You can find out more about React Lab: Educate and register your classes at the project website:

Managing Transitions

After my summer hiatus, I find myself back in the office, working through the pile of things that has accumulated on my desk in my absence. At one level, it’s a classic case of work-as-usual, in that there’s nothing that I haven’t had to deal with before at some point; but it’s also a key transition point.

In the past month, Surrey has switched over to its new VLE, SurreyLearn, after an extensive purchasing and implementation period. The switch to a completely new platform was predicated on the need for a step-change in functionality and robustness: my various responsibilities in learning & teaching have meant that I’ve been involved in the process from an early stage and I’m aware of the potential that the new system holds.

However, I now find myself asking how I am going to use this new system. On the one hand, I know that I can now do things that were impossible before, notably in integrating a number of other systems and networks into a single space. On the other, I am very dubious about innovating for innovation’s sake. One of the biggest barriers that I encounter when talking to colleagues across the sector is the fear that having an interest in L&T means having to constantly change one’s practice to accommodate the ‘latest thinking’. This concern is a real one, especially in situations where institutions are ambivalent about the place of teaching in their provision. Even here – where that does not apply – there are enough other areas of change that change-for-change’s-sake is not appropriate.

The upshot is that I’m going to wait for now. As the year progresses, I’m going to see when I can add real value-added via the new VLE, both from my own practice and from talking with others. This latter point is an essential one, in my view: Teaching can be a very personal activity, and often the most useful advice comes not from ‘the literature’ but from conversations with colleagues, especially those who have worked through the practicalities of a situation: educational theory is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to have a walk-through.

All of which leads me to a plug for internet resource on simulations that I was working on earlier this summer.  Thanks to the HEA, I was able to push on with a big part of the content. It’s meant to be a practical guide to using simulations and games (and draws on several elements from other ALPS contributors) and I’m very happy to talk about any of it with people and to receive more content.

When Technology Almost Gets The Upper Hand

After two weeks, two laptops, one iPad, one iMac, four webcams, five microphones, a motley collection of light fixtures, and various pieces of software, I’ve finally put together a combination of equipment that allows me to produce video lectures of sufficient quality.

We commonly believe that technology is supposed to support teaching and learning, but often the reality is the reverse. And I’m not just talking about hardware and software. While reviewing the work of others and making my own error-filled practice runs, I discovered why the typical YouTube video runs between four and five minutes: long videos, especially the talking head kind, are boring. I’m a university professor, which means I’m geeky enough to actually enjoy a well-crafted lecture. But my attention span seriously dwindles when I’m experiencing the two dimensional version. Joseph Nye has some interesting ideas, but watching him continuously expound upon soft power on my laptop screen for over 49 minutes is  impossible.

If I can’t do it, I doubt my students can either, which means my video lectures need to be in the two to five minute range. Saying what you need to say within that short time span requires distilling your normal lecture down to its most essential information — spare sentence structure, only one or two illustrative examples, no amusing anecdotes. I found that I was stripping out everything except what students absolutely need to know, and perhaps that is a good thing. If they get just a skeleton of ideas from my online lectures, they might have a better sense of what they should focus on when they are in class.

The Age of Non-Exploration

I am continually frustrated by students’ reluctance to experiment with the user-friendly technological tools that I give them. Most recently this has been demonstrated in my blog-based Europe1914 simulation and in a class that is piloting a new learning management system, Canvas by Instructure. (Please note that I have no financial interest in Instructure; my university is also piloting Blackboard’s 9.1 Learn.)

In the Europe1914 simulation, I intended the blogs to function as a platform for student communication and collaboration. The students did learn how to use the blogs – I provided them with specific directions both on the blogs and elsewhere, and I conducted a short in-class training session. But the students’ use of the blogs was limited to posts and occasional comments. No students explored ways of using the blogs for other purposes or even text formatting options. Conversations consisted primarily of each student on a team posting his or her work, which one or two team members consolidated into a single end product. Teams did not use the blogs to develop negotiation strategies or to bargain with each other.

For the other class, I have been pushing students to use with features in Canvas like discussion threads, wikis, and shared Google Docs. It’s been a tough slog. Many of the students are completely unfamiliar with these tools, and it seems that once they stumble upon one method of communication, they are reluctant to use another, even if it might meet their needs more effectively.

It appears to me that students today are socialized to view learning as a top-down, regimented process in which they do not have to exercise initiative. They expect to be told both what to learn and how to learn. I wish I knew how to break students out of this mindset, but I don’t.