Category Archives: innovative ideas

Core Concept Videos: Use in the classroom and as an alternative assessment

Another quick post on my use of Core Concept videos that I use both as a teaching aid and as a successful alternative assignment in my courses.  In developing lectures and learning materials I have, as I’m sure many of you have, spent a lot of time online, looking for effective videos to show either in lectures or to post on course websites as supplementary material.  I occasionally find a clip that is perfect– that illustrates the concept or case study clearly and succinctly.  More often though, I find myself spending hours viewing videos that are at best dull and meandering (urgh, talking heads) and at times outright incorrect in the definitions or details they are providing.  After much frustration and hours wasted looking for good, basic videos to supplement my lectures and the textbook, I recall lamenting in silent frustration ‘In the time it took to search for a good one I could have made my own bloody video’.   Challenge accepted— well/and, partly delegated.

Armed with a younger, more tech-savvy summer Academic Assistant, a series of Core Concept Videos of topics that I see as foundational to the study of Politics were produced. The series included videos of 5-7 minutes on key terms such as power and freedom and important theories such as liberalism and realism.  Important to note is that their aim is to not simply define the term (there lots of good videos for that as well as a glossary in the textbook) but to present the terms critically– explore debates related to these and the application of the concepts to different situations.  The goal of these is to show how these foundational theories and concepts are actually used in the discipline as a way of modelling to students how they should think about and use the concepts in their own work.  They are there to reinforce rather than repeat other learning materials.

I know what you’re thinking– ‘I don’t have time for this!’  But, in the long run, making your own videos actually saves time– no more searching endlessly on YouTube for the perfect video or having to check that YouTube links work every year, or having to replace an outdated video.  Once you learn the technology and decide on format/scripts a video can be made in a couple of hours. The technology is easy, even I can use it and those who have read my other posts know about my fear of most learning technologies. I use Camtasia for which my university has a license, it took me about 2 hours to learn how to use it– but there are many free online video production tools that allow you to dice and splice content into a video (do be careful of copyright and fair use rules). Most universities will have a license to something similar (and likely support/training for video development).

But beyond saving time, making your own videos also allows you to target specific debates and issue that you want your students to engage with; it means that you can make specific reference to course readings, lectures and tutorials.  Instead of being just another tag-on resource for students, making your own videos really allows you to use technology to augment what you already have, rather than just add another medium for the sake of adding another medium.  You’ll see in this video that my assistant helps students consider many important lessons regarding how NOT to define key terms.  She also provides students with application concepts to cases and, importantly, ends with a series of debate questions that then feed into my lectures and the tutorial series.

 

The success of  videos as a tool in first year courses (I’ve had positive comments about these in my student evaluations) made me think about how by the time students get to their 3rd or 4th years they should be able to communicate core concepts themselves in such a way.  As junior scholars, potential future teaching assistants and profs they should be able to teach core concepts in an advanced and critical way.  So, I have integrated Core Concept videos as an assignment in my 4th year Peace Studies course as well.

The prompt that I give to my students is as follows:

By this point in your academic careers you have likely developed excellent writing skills.  However, the written form is only one way of communicating with the public.  For this assignment, you should translate your knowledge of a critical concept/theory covered in the seminars or readings into an audio-visual form by creating a short video (around 5 minutes).  For this, your audience would be an interested member of the public, or perhaps a 1st year undergraduate arts student.   The goal of the video should be to clearly explain the concept in a clear and accessible manner whilst also offering the viewer cases/analogies/visuals/etc which bring the concept to life.

As UBC students you should have access to Camtasia (a video production tool)

I also clarify how students will be graded (to avoid students spending too much time on the ‘fun technology’ side of the assignment as opposed to the content).   The following general rubric is given to students ahead of time.

You will be graded on the following

  1. the video is clearly linked to an element of the module (a concept, theory, approach or argument found in the readings or seminars). Please do not choose an orthodox IR concept such as realism, liberalism etc (speak to Jen before you start if you have any concerns over your topic)
  2. the video communicates a complex idea/argument in a clear and accessible manner to the target audience
  3. the video is creative, making use of relevant visuals in a way that helps illustrate the concept in a more tangible way
  4. the video is professionally presented and polished

I do have students either present me with a hard copy of references used, or better yet, have them post a bibliography/further readings list as the last frame of their video. Below are some examples of this year’s productions– thanks again to my students who have allowed me to publicly share their work (one on Structural Violence and another on Critical Theory).

 

Of course, a savvy professor might try combining these two things– I’m toying with having my upper year students make videos for my intro courses specifically (and of course being transparent about this process).  This would mean that the videos produced get used by their peers, rather than just float into the ether like most assignments do.   Another idea would be to include production of videos as a Teaching Assistant duty (paid of course with time built in for training, planning, consulting and production) as a way of furthering their professional development.

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Thinking Visually: Assessment via Infographic

I thought I’d tap out a quick blog post on an alternative form of assessment that

a) my students seemed to really enjoy (this was an option for their first assignment and about 90% chose to do this over the other two options)

and

b) met two of my learning objectives for the course– ensuring students are able to effectively apply critical/theoretical concepts to a case study and also providing them with opportunities to produce work that is accessible to a non-academic audience (whilst still being intellectually rigorous).

It is an assignment that is easily adaptable to a range of topics and fields of study. So as you are all busy working on your course renewal for the upcoming academic year *nudge-nudge-September will be here sooner than we think*, I invite you to consider and adapt this assignment for your own courses.  If you do, I’d love to see the outcome!

The prompt

Below are the guidelines and instructions I provided to students in the syllabus:

For this assignment, you will need to do two things.  First, you will need to choose a concept/theory/debate discussed in the readings or in class and apply it to a case study.  ‘Applying’ can mean many things. It may mean using a concept to help explore a particular element of a conflict or show the conflict in a new light. It might mean using a concept to explain the success or failure of a particular peacebuilding program. These are just two examples. In general, it means that you are using the concept as a ‘lens’ through which you can look at an issue in a way that offers a unique perspective and/or tells a different side of the  ‘story’ than the ones we might see in the popular press or via orthodox theories such as liberalism and realism.

Second, you will need to present your analysis in the form of an infographic.   This means you should present your analysis visually.  You can use words, but these should accompany images—graphs, pictures, charts etc (get creative and use your imagination).  Dr. Peterson has put up some examples of infographics on Connect to give you some ideas but these should not be seen as templates.  The goal is to make complex, critical analytical work more accessible to the public by presenting it visually. By this point in your academic careers you have likely developed excellent writing skills.  However, the written form is only one way of communicating with the public—this assignment aims to offer you another mode of communication.

The Outcomes

Below are two examples that came out of my most recent Critical Peace Studies seminar group.  Many thanks to my students who allowed me to use their work in this blog– the first is a Marxist analysis of the climate change debate with further discussion of how structural violence can also help us highlight a range of impacts of climate change.  The latter also employs Galtung’s discussion of structural violence as a way of understanding the situation in North Korea (in comparison to traditional understandings of direct/ physical violence or inter-state conflict).

 

Assessment and Other Considerations

Of course, as with any ‘out of the ordinary’ form of assessment, students often get quite anxious about grades.  Whilst I hate contributing to the cult of ‘grades are the be-all-and end-all’ of student worth, I have found that walking the students through how I will read their work helps reduce their stress levels. Incidentally,  it also reduces the number of emails I receive regarding the assignment, thereby reducing my stress levels.  Below is the text I give them ahead of time (also in the syllabus)

You will be graded on the following criteria:

-the infographic is clearly linked to an element of the module (a concept, theory, approach or argument found in the readings or seminars). Please do not choose an orthodox IR concept such as realism, liberalism etc (speak to Jen before you start if you have any concerns over your topic)

-your ability to apply a concept from the course to a case study effectively

-your ability to present this complex/advanced analysis visually and creatively in a form that would be more accessible to a public audience than a traditional research paper.

A few cautionary notes.   Some students will get drawn in by the design side of this assignment and produce something visually striking without much in terms of content, so taking time to emphasize the content/substance element of this assignment will prevent headaches for all parties.  Also, some students will come equipped with a great deal of design expertise which in some regards puts other students at a disadvantage so again, going through examples of infographics related to your topic and highlighting what works and doesn’t work will help students build skills in this area and perform better on the assignment.  I found this website useful on providing students with some good tips for producing their infographic.   Finally, whilst one of the reasons I include assignments such as this and other visual assignments is that I do worry about how we primarily assess students on their writing, which I have written about here, you may want to consider offering this as an optional assignment which can be chosen in place of a more traditional written assignment.

There’s an App for That! My (unexpected) highlight of the term

Just thought I would write a short post on what turned out to be one of my most successful sessions last term—it is an activity that I think can easily be adapted to any class and might be something you could experiment with yourselves.  It is fairly low stakes in terms of prep time, the students really got into it and I believe it reinforced several lessons from the course, simultaneously.

Now, first I should note that I was, initially DREADING this session.  The ever-so-well- thought-out-plan when I wrote my syllabus in the summer was to have a guest speaker run a workshop on technology and peace where students would actually create/map out a piece of technology that could contribute to the aims of peacebuilding.  You know, bring someone in who actually works with technology, and not numpty-me who considers it a major win if she gets her power-point up and running at the start of the class.  I made the mistake of putting this workshop into the syllabus, printing it and circulating it to students before I received confirmation from said guest speaker.  Said guest speaker could not make it.

So, of course I could have cancelled the session or just waxed lyrical even more about the politics and ethics of technology in relation to peace (as I had done in the previous lecture), but me being possibly the most stubborn person in any given room on any given day decided to burn ahead with my workshop idea regardless of my star-luddite credentials.

Working with folks in the humanitarian sector in my previous job, I was well aware of some of the App development going on in that sector, so I thought it might be interesting to have students develop ‘Peace Aps’.  Given that there was no way I could actually teach my students the basics of how to build an app (and trust me I did look into this, but after 8 hours wasted on reading the ins and outs of how to build your own App, I had to admit defeat).

I decided to have them story-board potential Apps.  Their task was to map out and illustrate a landing page and 3 further ‘screens’ for an App.  Groups were given only two prompts to get them started—a very general prompt and an audience (examples included “Audience:  Children 6-10 in Sri Lanka Purpose: Land Mine Awareness; Audience Black Lives Matter/Civil Rights Activists in USA/Canada Purpose:  Support and Facilitate Activist Work;  Audience: Aid Workers in and Around Syria, Purpose: Information and awareness of Non-State Armed Groups).   Each potential App was linked to a concept or theme explored in previous lectures.

Students were given a piece of poster paper to sketch out their initial planning of the App (see picture at bottom of this post– the quality of which I assume will solidify my luddite credentials).  They were encouraged to integrate  ideas, debates and issues from previous lectures (on peacebuilding more generally and technology and peacebuilding specifically).

There is not too much I can say here, except that my classroom came alive.  I was worried that the students would find the activity a waste of time, and maybe focus on the ‘cool technology’ side of the assignment, rather than engage with the issues. However, I saw so much evidence of integration of concepts from previous lectures, that it was both affirming to me (they were listening!), but also reinforced student learning and helped them make connections between classroom learning and the application (no pun intended) of this to the real world.

I think in this day and age we would be hard pressed to not be able to link whatever topic we teach to technology in some way and I really do think that this is something that could be adapted for most classes (my husband agreed to test my crazy active learning pedagogy on this one, and tried it out in his Sociology of the Family.  Another success!).  Of course with all active learning the key is in the pre-amble, prep and debrief of lessons learned.  A lecture on the key debates around technology in relation to the themes of your course sets a valuable foundation for the activity, and time to discuss lessons learned via the activity is essential (I’ll admit I missed the trick on this one and didn’t leave any time for a proper debrief—something I’ll fix for next next year).   app

Hiding the Vegetables? On explaining your pedagogical choices and teaching philosophy to students

I don’t have children, but on my Facebook feed I often see my ‘parent friends’ posting articles about how to get their children to eat more vegetables.  Many tips seem to focus on somehow managing to hide or sneak in vegetables into foods their kids otherwise love—‘add carrot juice into fruit smoothies’  ‘blend up spinach and put in pasta sauce’.   In other words,  if you want them to eat their brussels sprouts, do everything you can to make sure they do not know they are eating brussels sprouts.

What on earth does this have to do with teaching, you ask?  Bear with me.

The necessity of ‘labelling’ my pedagogy this semester

Several of my upcoming blog posts will focus on a funded research project I did this semester on active learning in large undergraduate classes.  The research project did not require any change to my pedagogy or any redesign of my course.  I taught my Introduction to Comparative Politics class exactly as I had four times before in previous years.  Other than updating a few case studies, fixing typos in my lecture slides and nixing a few activities that just didn’t seem to work,   there were no changes to how I taught the course or my general teaching philosophy.

There were, however, two significant changes that seem to have come back to haunt me.  The first is that I added what I called an ‘Active Learning Journal’  where students had to upload some evidence of their engagement with class debates, activities and simulations (very small-stakes—a snapshot of a completed worksheet or their notes capturing both sides of the debate in class would suffice). Secondly,  because I was conducting research on my teaching,  I of course was ethically obliged to inform my students of the research project, its aims etc.  My Research Assistant also recruited students to participate in focus groups to help me gain further insight into my teaching (warts and all).  The ethics requirement and the methodology thus required students to be reminded several times this term that I was using ‘Active Learning’.

I actually thought all of this would be a good thing.  I thought being more transparent and open about my pedagogy and teaching philosophy would diminish the small amounts of resistance to my teaching style that I’ve encountered in the past (which I would stress has been up until this term minimal—some students would just prefer I stand up and talk at them for 3 hours a week).  Oh, how naïve and wrong I was.

The curious case of my teaching evaluations in this one section

While I admit there are things that I can and will change regarding my use of active learning based on some of the qualitative feedback from my focus groups, other types of feedback from students have left me more generally torn and confused.  Having reviewed my formal course evaluations, it appears that the labelling of things as ‘Active Learning’, signaling to students that ‘I am doing things differently’ has possibly backfired.

My numerical scores are pretty much unchanged (in fact they have gone up slightly since last year, despite it being a larger class and me having health issues near the end of the semester that led to a delay in getting grades out).  However, the comment section was filled with notes about students’ dislike of active learning.  There were positive comments too of course, regarding my skills as a lecturer, my being available and helpful to students, and some students were positive about my pedagogy—but  the comments regarding active learning were roughly 75% negative.  This is quite surprising given very good scores on all of the quantitative elements of the evaluations which measure students’ assessment of the quality of me and the learning experience as a whole.  It also does not match (at all) with the incredible evidence of learning that I saw in their reflective writing on active learning.

Now, the reason this is so interesting to me, is that I have NEVER had these comments (or at least so many of them) in the 4 others sections that I teach the course—even though the course and active learning elements are unchanged.  In fact, I taught two other section of this same course in the same semester (with pretty much exactly the same pedagogy and exercises) and the comments section was overwhelmingly positive regarding the activities that I did. The only substantive difference in these other two sections being that I was not explicit about my active learning pedagogy/philosophy in any of my other courses.

Moving forward:  what are the pros and cons of sharing your teaching philosophy with students?

So what to make of all of this?  I’m not sure.  I’m still processing the whole experience.  I had a good group of intelligent students (many, though certainly not all) engaged with everything I threw at them during the term.  The reflective writing that they also did on some of these activities also generally showed thoughtful engagement with the aims and lessons of these activities.  So in terms of student learning, I’m still confident that the course works.

The experience certainly hasn’t shaken my teaching philosophy, but it has made me think about if it is necessary (or at all beneficial)  to share your teaching philosophy with students.  Does holding something up as different create resistance from the start?  If a set of pedagogical tools are shown to be effective for student learning through research, should we just use them and hope for buy-in from students?  Is active learning the carrot juice or brussels sprouts of the pedagogical terrain— good for you, but best kept secretly mixed in with the things more familiar and liked?

I’ve no clear answers for these questions, but despite my experience this year, I think I will still be explicit at some stage with my students about my approach to teaching.   However, perhaps I won’t give it a label, won’t characterize it as ‘other’.  I do want to have my students reflect on the process of learning, take ownership of their own education, so I still believe that being open about the aims of and rationale of your teaching approach is important for students’ intellectual development.  Perhaps the answer lies in more subtly inviting students who are interested and intellectually curious about teaching and learning to have these conversations with you, without belaboring the point and just allowing the pedagogies to work/speak for themselves.

 

So, this happened– IR students wax artistic OR the value of alternative modes of assessment

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The Gulabi Woman (Aviaah Shanaz, 2015)

 

Everyone who teaches the same course year after year knows that this is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing as in ‘Hurrah to a much smaller number of prep hours!!’.  Curse as in ‘Dear lord, I have to listen to myself yammer on about the same thing for the umpteenth time’.  Curse also in terms of there are only so many essay questions one can set for a relatively specialized topic (in my case Critical Peace Studies) and one finds oneself marking fairly similar assignments year after year.  Students are also inevitably drawn to the same questions each year (in my case about half choose the question related to resistance) and cases (Israel/Palestine and Rwanda seem to be cases that resonate most with my students even though I don’t deal with them in class).  This is of course fine.  I encourage my students to explore cases and questions that speak to them, and I still learn new things about various theories and cases through such essays.  In my fourth year class, many of these are on the cusp of making original contributions to knowledge.  However, marking dozens of essays year after year on the same topic, no matter how original and well crafted can be trying (for me and my TAs who often to the bulk of marking in the 100-300 level courses).

I of course make adjustments to my seminar sessions and readings each year to account for new research, improve the flow of the course, and readjust the focus in places based on how individual sessions went and the feedback I get from students.  Two years ago I added a new session on Aesthetics  and Global Politics to the seminar series.  I draw heavily on the work of Roland Bleiker here and as well as the Journal of Narrative Politics.  I wasn’t sure students would enjoy it—  the topic rests  pretty far outside of the realm of their traditional IR training;  if I’m honest, I was also worried they would think I was a bit ‘out there’ for wanting to discuss Guernica and making them wander across campus to look at a statue in a political science class.  But, alas, it was probably one of the best sessions I’ve ever had in a seminar class and the following week, when we spent our seminar at the Museum of Anthropology, I was impressed by not only their receptiveness to exploring art in this context but also their ability to really run with the concepts and arguments in an advanced way.  So, this year, I beefed up this element of the course and decided to adjust my assessment model to reflect student interest.

Instead of a traditional research essay or in-depth case study, students could choose to create a piece of art for their final assignment. Alongside this, they had to submit a written reflection on how their piece was related to a critical concept from the seminar series (hybridity, pacifism, ‘othering’ etc).  They also had to discuss some of the ideas we explored in the readings and seminar on aesthetics and IR more generally—reflect on communicating complex political arguments in an alternative form.

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Liberty Determined by the Few (adaptation of  Delacroix) (Shannon Faleiro, 2015)

 

I thought maybe one or two students would be intrigued and possibly take the risk.  Wrong.  Nearly a quarter of my cohort selected this option and I was left blown away. Blown away by students’ willingness to take a risk.  With so many students grad school/law school bound, grades in their final year are incredibly important.  Most of my students have mastered the art of the research essay and that was likely the ‘safer option’ for many, but they took a risk.   Of course, many students took risks in their essays and case studies too, but I saw selecting this format as an unexpected leap of faith.  I was of course also blown away by the students’ creativity and skills.  We often don’t get to know our students as human beings and through their artwork I felt quite privileged to see another side of my student’s personalities and skills.  Finally, I was impressed by the written reflections that accompanied these pieces.  This was probably the element of the assignment I was most worried about because at the end of the day I really do have to assess evidence of their learning regarding critical peace and conflict studies.  This wasn’t an art contest after all, and I was worried that students would get carried away with the ‘fun’ side of the project and forget that there still had to be a high level of intellectual rigour.  In reality, their written pieces were even more impressive than the artwork (but probably not as exciting to show in my blog!)

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The Western Sledgehammer (Jason Mah, 2015)

Academically speaking choosing this assignment was  successful on two fronts—it improved and illustrated their learning of at least two topics explored in the seminar series and required them to consider multiple themes simultaneously. Of course the other assignments also promoted this learning objective and I was equally impressed  by the creativity and academic standards in several traditional essays this semester too.  For example,  I was properly schooled by an undergraduate on Laclau, already one of my favorite theorists who I now see in a new light thanks to this student’s analysis.  More importantly, what this assignment facilitated was having students communicate their knowledge in an alternative way.  Although it is just as unlikely that they will literally paint a picture as it is that they will write a 3000 word essay to convince a future employer or colleague of anything (bar  staying in academia or a being employed by a think tank), this assignment forced them to consider the strengths and limitations of different modes of communicating complex ideas to a non-academic audience.picture4x

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Images above are samples of a palimpsest (Queena Lau, 2015)

 

On a more personal note, many students also expressed to me how they had always loved producing art or music but since starting university hadn’t really had the chance to be creative—the demands of academic life often making it hard to keep up with personal hobbies (somewhat concerning really that university is having this impact on young people). They appreciated the opportunity to return to something that they had not found time to do in a while.  On a purely selfish note, I benefitted from the fact that I had real diversity in my stack of marking to complete over the Christmas break!  A mix of case study portfolios, theoretical essays, paintings, drawings, graphic designs, and musical compositions made my least favorite part of this job actually enjoyable, as a wider range of issues, cases and modes of expression filled my days.

 

*** Many thanks to my students who allowed me to use the images of their work above.

Forget it, I’m not following the lesson plan today: An unscripted conversation on violence, terrorism, religion and fear

Things were ticking along nicely during my Monday morning lecture. Short reading quiz—tick. Get up to Slide 5 in powerpoint-lecture on IR Theory by the first break—tick. Start prepping TAs on logistics of running the post-break simulation on sovereignty during the break—ti…. Interrupted by lingering student who clearly had a question to ask.

The question of course was about what happened in France over the weekend. The attacks that killed over 100 (mostly young) people doing things that my students do on a regular basis without any fear—drinking at a bar, eating at a café, going to a concert, attending a football match. As I talked about the different ways we could address his question and noticed the other students who had begun to linger as we talked, I realized this was a conversation I should be having with the whole group, not just the four or so who were now stood around me.

I looked at my remaining slides, I looked at the simulation on sovereignty/humanitarian intervention I had so carefully crafted and printed for them.   I realized that as much as I needed to ‘teach them the basics’, there was a potential for them to learn a lot more about the world today by have a totally unscripted conversation. So, in both my classes that day I ditched the last half of my lesson plan and my TAs and I simply answered questions the students had about what was going on in the world.

I have to say, I was a bit nervous. The attacks, terrorism, religion, military interventions, immigration—if my Facebook page and the conversations (nay I say, fights) that were happening there were anything to go by, this could get messy, and fast. But it didn’t. My students asked incredible questions focused on understanding the situation not simply reacting to it. My TAs responded with honesty (some things we just don’t know) and a recognition of the deep divides that exist in our field and in the public domain about many of the questions the students had (often noting things were ‘just their opinion’ and pointing to a range of ideas and arguments that exist, without judgement of those ideas).

But it was more than just a QnA. Reflecting on this after classes were done for the day, I realized how much students had learned about the social sciences more generally—the kinds and types of debates we have that they are now participating in.   They came to realize how global problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, how evidence for ‘competing truths’ can be found. In terms of learning about politics, they came face to face with so many of the issues we’ve been talking about this term—power in all its guises, authority, freedom, sovereignty, civil society.

It has made me question the whole way I have approached teaching this course. I teach it thematically, Week One: Power, Week Two: The State and so on and so forth. Would it possibly make more sense to teach politics through real political events? The ‘themes’ would likely expose themselves regardless—though it would take more time and care on my part to really draw these out each week and to ensure students were not only learning about the event, but also the crucial ‘political science canon’ that I am supposed to be providing them with. It would mean a rewrite of my course and an acceptance that these unscripted conversations might take us to places my powerpoint slides are not ready to take us to!

Below is just a small glimpse of the questions asked along with some bullet points on political themes and debates that we were able to have because of those questions. I’ll be looking back on this experience to consider how I might bring in more current events to my teaching in a way that is meaningful and doesn’t take away from the other ‘content’ that they also need to learn. While the timeframe didn’t allow me to go into great detail on any of the below— it did allow me to introduce new concepts and debates and make links to a wide range of concepts we’ve already covered during the term. For me, it really taught me the value of unscripted conversations with students.

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  1. Is there going to be another World War? This question allowed us to talk about who has the power to define and label political events; the criteria used to classify wars; the shift in thinking about war as something between states as opposed to something that also involves non-state actors; the difficulties political scientists have in making predictions
  2. Why did they (ISIS or the extremists) do this? What do they want? This question allowed us to talk about religion/identity and politics (what different theories tell us about the role of religion and identity in relation to war); the heterogeneity found within all religions; Islamophobia; the central role that power has in political science and the understanding of different ways of acquiring it—both legitimate and illegitimate; the politics of fear.
  3. Why are we seeing so much about France!? What about what happened in Turkey last month, Lebanon the night before etc etc etc? Why don’t people care about these other cases?  Probably one of the most difficult questions, this discussion helped students recognize the importance of being specific in our questions—the reasons individuals vs the media vs states ‘care’ about a political issue is quite varied. It also allowed us to raise issues of power, wealth (and the connection between the two), the salience of our different identities as well as difficult questions regarding stereotyping, racism and ‘othering’.
  4. What will we can we do to stop ISIS? This question was probably most clearly linked to our topic of the day and we tried to answer it by bringing in theories liberalism and realism in IR.   It also allowed us to again think about the nature of state vs non-state actors (and the relationship between them); I was also able to introduce ideas found in strategic studies—(air campaigns vs ground campaigns, counterinsurgency) as well as my own research interests of peacebuilding and pacifism.
  5. What can we do to stop Islamophobia? My students are rightly disgusted by the recent and ongoing attacks they are seeing around the globe but at the same time many voiced fear over the Islamophobia that is also emerging (there is nothing contradictory in holding these two positions at the same time). This was one of the harder ones for me to talk about for personal reasons—and was actually a great opportunity to frame my own thinking on the problem rationally, conceptually, without flying into a blind range. My TAs took the lead and handled it like stars—linking it to conversations around domestic politics, elections, ‘othering’ and civil society movements.

 

 

A luddite starts ‘flipping’: The beginning of a technophobe’s e-learning journey

At the end of year dinner organized by some of my students I won two awards, voted on by this years’ Vantage Arts cohort. The first was ‘Most Visited Professor’ (in office hours) and the latter was for the prof who made the ‘Best use of Technology’. Now, prior to announcing this latter award the MCs made clear that this could be an ironic, or comical award. Many student’s smiles and eyes immediately turned to me.   The winner was announced and I made my way up to the front to collect my ‘award’. I wasn’t offended at all, it showed a good sense of humour from my students and I am well aware that technology is not my friend (I myself would joke about my lack of abilities in class).

I struggled with nearly all of the computer/projector systems in my classes this year. To be fair every room I taught in had a different IT set up that required different cables and had a different process for sending things to the screen. Not what you need when you already hate technology. It probably didn’t help that two of my colleagues who also teach in the program are great with technology and did some pretty interesting stuff this year which made my efforts look pretty amateurish.

On top of this, I’ll admit it, I am just not a huge believer of ‘technology in the classroom’. There. I said it. Controversial.   A few concerns have placed me in this camp. I won’t bore you with them all, but here’s a few nuggets—particularly around the pressure to ‘flip’ my classrooms. The move towards a ‘flipped classroom’ largely (but not exclusively) involves creating videos of lecture material for students to watch prior to coming to class, thereby freeing up time from lecturing to engage in more active learning (AL) pedagogies. Now, I’m a fan and make use of a lot active learning strategies so this initially seems very attractive to me.

However, I currently intersperse ‘mini-lectures’ (between 5-30 minutes of lecturing) with a range of AL approaches (pair-shares, simulations, problem based learning etc). The lecture material is therefore fresh in students’ minds moving into the active learning. These AL techniques only work (in my mind) if students have the foundational knowledge to engage in them. If they’ve a) not watched the video in their own time or b) too much time has passed between watching the video and the activity, I feel I may as well throw the activities out the window. I’ll likely still have to do a quick run through of the material anyway to make sure we are all on the same page, so what’s the point of the fancy video productions?

Another one of my colleagues noted they were worried that students might become ‘obsessed’ with the videos, memorizing the content of the videos alone, and focusing on these before midterms and exams and not focusing on the active learning activities that accompany the videos in class. Given that it is the latter pedagogies where critical thinking skills develop, this concerned us. In creating videos we are in a sense reifying a very limited type of knowledge and given that this can be played repeatedly (unlike the AL activities) there is a concern that students will over-value these.

This all culminates in my (perhaps somewhat petulant child/cranky old prof personae) a belief that ‘one can’t learn about politics by staring at a screen’. You learn about politics by discussing, by ‘playing with ideas’ with others, by doing. I’d rather my students spend their time outside of class discussing politics with their mates in the café/pub than staring at a computer screen.  I suppose the lefty in me is also thinking about the growth of the neo-liberal university, where the goals of increasing student numbers and fees risks overtaking the goals of student learning and progress more generally. While it is perhaps silly to suggest that videos will every fully replace live academic bodies, I still wonder/worry about the repercussions on both students (and indeed the hiring of full time teaching staff) with the move towards technology and e-learning.

Now, despite my philosophical/political concerns AND (more importantly) my total lack of technological skills, I am taking a slow and cautious start towards a flipped classroom and greater integration of technology. With my newly hired Academic Assistant, I’ll be (voluntarily) working to slowly increase the use of technology in my classroom. Why you ask? Well, all of my above concerns are purely theoretical, and perhaps based more on my own fears and biases than experiences of technology not actually being pedagogically useful.* So like a good political scientist I will experiment, analyse and report back. I’ve decided to make use of three technologies this year

  1. A small number of bespoke videos produced specifically for my classes
  2. Integration of quizzes and opinion polls during lectures via our iClicker system
  3. Inclusion of twitter feeds in lectures to share information and gather student responses

Students should not expected to see all of these in all my classes, but I’ll be doing a pilot this year with some of these scattered throughout my various courses. Wish me luck, check back for updates and analysis and in the meantime enjoy (for the hilarity and sense of my current technological skill level), my first foray into making videos—the output of my initial training session with our wonderful Curriculum Manager, Brian.

*There is a wealth of research on flipped classrooms. Here are a few sources I have found useful:

Yarbro J, Arfstrom, AM, McKnight K and McKnight P (2014) Extension of a Review of Flipped Learning. Flipped Learning Network. Available at http://flippedlearning.org/cms/lib07/VA01923112/Centricity/Domain/41/Extension%20of%20FLipped%20Learning%20LIt%20Review%20June%202014.pdf

Enfiled, J (2013) ‘Looking at the Impact of the Flipped Classroom Model of Instruction on Undergraduate Multi Media Students at CSUN’ TechTrends 57(6) 14-27

Roehl A, Reddy SL and Shannon GJ (2013) ‘The Flipped Classroom: An Opportunity to Engage Millennial Students Through Active Learning’ Journal of Family and Consumer Strategies, 102(2), 44-49.