Welcome to the Active Learning in Political Science © blog.  Our goal is to provide resources and ideas for using active learning techniques in the political science classroom and to promote general discussion about innovative teaching methods.

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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.

Posted in Activities, and Simulations, Assessment, Exercises, Information Literacy, Large Classes, Simon Usherwood, Skills, Social Networking/Media, Technology, Writing | Leave a comment

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?


Posted in Chad Raymond, Academia, Assessment, Technology, Learning, Curricula, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Activities, Amanda Rosen, Chad Raymond, Information Literacy, Nina Kollars, Simon Usherwood, Technology, Victor Asal | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Handling feedback

At the end of last week, I got my first ever bit of listener feedback (family members not included).


Hello? Hello?

From time to time, I get asked to opine on the local BBC radio station on matters of local and national importance. It’s a good way to engage with our community and a good opportunity for me to practise speaking off-the-cuff, since we don’t rehearse the questions beforehand.

Any how, this time I was being asked about a change in policy by the leadership of the County Council on personal allowances. This followed a bit of a campaign by local media, which I’d noticed at the time, but not fully explored, as it’s not particularly relevant to my research or teaching.

So on I went, talked about how I saw it all and what was at work here (media pressure, internal party dissent, etc.). The presenter seemed happy, so job done.

But when I arrived at the office, there was a voicemail waiting for me.

The caller introduced herself as the mother of someone thinking of coming to study with us, and said she was concerned by my ‘simplistic’ analysis of the case. She knew someone involved, who had told her that there was some personal politics to the whole situation and that this was the main driver of the change in policy. She was concerned that all our teaching might suffer from such over-simplification. Her sign-off was “that’s just something I wanted to say, so thank you.”

I found this really frustrating, on a number of levels.

Firstly, while I was happy to accept that I had simplified matters, especially as I was ignorant of the factor she mentioned, I did feel that not to have mentioned something that is not in the public domain (and I checked) was a bit harsh. Highly popular as I am, I don’t have contacts in the local Tory party, so I was being judged by a yardstick that I would struggle to attain.

Secondly, the linkage between what I said in a radio interview of 3 minutes and what I might say in a module with 22 contact hours, assorted online work and other activities seems tenuous. Sadly, I’ve now done enough media to know that interviewers are looking for brevity and conciseness, rather than endless nuance. Likewise, I’ve certainly done enough teaching to know how to use the time available to maximise student reflection and criticality, so that anything I contribute is dealt with in a considered manner.

And thirdly, the lady didn’t leave me any good option for talking with her about it. She’d expressed an opinion, I would like to respond to it, but unless I can get the radio station to broadcast an appeal for her to phone me back, I’m left with writing this post instead. If we’d been able to talk, then I might have been able to talk it through: that would be partly to reassure her about her daughter’s education with us, but more to talk through her understanding of the original story.

All of this clearly relates back to how we deal with students. Do we evaluate students on an equitable basis? Do we extrapolate unfairly from individual incidents? And do we provide means to continue the dialogue with the student?

Each of these questions needs to be considered when giving feedback, so it’s worth spending some time reflecting on it. Addressing them isn’t that difficult, but it’s also easy for us to forget that often we will have access to privileged information that’s not generally known, or that we often see the feedback form as the end of matters, rather than a beginning.

Ultimately then, the feedback I got has been of use, because it’s helped me share the wider point with you. I’d still like to talk with the caller, though.

Posted in Activities, Feedback & Reflection, Simon Usherwood | 3 Comments

Grokking Nutella Worldview Synergies

ClippyMy wife is the first person who told me that writing is a way of thinking and therefore also a way of learning. If she’s correct, Microsoft faces trouble ahead, and I’m not referring to just the thousands of employees who are losing their jobs. A few days ago the Chronicle of Higher Education published this excellent commentary on the turgid and vapid prose the company’s new CEO, Satya Nadella. The style in which the memo is written sends a very bad message about corporate culture at Microsoft, and it’s a good demonstration of why writing skills matter in the post-college world.

Posted in Chad Raymond, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Response to Teaching Women

In reference to Mallendo’s post about gender in the discipline and in the classroom, I run into the same problem. Approximately 65 percent of the students on my campus are female and my classes mirror this gender ratio. I don’t specifically address gender in my comparative politics course but I do make an effort to include literature written by people who are not Caucasian males with U.S. nationality. In terms of female authors, this has included:

In the past I have also assigned some of Elinor Ostrom’s work in a graduate course. But in general, it’s been difficult finding high-quality literature relevant to my course written by women in a field that is dominated by men.

Posted in Chad Raymond, Comparative Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Women: Gender in the discipline and in the classroom

Two of the courses that I teach annually are in a live-and-learn leadership program for freshman women (wlp.gwu.edu).  The two courses (Introduction to Comparative Politics in the fall and Introduction to International Politics in the spring) have about 20 students, all women who live together and take an additional course together.  In the four years I’ve taught in the program, I have started to pay more attention to ways that gender matters in teaching political science.  This manifests itself in a few ways that I think are worthwhile for others who don’t teach in a similar environment but are interested in questions of gender equality.  

First, I noticed that it is not standard for comparative politics textbooks to discuss gender in any depth.  For the upcoming semester, I found a textbook that has a chapter on race and gender, which is a good start.  I will supplement it, as I’ve done in the past, with a few scholarly articles.  I tend to focus on institutional questions, mainly the variation in women’s representation across countries.  One of the group debates this semester (a regular assignment in this class) will be on the use of gender quotas.  In an introductory course, I can only scratch the surface (further limited by the fact that this is not my area of expertise), but it gives the students a foundation for thinking about gender as a comparative politics topic.

Another conscious change that I’ve made in my teaching is to strive for more balance in the authors I assign.  There was recently a great deal of blogging about the gender gap in the scholarship of political science (in particular, the excellent Monkey Cage symposium).  One suggestion that came out of this discussion was to include more women scholars on our syllabi, particularly in graduate courses.  I don’t teach graduate courses, but I think it’s valuable to present undergraduates with women scholars on equal footing with the men on the syllabus.  I am still amazed at how many of my students will still default to “he” when discussing an author’s work in class.  I hope repeated exposure to women scholars changes this default.

No doubt these are small changes (and there are many other issues related to gender in teaching and in the discipline), but if I’m teaching a group of women in a leadership program, the least I can do is expose them to issues of gender in political science and give them some tools to analyze these issues.  I’ve carried this over into other courses I teach.  I’d love to hear how others incorporate gender into their courses. 

Posted in Teaching, Women | 1 Comment