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Navigating the virtual political science classroom
Teaching with technology has been brought into the spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic. But alongside the challenges of having to navigate a territory that was new for many, the shift to teaching online has prompted us to rethink the way we teach and to put more effort into designing a worthwhile learning experience for our students.
Let’s take a moment to think about technology as an enabler, rather than an obstacle:
- Technology connects: it enables inter-university projects, it helps build bridges between academia and the labour market, it provides a dynamic and innovative learning space where students can integrate different perspectives and connect theory with their own experience.
- Technology facilitates the learning process: it helps create a flexible teaching and learning environment that can be more inclusive and accessible than traditional spaces, it provides opportunities to seamlessly integrate independent and collaborative learning.
In order to make the most of what technology has to offer we need to focus less on the tools and more on the learning process.
Teaching online asynchronously
Contrary to what we, as teachers, tend to believe, learning can also take place when we are not around. Of course, this requires a bit more effort upfront, at the course design stage, but it almost always pays off. When teaching online, interaction in all its forms needs to be carefully and intentionally planned and clearly communicated to students.
Good online learning does not have to be (only) synchronous. An alternative approach, which often proves to be more flexible and accessible, is designing a mix of learning experiences that provide students with a variety of learning paths to navigate through the course. The key is finding a balance between passive and active learning, individual and group activities as well as independent, peer-reviewed and collaborative tasks. One important thing to consider is making sure students are not overloaded. You can read more about estimating time and workload for both you and your students here, including some useful tools and resources. While designing individual activities is important, structuring the course and being mindful about the sequence of learning activities also plays an important role. Ideally they build naturally on each other and the connections between them are clear to the students. Last but not least, remember to be present! Asynchronous online learning offers a variety of ways to scaffold students’ learning and provide timely feedback in a seamless way, throughout the course.
Learning objectives in politics and International Relations
When designing a course, the most important thing to keep in mind at all stages are the learning objectives. Assessment modes, teaching and learning methods and tools need to align closely with these objectives. In politics and IR we can identify a variety of learning goals, but among the most important ones are: understanding complex concepts and processes, applying theoretical concepts to practice, engagement with political actors and current events as well as training skills like critical thinking, building and defending an argument.
Technology can be used in various ways to support students in achieving these objectives. Below you can read about two activities that speak to more than one of the above mentioned goals. They provide a space for both interaction and reflection, for engaging with the content of the course and with real life events but also for personal learning.
Bringing “real world” into the virtual classroom
Facilitating the interaction between students and practitioners can bring real added value to the politics classroom. There are a few things to keep in mind when designing a learning activity involving experts from your field. First of all, and perhaps most importantly: the practitioner’s intervention should be meaningful four your students’ learning journey. It needs to come at the right time, complement your teaching and provide students with access to new knowledge and expertise, or a different perspective. Embedding this activity in your course is equally important. Make sure the dialogue with the practitioner is connected to the other course activities and make these links explicit to students.
Think of ways to make sure that students make the most of this interaction. Announce it well in advance (building it in the syllabus is a great idea), build in time to prepare- and provide supporting materials/prompts- and don’t forget to include a debriefing and/or reflection part. Communication plays an important part, both with students and with practitioners. The objective of the activity needs to be clear and the expectations made explicit. Also, try to be mindful of time and come up with a clear schedule in advance. This will definitely help you get busy experts on board.
Technology offers some advantages for including practitioners in your course. The flexibility in terms of time and location, as well as the multimodality provided by various platforms have the potential to make the interaction more accessible to students and practitioners alike. It does not necessarily need to be a webinar! Some asynchronous ways to interact can be as valuable, if not more- for instance discussion forums or pre-recorded videos/podcasts. They provide students with more time to prepare and learn from each other as well as from the experts. One last crucial point: be there! Your role is very important, from the design of the activity to moderating the discussion and making sure you bring students back to your course through reflection and debriefing.
For a practical example of a learning activity involving practitioners, watch this short video where I explain “Expert in residence”, an asynchronous activity I’ve been using successfully in my EU policy-making courses.
The ePortfolio as a personal learning space
The ePortfolio is another versatile tool that facilitates independent learning. It may sound intimidating if you never used it before but try to look at it like this: it is a learning space where students do research, build and share knowledge in a personalised way. This can take the form of a blog, a website or a diary, the technology is not the most important thing here. Just let them use whatever tools they are most familiar with. The crucial thing is designing the task in such a way that it encourages students to use their digital skills (and their time online) to advance their learning in your course. The biggest benefit of the ePortfolio, in my opinion, is that it can be a space of reflection, thus also allowing us, as instructors, to follow students’ learning as an ongoing process, and not only by reading their final exams.
I find this tool very useful for a variety of course setups, but particularly where comparative or case study approaches are used, as students can each research and document in depth one specific case (can be a country, an institution, etc). ePortfolios can be used as a learning activity throughout the semester (ideally with weekly or bi-weekly tasks) and can also count as a final assignment; the important thing is to provide formative feedback along the way and also to encourage peer feedback.
These are only two examples of versatile tools to use asynchronously in online courses. They can provide rewarding learning experiences, for teachers and students alike. They do require some more time at the design stage, and will probably reach their full potential only after a few iterations. But with a bit of curiosity, risk-taking and patience you may just find out that there is more to online learning than you initially thought. The key is to challenge your students, let them be creative, and most importantly- trust them.
Dr. Alexandra Mihai is Learning Designer at University College London (UCL). Her work focuses on designing engaging learning experiences using digital tools. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Anda19 and read her blog.