Co-authored with Andreea Nâstase, originally published by the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog on 9 May 2022.
Podcasts are rapidly becoming an important medium, with over 400 million podcast listeners worldwide projected for this year. Search for “podcast higher education” in Spotify and you’ll find yourself scrolling for quite a while until you reach the end of the list. But it isn’t that long ago that podcasts were still a relatively unknown medium.
Indeed, in their still rather recent 2010 article on using podcasting in teaching and learning, Jason Ralph, Naomi Head, and Simon Lightfoot start of by explaining that “The term ‘Podcast’ is derived from ‘iPod’ (which is the portable multimedia player from Apple) and ‘broadcast’ (Lim, 2006).” Since then, researchers have investigated many aspects of using podcasts in teaching and learning. Lucy Taylor and colleagues have for instance looked at how podcasts might support self-study in active learning environments. And avid teaching and learning bloggers such as Alexandra Mihai and Simon Usherwood have discussed the pros & cons and do’s & don’ts of podcasting.
We have both only recently started to use podcasts. Patrick started podcasting in late 2020, in the BA European Studies course ‘Working with Research Problems’. The aim of this podcast is, in the words of Mihai, to “shape and sustain the overall narrative of the course”. Since early 2021 Patrick makes podcasts to accompany the deadlines for the BA European Studies thesis. Here the focus us rather on “providing instruction and guidance” (again, dixit Mihai). Andreea has been using podcasts since early 2022, in the BA European Studies course ‘Constructing Europe’. The aim of this podcasts series – which has been produced with the support of an EDLAB Education Innovation Grant – is in line with Taylor and colleagues, namely to bring in experts and add additional context to the course.
Based on our experience, here are a couple of things to consider when you want to start producing podcasts for your course.
We’ve both enjoyed working with podcasts and on average the feedback has been positive. So, we would definitely advise you to consider using podcasts too. Perhaps we could do a podcasts series at programme or faculty level as a means to discuss contemporary developments and/or promote our research?
In any case, if you would like to find out more about podcasting, please note that Andreea will be sharing her experience during the FASoS Teaching & Learning Festival on 16 June 2022.
Co-authored with Arjan H. Schakel, originally published by Active Learning in Political Science on 25 March 2022.
In one of his recent contributions to this blog, Chad asks why students should attend class. In his experience "[C]lass attendance and academic performance are positively correlated for the undergraduate population that I teach. But I can’t say that the former causes the latter given all of the confounding variables."
The question whether attendance matters often pops up, reflected in blog posts, such as those by Chad and by Patrick’s colleague Merijn Chamon, and in recent research articles on the appropriateness of mandatory attendance and on student drop-out. In our own research we present strong evidence that attendance in a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) environment matters, also for the best students, and that attending or not attending class also has an influence on whether international classroom exchanges benefit student learning.
Last year we reported on an accidental experiment in one of Patrick’s courses that allowed us to compare the impact of attendance and the submissions of tasks in online and on-campus groups in Maastricht University’s Bachelor in European Studies. We observed that that attendance appeared to matter more for the on-campus students, whereas handing in tasks was important for the online students.
This year the same course was fully taught on-campus again, although students were allowed to join online when they displayed symptoms of or had tested positive for Covid-19 (this ad-hoc online participation was, unfortunately, not tracked). We did the same research again and there are some notable conclusions to be drawn.
In the first-year BA course that we looked at, students learn how to write a research proposal (see here). The course is set up as a PBL course, so it does not come as a big surprise that attendance once again significantly impacted students’ chances of passing the course.
Figure 1 displays the impact of the number of attended meetings on the probability that a student will pass for the course. Not surprisingly, the impact of attendance is large, a student who attends only one meeting is quite certain to fail (35% to pass) whereas a student who attends all meetings is quite certain to pass (70%).
Notes: Shown are the predicted probabilities and their 95% confidence intervals. The results are based on a logit model whereby 175 students are clustered by 18 tutor groups and that includes the attended number of meetings and the number of tasks that were handed-in and their interaction. All the differences between the predicted probabilities are statistically significantly different from each (p < 0.01).
Figure 2 displays the impact of the number of tasks that are handed-in on the probability to pass for the course. The impact of the number of handed-in tasks is also large, a student who hands in only one task is quite certain to fail (34% to pass) whereas a student who hands-in all tasks is quite certain to pass (76%).
Comparing the impacts of attendance and handing in assignments we observe that attendance matters as much as handing in assignments, but a significant interaction effect signals that both strengthen each other. In Table 1 we display the impact of attendance and handing-in tasks on the probability to pass for the course. Most students (112/175 = 64%) attended 4 to 6 meetings and handed-in 5 to 7 tasks. Hence, we zoom in on these students to disentangle the separate impact of attendance and tasks handed-in.
Notes: Shown are the predicted probabilities and their 95% confidence intervals. The results are based on a logit model that includes an interaction effect between the attended number of meetings and the number of tasks that were handed-in and whereby 175 students are clustered by 18 tutor groups. All the differences between the predicted probabilities are statistically significantly different from each (p < 0.05; except for when the number of attended meetings is 4: p < 0.10).
The differences between predicted probabilities for 5 and 7 handed-in tasks ranges between 8% when a student attended 4 meetings to 15% when a student attended 6 meetings. This impact is significant but also a bit smaller than the impact of attendance. The differences between predicted probabilities for 4 and 6 attended meetings ranges between 13% when a student handed-in 5 tasks to 20% when a student handed-in 7 tasks.
An important take-away message from Table 1 is that attendance and handing-in tasks reinforce each other. That is, the impact of attendance is larger when a student hands-in more tasks (i.e. from 8% to 15% is 7% increase), and the impact of handed-in tasks is larger for students who attend more meetings (i.e. from 13% to 20% is 7% increase).
Notes: Shown are predicted probabilities and their 95% confidence intervals. The results are based on a logit model whereby 175 students are clustered by 18 tutor groups. The model includes the attended number of meetings (att) and the number of tasks type I and tasks type II and their interactions. All the differences between the predicted probabilities are statistically significantly different from each other for tasks type-I when a student attends 5 or 6 meetings (p < 0.01). None of the differences between the predicted probabilities are statistically significant for tasks type II.
We further explore the impact of handing-in tasks by looking at the impact of the type of tasks (Figure 3). The first group concerns general writing tasks that were specifically discussed in class, but students didn’t receive written feedback from tutors (tasks type I). The second group concerns writing tasks that directly prepared for the final course research proposal. These tasks were not specifically discussed in class, but students receive extensive written feedback from tutors (tasks type II).
Whereas one may expect that tasks type II mattered most given that they prepare for the final exam, we actually find that their effect was negligible. At the same time, handing in task type I assignments – those discussed in class, without written feedback – did have a positive effect on chances of passing the course. We explain this striking result by one of the core elements of PBL, namely effective learning occurs through collaboration. While discussing a wide range of students’ assignments in class (tasks type I) students do not only learn and reflect on their own assignment but also from those of their fellow students. This increases their understanding of what is good academic writing and what is not.
These striking results also raise interesting questions regarding writing assignments, staff feedback and workload and how these issues should be dealt with in an active learning environment such as PBL. Perhaps writing assignments – in different forms – can be integrated more into class discussions, decreasing the workload that normally comes with giving feedback on individual writing assignments?
Co-authored with Talischa Schilder and Johan Adriaensen, originally published by Wonkhe on 9 March 2022.
The Covid crisis has both highlighted and challenged the marketisation of universities.
Students have gone on rent strikes demanding a reduction of their tuition fees – as customers, they are not satisfied with the service that they have paid for.
An important aspect of the marketisation of universities is how these institutions generate their income. After reforms by David Cameron’s cabinet, government funding has become principally linked to the number of admitted students, further raising the bar of tuition fees.
Consequently, UK universities compete on the education “market” for a higher number of enrolled students or a quality premium for their services to generate more income. So what may help to entice student-customers to pay such high fees?
Have it your way
Many argue that the incorporation of elective or module choice into a programme is a strategy that will attract a higher number of enrolled students. The thinking goes that students are responsible for their learning experience and are thought to be rational-thinking individuals, capable of choosing what suits them best.
In this framing, freedom of choice creates a sense of autonomy that attracts student-customers. In other words, the student is the customer, and the customer is king.
Curriculum flexibility is supposed to not only raise student satisfaction ratings, but also an institution’s brand strength, ranking and reputation. These factors, in turn, boost the number of student applications and ultimately the institution’s revenue stream.
But is that how it works in practice?
Back here in the real world
We have analysed ninety-three undergraduate programmes in Political Science and International Relations across the UK. In the figure below, we have plotted the programmes’ flexibility (percentage of credits that are electives) against student satisfaction as measured by the National Student Survey (NSS) UK.
If there was a connection, we might expect to see data points clustered around a linear upward-sloping graph, but the data is scattered. We acknowledge the widely voiced criticism on the validity of NSS metrics, in particular the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). However, the theory holds that such statistics are quintessential in the public construction of reputation and brand name. We can conclude that curriculum flexibility does not increase student satisfaction nor TEF ratings.
Another important feature of the marketisation of universities is the focus on rankings and reputation as integral to the institution’s brand. Such statistics can serve as a quality guarantee to potential students thereby directing their choice of university.
In theory, older and higher-ranking universities are less exposed to the workings of the free market because their strong brand generates a steady influx of students along with external funding regardless of any marketing strategy. The hypothesis would then be that younger and lower-ranking universities offer a higher degree of flexibility in their undergraduate programmes to attract more students.
But in reality, our research indicates that the higher-ranking universities lean towards a free-elective system. It doesn’t matter if we select the QS Global Ranking, the Times Higher Education World Ranking or the rankings in the Guardian League Table 2020 – lower-ranking universities with a weaker brand name offer relatively rigid undergraduate programmes in comparison to the elite institutions. How do we explain these contrasting results?
Older and higher-ranking universities are known to enjoy larger financial resources. Therefore, these institutions are able to provide a study programme with more free electives and specialisation courses in comparison to younger and lower-ranking universities. Deeper pockets enable a higher staff – student ratio. It enables senior academics to teach electives on their field of expertise, leaving the prescribed subjects to the teaching assistants.
Within the academic debate, curriculum flexibility is associated with the marketisation of universities, which could lead to the pursuit of revenue as primary interest at the cost of the quality guaranteed in a prescribed curriculum. However, our research suggests that the incorporation of elective / optional courses / modules into undergraduate programmes is better understood as a premium, “luxury” service.
While “develop your own curriculum” is a catchphrase on many university websites to woo the potential student-applicant, curriculum flexibility is not associated with higher student satisfaction. Instead, it is an organisational trait associated with (past) wealth that is actively marketed. Considering the financial constraints under which (smaller) universities operate, and more specifically the tenuous position of Political Science programmes, we caution against emulating the flexible curricula employed by higher ranking institutions. It is not the silver bullet many may be looking for.
Originally published by the DCU Brexit Blog on 19 January 2022.
After a record 271 days of negotiations a new Dutch coalition government took office on Monday 10 January. Although, is it really new? The same four parties that formed the previous government – Christian-Democratic CDA, Christian CU, Social-Liberal D66 and Conservative-Liberal VVD – are also in the new government. Yet, it does come with many new faces and plans. This includes what is at first sight a rather different approach towards the EU.
In the recent past the Netherlands has become known as a reluctant EU member, particularly following ‘Black Monday’ in 1991, when an ambitious Dutch blueprint for a federal Europe was rejected, and the Dutch ‘No’ to the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, partly due to increased dissatisfaction with the pace and extent of European integration. Whether the Dutch ever were passionate believers in European integration before that time, may be questioned. But the country having become known as a member of the ‘New Hanseatic League’ and one of the ‘Frugal Four’ (for an insightful study, see here), it seemed almost like it had become a UK lite, stepping into the gap that occurred after Brexit to become perhaps the most Eurosceptic member of the EU.
It therefore may come as a surprise that the new coalition agreement reads that “The Netherlands will play a leading role in making the EU more effective, economically stronger, greener and more secure.” But there’s more.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding; these are words on paper and reality may be quite different. But, as Rem Korteweg of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael also noted in a recent Twitter thread, some of the wording of the Dutch coalition agreement is quite similar to that of the new German government. Unlike the German government, the Dutch are not calling for a federal EU. But with the French and the Germans now seeing eye-to-eye on a number of EU reforms, the similarity between the two coalition agreements suggests that the new Dutch government may have become a Germany lite that will no longer put a break on the further development of the EU.
Originally published by the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog on 4 November 2021.
When our BA European Studies (ES) started in 2002, I embarked on a job as teaching assistant at FASoS. A crazy time, but also a fun and rewarding one. I was the only teaching assistant back then. Today, teaching assistants (usually recent MA graduates) play a central role in BA level teaching, and, in contrast to what the job title suggests, they teach the full course, are responsible for the proceedings of their tutorials, and are engaged in course assessment.
I’ve just started teaching and coordinating two courses in period 2. One of these is a first-year BA ES course that I’m teaching together with seven colleagues, all of whom are teaching assistants, and six of whom have only just started work at the faculty. In my experience teaching assistants often do a wonderful job. Nevertheless, there are also important drawbacks: for them, because in a problem-based learning (PBL) environment teaching is a team effort and a balanced team of young and experienced colleagues stimulates development and sharing of best practices; for coordinators, because the heavy reliance on teaching assistants ups the stakes for coordination.
This situation now arises every first year in the BA ES and is also increasingly having an impact at the other end of the programme. Last August I had to assign no less than 26 new BA thesis first and second readers because some teaching assistants had found another job, but many more simply were at the end of their contract. Given our reliance on teaching assistants and with another ‘Erkennen & Waarderen’ (Recognition & Rewards) event just around the corner, it’s high time we talk about the future of teaching assistants at FASoS.
To me ‘Erkennen & Waarderen’ is all about valuing different careers in academia; something that is more attuned to reality at many universities. But most of the discussions so far concern staff who have obtained a PhD (or are in the process of doing so). But what about teaching assistants? Each year FASoS hires new teaching assistants on temporary contracts to replace others who often have become excellent teachers with a wealth of experience and valuable insights into PBL, but whose contracts have expired. Isn’t that a waste?
The argument for temporary contracts is usually twofold: teaching assistants can’t stay in academia without a PhD, and ‘we’ don’t want to determine their careers for them. The latter I find most puzzling. Some teaching assistants may actually have the ambition to teach, so is it then up to us to end contracts after 3-4 years? This argument also presupposes that teaching delivery is the only thing that they can do. But is that really the case?
Teaching assistants already coordinate courses in our BA programmes and even the PBL & Tutor Training for new staff. I have co-developed course materials with teaching assistants, but they can also help improve assessment and develop innovative practices – after all, teaching assistants follow the University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) programme which prepares them for such tasks. Perhaps they could even assist in teaching and learning research; find relevant literature, gather data, even publish together with FASoS staff who are already engaged in such research (who knows, this may eventually turn into a PhD after all!).
Of course, constantly fluctuating students numbers require a degree of flexibility. But wouldn’t we want to keep the best teaching assistants, for instance by having one vacancy every year or every second year? This offers security and a chance to build a strong CV, even when they want to move on after a few years – by all accounts it can be quite challenging to find another job after 3-4 years of teaching. We would, of course, have to determine what criteria ‘the best’ would have to meet, but there is lots of literature that could help in designing such career paths and the accompanying training.
I know that there are quite a few of you who share my view, but some of you might consider this to be the death of academia as we know it. But do teaching assistants need a PhD to teach in our BA programmes? Course evaluations certainly suggest that this may not be the case – not a surprise given that teaching in PBL is about more than substantive knowledge only. And wouldn’t we all benefit from holding on to the best ones? Experienced teachers can also contribute to coordinative and research duties. This would alleviate pressure on coordinators in our BA programmes, but also save others time and effort to continuously train new staff. Time and effort which are not acknowledged in SOLVER hours, but which would decrease demands on research time.
Finally, shouldn’t we also recognise teaching assistants’ substantial contribution by rewarding them with a different job title? They don’t just ‘assist’. Indeed, the task description for tutors on our intranet does not distinguish between teaching assistants and other teaching staff. The PBL & Tutor Training and UTQ also prepare them to do the same work as the rest of us. So perhaps instructor, teacher or simply tutor are more fitting job titles?
Co-authored with Simon Lightfoot and originally published by the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog on 24 June 2021.
It’s been over 15 months since we’ve had to suddenly move our courses online. A time during which we have learned many new things about synchronous versus asynchronous learning, about the technicalities of Microsoft Teams and Zoom, but also about the difficulties of maintaining a learning community of students and staff in an online setting.
The two of us have always had an interest in issues pertaining to teaching and learning. Something that we’ve written about (for instance here and here) and also discussed during several conferences (including the first-ever European Teaching & Learning Conference in Maastricht in 2014).
A few months back we were having an online chat about our online teaching and learning experience. We thought that it would be nice to organise a transnational exchange between the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Social Sciences and Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. On 28 May 2021 over 20 colleagues from both faculties, plus a student from each, joint us to reflect on over a year of online teaching and learning. This is what we discussed.
There was a general feeling that technology should not replace the personal touch but can add a personal touch. Many of the participants noted the increased accessibility and flexibility offered by (a)synchronous online teaching. In both faculties, there was a sense that components of active learning pedagogy particularly made online teaching more effective and enjoyable. Some tools allow for more interaction.
Students who might normally be reluctant to ask a question in a large lecture setting, seem to have been more willing to do so in the Zoom chat. Padlet, an online collaboration platform, offers opportunities for students to jointly tackle an assignment or question without the at times awkward setting of the breakout room. In addition, tools such as podcasts and videos allow students to study at their own pace and in their own time, which can be particularly important for those with caring duties or jobs.
The way that technology can unlock time for some students does allow flexible learning to suit the increasingly diverse student body. Lastly, colleagues also observed that more than ever before students thanked staff for their lectures, seminars and workshops. This was very much appreciated in these challenging times.
Participants also noted several challenges pertaining to online teaching and learning. This first and foremost concerned the lack of informal interaction, not just during lectures, seminars and workshops, but also before and after. This can even result in a feeling of isolation that might come with more problems than just a lack of engagement with university. This issue was raised by both academic staff and the two students, Lara and Luke.
Staff also noted the issue of workload. Recording a podcast or a video can be time-consuming and is often not compensated in the same way as an on-campus lecture. In addition, while such asynchronous activities certainly can be a contribution, they often require additional lectures, seminars or workshops to go into detail or to have time for Q&A.
Finally, while more active learning activities were valued, many felt that they came with a need for more scaffolding to help students make the most of online learning. Keeping the balance between student-centred and teacher-led learning was seen as a challenge.
Overall, we found the event very fruitful. And judging from the many positive reactions we received during and after, other participants thought so too. Several important issues were brought to the table, including staff and students’ digital skills, the role of emotions and human interaction, and the issue of workload.
One particularly telling observation was that perhaps the online/face2face dimension is less of an issue in some areas than we first thought. For example, some of the reflections were more about engaging versus non-engaging learning activities rather than online versus face2face and that good pedagogy – whatever the platform – requires structure, ground rules and clear instructions.
Colleagues had embraced the opportunity to adapt teaching formats and activities to make them more engaging. They did this via enhancing student ownership/co-creation, addressing emergent real-world issues such as the COVID pandemic from an interdisciplinary perspective and experimenting with new forms of assessment. Many of these changes indeed do not depend on online or face2face formats, but some elements were easier to organize online, for example creating opportunities for students to consult with external experts.
We are looking into possible follow-up events to address these issues in further detail. Given that both institutions are members of the World University Network, we hope that this is the starting point of a broader discussion, perhaps resulting in a live event in the future. Because, as one of the participants, Alexandra Mihai, has emphasised time and time again in her excellent blog The Educationalist, continuous reflection on teaching and learning is important and something that ideally takes place between colleagues across departmental and even national borders!
About the authors
Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning European Studies at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Simon Lightfoot is Pro Dean for Student Education and Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Social Sciences. In addition to an interest in teaching and learning, Patrick and Simon also share an interest in cycling and a good beer.
This blog was originally published by the DCU Brexit Institute on 24 June 2021.
If there is one thing that has become clear during the long years of Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK, it is that the EU27 – despite their differences – were able to act in a united way when it came to negotiating with a soon-to-be third country. Highlighting the perks of membership has played a role in this. In her 2019 JCMS Annual Review lecture, Brigid Laffan also argued that one of the EU’s strategic goals in this process was “to affirm the Union’s dominance in governing transnational relations in Europe.”
Yet, the two sides continue to haggle about their divorce. While the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force on 1 May 2021, the ongoing discussions about the status of Northern Ireland show that Brexit by no means is a done deal. The divorce came with an agreement to maintain an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to uphold the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Yet, the UK already wants to alter this Protocol as it comes with checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, effectively creating a border within the UK. In the context of the recent G7 summit, UK Brexit negotiator David Frost even attended a meeting wearing Union Jack socks in a not-so-subtle message for the EU.
Whereas the Europeans continue to take a tough negotiating stance affirming their trust in rule-based international relations, the British approach to Northern Ireland might tempt others into trying to get out of existing agreements. If it is so (relatively) easy to undermine an agreement with the EU, wouldn’t other non-EU European countries be willing to do so too? Two recent developments are worth discussing in this context.
First, in late May Switzerland pulled out of negotiations on a detailed partnership agreement with the EU. EU-Swiss relationships have never been straightforward, as illustrated by a range of referendums that had a (potential) impact on dealings between the two. For instance, only in September last year the Swiss rejected a proposal on ending the free movement agreement with the EU in a referendum that “echoed the Brexit vote”, according to The Guardian.
The partnership agreements, negotiations on which have been going in since 2014, were partly an attempt to reduce uncertainty by means of an encompassing agreement that would replace the many existing bilateral agreements. Like in the case of Brexit, here too the debate revolves around the Swiss wanting exemptions from rules that the EU wants to uphold. Foreign Policy columnist Caroline de Gruyter has even called Switzerland the “next big problem” for the EU.
A second example relates to reports that Norwegian opposition parties may want to renegotiate the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement should they get into government. Like Switzerland, Norway may not be an EU member, but it is closely tight to the EU through an intricate web of rules. While the Norwegians voted against EU membership on two occasions in 1972 and 1994, the current situation has been less controversial.
While agriculture and fisheries remain divisive issues, relations with the EU overall remain quite well. Indeed, reflecting on potential similarities with Brexit, John Erik Fossum and Joachim Vigrestad argue that it is unlikely that Norwegian politicians would want to jeopardise relations with the EU. In their view, “the sheer size and magnitude of the EU–Norway power asymmetry” is acknowledged and shapes the Norwegian debate.
Relations between the EU and Norway might be said to differ from those with Switzerland by being more firmly established through the EEA. Yet, recent debates in both countries show that relations with the EU are not uncontested. Brexit may even have put a new spotlight on these debates. Yet, the question is how committed critics are to really change relations with the EU, especially given the economic benefits they have been enjoying so far.
In any case, it is likely that they will encounter an EU that is committed to a united and robust negotiating stance. There is a continued need to reaffirm the value of full membership vis-à-vis ties with the EU as a third country. And while the continuing Brexit saga may heighten hopes in some countries that a new relationship with the EU is possible, it is also likely to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to rule-based relations.
Originally published by Active Learning in Political Science on 23 April 2021.
I was recently asked to test a new touch screen to check its potential contribution to teaching after the Summer. While we’re all hoping to return to on-campus teaching by then, I used the test to get some additional insights about equipment and hybrid teaching. After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned these past few months, it’s that it’s difficult to predict the development of the pandemic.
The new screen is vast, as you can see from the pictures below (and especially so in that relatively small room). It offers all kinds of options, including a decent hand-writing functionality (including a ‘pen’) and opportunities to add additional apps and equipment. This includes, for instance, the use of airplay to connect your Macbook, but also adding dedicated cameras, mics, etc.
But did the screen have an added value?
I first gave a lecture using the screen. Here its added value was quite apparent to me. I was much less bounded by screen and camera than I would ‘normally’ have been by my (home) office set-up. This is despite the latter coming with a fairly large screen, plus a height-adjustable desk. I could easily move around and use much more body language. And when students’ faces popped up on the screen for questions, I had the feeling that we were less detached from each other due to the life-size images. The only drawback was that the screen was hooked on to an ethernet cable, which meant that I could not wirelessly connect my Macbook. But I’ve been told that this is going to be solved soon.
So far, so good.
I also organised two hybrid tutorial sessions in one of our first-year undergrad courses, each with 3 students accompanying me in the room, while the rest were online.* Students were informed in advance that this would be a small pilot. I also informed them about some of the possible complications that we might run into, such as those discussed by Chad last June. You should know that in Maastricht we tend to work with student discussion leaders and notetakers. I specifically instructed the discussion leaders to maintain a connection between online and on-campus students. In addition, I arranged to have an online discussion leader with an on-campus notetaker in my first group, whereas in my second group the discussion leader was on-campus and the notetaker online. This would allow me to see if there is a set-up that works best.
So, how did it go?
I asked students to complete a short survey afterward (20 out of the 24 attending students completed the survey). As expected, they had different views on how the hybrid setting impacted the quality of the discussions as compared to our regular online meetings.
Out of six on-campus students, five completed the survey and all thought the experience was better. As one of the students put it, “it was so good to have a class with real people and not through a screen”. All five referred to enjoying the discussions with their fellow students in the actual room. They noticed that not everything went well – some sounds issues, in particular, but also at times a disconnect between on-campus and online students. Yet overall, the on-campus students felt that discussions went better and were more lively, also with the online students.
The online students were less impressed. Plus they all virtually gave the same feedback, whether in the group with the online or the on-campus discussion leader. First, quite a few commented on the sound quality. On-campus contributions to the discussions were not always audible. Second, the on-campus group wasn’t always fully visible to the online students, which was party due to the camera angle and partly due to the need to keep a distance. The size of the room also didn’t offer space for a different seating arrangement. And, thirdly, there was the reoccurring disconnect between on-campus and online students. One online student referred to sometimes feeling like a spectator, which, another student wrote, was partly due to “the participants in real-life not looking at the screen all the time”.
None of this really came as a surprise to me. Yet, unfortunately, I was also unable to prevent these issues from occurring. Clearly the fancy screen with lots of trimmings also did not matter here. But, more importantly, this again raises questions about the viability of hybrid teaching. In my opinion, it is probably better to have separate on-campus and online groups – even though, as Arjan and I wrote before, this too comes with its own challenges. But these can be solved. The potential disconnect between on-campus and online students in a hybrid setting to me is more problematic, as it may result in unequal learning opportunities.
* A huge thank you goes to the students who attended the sessions: Jill Bartholmy, Emma Begas, Jeanne Brunhes, Adam Ceccato, Noah Chebib, Carl Colonius, Boti Czagány, Jos de Heij, Lilian Giebler, Vincent Halder, Xavier Heck, Sanne Hocks, Julia Hufnagel, Leila Kahnt, Anna La Placa, Carolina Lean Santiago, Liam Lodder, Arianne Michopoulou, Mayanne Pagé, Simone Palladino, Emili Stefanova, Mae Thibaut, Tessa Urban and Victoria Wenninger.
Co-authored with Arjan Schakel, originally published by Active Learning in Political Science on 10 February 2021.
Students and staff are experiencing challenging times, but, as Winston Churchill famously said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Patrick recently led a new undergraduate course on academic research at Maastricht University (read more about the course here). Due to COVID-19 students could choose whether they preferred online or on-campus teaching, which resulted in 10 online groups and 11 on-campus groups. We were presented with an opportunity to compare the performance of students who took the very same course, but did so either on-campus or online. Our key lesson: particularly focus on online students and their learning.
In exploring this topic, we build on our previous research on the importance of attendance in problem-based learning, which suggests that students’ attendance may have an effect on students’ achievements independent fromstudents’ characteristics (i.e. teaching and teachers matter, something that has also been suggested by other scholars). We created an anonymised dataset consisting of students’ attendance, the number of intermediate small research and writing tasks that they had handed in, students’ membership of an on-campus or online group, and, of course, their final course grade. The latter consisted of a short research proposal graded Fail, Pass or Excellent.
316 international students took the course, of which 169 (53%) took the course online and 147 (47%) on-campus. 255 submitted a research proposal, of which 75% passed. One of the reasons why students did so well – normal passing rates are about 65% – might be that, given that this was a new course, the example final exam that they were given was one written by the course coordinator. Bolkan and Goodboy suggest that students tend to copy examples, so providing them may therefore not necessarily be a good thing. Yet students had also done well in previous courses, with the cohort seemingly being very motivated to do well despite the circumstances.
But on closer look it’s very telling that 31% of the online students (52 out of 169) did not receive a grade, i.e. they did not submit a research proposal. This was 9.5% for the on-campus students (14 out of 147). Perhaps this is the result of self-selection, with motivated students having opted for on-campus teaching. Anyhow, it is clear that online teaching impacts on study progress and enhancing participation in examination among online students needs to be prioritised by programme directors and course leaders.
We focus on students that at least attended one meeting (maximum 6) and handed-in at least one assignment (maximum of 7). Out of these 239 students, 109 were online students (46%) and 130 on-campus (54%). Interestingly, on average these 239 students behaved quite similarly across the online and on-campus groups, they attended on average 5 meetings (online: 4.9; on-campus: 5.3) and they handed-in an average of 5 to 6 tasks (online: 5.0; on-campus: 5.9).
We ran a logit model with a simply dummy variable as the dependent variable which taps whether a student passed for the course. As independent variables we included the total number of attended meetings and the total number of tasks that were handed-in. Both variables were interacted with a dummy variable that tracked whether students follow online or offline teaching and we clustered standard errors by 21 tutor groups.
Unfortunately, we could not include control variables such age, gender, nationality and country of pre-education. This would have helped to rule out alternative explanations and to get more insight into what factors drive differences in performance between online and offline students. For example, international students may have been more likely to opt for online teaching and may have been confronted with time-zone differences, language issues, or other problems.
Figure 1 displays the impact of attending class on the probability to pass for the final research proposal. The predicted probabilities are calculated for an average student that handed-in 5 tasks. Our first main finding is that attendance did not matter for online students, but it did for on-campus students. The differences in predicted probabilities for attending 3, 4, 5, or 6 meetings are not statistically significant (at the 95% confidence level) for online students but they are for on-campus students. Students who attended the maximum of six on-campus meetings had a 68% higher probability to pass compared to a student who attended 3 meetings (89% versus 21%) and a 52% higher probability to pass compared to a student who attended 4 meetings (89% versus 37%).
Figure 2 displays the impact of handing-in tasks on the probability to pass for the final research proposal. The predicted probabilities are calculated for an average student that attended 5 online or on-campus meetings. Our second main finding is that handing-in tasks did not matter for on-campus students, but it did for online students. The differences in predicted probabilities for handing-in 4, 5, 6, or 7 tasks are not statistically significant (at the 95% confidence level) for on-campus students but they are for online students. Students who handed-in the maximum of seven tasks had a 51% higher probability to pass compared to a student who handed in four tasks (69% versus 18%) and a 16% higher probability to pass compared to a student who handed-in five tasks (69% versus 53%).
Note that we do not think that attendance does not matter for online students or that handing-in tasks does not matter for offline students. Our dataset does not include a sufficient number of students to expose these impacts. From our previous research we know that in general we can isolate the impact of various aspects of course design with data from three cohorts (around 900 students). The very fact that we find remarkably clear-cut impacts of attendance among on-campus students and of handing-in tasks for online students for a relatively small number of students (less than 240) reveals that these impacts are so strong that they surface and become statistically significant in such a small dataset as ours.
This is why we feel confident to advise programme directors and course leaders to focus on online students. As Alexandra Mihai also recently wrote, it is worth investing time and energy in enhancing online students participation in final examinations and to offer them many different small assignments to be handed-in during the whole time span of the course. This is not to say that no attention should be given to on-campus students and their participation in meetings but, given limited resources and the amount of gain to be achieved among online students, we think it would be wise to first focus on online students.
 The difference of 21% in no grades between online and offline students is statistically significant at the 99%-level (t = 4.78, p < 0.000, N = 314 students).
Co-authored with Talisha Schilder and Johan Adriaensen, originally published by Active Learning in Political Science on 26 January 2021.
One of the key questions regarding Higher Education (HE) curriculums is concerned with the extent to which a curriculum should be flexible. For our own undergraduate studies, the curriculum consists of a relatively fixed set of courses. This set-up seems logical, after all: Why would we expect students’ assessment of the knowledge or skills required for the discipline to be more advanced than that of educational professionals active in the field for many years? Yet, the use of electives, tracks, or specialisations has become a staple in many undergraduate programmes.
As part of a project on mapping the undergraduate political science curriculum, we calculated the proportion of course credits that are optional in 225 undergraduate programmes. This measure of flexibility shows significant variation as highlighted in the figure below.
Considering the curriculum is the backbone of a programme, one can expect this variation in flexibility is likely to have pedagogical, administrative, economic and social consequences.
Consequences of flexible curriculum
In terms of learning, theory suggests education becomes more inclusive with curriculum flexibility as students can structure their program in accordance with their personal needs, strengths and interests. This empowers students and can increase their intrinsic motivation to the study. It could also stimulate a deeper understanding of learning and self-reflective cycles of planning change. In practice, however, this freedom increases student anxiety around choosing electives, minors and majors, because students experience pressure to make the right decision in a meritocratic environment without having sufficient self-knowledge. Moreover, researchsuggests that students choose electives based on short-term perspectives and the estimated level of difficulty to pass the course. In that case, education does not encompass what is best for students but rather what they perceive as best, hence, students do not reach their full potential in the absence of more challenging courses.
But there are also several implications in terms of management and organisation of a flexible curriculum. Electives commonly require the completion of several prerequisite courses. Updating and enforcing these prerequisites further complicates course development, particularly if students from multiple programmes can sign up to the course. Teaching staff may find themselves confronted with a diverse set of procedures, customs and meetings for each of the respective programmes or Faculties that offer the course. For the curriculum as a whole, increased flexibility may also compromise the development of coherent and cohesive teaching as each student is likely to follow a different trajectory. The exposure to a diverse set of teaching styles and conventions can certainly help students’ adaptability; it may also render a disorienting and inconsistent learning experience.
Explanations for flexible curriculum
Many of the possible consequences requires further corroborating evidence. Yet, it also raises questions on the underlying motives that push curricula towards more flexible formats.
The main argument we found in discussions with peers is the marketization of universities. The student becomes a value-seeking customer of knowledge and flexible curricula are part of the HE institution’s business strategy. As students pay for a service, universities offer a customization of their product based on the needs and desires of the customer. It assumes the customer knows best, even if they are pursuing an education.
Other explanations take an organizational perspective and look at curricular reform as a process with vested interests. Faculty members want to retain the courses they have been teaching. If student numbers in a programme drop, they may push to have their course taken up in new or other programmes (if rebranding wouldn’t work). An elective system can thus offer a solution, but it also makes student numbers highly volatile. Similarly, the creation of new programmes in response to market pressures can take place without expanding the faculty if one can repackage existing (elective) courses.
The literature on the topic is relatively scarce, and often dependent on anecdotal evidence. This is the reason why most of this post has been written in a conditional tense. There is clearly a lot to be studied, which drove us to construct a comprehensive comparative database on Political Science programs over the last years to facilitate these efforts. In case anyone is interested, do reach out!