Remote learning

Innovations in remote learning: Inviting speakers from around the world

With the health crisis ongoing throughout the 2020 Autumn Semester, several academic exchanges for undergraduates’ third year abroad were unable to go ahead. For students who could not leave for their exchange programmes, an all-new online curriculum was designed at Sciences Po. The course “The Politics of Values”, led by Benjamin Boudou on Zoom, was attended by 234 students in 18 different time zones.

Lectures at the intersection of political science and political theory analysed the dynamics at play in the politicisation of values, through a corpus of theoretical texts and their contributions to public debate. To enliven the class despite its unfortunate circumstances, Dr Boudou devised an innovative format: every session invited a different guest speaker, bringing perspectives from all four corners of the world.

What inspired you to innovate in your classes?

Benjamin Boudou: My thought process was simple. I didn’t want to be the only one talking for two hours in an entirely online lecture; we needed some discussion to get us away from endless Powerpoints and voice-overs. In addition, the course programme is designed to provide an overview of issues of which I am not always a specialist and which benefited from being presented in different methodological lights.

What were your teaching objectives?

B. B.: I had both direct and indirect objectives in mind. I wanted 1) to interview a specialist researcher to give students access to advanced and more cutting-edge content on the subject of each session; 2) to present a wide range of methodological approaches (I interviewed historians, sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, architects and jurists); 3) to provide training by example in the semi-structured interview.

More indirectly, I also wanted to invite colleagues at different stages of their academic careers to give students a better sense of the different processes involved in the kind of texts they were asked to read: how to move from unconfirmed hypotheses to a published article, discuss research that is still in process, start and finish a thesis that will become a book, and so on. I always began by asking my interviewees how and why they came to specialise in their subject area and inviting them to say more about the production and reception of the texts we were about to discuss. Since the choice of an area of research is never neutral, that brought an additional biographical dimension to the analysis, which revealed some of the different layers of the academic profession and work.

What did the course look like in concrete terms?

B. B.: In practice, I wrote to all of my interviewees in advance over the summer, outlining the syllabus and explaining what I expected from them. The time of the class meant I was able to invite a political scientist from Bangkok as well as a historian in Florida and a sociologist in Germany. All of the guests graciously agreed to participate. I wouldn’t prepare more than five questions, followed by two or three interventions from the students.

To give some examples, I invited a historian specialising in the Protestant refugees of the 16th century for a class on the value of “justice” in the context of migration. For a class on “faith”, we spoke to a legal sociologist who works on legal movements by religious minorities at the ECHR; an architect to discuss the political dimensions of “home”; a PhD candidate in political science who co-designed a dataset on integration and citizenship (“democracy”); a jurist specialising in Southeast Asia to give an insight into civil disobedience in authoritarian regimes (“resistance"); a philosopher working on the ethics of earthquake risk management to explain the meaning of the value of “security”; the list goes on.

What challenges did you encounter?

Benjamin Boudou

B. B.: Managing the time was my main challenge: how to keep interviews from being too long (around 25 minutes) without frustrating either the students or the guest. My solution was to send the guests my questions a few days in advance, so that they would have time to prepare their answers. That never affected the spontaneity of the discussions. Of course, the exercise had some more general limitations: being able to interview people all around the world on Zoom has its attractions, but it doesn’t compare to a real face-to-face exchange in a classroom or lecture hall. Doing things virtually also made it easy to convince the speakers, but the interviews remain unpaid work. You can’t make the symbolic gesture of a drink or dinner in exchange during a pandemic.

What was expected on the part of the students?

B. B.: The project provided the framework for an exercise set to students. For the mid-term assessment they were asked to get together in small groups and record their own 20 to 30-minute interview of any person they deemed relevant to discuss a topic relating to themes covered in class. In parallel, they submitted a working document outlining the interview subject and method, then introducing the key topics of the interviewee’s work and its relevance to the interview subject. The task therefore required them to formulate a critical reflection around the course subject matter, but also to develop key practical skills: coordinating a work group, finding a speaker, convincing that speaker to participate, conducting an interview. All interviews were then made available to the rest of the students. The results were very interesting in terms of the topics covered, students’ investment and the choice of interviewees: there were academics, naturally, but also artists, activists, politicians, professionals from the public and private sector.

What feedback did you receive from students?

B. B.: The feedback from students was positive, both with regards to the interviews in class and to their own work. Of course, some discussions worked better than others; it all depends on the subject, how at ease the interviewee is, the quality of my questions, etc. But the very fact of doing something slightly different, seeing a new speaker every session despite the fact that we were almost all in lockdown, and breathing life into relatively abstract arguments and texts, were all things they very much enjoyed. Finally, I think that seeing teachers more in the position of learners (i.e. myself interviewing more expert colleagues, which is another good practical example of academic discussion) helps to generate a more relaxed and productive teaching relationship, particularly when approaching controversial themes.

Are you thinking of maintaining parts of this approach when face-to-face teaching resumes?

B. B.: The interview approach would have all the same benefits in face-to-face teaching, though bringing someone over in person is obviously more difficult than inviting them on Zoom. So I think that a hybrid format with the interviewee online and the students in a lecture hall would be the best option. It would certainly help to maintain a wider diversity of profiles among speakers.

Find out more:

The Sciences Po Editorial Team

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