Teaching IPE online: thinking about ‘pandemic pedagogies’ in the IPE classroom

This article was written by Juanita Elias and Ben Richardson
This article was published on
image of classroom

Over the past few years, the BISA-IPEG working group has held biannual ‘Teaching IPE’ workshops. Conventionally we held these in September, just before the start of the academic year. The event gave IPEG members an opportunity to discuss what and why we teach in IPE, invite critical reflection on teaching methods, and debate and discuss issues like academic precarity (see here). In putting together this blog, we wanted to fill the gap left by the absence of a workshop this year, but, perhaps more importantly, we also wanted to address the specific issues and challenges that face our members during the current pandemic – especially those that relate to moving teaching online. This blog draws, in part, upon the input of IPEG members who we asked (via email and Twitter) to send us their tips and ideas about how to teach IPE online. We are extremely grateful to those who responded to this call.

How do we teach online?

There already exist a number of important resources and blogs discussing the issue of online teaching. We would like to flag in particular the incredibly useful series of online webinars put together by BISA and the PSA in light of the recent changes experienced in UK universities. Recordings of these can be seen on BISA’s YouTube channel. A 2016 symposium on ‘Online Teaching and Assessment’ in PS: Political Science and Politics offers a literature review on some of the salient issues raised by this pedagogical approach, which may also be helpful in guiding practice. Useful practitioner blogs that we have come across in relation to taking teaching online include this one from the Open University’s Martin Weller (which includes numerous useful links) and this by Suzanne Berger and Michael Piore on how they transitioned their political economy course into the ‘virtual classroom’ using Zoom.

Like many other blogs on the subject of online teaching (see here and here), there is an emphasis on keeping things simple, and going for low tech solutions, that will not require students to have superfast and reliable broadband. Michael Keating also reported that in his experience of running online summer schools, students were particularly concerned about not being able to get help if they needed it. Reassuring them about staff availability helped to address this worry. Adam Morton also drew our attention to his blog on academic essay writing. Despite being written pre-pandemic, he told us that the blog had come into its own during the pandemic as students are less likely to have those informal conversations with their lecturers and peers about essay writing.

Online learning is often seen as lacking in ‘immediacy’ – that is, that students lose out from not being physically present in the classroom. This has led many institutions to insist on running online seminars and lectures that require every student to be present online at the same time. However, one of the advantages of online learning can be that it grants students the time and flexibility to reflect on their learning materials, and can have positive benefits for students who, for a range of different reasons, may struggle to be heard or are intimidated by the classroom environment. Indeed, many academics currently teaching online have a particular enthusiasm for the well-designed discussion forum which can provide a useful space in which ideas can be tested and where students can benefit from regular, less intense, engagement. If you are running synchronous online seminar sessions, Samanthi Gunawardana suggested taking a look at this article on the ‘Lean Meeting’  which is about using the web-based tool MeetingSift to organise seminars and keep discussions on track. Samanthi dedicated the first 30 minutes of seminars to this task and felt that it had worked really well.

Many thanks to David Hornsby for sharing his article co-authored with Heather Ann Smith ‘Towards a Pandemic Pedagogy’ which is well worth a read because it encourages teachers to consider how their preferences for particular teaching methods reflect patterns of power and privilege within our discipline. As they write:

'Pandemic pedagogy is not only about teaching in extraordinary times, but also about developing an understanding of who we are, and how we teach our disciplines. The values that inform how we approach face-to-face teaching, also inform our strategies as we pivot to online learning. If we prefer lecture-dominated classes face to face, there is a strong likelihood that we will opt for lecture capture technology or synchronous conference room type classes often personified through such platforms as Zoom. These reinforce a transfer of information that is passive and predicated on the idea that students do not have much to offer'.

In challenging this tendency, the authors set out an approach that situates students as active learners who benefit from being able to access a range of resources and techniques. Thus ‘where students are more self-directed with multiple sites of engagement, we will seek to translate that into an online space as we aim to create discussion groups, adopt many formative assessment techniques and seek to mix synchronous and asynchronous approaches’. Do also take a look at David’s insightful essay on moving large classes online available here.

The online IPE classroom

So far, we have focussed on a range of generic higher education online learning issues. But what really interested us in putting together this blog, was how people would seek to use the online learning environment to adapt how they teach IPE and related topics. One suggestion came from Len Seabrooke who told us how he has recorded short (10 minute) video conversations over Zoom with authors of some of the key readings for his classes. The conversations focus on themes from an author’s research work, not just the individual article, and help to directly link a person and opinion to what students are reading. These 10-minute mini interviews usually revolve around three key questions. Ben Rosamond and Oscar Berglund were trying something similar, although they were also incorporating interviews with colleagues who knew a text well (an approach that might be especially effective for discussions of classic texts). Johnna Montgomerie also felt that online learning formats could work well in terms of encouraging students to engage with core readings. She is developing 15-minute podcast style reviews of key readings to help guide students through material before they read it.

Another idea came from Matthew Eagleton-Pierce who told us about his plans to develop some short videos as additional teaching content; a series of short videos on location in the City of London focussing on how specific institutions operate within the City as well as within broader dynamics of capitalism. This is the sort of (social distancing compatible) activity that students could themselves be encouraged to undertake, using photographs or videos from their local areas to link their everyday lives and surroundings into the wider picture of global economic transformation. 

It is also worth noting that there are numerous online resources available that can really enhance IPE teaching. The podcast Political Economy for the End Times, hosted by Jack Copley and Javier Moreno Zacarés, features interviews with IPE scholars on a range of contemporary topics. The oral history archive Foundations and Frontiers in International Political Economy, led by Alexander Nunn and Stuart Shields, meanwhile, has video interviews with scholars involved in the construction of International Political Economy as an academic discipline.

A number of key online IPE websites, blogs and other online resources include some excellent materials that could be drawn upon in inviting students to reflect on the political economy of the current pandemic. The excellent SPERI blog for example, has recently published a number of pieces that bring into focus the contemporary relevance of IPE in understanding the pandemic. Take for example Remi Edwards’ blog on the gendered political economy of work in the global garment industry and other feminized sectors which considers how the pandemic has exposed the multiple inequalities and forms of labour injustice at work within both global garment supply chains and care work.

Other useful blogs and resources that we are aware of include the work of the International Economic Law (IEL) collective who have produced a number of blogs and YouTube resources looking at how the current pandemic has impacted global economic governance.  Videos from the ‘Global Insights’ series from the Balsillie School of Governance and partner institutions provide important reflections on the global politics of Covid-19. The sessions on climate change, gender, the global South and the global economy are likely to be of particular interest to IPE scholars and a series of accompanying blogs summarising the key issues covered in these sessions is available on the WICID Think Development blog. There is also a very useful collection of essays put together by Global Studies at Groningen on the IPE of the Covid-19 pandemic (succinctly summarised in this Twitter thread). As ever, the excellent Progress in Political Economy site continues to publish cutting edge IPE work – including a number of blogs that address the political economy of Covid-19. The I-PEEL pedagogical resource, which we both edit along with Lena Rethel and James Brassett, also provides accessible commentary and multimedia resources aimed specifically at undergraduate students. In asking students to think critically about the political economy of the pandemic we would recommend in particular the I-PEEL entries (‘tiles’) on medicine, housework, and failure. Over the next year, we will be adding more tiles to the I-PEEL site so do keep checking back.

Of course, there are often unanticipated limitations posed by the move online. For example, using film in the IPE classroom is limited by students’ access to the relevant TV subscription packages. As such, our ability to use film (legally) in the IPE classroom (as endorsed by Juliette Schwak in this recent RIPE article) may be limited to films available via university library subscription packages such as Kanopy or on websites such as Box of Broadcast.  One solution is simply to provide students with a list of films that they find useful/relevant to the topic of a module. Matthew Eagleton-Pierce for example, has an extensive film list accompanying his UG module Politics of the World Economy.  

The pandemic has thrown into focus a number of inequalities, including the disproportionate health risks borne by BAME groups in the UK. Overlapping with the Black Lives Matters movement, an added impetus has thus been given to efforts to decolonise the curriculum and bring race relations to the fore in IPE/IR scholarship. A bibliography by Lisa Tilley provides links to existing research on this topic by scholars of colour, while the website Global Social Theory contains overviews from a post/de-colonial perspective on a wide array of concepts, thinkers and topics.  The Colonial Hangover widening participation project at Warwick has recently launched an online magazine which invites staff and students of all ages to contribute short articles exploring the hidden legacies of empire.. The journal Antipode offers a more visual take on the themes of slavery, unfreedom and labour with a short documentary featuring Ruth Wilson Gilmore on the Geographies of Racial Capitalism.

And a few notes of caution

 In writing this blog, we wanted to share the insights of our community of scholars as we embark on this new way of teaching. But we do so with some notes of caution, recognising the many problems of the move online, especially during a pandemic when workloads and budgets are stretched and many universities reduce or decline to renew teaching contracts.

The move online creates numerous issues of accessibility for both students and staff. There are some useful pieces out there that discuss ableism in academia which point to the need to think about how students and staff differentially experience online teaching. It is important that we familiarise ourselves with how the needs of autistic and non-neurotypical adults are impacted by e.g. use of videoconferencing technologies (see for example this recent study) and consider other ableist assumptions that pervade academia. During the pandemic we may well be teaching students quarantined on campus, or working out of shared childhood bedrooms, and struggling with a range of personal and emotional issues. Staff themselves are likely to face difficulties in creating ideal online learning spaces. A lack of desk space, the difficulties of combining work and caring responsibilities, and patchy broadband connections are issues that many of us are no doubt familiar with. Creating asynchronous learning materials invites perfectionism and it is certainly tempting to spend hours editing videos, podcasts and any accompanying transcripts. These pressures are going to be hard to resist.

We recognise further that the move online is taking place not only within the context of a global pandemic, but also within an ever more marketized higher education sector. Online learning is often seen as a cheap and easy way of delivering education to a far wider market of potential students. There are certainly those in management who see the current pandemic as an opportunity to further roll out online and blended programmes, and these voices are likely to become ever more powerful as universities worry about budgets. As Smith and Hornsby  also write in their article, it is important not to be ‘naïve’ about this possibility:  ‘We must not make our students, and ourselves, guinea pigs in the name of “normal”, and “budgets”.’

Many thanks to those who responded to the call for responses:

Oscar Berglund

Matthew Eagleton-Pierce

Samanthi Gunawardana

David Hornsby

Mike Keating

Johnna Montgomerie

Adam Morton

Ben Rosamond

Len Seabrooke

Michael Strange

Thank you also to Polly Pallister-Wilkins for permitting us to use the accompanying image.