Monday, October 31, 2011

Using Moodle to help Model the United Nations


During the last academic year I was fortunate enough to be involved in a Model United Nations (MUN) project being run in the Aylesbury Vale area of Buckinghamshire. This post reflects on how that process worked and (as you might expect) how I used Moodle to support and enhance the project. This post will demonstrate why this couldn't really have been done without an online environment, and how it couldn't have been managed without a Virtual Learning Environment. It will also give some guidance on how to meet the project's requirements using Moodle in case you ever need to do this.
The Aylesbury Vale MUN Conference in session

The project's background

Voting during the MUN Conference
A few months ago I was asked by a colleague to see if there was a way of supporting an instance of the MUN being run in Bucks by the Schools' Linking Network (SLN) charity, which has considerable experience of running MUN projects in Local Authorities. I was initially invited to a meeting for staff from schools involved to work out the logistics of the project with a brief of sharing documents between the schools. This was the first time an MUN project had been run in Buckinghamshire and after listening to what my colleagues and those from SLN were proposing it became clear that without some sort of online interaction - beyond simple document sharing - the project would struggle. The students (henceforth known as delegates) would all meet once at the project's inception, and again for the final conference, but between those two times would have no organised times when they could meet. Delegates from nations would need to work on position papers which would be presented at the final conference and the representatives from international media organisations would need to carry out similar work.

How the project worked

The French MUN Delegation
Five Aylesbury Vale schools came together to work on the project. The students involved were from Years 9 and 10 and worked in pairs to represent either nations or international media organisations. Although there were nearly a dozen students Delegates from each school, the pairs of delegates would not be from the same school, and so would have to work with someone from another school to prepare a country profile and subsequent position paper. Their colleagues representing five international media organisations (Fox News, the BBC, Russia Today, PressTV and Al Jazeera) received some training and advice from colleagues in the BucksCC Press Office and would cover the conference on the day. During the preparation process, the accompanying staff from the schools involved (henceforth known as Faculty Advisers) would support a number of the nations and one media organisation each. The Delegates and Media Organisations they would support would not necessarily be from their own schools and the Faculty Advisers would be expected to communicate with all of their groups. An important issue was that as nations were preparing position papers which were to be presented at the final conference, this work needed to be private within the group of two delegates and one faculty adviser.

What do you want to do, exactly...?

Delegates working on papers
during the Conference
The secret to supporting an event such as the MUN, or successfully extending and enhancing any learning using technology, is to work out the processes and transactions involved - what are those involved expected to do, respond to, share, produce - and then appropriately applying technologies to support those transactions. From the initial meeting with colleagues, SLN staff and staff from schools, it was apparent that the following things needed to happen:
  • All delegates, media correspondents and faculty advisers needed to be able to access resources, news and updates about the project;
  • Three levels of access were required - BucksCC & SLN staff (aka "UN Advisers") should have complete access, school staff ("Faculty Advisers") should have access to the groups they are supporting, students ("Delegates") should only have access to their own group's work.
  • Delegates and media correspondents needed to be divided into discrete groups, able to:
    • communicate without other groups being able to see what was said;
    • work on position papers and country/media organisation profiles which would only be visible within the group.
  • These communications and documents needed to be accessible to Faculty Advisers supporting these groups;
  • The Media Organisations needed access to certain resources (from their media training) which those Delegates from countries should not access;
  • "UN Staff" (colleagues from BucksCC and SLN) needed to be able to see all work so they could ensure that Delegates and Faculty Advisers were taking part.

Different technological approaches

Members of the International Media wait for
Country delegates to arrive
First of all, it's important to point out that due to its distributed nature the MUN project could not really have taken place as it did without some sort of online technology. Pairs representing countries and media organisations consisted of students from different schools, and staff were supporting students from schools they did not teach at. It is almost impossible to get students out of their timetables for a project like this and so having another space for the project to take place is critical.
The default position for something like this - where sharing and communication are core components of the transactions - is often "let's just email everything" and it can be quite difficult to convince someone based in an office that email isn't the right tool to use. Defaulting to email misses out on many options for collaboration and makes some simplistic assumptions about how students and staff in schools work. Also, there is a need to find out if Delegates and Faculty Advisers are working on the project - since it is in addition to other school work - and the closed and private nature of email makes this difficult. Any Delegates or Faculty Advisers joining the project slightly late wouldn't have been privy to previous emails, but using an online environment makes all of the historical information transparent.
MUN Moodle course overview
Another approach would have been to go for a third-party service such as Facebook - but this would be problematic, as there is no guarantee that all Delegates & Faculty Advisers would use it and access from within school would be patchy at best. Also, there is little or no control over the way in which a third-party tool is used and no guarantees that it would not change halfway through the project. I've a blog post specifically about this issue to follow soon. By using the county-wide Moodle we could

  • guarantee access to the space for everyone;
  • ensure that the environment wouldn't change appearance or functionality during the course of the project;
  • provide enhanced levels of access for school staff and staff from the LA and organisers in a granular way.

How to achieve this with Moodle

The most important thing to enable the project to be supported effectively was to ensure that all participants had access to whichever system we used. In Buckinghamshire we have a unified sign-on system, meaning that an individual's BucksGfL username gives them access to a wide range of services. Most schools use their own Moodles, however only staff and students from an individual school can access that school's Moodle, so hosting the MUN area on a school's Moodle was not going to work.
A few years ago I requested that Atomwide establish a county-wide Moodle, one which meant that we could easily create cross-school projects which participants could log into using their BucksGfL username. This was the same tool used for the Buckinghamshire E-Anthology project covered here previously and means that any student or member of staff with a BucksGfL username can take part in a project with another group of students from across the County. As one of the schools involved doesn't use the BucksGfL username system we had to ensure that the staff and students involved had their accounts created, but once that was done, we were ready to go.
Let's revisit what needed to happen and I'll give some pointers to how this was done using Moodle 1.9.n:

  • All delegates, media correspondents and faculty advisers needed to be able to access resources, news and updates about the projectThis was done by simple document sharing - PDFs of the Delegate Handbook and a simple web page with embedded YouTube clips in. Colleagues from BucksCC posted regular messages in the News Forum (to which all members are subscribed) so any Delegates or Faculty Advisers will have received these updates as emails.
  • Three levels of access were required Within the course the Teacher role was renamed to UN Adviser (using the Role Renaming settings within the MUN course), the Non-editing Teacher role was renamed to Faculty Adviser and the Student role renamed to Delegate.
  • Delegates and media correspondents needed to be divided into discrete groupsThe MUN Moodle course was set up with its Groups setting set to Separate Groups - this meant that all functionality could, if necessary, be made to run in parallel for the groups of students. I created the groups and gave them a group image of the nation's flag or media organisation's logo. The group image is useful - have a look at the Group Discussion area to see how the images are an important visual aid to how the forum is viewed by an administrator. On the student day pairs of students drew their group out of a hat - while watching this, I simply added the two students to the relevant group. Faculty Advisers were added to all of the groups they were supporting, meaning they could engage in the next two activities:
  • A Faculty Adviser working with Delegates
    during the MUN conference
    ...communicate without other groups being able to see what was said;

    This was very simple - a Forum set up to run in Separate Groups mode, meaning that only one link appears on the page, but each group sees only messages from those in their group. The Group Discussion area images shows a UN Official's (Teacher's) view of this forum and it is apparent how this means
  • work on position papers and country/media organisation profiles which would only be visible within the groupideally I would have liked to use something like Google Docs here, however a suitable alternative is Moodle's Wiki module. Setting it up with the two settings of Groups Mode: Separate Groups and Wiki type: Group meant that each group has a document they can edit (help image on docs.moodle.org). A simple proforma document starts the wiki pages and the groups can edit these documents.
    At the end of the process UN Advisers (BucksCC staff) can copy and paste the final wiki page into documents and share PDF versions of the final position papers on the day of the conference.
  • Moodle Wiki activity for a
    Country's Position Paper
    These communications and documents needed to be accessible to Faculty Advisers supporting these groups;
    This was done by ensuring that the Faculty Adviser/Non-editing Teacher roles were assigned to multiple groups, meaning that they could switch groups from the drop-down list at the head of the Wiki and Forum pages.
  • The Media Organisations needed access to certain resources (from their media training) which those Delegates from countries should not access;This was done by enabling Groupings across the site and then, within the course, creating a grouping of Media Organisations, which contained the BBC, Fox News, Press TV, Russia Today and Al Jazeera groups. The resources given by my BucksCC Press colleagues were then placed in a resource which was made available only to the Media Organisations grouping. This meant that the other groups could not see these resources.
  • "UN Staff" (colleagues from BucksCC and SLN) needed to be able to see all work so they could ensure that Delegates and Faculty Advisers were taking part.As mentioned previously this was done by making UN Staff equivalent to the Teacher role, which meant that they could see all groups and make judgements about how work was progressing.

It's quite easy for a Moodle course with a lot of content to become very text-heavy, so I took the approach of using simple, large icons to ensure that the important parts of the course were easily available. IconArchive is a great place to start for icons which are appropriate for decorating Moodle courses with, and inserting them into Labels on the main Moodle course page meant that they could easily be hidden and shown as the project progressed.

Final Reflections

The Oculus Room, Aylesbury Vale
District Council, before the
MUN Confe
It was a privilege to be asked to work on this rewarding project and it became apparent as the project progressed how much it could be extended and enriched. It was more substantial in its scope and impact than many school-based projects and required an approach which would work with a range of learners of varying ages & experience, rather than a focused class or year group delivering a familiar curriculum. It required creativity in understanding how the project had worked and hence what would be the most appropriate methods of using the technology to support something with quite a clearly defined scope. I was able to watch the project unfold online and tweak and nudge it where necessary, and attending the final conference was great, particularly as everyone present could see the transformation of the slightly nervous students at the start of the project to confident delegates.
I was an unofficial photographer for the conference - which was held in the new council room of Aylesbury Vale District Council - and hence there is a set of pictures available documenting the day of the conference and some of the Moodle-related work associated with it. At the time of writing I am supporting another MUN project in the High Wycombe area. Again, the project is supported by an improved version of the Moodle course used for the Aylesbury Vale project, which was featured in this brief BucksCC video: