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Teaching Public Administration Through Blending Learning: 15 Years Later

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
February 12, 2021

In my fourth year of part-time teaching, I was bored with the, “Sage on the stage,” lecturing style. I had started with the University of Louisville in the fall of 2000. I had also started an online MBA program. My online MBA classes were weekly readings from the textbook and discussion board postings. It was too early for video or even PowerPoints with audio recordings. As for my teaching, I believe I made every mistake you could in creating PowerPoints for lectures. No structure and dense blocks of text.

After completing the MBA program in 2002, I started a Ph.D. program in Public Policy and Management with Walden University in 2003. This program was also online with some short in-person residencies. Like the MBA classes, there were more reading and discussion posts. Barely any interaction online. This is why I craved the short residencies because of the great conversations I had with my fellow students and our professors. How could I recreate those great conversations online?

It was in 2004 when I heard about blended learning. According to Josh Bersin, author of The Blended Learning Book: Best Practices, Proven Methodologies, and Lessons Learned (2004), blended learning combines six learning modes (reading, seeing, hearing, watching, doing and teaching) to build a course. Bersin described two types of course design: “Program flow,” and “Core-and-spoke.” In program flow, course activities are sequenced chronologically. With the core-and-spoke model, there are central course activities surrounded by supporting activities. Bersin’s thoughts on blended learning and Dee Fink’s concept of significant learning experiences influenced my course designs from then on.

Building a Public Administration Blended Learning Course

I taught three courses at the University of Louisville’s Communication Department and wanted to teach in the university’s Public Administration Department. Before talking to the Chair, I wanted to demonstrate a fresh approach to teaching public administration. In the summer of 2006, I devised an introductory public administration course using the core-and-spoke model.

At the heart of my course were two computer simulations. The first simulation was Virtual U, in which the player assumed the role of a college president. The simulation aims to help the student learn how to manage things such as balancing budgets and dealing with employee morale. The second simulation was SimCity, in which students will build and manage a city. Through the simulations, students would practice the eleven skills of the new public administration as described in the 2004 text, Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector  by Goldsmith and Eggers:

1. Big picture thinking
2. Coaching
3. Mediation
4. Negotiation
5. Risk analysis
6. Contract management
7. Ability to tackle unconventional problems
8. Strategic thinking
9. Interpersonal communications
10. Project and business management
11. Team building

For this course, I had five spokes:

  1. In-class lectures and podcasts.
  2. Directed readings.
  3. Class Wiki.
  4. Student Blogs.
  5. Webquests (guided tours of websites).

The Chair was intrigued by the course, and we arranged for a pilot experiment where I taught five class meetings using the SimCity simulation. The pilot went well but, I never got to teach a full course for the Public Administration Department due to a family emergency. I did present my course design at a 2006 meeting of the American Society for Public Administration.

15 Years Later: The Value of Simulations in Teaching Public Administration

I have been teaching for over 20 years. I still teach for the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville and have been teaching for the Project Management Center for Excellence at the University of Maryland since 2012. I have continued my experiments in blended learning and have become certified in flipped learning. For my project management class, I used a simulation for the final exam/project from 2013 to 2017. In my professional training activities for the Federal government, I use blended learning activities, including a popular simulation of agile project management using LEGO®s.

I was reminded of my 2006 presentation when a colleague told me about Evgeniia Kutergina’s 2017 paper on his experiments with simulations in Russian MPA programs. Kutergina found that teaching with simulations significantly increased student learning. There has been much use of simulations in other programs such as business, engineering and health courses. However, using simulations in teaching public administration seems sparse.

The one notable exception is the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Through their E-PARCC annual competition, the Maxwell School has collected hundreds of public administration case studies and simulations. E-PARCC is an excellent resource for using simulations in teaching public administration. COVID-19 has accelerated the move toward online teaching where the old, “Sage-on-the-stage,” and, “Death by Zoom webinar,” doesn’t work anymore. Think of how much better simulations can enhance online public administration courses.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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