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Student Instructor

Teaching Model Diplomacy  at University of New Hampshire

Dr. Alynna Lyon at CFR’s College and University Educators Workshop (© Don Pollard)
Dr. Alynna Lyon at CFR’s College and University Educators Workshop - Don Pollard

Alynna Lyon is an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), with a research focus on U.S. foreign policy, conflict mobilization, and peacekeeping. In addition to her advocacy of active learning, Lyon is an ambassador for open educational resources and online platforms, and she found Model Diplomacy to be a natural fit for integration into her distance-learning courses. “I think that in some ways, the students engage more in the online environment,” she says in this conversation with CFR Outreach Deputy Director Myka Carroll. “This is very high-quality content, this is foreign policy experts and great historical information, a very dynamic understanding of current events. I think that they actually appreciated it more and engaged with it a little bit more in the online environment.” This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

We were excited by your participation in the “Teaching With Model Diplomacy” panel at CFR’s College and University Educators Workshop in April. There were many things that you mentioned in discussing how you’ve taught with Model Diplomacy that we thought other instructors would benefit from hearing about. So, first of all, how did you become aware of Model Diplomacy and what has been your experience generally with using role-play and simulations in the classroom? 

Well, I’m delighted to continue this conversation. My background is in the study of U.S. foreign policy and the United Nations, and I’ve spent almost twenty years working with Model United Nations. I’ve always found that active learning [resources]—not only Model United Nations, but other platforms as well—have been just wonderful tools to elevate the classroom experience for my students. And “elevate” means several different things. One, it’s one of those moments in your classroom that the students take with them for years to come; they probably won’t remember their textbooks, they won’t remember their readings, but this has a very long-term impact and they remember the role-play in the active learning. The other thing is, it really allows us to elevate what they’re learning, so not only are they learning the content, but they also are enhancing all these skill sets: information processing, public speaking, writing skills, diplomacy, understanding debate, and listening skills. 

So all of those things wrapped up very nicely in the Model Diplomacy platform, which I was very excited to learn about. I came [to CFR] prior to Model Diplomacy being created, because I was part of an educators workshop five years ago and I remember conversations about the Council wanting to have some kind of outreach to both faculty and students. I was part of the pilot program early on when the very first case was launched and realized that it was just very, very powerful and that the Council was doing an excellent job, both in terms of content and its approach and how it was leading students in terms of their engagement.

How many times have you used Model Diplomacy in the classroom so far?

I think it’s probably been about ten to twelve times. I teach a course called “U.S. foreign policy” and it’s an introductory course for majors in political science and a general education course for liberal arts majors, and I thought, “Well, this would be perfect in the medium-sized class, thirty students, we can break them into two groups of fifteen and have them engage that way.” But I realized quickly—once the case library started increasing and Model Diplomacy put out Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan and Global Climate Change Policy—that I could integrate [Model Diplomacy] into other classes as well. I’ve used it both in that introductory course and also in a graduate seminar on sustainability, as well as a mid-level course looking at human rights and global justice. So I think I’ve used it about a dozen different times, and in some classes it’s kind of the culmination of the entire course, so that it’s the capstone experience. In other courses, particularly the graduate seminar, it was something we did one week and it wasn’t quite as elevated in terms of both the grade weighting and the emphasis on it, but the students found it very valuable. 

Do you see any big differences in using the program across such a range of levels of awareness about international issues or global affairs?

One of the most powerful things we can do with our students in the twenty-first-century environment, where there is so much media content out there and you can access information about almost anything, is deepen understanding and particularly about issues that are not always in the popular media. For example, I really enjoy the Dispute in the East China Sea simulation and found it to be one of the most powerful. That’s partly because it is an incredibly important issue—it gets into many of the topic areas that I’m teaching about diplomacy and issues involving strategy and different diplomatic tools, different actors, regional actors as well as global actors. But the South China Sea isn’t in the media very much, so when students engage that particular simulation, they feel very empowered, and this is a bit of a crass way of saying it, but they’re really getting their money’s worth. So they walk out of that particular simulation with their in-depth knowledge base not only about the actors that are engaging the crisis but about the crisis [itself], and they can take that home with them to their peers or to their family and demonstrate significant enhanced knowledge.

Are there some topics where the students are particularly engrossed when they do the simulation because the issues or the topic involved really resonate with them?

Russia and NATO in the Baltics is a very hot topic these days, and I used it in fall 2016. The students, of course, were automatically interested and they were very excited. It allowed a couple of different things—not only an American perspective and an understanding of U.S. foreign policy actors and processes, but it also allowed me to bring in the more global perspective. Can the United Nations deal with the Russian situation in the Baltics? And it’s a problem that allows me to dovetail very nicely into the United Nations or to NATO, to ladder beyond just the content that’s on the Model Diplomacy website and into other content. 

The same can be said for the use of the South Sudan case. I used that in a global justice course when we were talking about humanitarian intervention or the use of force for the protection of human rights. Now, in that case, Model Diplomacy is fairly American-centric, so we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the National Security Council (NSC), which is the first segment of the simulation. We moved through that content pretty quickly. But when we got to the case itself, we spent a lot of time—two weeks—so we broke that particular assignment into two different pieces. One of the great things about Model Diplomacy is it allows you to pick and choose which segments of the experience you really want to drill deeper into. In that particular class, I was able to supplement the case itself with content on the responsibility to protect norm that’s coming out of the United Nations, issues of sovereignty, regional actors, the African Union, and other organizations that may be engaged in that, as well as thinking about nongovernmental organizations on the ground and the use of civil society actors. And so, again, it’s really interesting for me that it’s a flexible tool that I can use at certain places and drill down in others.

Did you have students who had done simulations like this before, or was this their first time even at a mid- or a graduate level doing this type of exercise in the classroom? 

The students who have me for the intro-level course, this is usually their first time engaging in something like that, and there is always uncertainty and hesitancy when you engage in an active learning experience. It’s just par for the course that I will tell the students leading up to this, “You’re going to feel nervous. There’s going to be uncertainty and you’re going to walk in not knowing quite what to expect.” Part of the role of the instructor is to actually let them know that it’s normal, it’s part of their learning process, and they’ll get through it fine. So I do a lot more prep in the introductory course. But in the higher upper-division courses, I’m kind of known on campus and in my department for using a lot of active learning, and so oftentimes, repeat students are quite comfortable because they’ve established a trust relationship with me and they know, “OK, we’ve done this before and we’re going to try this again,” whether it’s Model Diplomacy or another exercise on decision-making or crisis simulation in the UN Security Council.

What were your debriefs like? 

The debriefing in Model Diplomacy is very good and it’s very effective, and it drills deep into the decision-making process. I have a second layer of debriefing outside of the platform where I ask the students to step back and think, “What did you learn? What was compelling? What did you learn not only in the preparation, which is a very important part of the exercise, but also in the role-play? Did you learn about the other actors? Were people in character? Do institutions or affiliations matter?” And then I have them think about their own pedagogical process. “Was this helpful in enhancing your skill sets?” A lot of the research on active learning and simulations says that the debrief can be the most important part because it’s solidifying their knowledge and they get to process their own learning.

You are clearly an active learning advocate, but there are many instructors who haven’t incorporated these types of exercises for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re not familiar with what’s available, sometimes they haven’t been sure how much time they’ll have to invest in doing it as an exercise. Sometimes they’re not sure whether it’s the right exercise to do with their particular group of students. How do you encourage other instructors who haven’t done active learning exercises to give it a try? 

One of the places to go for support of active learning is the research itself. There’s lots of information out there about the value of active learning. It appeals to multiple types of learners—auditory, visual, the more analytic. We also know that it helps solidify students’ knowledge base. So you can read all about the director of the CIA and what their particular approach may or may not be to drones in Pakistan. But once you’ve thought about sitting in their shoes, and acted and represented the Department of Homeland Security or the Central Intelligence Agency, it internalizes the knowledge.

The other thing is that it’s fun, and I don’t mean that in a kind of “We do this because the students think it’s fun” way. It really is compelling to bring them to the content. The traditional lecture style of most teachers at the college level today is really a twentieth-century style education. It’s fairly passive. You sit, you read, you listen, and then you reiterate the information back to your instructor. [Active learning] is a really twenty-first-century experience where you’re engaging, and you are a partner in your learning process, which is very empowering. Using things like the online learning environment of Model Diplomacy allows students to integrate videos and timelines and all this different type of content. That appeals to many, many different types of learners. When I make the argument to my colleagues, [I say that] you can elevate what [students are] doing in a really interesting way. But, it can be intimidating for first timers.

Given the phenomenon of fake news and renewed discussions about information literacy, what can active learning contribute to ensuring that students at all levels are coming away from their high schools and universities with the knowledge that they need to filter through information and make decisions based on credible sources? 

This is a challenge for education in the twenty-first century and more so in the last couple of months. One of the things that active learning allows you to have is intimate knowledge of a particular position, or how one has come to that rationale and how one is thinking. So it’s not just someone telling you what someone is saying, or an approach that’s being imposed on you and interpreted for you. You yourself get to be the information processor and interpret that information. Dealing with fake news and information literacy is part of the research process—understanding hierarchy in information. Some information is better. Some information has been vetted many times, it has gone through blind peer review processes, so [the author’s] specific interests aren’t able to come in. That’s also what we know about social science and hard sciences, to try to remove your own value system and look as objectively as you possibly can at the information.

One of the ways that Model Diplomacy does this is that the students are asked to represent someone on the National Security Council, not their own perspective. So you may be representing the secretary of state, but, well, it can’t be your position, it has to be that of the sitting secretary of state or, depending on how you set up the simulation, maybe a historical secretary of state. That’s an important lesson for students, that oftentimes policymakers are called upon not to advocate their own ideological perspective but the perspective of the institution, or what they see as the long-term or short-term strategic interests of the United States.

Dr. Alynna Lyon at CFR’s College and University Educators Workshop (© Don Pollard)
Dr. Alynna Lyon at CFR’s College and University Educators Workshop - Don Pollard

You also alluded to working with Model Diplomacy in an online environment. Do you have any examples of how this works in a distance learning context?

There’s lots to say about teaching in the online environment. First, oftentimes, technology is intimidating both to instructors and to students. The way that one gets past that is just increasing engagement with the online platform and doing some homework. The very first stage in doing this well is preparation. And it doesn’t take enormous amount of preparation, but one has to do the work. Regardless of whatever learning platform you are using online, you want to make sure that you’re familiar with it before you start using it. My pedagogical philosophy about teaching in the online environment is to make it as clear and as accessible and as human, interestingly enough, as possible. We teach best in the online environment when you have the most level of engagement with your students, and so they have a lot of certainty about what they’re doing and they have confidence in the exercise and they basically trust you. That comes from your own familiarity. Many of us are working in Canvas or Blackboard and so making sure that you’re familiar with the tools that you have to connect with your students is really important, and along the same lines, making sure that you are familiar with the Model Diplomacy website. What are the pieces of the Model Diplomacy simulation? The information about the National Security Council, the information about the specific actors within the NSC, the issue area, the memo, and then the simulation.

So the other thing that’s really important is setting very clear expectations about the assignments and establishing the point value for the assignments early on, so that students know that these are the clear deadlines, and this is the point value of this particular assignment. One of the other things I find in teaching in the online environment is that there’s a lot of touch points with your students, more so than you would have in most face-to-face classes. I’m doing a lot of email back and forth in communication with the students and guiding their assignments. And so, actually, in the online environment, I find the feedback on individual assignments much more important than you would give in a normal face-to-face class. In a normal face-to-face class, as a class, you could come and say, “Oh, let’s talk about the history of the National Security Council. What did you learn?” That kind of process can go on at the group level. Well, in the online environment, that’s really a one-on-one type of relationship until [the students] come to the role-playing, which I absolutely love because it does bring collaborative peer-based learning into [the online] environment, which is often lacking there. But you have to lay out the parameters for the students really clearly and have some confidence in yourself going into it so that they trust you and that they’re aware of that.

Then, the significant level of feedback. For example, with Model Diplomacy, I usually give more feedback than is enabled by the website itself. I usually have students turn their assignments in on Blackboard or on Canvas. That way I can give marginal comments and get very specific because, in many of the active learning exercises that I use, preparation is essential. Ninety percent of the work that has to go on, to have this run successfully, happens prior to walking in the room and doing the role-play. That significant amount of feedback and interaction with the students at those particular touch points is really important. So I would tell faculty to think about what platforms are they going to use? How are they going to get feedback to their students prior to the simulation? 

Now, going into the simulation itself, I’ve done this both on a discussion board on Canvas and using a video conference platform called Zoom. In the discussion board, I think it fell flat, not that the students didn’t benefit from stating their opening positions and then basically discussing this in a written way back and forth to each other. I think that there was some benefit and that they learned something and they thought it was very interesting, but that experience was really elevated in the video conferencing. Can I talk about that for just a second?

Absolutely, please do.

I think the type of video conferencing software platform you use is important and you want to make sure that it’s easy to use and it’s accessible to the students. My preference at this particular point is Zoom, just because it’s very easy for me to use technically and for the students. You send them a quick link and all they have to do is hit the link and they can do this on their telephone or their laptop or desktop or what have you. So that makes it very easy. The start-up cost of engaging in the video conferencing is pretty easy. They don’t need a password, they don’t need a membership, username, that type of stuff. So one of the things I like about Zoom—and I know that Google Hangouts can do this as well—is the students can sign in under their assigned [Model Diplomacy] role rather than their own name. So they can list themselves as secretary of defense, which I thought was really great.

In Zoom you get this Brady Bunch of faces, where you have lots of faces in little squares. So when we were doing this, they all are aware of each other. They know that this talking head is the secretary of defense, and this one’s the secretary of state, and this one’s the U.S. ambassador to the UN. I thought that was really helpful and lent a sense of gravitas. In the face-to-face [simulation], when I have them walk in the room, I have placards in front of them and I ask them to dress in somewhat professional attire, so it lends a sense of significance and importance to what they’re doing and really kind of gets them in the mindset. Well, the same thing with the Zoom platform, with the simple ability to label. All of a sudden they’re having this video conference about a crisis and it helps them do that.

When I think about the video conferencing component—and this is something that instructors can play around with—I tend to not want to play the role of the national security advisor. The national security advisor is the pivot role, the central role that really moves the discussions and the dialogue forward. If there are students who are very uncertain or the instructor feels like they would want to really have a lot of engagement with the way the discussion flows, then the instructor can play the national security advisor. I kind of like the students to have a peer-to-peer conversation. I think that with my presence, they tend to want to talk to the teacher rather than the national security advisor. If my presence is removed, then it’s much easier for them to dialogue amongst themselves. That being said, I’m not actually out of the room. I’m attending the conference, but Zoom allows me to mute my video. So they don’t see me. I’m there, I’m present, I could say something if I wanted to, although I haven’t yet. But it allows them to really engage each other as peers or come to the table as they would with the National Security Council. So I saw that as very helpful.

How many students did you have in each of these instances when you did it as a discussion board versus via video conference? 

Both times that I’ve used it in the online platform, I’ve tried to create teams of approximately fifteen. So each individual has a particular role. I know that lots of people out there have used this where they’ve created teams to represent a particular role, and I think that’s really interesting. But in establishing the teams, there’s some legwork there that has to be done, and then you get into the collective action problem if one student is doing all the work and another isn’t. But that’s a preference at the instructor level.

I will say one of the challenge areas in the online environment is assigning roles. In the face-to-face class, I tend to do it with a lottery. I walk around and people pick a number out of a hat and the first person gets to pick their role first. Sometimes you kind of encourage them, because you know these students. Maybe a week or a couple of weeks in, you’ve got some familiarity with the ones that might be appropriate for national security advisor or president. But in the online environment you don’t really have that face-to-face interaction, so the personality component of your ability to nudge students in a particular direction is removed. The faculty need to think about how you are going to make these assignments. Are you going to have students self-select? Which is basically the way I’ve done it. I have them on a discussion board pick their top three choices. But I try to wait a week or so into the course so that I have some sense of their ability to follow through, because the president and the national security advisor are those key roles and you want them to really take the assignment seriously.

There are minor challenges that you have to think though before going down that path of making assignments and what platform are you going to use to do the simulation itself, the role-play portion of the simulation. These are some preliminary homework things that require just a bit of thought.

Have you seen any big differences between doing Model Diplomacy in an online environment versus in the classroom?

I think that in some ways, the students engage more in the online environment. I don’t have empirical evidence to back that up, but remember, you’re going to where they are, this is an online course, and this is a portion of that online course, so this becomes part of the online content that the students are engaging with. And this is very high-quality content, this is foreign policy experts and great historical information, a very dynamic understanding of current events. I think that they actually appreciated it more and engaged with it a little bit more in the online environment; they didn’t really see it as a supplement to the primary course.

You’re also an open educational resources (OER) ambassador, as you mentioned during the panel discussion at CFR's College and University Educators Workshop. Can you speak a little bit about where you see OER going, in terms of its importance in education?

Open educational resources are a way to get content for free in the online environment to both faculty and to students. I feel very privileged to be an ambassador. There’s some very high-quality educational stuff out there that we should be looking at, but [we should also be] mindful that we need to be very deliberate. Just because it’s online and it’s free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And there is a significant diversity, in terms of the quality. Free stuff actually has an expense to it, and who’s putting it out there is really important. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the free stuff or OER resources, and part of that involves increasing the literacy about not only what the content is but who’s putting it out, who’s producing it, what is their particular reason for producing it, and how is it being produced. And so, I would just say, as we sit here in 2017, the content is really spotty, and part of me is an advocate but part of me is also an advocate for being cautious and very deliberate about the resources that you use.

Being part of a peer group here at UNH, we’ve looked at many different OER resources, online textbooks, TED Talks, all sorts of different platforms, as well as active learning simulations and stuff. Model Diplomacy, for me, is the very best one that I have found. The quality of the interface, the color, the usability of the website, the content—it is superb. It’s hard to find textbooks that are engaging and serve this kind of purpose at this particular time. And if you do, usually you’re looking at a pretty pricey price tag.

So this is really exciting and really something that gives me great optimism about the potential for OER resources. I’m in the University of New Hampshire system, and our students in New Hampshire have one of the highest debt levels leaving the college experience as anybody in the nation. We are very deliberate, and I am particularly deliberate, about making sure that the textbooks I assign and the resources I bring to my students and ask them to purchase are really worth it. Model Diplomacy is really a gift that the Council has given to both American students and non-American students. I think we’re very privileged that the Council has decided to invest the time and to create such a quality product.

Model Diplomacy is just the first product from the CFR Campus initiative. We now have a dedicated CFR Campuschannel for educators and students and anyone who wants to learn about foreign policy and international relations concepts and global issues.

I think that’s absolutely excellent. My research sits at the intersection between U.S. foreign policy and a focus on U.S. institutions, and U.S. dilemmas and challenges and world politics and international relations. I’m always trying to get my students to think beyond the United States. How are our policies perceived? For example, very recently our president made the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord—that is not only an American issue, that’s a global issue. Understanding how other world leaders and other publics are responding to that is incredibly important. So to push beyond the American perspective is really something that’s exciting.

How do you as an instructor inspire your students to take an interest in foreign policy and international relations? 

There are a lot of students out there who are very engaged. There is a section of them that are more engaged than many of the students that have come before them. They are very committed to a global perspective and they’re very committed to global activism. I think the challenge there for the faculty member is to provide really good information and help mentor them with high-quality sources. So there’s that element that’s at play too, and it’s teaching to the top 10 percent where those very engaged people tend to think, “Well, that’s an easy thing.” It is sometimes, yes, because they’re so highly motivated, but you also want to provide them with really high-quality learning experiences that meet their level of commitment.

In terms of the students who have a lack of interest in these things, I think there’s a couple of different ways we can go about compelling them to think about both politics nationally and globally. Most of my classes spend a lot of time talking about interdependence—it’s this concept that seems intuitive, but in many ways it’s not. Asking them to think, “Where did the clothing you’re wearing today come from? What about that handheld device—who made that and how did it get here? How did we figure out how much it cost? If we’re not in the Paris climate agreement, what does that mean? What are the implications, say, for a particular region in the country, for a state, for your local government system? And then, even for you, what are the career choices that you’re anticipating? And how do international relations and U.S. foreign policy decisions impact that?” So, I try to go to the bread and butter issue and invite them to think about these global issues in their pocketbook, in their life trajectory and professional trajectory.

The other thing is just to empower them with information. I think that many students tend to disengage because [issues are] complicated. The South China Sea is complicated. The situation in Syria is very complicated, and trying to get their head around it may be too much, and so they sometimes revert to either an ideological perspective or a nonpolitical perspective. Part of it for me is making the content very accessible and piecing it together. If we want to talk about Syria, let’s begin with Syria as a civil war, and then let’s talk about Syria as a regional conflict, and then let’s talk about Syria maybe in the global context. Laddering them through, stepping stones through more sophisticated understanding is really an important thing. And, just to go back to the Model Diplomacy, it does that very nicely. If the student walks into a classroom on any given Monday morning and you say, “OK, I need you to come up with your policy toward the South China Sea and I need you to be the national security advisor,” they’re not going to be able to do that. It’s overwhelming. It’s too much, and they’ll probably want to just disengage. But, if you incrementally move them through the content and ladder their knowledge, it’s compelling, it really gets them to think about these things in a much more sophisticated way, and they feel strong. They feel much more interested in the topic, because they feel more comfortable engaging with a topic and because it’s something that they can digest.

I have to say, you approach all of this with a sense of optimism for your students, which is important because it’s easy to feel that the world is extraordinarily increasingly worse. But there have always been challenges that every generation has to face. Listening to you, I’m struck by what seems to be a faith and confidence in your students to engage with these issues.

I think that’s appropriate in describing my pedagogical approach, but also a really good way to approach students. If you look at my course evaluations, they always point out how demanding I am, but also how much they learn. And so, I tend to think that when you have high expectations, students will rise to meet them. You say, “You can do this.” That’s part of teaching. You’re not only delivering content, some particular information or a particular concept or a particular theory, but you’re also building confidence in their ability to engage in this exercise, and building confidence in their ability to be critical thinkers. You have to do that cheerleading, but you have to build the tools for their success. And, we’ve all done this: we’ve tried something, we’ve gone to the class and thought it was a great idea, had very high expectations for our students, and it fell on its face. The students feel uncomfortable and disheartened, and then you feel ineffective. So, it’s really about providing the tools for their success. I have high expectations but incrementally realistic expectations, and accumulatively, it really raises the experience. Model Diplomacy does that. I think that that’s one of the real geniuses behind it: “OK, we’re going to learn just about the National Security Council.” “Okay, now we’re going to learn about the situation in Sudan.” “Now, we’re going to be able to apply that language and that knowledge base.”

Students also love moving and thinking and engaging and talking. But, you have to make the classroom a safe place, right? And so I think that that’s one of the big challenges of our generation is to, one, elevate the conversation and say, “It’s OK to talk about politics. We don’t have to be Yankees or Red Sox.” There’s this typical, “You put your Red Sox hat on and I’ll put my Yankees hat on” and we are intractable, and we are aware of that. But saying, “OK, let’s take our caps off, and it’s OK to take our caps off” makes the learning space very safe. Usually, if you move away from kind of the typical ideological rhetoric that we find in the mass media, if you don’t allow them to engage that content but ask them to engage much more rigorous content—whether it’s the theories of international relations or theories of foreign policy–making—and kind of do a meta-analysis, have them step above the fray. So looking at, for example, some of the debates in the Trump administration right now: Do we see bureaucratic politics or organizational politics or some of the theoretical perspectives that talk about how foreign policies are made? That gets you out the rut of the contemporary dialogues and that shutting down of meaningful dialogue and learning.

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