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Aris Politopoulos: ‘I use games as a teaching method'

In his lectures Aris Politopoulos combines archaeology with video games. He is one of the three nominees for the 2020 LUS Teaching Prize. 'A good teacher is always open to feedback from students.'

Aris Politopoulos is a lecturer in both the bachelor's and the master's programme in Archaeology. In the second year of the bachelor's he teaches two general subjects on the development of (early) cities and the archaeology of ancient empires, and in the research master's he lectures on the archaeology of Assyria.  He also teaches in the Science Communication course at the Faculty of Archaeology, and in a quite unusual way: together with several other colleagues, he provides archaeological commentary during livestreams of video games. This is something he does not only for students but for other interested parties via the VALUE Foundation, of which he is co-founder. 

Aris Politopoulos at an excavation in Chlorakas-Palloures, Cyprus (Photo: Ian Cohn)
Aris Politopoulos at an excavation in Chlorakas-Palloures, Cyprus (Photo: Ian Cohn)

What was your initial reaction when you heard that you had been nominated for the LUS Teaching Prize?

‘I was totally surprised, and very happy! I've been teaching now for four years, and every year I think it would be really cool to be nominated for the prize. And now I have been! What's so good about it is that it's the students who nominate you. That's the best possible reward: that your students appreciate you as a teacher.'

What would you say typifies your teaching style?

‘Casual, but then in a positive sense. Academic education is obviously a serious matter. But that seriousness can sometimes make it less exciting or less recognisable for students. I try to keep it lighter, without detracting from the content, of course. I want my students to feel free to ask whatever they want, so I try to reduce the distance between me as the teacher and them as students. It seems to work: they manage to find me, including sometimes to talk about other matters.'  

'I think that's one of the reasons why I've been nominated: they find me approachable. It also helps that I go on excavations with them: that gives you the opportunity to interact with students on a more friendly basis. But I also think that what students particularly like is the way I combine archaeology with video games.' 

What is that you do with video games? How do you use them in your teaching?

‘It's an important focus of my research: I study how archaeology features in video games. I might, for example, make a close examination of a game and see how much of the archaeological information' is accurate, and what the players learn from it about the development of cities, for example, or global empires. For one specific assignment I got my students to watch a livestream where I play video games and comment on them, and then I asked them to reflect on what they had seen and heard. I also had them write an archaeological review of a game they chose themselves.'  

‘The nice thing is that even students who never play video games also enjoy these assignments. The game-playing element is something everyone can relate to. Using games and imagery is by no means common in the academic world, but I believe it has enormous added value. I use games as a teaching method.'

The Droste effect during one of Aris Politopoulos' lectures: he teaches about video games and archaeology, with a still in the background showing him playiing a game.
The Droste effect during one of Aris Politopoulos' lectures: he teaches about video games and archaeology, with a still in the background showing him playiing a game.

This has been an extraordinary year for teachers; in March, all our teaching had to be converted to online at breakneck speed. How did that switch go for you?

‘At the start there was obviously a whole load of work, because you had to change all your lessons and find out how to do it. We couldn't give live lessons to large groups of students, not only because of the software, but also because there's always going to be one person in the group with network problems. So I started recording videos. Luckily, I had some experience as well as good equipment because of my livestreams. I already have a green screen, and was able to create a “studio” at home. Some of my colleagues even came over to record their lectures in my studio!' 

‘You really do have to approach a video lecture differently from your normal lectures because when they're watching a video people - not just students - have a much shorter attention span than a 'real life' speaker. To compensate for that, I divided my videos into chapters so that students could watch them in small doses. I repeat things more, and I use less complex terminology because they can't interrupt me to ask questions.' 

‘One advantage, particularly with my green screen, is that I can do more online than in a lecture room. I project images behind me, and kind of appear in my own presentation, or in the city that I'm taking about. I do miss teaching in person, though: standing in front of a group of students in a lecture hall generates a completely different kind of energy. With online teaching you also miss the contact with the students, the questions that come up during the lecture or in the coffee break.'

Aris’ tips for colleagues on online teaching

‘My first tip is technical: make sure you have a stable internet connection if you're going to be teaching online - ideally via a cable (rather than wifi). It may sound obvious, but it's often overlooked. Secondly: remember that nobody works as well at home as at the University; that goes for you and for your students. And that's fine. And finally: show some consideration for your students' time and don't overload them with work now that teaching is online. It's difficult for them, too. Be mindful of your students’ time.' 

What do you think makes for a good teacher?

‘A good teacher is prepared to understand his or her students. You not only have to be the expert with specialist knowledge of your subject, you also have to listen to your students and accept their feedback,' says Politopoulos. ‘If your students don't understand an assignment, they don't carry it out well or they think it's very complex, you shouldn't shrug it off  and make some comment like ''They need to try harder.''  You have to accept that you as the teacher may sometimes need to make changes to get your nessage across to students in the best possible way. I can give you an example from my own teaching: I set an assignment where students had to make a mindmap. A lot of them found it very difficult and didn't really manage it. All in all, the results were not good.  So, I started to think about how I could make the assignment different. The aim had to stay the same, because learning about how to present information visually is important for students - particularly in archaeology. So now students can choose other visual forms than a mindmap for this assignment.'  

Aris Politopoulos lecturing in front of a 'green screen' on the empires in the eastern Mediterranean region during the Late Bronze Age
Aris Politopoulos lecturing in front of a 'green screen' on the empires in the eastern Mediterranean region during the Late Bronze Age

Imagine that you win the prize. What will you do with the 25,000 euros?

‘I've got masses of ideas! Games and imagery are a definite part of all of them, and I don't mean just video games. I'd really like to create a game with students, focusing on archaeology, obviously. It's a good way to teach them to look differently at archaeological material and knowledge: how can we use it in a game, or how can we use a game to teach people about archaeology? Another idea is to create a platform where students can stream themselves, in a video game, but, for example, also during lab work or an excavation. Other students can watch the videos, learn from them and comment on them. It's a great way to promote peer education.' 

Text: Marieke Epping
Images: Aris Politopoulos

LUS Online Teaching Prize

The LUS Teaching Prize – temporarily christened the Leiden Remote Teaching Prize – is the initiative of the Leiden University Student Platform (LUS). At the opening of the academic year, this year on 31 August, the lecturer will be honoured who has been of the ‘greatest merit to teaching.’ All students at Leiden University can nominate a lecturer. The LUS visits a few lectures by the nominated teachers and chooses three finalists based on criteria such as teaching innovation and interaction with students. The winner is given five-year membership of the Leiden Teachers’ Academy (in Dutch) and a 25,000 euro grant to spend on educational improvements during this period. The nominees for 2020 are Arianna Pranger (Medicine), Nuno Atalaia (Humanities) and Aris Politopoulos (Archaeology).

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