The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

3.3 Use of interactive facilities in VLEs

The use of VLEs is discussed more fully in a later chapter. This section provides a brief overview of possible links between lectures and a VLE.

Discussion boards

One useful mechanism for encouraging students to make full use of their learning in lectures is to set up a discussion board. This is easy to do in a VLE, but even a conventional email list can serve the purpose. You can post questions on the lecture that follow on directly from its contents and students would be expected to respond. For example, if the lecture was examining market failures, the discussion could be based on particular examples of market failure and possible policy solutions. You can ‘require’ students to make a set minimum number of contributions. You can log their contributions and decide on an appropriate encouragement or ‘penalty’ for students who do not contribute.

If you do set up a discussion board, you will have to decide what students can expect of you. If you merely ‘pump prime’ it and then expect students to make all the contributions, it can be relatively undemanding in terms of your time. If used in this way, it can be a very useful mechanism for promoting a culture of mutual self-help.

Chat rooms as virtual seminars

As an alternative or addition to using a discussion board, you could set up a chat room in a VLE. Students could log on at a particular time and you could choose whether or not to lead it, merely start it off or not be present at all. The virtual seminar could last for a set length of time or could be open ended. The advantage of the former is that it requires a clear commitment of time by the student and is seen as something structured. The open-ended seminar has the advantage that it can continue as long as it is valuable to the remaining students.

Either way, the seminar can be seen as a discussion session on the lecture, whose purpose is to help students to sort out problems they may have. These may be simple questions of clarification or they may be issues of contextualisation or application. Alternatively, you could start the seminar by giving some follow-up material from the lecture – an example, case study or problem – and posing the students some questions based on it.

To get the students used to using the chat room facility and to the protocols for ‘synchronous’ debate, it is a good idea to hold the first of these seminars in a computer lab with you present to answer questions about how to use the facility and to ensure that people are contributing. Thereafter, students can take part in the seminar from any computer with Web access.

It is important to recognise an important limitation of chat rooms: they have poor graphical and algebraic facilities. This makes them unsuitable for technical discussions. They can be excellent, however, for exploring policy implications and for examining issues where there is scope for differences in opinion. They can also provide a medium in which shy students can feel comfortable in contributing, especially if you allow them to use an alias, with their true identity known only to you.

If one of these virtual seminars is held after each lecture (in addition to normal face-to-face seminars), it can significantly deepen students’ learning from the lecture and make them feel that they have an opportunity to contribute.

If you have time, you can post edited ‘highlights’ from the seminar. Failing this, you can simply leave the contributions on the site for students to revisit in their own time.

Follow up questions by students

You could encourage students to contact you if they have queries about the lecture. If you do not want to answer the same question over and over again, then you could again use a discussion board with a ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQ) section. Once you have answered a question once and posted the answer, then you will not answer it again. The students would be expected to consult the FAQ section to check that any question they ask you has not already been answered. This can save you a lot of time and is very useful for encouraging a culture of self-help in learning, rather than students simply expecting ‘to be told’. An FAQ section could be substituted for half of your office hours and you could dedicate the released time to answering the online questions.

Top Tip 10: Encourage students to answer questions posed by other students after the lecture on a discussion board. You need only intervene if the students were not working their way to the 'right' answers. This is a mechanism for encouraging self-help.