Virtual Symposium write-up

Fabio Arico, University of East Anglia & Economics Network Associate
Published July 2020 in the Economics Network Newsletter

Facing the challenges of adapting to the new learning and teaching landscape generated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Economics Network surely was on top of the game. The EN Online Symposium organised in June 2020 was by far one of the best teaching development events I have ever attended. The medium was the message, as sessions were cleverly spread across weeks combining asynchronous readings and screencasts with discussion board debates and synchronous sessions, just happening as effective online teaching delivery should be organised.

The event was attended by a wide range of colleagues, within and outside the UK, and coming from different experiences, with an equal split between teaching and research contracts as well as teaching-only positions. Most of the participants felt that this period of rapid change is giving us a unique opportunity to innovate and experiment with new practices. I could certainly feel the enthusiasm in the air and, as I am becoming more acquainted to the tools and the techniques of blended learning, my first impressions were: (i) that online training and collaboration allowed me to have more quality time to think and reflect on what I was learning, (ii) that I have never had so many frequent opportunities to talk and interact with my colleagues in the field of Economics Education in such a short span of time, and (iii) that we have a fantastic community of scholars willing to share resources, debate, and support each other. We should take pride in all this.

The first theme of the Symposium was on Engaging Students and Academics with Online Learning. Much of the introductory material discussed alternative platforms to produce videos, and communicate with students either in a live environment (such as Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate) or asynchronously (such as Piazza). I think this already posed an interesting point for discussion. There are plenty of resources we can employ, but we need to harness our enthusiasm and guarantee some consistency in adoption at course-level, otherwise students will find themselves overwhelmed by having to become familiar with far too many different platforms. This reflection also highlighted the importance of clear signposting when operating in an online environment.

“We have a fantastic community of scholars willing to share resources, debate, and support each other. We should take pride in this”

Another important take-home message for me was the importance of prompting student participation through online response systems (for synchronous sessions) as well as pro-actively curating and fostering debate on asynchronous discussion boards. Platform functionality only makes for half of the story. Asking challenging and intriguing questions, which can spark a discussion, rather than a one-shot answer, is equally important. I think colleagues recognised that online engagement data will give us an invaluable opportunity to evaluate our teaching in real time. On the other hand, online teaching also sparked concerns about data protection whilst using third-party tools (e.g. operating outside our institutions’ clouds), as well as accessibility and inclusivity of resources in a digital world that both teachers and students are learning to explore together.

Teaching with Data Online and Teaching with Excel Online were the themes of the second and third sessions of the Symposium. These offered a great platform for further exchanges on resources available, including hardware, software, techniques, and data. Participants in the room shared their struggles with teaching and explaining technical content online. Solutions spanned from home-made recording studios, built with mobile phones or flexible-arm cameras, to the use of tablets and apps for digital handwriting and annotation. Demonstrations on the use of Excel in teaching Economics covered topics in Macroeconomics and Microeconomics, where the use of simulations can support student learning by unlocking theoretical challenges with a visualisation of how economic models work in practice. As it was prompted during these sections, I feel strongly that the true pedagogical power of using Excel, or other simulation and data processing software, can only be harnessed when students are driven to build their own visualisation, and when they take full ownership and full control of the process, rather than just the outcome.

100% of attendees found the symposium either somewhat or very useful

The most valuable lesson I learnt from exchanges with colleagues is that good practice in online Applied Economics teaching is built on a good balance of two ingredients. Whilst screencasts are extremely helpful to break what I like to call ‘buttonology’, or the art of using Excel and other statistical packages in all their functions, the second important ingredient is the ability to formulate intriguing questions, pitched at the right-level of challenge, which can engage our students in a fruitful process of discovery.

The final theme of the Symposium, Assessing Economics Online, will be discussed in September. Nevertheless, conversations have already started, as the challenges posed by assessment and feedback practices could not but accompany the first three themes. Colleagues reflected on the meaning of the distinction between online exams and online coursework. Are these really different in an open-book environment? I felt that the consensus indicated that the only real distinction is whether we wish to set a tight time-constraint to online exams. Nevertheless, unless time constraints are imposed to test students’ abilities under pressure, we cannot prevent plagiarism without online proctoring tools, and not without risk of exposing our different student population to non-inclusive practices. The real challenge is reflecting on which skills we can assess in an open-book environment, and which questions we should ask. I am sure that much more will be up for discussion in this final session of the Symposium.

As the Symposium was attended by so many technology-enhanced learning enthusiasts, I was really pleased to feel that we all had a shared view: no matter in which environment we operate, pedagogical underpinning should still be most important driver of effective curriculum design. I am looking forward to further exchanges as the Symposium continues.