The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. Introduction

‘E-learning can be defined as “learning facilitated and supported through the use of information and communications technology”. It can cover a spectrum of activities from the use of technology to support learning as part of a “blended” approach (a combination of traditional and e-learning approaches), to learning that is delivered entirely online. Whatever the technology, however, learning is the vital element.’[1]

1.1 Summary of the chapter

Evidence of several decades suggests that reliance on ‘chalk and talk’ is not the best pedagogic practice but nonetheless one that typically economists tend to rely on.[2] Our experience suggests that we can add value to both our teaching and students’ learning through thoughtfully and creatively employing technology which can complement active learning methods.

The focus of this handbook chapter is to share our ‘practitioner perspective’ and in particular the experiences we have of using a wide range of learning technologies. This chapter draws upon many presentations and workshops that we have run (in particular for the Economics Network) and is guided by positive participant feedback.

Both of us are Senior Teaching Fellows within our Economics department, committed to developing excellence in teaching and enhancing the learning opportunities of our students. We recently participated in a JISC funded project that specifically encouraged us to experiment and trial new technologies.[3] We are now at the consolidation stage, which includes embedding and disseminating our e-learning experiences. The main part of this chapter therefore focuses on these experiences and in particular the technologies that we have adopted and integrated into our ‘in-class’ economics teaching and learning; we also include some ‘out-of-class’ technologies that directly support or enhance the classroom experience . In each case we consider the key features of the technology, include applications across a range of Economics modules and discuss their strengths/weaknesses.

There is considerable variation in terms used to describe e-learning as well as overlaps between the technologies, their applications and accompanying methodologies (Rushby, 2011). This is particularly true for blended (also known as ‘hybrid’) learning  and distance (or ‘off-line’) learning. The former, which is defined here as integrating ‘face to face’ with on-line activities, is the primary focus of this chapter; whereas the latter typically involves complete geographic separation between teaching and learning and therefore lies outside the scope of this chapter.

1.2 Motivations for using e-learning in economics

‘The key principles behind effective learning and teaching still apply: whatever the technology or mode of delivery, learning should be the key objective, and pedagogy rather than technology should drive the decision-making.’ (JISC, 2009)

‘Few other disciplines are poised to have their pedagogies so radically affected by technology.’ (Raymond et al., 2008)

Enhancing learning

Technology has the potential to enable interactivity, providing immediate feedback on learning as well as reinforcing and extending classroom-based learning. Evidence suggests that active and collaborative learning enhanced by technology can improve students’ performance and almost certainly engagement and motivation.[4] Such learning encourages greater engagement with concepts and material, facilitating both acquisition and retention, as students assume a more active role (Ghosh and Renna, 2009). Furthermore active in-class activities in particular enhance learning: students reach a deeper understanding of concepts working at higher cognitive levels. Salemi (2009) also observes that interaction with peers fosters both critical listening and appreciating diversity of opinions; he gives a number of examples of in-class activities, many of which can be adapted and run more inclusively with technology in lectures.[5]

We also believe that many technologies can be used to enhance learning whether in a lecture group of 50 or 500. The latter presents a familiar optimisation problem: how to maximise excellence in teaching and learning given the constraints of increasingly large number of students. Research suggests that using technology such as audience response systems with large enrolments on a first year Principles course does lead to increased student engagement (Salemi, 2009).

Improving understanding

An Editorial in 2010 in the International Review of Economics Education (IREE) observed that ‘typically evaluations of teaching in universities currently rely more on students’ views than on evidence of change in students’ understanding’. Our evaluations are in this sense then, typical: although we have observed throughout this three-year period improvements in students’ performance, our research to confirm this is not yet complete. Nevertheless, a number of recent studies seem to clearly suggest that different types of teaching strategies, enhanced by technology, affect the development of critical thinking skills of different groups of students in a diverse way and as such catering for the average student by relying on one teaching model might not lead to the best outcome (Siriopoulos and Pomonis, 2009)

Furthermore, Manochehr (2006) investigated the impact of e-learning according to the different learning styles of students, finding that in some cases learners performed significantly better with e-learning methods. Olczak (2011) evaluated the impact of web-based resources, focusing on student learning and performance, also finding significant positive effects while Raymond et al. (2008) find the use of technology in the classroom for teaching mathematical concepts has a positive impact on knowledge retention and student performance. However they caution that it is essential that lecturers have clear objectives and the technology must be well integrated within the teaching. It is worth emphasising that it is really about how rather than if a technology is used.

Addressing concerns

A common concern of lecturers is the belief that using technologies will be costly, specifically in terms of time. However many of the technologies are very low cost and others, whilst requiring an initial investment, have a rapid pay-off. Furthermore, what we are not proposing is the use of technology and e-learning tools to replace lecturers. We would rather advocate parallel teaching than simply video-streaming lectures (although this can be useful in the short term given unforeseen illness or unexpected buy-outs). Despite numerous initiatives – including in the US nearly two decades of AEA annual conference sessions focused on economics teaching and educational research and in the UK the excellent support and innovations of The Economics Network – the reluctance of lecturers to engage with more ‘complex innovations’ continues. Addressing the question of why this is the case suggests insufficient incentives, high sunk costs, incomplete understanding of the benefits as well as perceptions of high start-up costs (Raymond et al.,  2008). Watts and Schaur (2011) conclude that ‘there is some evidence of change possibly due to the availability of newer technologies along with younger faculty, with more emphasis on teaching and learning as well as greater resources and training’.

Our motivation throughout is pedagogy-pull not technology-push. Whether digital technology is ‘changing patterns of learning and leading to a new learning paradigm’ or rather represents the ‘evolution of 40 years of educational theory and practice’[6] we believe that ‘the art of the practitioner remains key to the process of learning’(JISC, 2009). Finally, and importantly, using technologies can potentially make learning and teaching more enjoyable for both lecturers and students.

(See Appendix 2 for Background to e-learning developments within Higher Education.)

[1] See the JISC website for publications, programmes and projects

[2] Watts and Schaur (2011), analysing the Fourth National Quinquennial Survey (US), are struck by the consistency of these results over time.

[3] For more details on the JISC project see Appendix 1.

[4] Mann and Robinson (2009) show evidence that students also find such lectures less boring.

[5] The etc project (link now broken) propose principles for teaching involving the use of reflective, problem-focused and threshold exercises which also can be enhanced with technology.

[6] See for example the views of Christine Redecker (2009) compared with Paul Nicholson et al. (2007).