Teaching with Webinars

Alvin Birdi, Economics Network & University of Bristol
Published February 2019

At Bristol, we run a university-wide course on data literacy and basic statistics using the datasets and empirical problems contained in the CORE text, Doing Economics. The main lecture-style delivery is through webinars. The choice to use webinars in our course was partly a solution to a practical problem: namely, to ease timetabling pressures. In a course such as this, where the students come from a wide variety of programmes across the university it becomes nearly impossible to find a time where they are all jointly available and a suitable room is free.

Webinars allow us to replace lectures with interactive live sessions that could be easily moved from week to week because they impose no demands on the physical teaching estate and there is virtually no overhead involved in re-scheduling. For those students who cannot make any particular webinar, a recording is provided.

Debate and discussion as a mode of learning becomes normalised and expected.

Our new course, which explores data analysis through the themes of inequality, climate crisis and innovation, was intended to be pedagogically innovative in a number of ways. But it initially seemed to us that webinars would be the least innovative aspect of the course because they would simply replicate the traditional experience of lectures in a virtual setting. We had envisaged that the innovative elements of the course we had put together resided in other aspects, namely the hands-on interactive workshops, problem-based assessments, assessment choice, video production by students, the multidisciplinary approach, audio podcasts and online office hours.

To our surprise, webinars proved to be among the most innovative pedagogical aspects of the new course because they changed the interpersonal dynamic of teaching and learning in ways that we did not envisage. They encouraged team teaching with two or more tutors routinely involved in running a session simply because this could be done at very low cost and from remote locations. The informality of the webinar setting makes it natural for a tutor to “drop-in” to the webinar for a short time. Such a casual approach would not only seem rude in a traditional lecture, but the overhead of physically attending a lecture hall across campus for ten minutes or so is highly impractical.

From a students’ point of view, team-teaching appears to effect a significant change in the nature of engagement. Team-teaching in a relaxed webinar environment models for students a dialogic approach to the subject where discussion, disagreements and alternative points of view held by lecturers are played out in a live arena. Debate and discussion as a mode of learning becomes normalised and expected. This is in distinction to a single lecturer in a room in which the mode of delivery can sometimes lend an air of unquestionable authority to the material being presented. Discussion in this setting can seem to students to rub against the grain of the session. It seems to us that webinars offer much more pedagogically than the use of new technology to present an old format of teaching.

More information

A blog post and podcast by Tim Phillips for CORE-Econ interviews Alvin Birdi and Christian Spielmann of the University of Bristol about their new course "Inequality, Crisis and Poverty". As well as using hands-on data exercises from the CORE text and a "flipped" approach, the course abandons traditional lectures in favour of interactive webinars.

“You’ve got a situation where a lecture is so substitutable that it makes absolutely no sense to do it in the traditional way. It’s so costly, it’s bizarre,” says Birdi, “You want to make your face-to-face time complementary to everything else that you do.”

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