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Use of virtual seminars in Economic Principles

In the academic year 2002/3, I ran virtual (online) seminars fortnightly with students taking a one-year, 30 credit Economic Principles and Applications module at the University of the West of England. There are 220 students on the module, divided into 12 seminar groups of approximately 18 students each. The students had two lectures per week, a whole-year workshop per week (i.e. with 220 students in the workshop: see case study), an in-class seminar fortnightly and a virtual seminar fortnightly at the same time as the in-class seminar on the alternate week. In any one week, six of the groups were having traditional in-class seminars and the other six were having virtual seminars.

The virtual seminars ran in Blackboard, using the group discussion board facility. The seminars were ‘synchronous’: i.e. students debated with each other for a set period, namely the seminar hour. But, being virtual, they could take part in the seminar from anywhere: a computer lab, home, an Internet café, or wherever.

For each seminar, I posted, in advance, a set of instructions, including links to Web-based reading, and some questions that the students must answer. The seminars were tightly structured. Having completed the reading, which they were encouraged to do in advance, they first had to answer each of the questions (normally three) and then start responding to the answers that other students in the group had posted.

The first two virtual seminars were conducted in a computer lab with a tutor present. This allowed the necessary support to be provided and the protocols to be established. Thereafter, students could take part in the seminars from any location of their choice. After the first two, tutors were not present during the hour, and thus there was considerable saving in staff time. A tutor was assigned to each group, however, and within three days read the discussion and posted a commentary on it. Students were then required to read the tutors’ comments before they took part in the next virtual seminar. Students, if they wished, could add further comments to a debate after the completion of the hour and each virtual seminar stayed ‘live’ for the remainder of the academic year. Thus students could revisit each discussion for revision purposes and make further postings if they so chose.

Given that students in different groups often made similar points, tutors’ comments could normally be simply amended from one group to another, rather than written from scratch. Tutor time was approximately 20 minutes per group: i.e. a total of 2 hours per week for the six groups in that week – a saving of 4 staff hours per week for seminars. This gave a net saving of staff time of 2 hours per week (the workshops accounted for an extra 2 hours, since they were taken by two members of staff). Despite the saving in staff time, students had more class time. They had four hours per week of classes of one type or another, compared with the normal allocation of three.

Each of the four media that I used (lectures, very large workshops, seminars and virtual seminars) has its own strengths and weaknesses as a learning environment. Thus whole-year workshops are a very efficient medium for ‘drilling’ exercises, with closed-ended questions requiring manipulation of models, data, etc. Traditional in-class seminars are suited to the application of theories to problems and policy issues, where there is scope for debate and where a tutor’s presence is important as a guide to learning and the tutor and students can use a black/white board as necessary. They are also very useful for small-group work followed by a plenary.

Virtual seminars are best suited to what I call ‘metaeconomics’. These involve students questioning assumptions behind policy objectives, relating economic concepts to current economic issues and discussing issues to do with the operation of the course, including learning and assessment. Given the limitations of the discussion board and virtual classroom in Blackboard and, in particular, the limitations of the whiteboard facility, students’ contributions to the virtual seminars require the use of text only.

Here is a sample of topics and questions:

Week Topic Questions
1 or 2 The housing market. Reading:
  1. What is the relationship between stock market prices and house prices?
  2. What is likely to happen to house prices in the UK over the next two years?
  3. Should the government intervene in the housing market to prevent prices rising any further? If you think it should, explain why and suggest measures it should take to achieve this objective. If you think it should not, explain why.
3 or 4

Market fundamentalism. Reading:
Busted: Why The Markets Can't Fix Themselves (New Republic)

  1. Explain what is meant by 'reflexivity'. How does it contribute to market instability?
  2. What is 'market fundamentalism'? In what sense is a belief in market fundamentalism an ideological position?
  3. Is George Soros (the author) right to claim that market fundamentalism is a false and dangerous ideology?
7 or 8

Student top-up fees. Reading:

  1. What externalities are involved in higher education? What are the implications of such externalities for whether to charge fees for courses and if so how much?
  2. You are an advisor employed by the government to help it decide whether to charge top-up fees. Make out the case FOR allowing universities to charge what they like for courses. (In your replies to each other's answers, you can make out the case against).
  3. Assuming that universities require substantial extra funding, make out the case for ONE alternative source of extra money to top-up fees.
11 or 12 Essay marking exercise in preparation for January test. Reading: 4 answers to mini-essay question from last year’s test. These were ‘anonymised’ and typed up and then hyperlinked from the discussion board.

1, 2, 3 and 4 Post your mark and comments here for the first/second/third/last of the four essays. Later, when you have done this for all four essays, you should return to each essay and comment on what other students in the group have had to say and attempt to reach a consensus mark.


15 or 16

Setting part of the exam paper – five essay questions on first term’s work. Each of the 12 group’s questions are then posted on the whole-year discussion board and students are told that the first half of the actual exam (five questions) will be drawn from these 60 questions.

In each of five sub-groups, students have to set a question on a specific topic in the first half of the module. The discussion board is then used to refine the five questions to arrive at an agreed group exam paper (first half).

17 or 18

Role-playing exercise. Students are assigned to five sub groups, representing the WTO, the US Administration, the EU Commission, a group of developing countries and a major environmental charity (e.g. Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth). They are then given the scenario that the USA has introduced a new and extensive range of trade restrictions to protect US firms from ‘cheap imports’.

In role, each sub group has to prepare a response to the USA’s actions (or, in the case of the USA, a justification). Then, chaired by the WTO group, discussion is opened up for the groups to debate with each other.

Students feel very comfortable operating in this environment, as most are familiar with chat rooms. It is important to stress to them, however, that this is an academic seminar and thus the debate should use ‘proper’ language and not ‘chat speak’. Also, it should be made clear to students that they should avoid personal comments.

Virtual seminars have the advantage over real seminars that students can post simultaneously and thus make more contributions than in a traditional seminar. My experience was that students typically made between 6 and 8 postings each in the hour. Postings were typically between three and four lines, but were often up to 12 lines long, especially for the initial postings as opposed to the responses to other students’ postings.

They also have the advantage that students’ contributions are likely to be better thought-out than contributions in a traditional in-class seminar, where responses are often ‘off the cuff’. They also give students a much more equal opportunity to contribute, and students who might be shy or hesitant in an in-class seminar seem quite happy contributing in the online environment. Conversely, the ‘talkative’ students who can easily dominate an in-class seminar seem to contribute no more than anyone else in a virtual seminar. Finally, the contributions remain visible for as long as that discussion board is accessible. Useful contributions in a traditional in-class seminar can quickly be forgotten; even if students make notes of other students’ or tutors’ contributions, they are often very sketchy.

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