Distance and online learning

Last updated 22 January 2021 with thanks to the Economics Network Executive Group for suggested resources and links

This is a collection of advice and resources for running courses at a distance, doing activities online that were previously face-to-face.

The Economics Network ran a virtual symposium in the Summer of 2020 with sessions on engaging students and academics with online learning, teaching with data online, teaching Economics with Excel, and adaptable assessment.

Courses and advice for teaching staff

The Open University has a free online course called Take Your Teaching Online covering many aspects of the move to online teaching.

Eileen Kennedy of the UCL Institute of Education Is delivering a free online course, "Get Interactive: Practical Teaching with Technology" on the Coursera platform.

MERLOT, the teaching and learning resources portal, has a mini-site on Preparing Teachers & Students for Online Learning.

Case studies

Online teaching - In the context of COVID-19
Blog post by Simon Halliday (Smith College, USA), March 2020
An economics lecturer describes a range of online tools and how he uses them.

Moving to online teaching for a final year module
Case study by Atisha Ghosh (University of Warwick) describes her use of games, online polling, and pre-recorded videos.

Teaching the Economics of COVID-19 in Autumn 2020
Sara Gundersen (Valparaiso University) describes changing both content and delivery for the pandemic.

Technology basics

Cameras and microphones

This 8 minute video from the MOOC platform Udemy looks at cameras, microphones, and other equipment for educators to record or broadcast themselves.

There is an accompanying equipment list as a PDF.

A blog post by Chris Headleand of University of Lincoln explains how to get good quality audio.

Using your phone or tablet as a camera

If you have a recent smartphone, iPad or tablet, you have access to a camera superior to many dedicated webcams. The mobile device can connect to your computer via USB or wifi. If you install the free iVCam Webcam app on the device and the iVCam software on your computer, they can connect to each other. Zoom and other video software will then show the camera as an option. The free version of iVCam adds a watermark to the video, which is removed if you pay ten dollars for the full version. In the settings, you can opt for iVCam to use the mobile device as a microphone as well.

EpocCam and Iriun are alternatives to iVCam.

Some basic tips for video recording

(via Kalabi.com)

  • Use a tripod or stand to keep the camera (or phone) steady.
  • Have the light coming from behind the camera.
  • Keep the camera at eye level.
  • Use a plain background.

Pen technology

This video case study introduces touchscreen laptops and tablet input devices, combining them with annotation software and screen capture software to create audio-narrated lectures.


Technology for live webinars

Blackboard Collaborate Ultimate is a tool built into Blackboard Virtual Learning Environments for running online classrooms. It can be used to run online lectures with some interaction from students, online tutorials or virtual office hours. We are grateful to Ralf Becker of the University of Manchester for sharing this guide to getting started with Collaborate (PDF). Alternatively see this 14-minute introductory video.

In case your institution does not have its own webinar solution, there are cheap or free tools for online meetings and webinars across many kinds of device.

  • Zoom is a videoconferencing tool with chat facility and screen-sharing. You can capture the video of the webinar as a local file. The free version has a limit of 100 participants and 40 minutes (though the 40 minute limit is being lifted for many educational institutions, so check what applies to your institution). There are clients for Windows, Mac, ChromeOS, Linux, iOS, and Android.
  • Bluejeans is a similar service to Zoom, working on a similar variety of platforms, requiring a paid subscription.
  • EZTalks is a videoconferencing tool that includes polling and a shared whiteboard. The free version has a limit of 100 participants and 40 minutes. There are clients for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.
  • BigBlueButton is a tool that runs in a web browser and hence works across a lot of platforms. Hosts can talk through slide shows, annotate them with a pen, and record the sessions for later. This 5 minute video introduces it.
  • FlipGrid is a simple-to-use video conversation site/app. The tutor shares an initial video and/or documents, and students can record video responses of up to 90 seconds. Students can react to each other's videos with emojis. There are several tutorial videos on YouTube, such as this six-minute introduction.

Ten top tips for using Zoom for programme delivery by Doug Parkin, Advance HE covers some social, pedagogical and technological practicalities that apply to multiple platforms.

Tip: some videoconferencing tools have everybody's microphone or video on by default. This can be chaotic with large groups, so before the webinar set the default to mute. This four-minute video gives a quick introduction to running a class on Zoom, including how to mute or allow student audio.

To stream from Blackboard Collaborate to YouTube (which is more familiar to students), Open Broadcaster Studio (OBS) is free multi-platform software for combining video and audio inputs into a stream. If you set up a YouTube event and paste a code from YouTube into OBS, OBS can stream live to YouTube. The process is explained in this blog post.

Running a live session

Case study: Teaching with webinars
Alvin Birdi, University of Bristol, February 2019

Case study: Use of virtual seminars in Economic Principles
John Sloman, University of the West of England, December 2002

Designing learning and teaching online: the role of discussion forums
Slobodan Tomic et al., University of York, April 2020

The Guide to Educating Through Zoom (PDF) explains some functions of the software but also gives tips for running a successful session.

Building involvement and community

  • Use the customisable features of online platforms to make your presence distinctive and less inhuman. At a minimum, you can usually add a profile photo and short biography. Going further, you can use short video clips to set the tone of your delivery of the course.
  • Use warm-up activities in which students share something about themselves unrelated to the course, like their favourite book or the origin of their name.
  • Set the students' expectations about how much they are required to interact with each other and how much interaction they can expect from you. Explain how the interactive activities are important to their learning.
  • Check in with students regularly, using online polls, word clouds, or shared whiteboards to aggregate their responses. Giving them an opportunity to express feelings and get things off their chest can be done in a fun way, for example by showing a range of images and asking which they identify with.

Getting live feedback from students

  • You can run polls within a Zoom session much like you'd use clickers in a classroom. This 9 minute video shows how.
  • Mentimeter is a tool for getting a feedback from a large audience. You pose a question, share it as a link, and the responses are presented as a word cloud, bar chart or other formats, either raw or in summary. The question types include multi-choice, scales, and ranking. The free version limits you to 2 questions per presentation.
  • Padlet is similar to the open-ended question function of Mentimeter. The audience follow your link, type an answer to your question, and their responses (which can include images or links) are presented all on one screen. There are maps and timelines to which students can attach their answer. The free version limits you to 3 padlets.
  • If you have a Google login (e.g. Google Docs, Gmail) you can use Google Forms to create a survey, click "Send" to generate a web link that you share with your audience, and click "Responses" to get summary and raw feedback instantly.
  • Also from Google is Jamboard. This is a collaborative workspace where the audience can add sticky notes and can draw. It is one way to collect reactions or ideas from an audience. (image credit: Steven Hope)
  • Wooclap is a real-time polling platform whose question types include multi-choice, find-on-image, numerical, matching, sorting, and fill-the-blanks, amongst others. The free version limits you to two questions per event.
  • Vevox is an online polling tool that works with PowerPoint and Microsoft Teams. The free version works with up to 500 respondents. The paid version allows larger groups and more kinds of interaction.
  • If your webinar platform allows you to share your screen, you can use this to show students the results of the above polls.
  • Consider using a shared document, prepared beforehand with questions the audience can answer or lists they can extend.
  • Hypothes.is is a collaborative annotation app, free to educational institutions during 2020, giving students various ways to react to online readings or web sites.

Engaging students in online discussion

Breakout rooms in webinars

Some webinar platforms have the ability to temporarily divide participants into "breakout groups". For Microsoft Teams, the process is explained in this 11-minute video. For Zoom, see this 13-minute video.

Robert O'Toole (University of Warwick) has a video case study about peer learning and breakout groups in live online lectures.

Creating resources for asynchronous use

Our Virtual Symposium shows how to create a low-tech home visualiser, recording lectures in OneNote, how to create materials in PowerPoint, and keeping sessions interesting by interspersing video clips and other content.

Lecture capture

If you have slide shows in PowerPoint, it is relatively easy to turn them into videos with audio narration and pen annotations, plus video of you speaking if you have a webcam. This 7 minute video explains how.

Case study: Using Panopto for Game Theory
Giancarlo Ianulardo, University of Bath, January 2009

Recording your screen

To create a clip of yourself using software or the web, with audio narration and possibly video, you need a screen capture tool. PowerPoint can do this, as can some free software tools. You might need separate software if you want to edit the recording.

Accessibility for online audio or video

Here are two options for making text transcripts:

  • Upload the video to YouTube. YouTube will automatically create a machine-recognised caption track. It is possible to duplicate this, fix the errors in the automatic captions, then publish the corrected captions (explained in this six-minute video).
  • Otranscribe is a tool that works in your web browser to help you transcribe audio or video. It doesn't machine-transcribe the video but it makes it easy to skip through the video or play slowly as you transcribe, then export the transcript as plain text.

Using Excel Simulations in Teaching Economics

In theme 3.1 of our June 2020 Virtual Symposium, practitioners explained how they are using Excel-based simulations.

Using Excel for Teaching Data-Based Subjects

In theme 3.2 of our Virtual Symposium, practitioners showed how they make activities and assessments to teach data skills. The event archive has video, write-ups and shared materials.

Online projects

Case study: Online projects using discussion boards
Michael A. Quinn, Bentley College, Massachusetts, January 2007

Collaboration technology: shared spreadsheets

In addition to allowing collaboratively edited documents, Google Sheets and the Microsoft Office 365 version of Excel both allow multiple users to remotely collaborate on a workbook.

Co-authoring and commenting in Excel is explained here and here on the Microsoft Office site and in this four-minute video.

Similar tips for Google Sheets are given by Google and in this video clip.

It is possible in Excel or in Google Sheets for the workbook as a whole to be publicly editable, but for a particular sheet or range to be password-protected. In Excel, use Review > Protect sheet. In Google Sheets, use Tools > Protect sheet.


Online resources

The Economics Network site has a huge database of learning resources including video lectures, simulations and worksheets. For an overview and some ideas about using resources in teaching, see these chapters of the Handbook for Economics Lecturers:

We are building a list of educational resources about the economics of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advice for students

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