An update from the Economics Network

08 Apr 2021

Alvin Birdi and Caroline Elliott discuss the pivot to teaching online and the Economics Network’s response.

In the July 2020 newsletter, we wrote about the move to predominantly online teaching and assessment. In the months that have followed, academics have worked long hours to redesign teaching and assessment materials appropriately for online or blended delivery. Few will have had time to reflect critically on the collective achievement of these developments.

We hope that in the coming months there will be time for reflection on the nature of these individual and departmental-level successes. There include new competencies in the additional technologies required to prepare online teaching materials, to make large and small online classes engaging and interactive, as well as reconceiving assessment to work online.

The Economics Network has been busy supporting colleagues across the UK and beyond in what has been a profound rupture not just to teaching, learning, and assessment, but also in student support and sense of belonging. Here we take stock of our activities supporting academics in this great online pivot over the past year.

For many, the Economics Network is synonymous with the training opportunities we provide, predominantly – but not exclusively – for economists in the early stages of their academic careers. Until 2020 this training had taken place in face-to-face workshops. Early last summer we recognised that supporting colleagues with the move to online teaching and learning would itself need to be facilitated online. We took the opportunity to recast these workshops, both as online training and as real-time demonstrations of how engagement can be fostered in online environments.

We began the summer with our first online symposium, consisting of four themed live events using a variety of online tools, with additional asynchronous materials provided to participants in advance and after sessions. The themes covered Engaging Students and Academics with Online Learning, Teaching with Data Online, Teaching Economics with Excel Online and Adaptable Assessment. Some 450 delegates attended these sessions, from 25 countries, and feedback was very positive. Materials from the symposium can be accessed from the Economics Network website.

The Early Career Academic (ECA) and Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) workshops followed quickly after this symposium in early autumn 2020, and again took place virtually. There were 20 ECA attendees and 72 GTA attendees with an additional 20 attendees for the extra module offered to experienced GTAs who had previously not taught online. Again, the feedback was very appreciative, and attendance healthy both for the core modules and the optional modules on Games and Experiments, Creating Learning Communities, Inclusive Teaching and Facilitating Effective Group Work.

We welcomed seven new Associates to the Network in January 2021, from the universities of East Anglia, Loughborough, Nottingham Trent, Portsmouth, Stirling, Strathclyde and Warwick. These new recruits join existing associates to make up our 51 associates around the UK. Together with a senior Executive Board of twelve members, the Network’s activities are undertaken by a large number of contributors, to whom we are always grateful. We have been striving to make the Network increasingly diverse and are pleased that contributors and senior staff are now relatively well represented across various dimensions, including gender, country of birth, ethnicity, and university type.

Our associates and Executive work across six workstreams that represent the breadth of our activities. As well as the Training group, there are groups devoted to research and data analysis; publications including the Economics Network Handbook, the International Review of Economics Education, and the Economic Review magazine aimed at A-level students; website and communications; recruitment; and conferences and symposia encompassing the biennial Developments in Economics Education (DEE) Conference.

We hope to hold this year’s DEE conference from September 1st-3rd at Heriot-Watt University, potentially incorporating a hybrid mode of delivery that includes both face-to-face and online elements. However, depending on circumstances, we may have to follow the lead of conferences such as the RES and SES, earlier in the year than ours, and move fully online. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the hopes of some Executive members for a ceilidh after the conference dinner will be dashed. But as always, we expect the conference to be as welcoming, supportive, and productive for the teaching community as in previous years.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the sharp rise in the number of colleagues willing to share their experiences of the move to online teaching, learning, and assessment by writing advice for others, which we have published as Teaching Case Studies on the Economics Network website. Since the huge success of ‘Assessment in the Time of Pandemic: A Panic-free Guide’, written by Tim Burnett and Stefania Paredes Fuentes and published on the website in June 2020, we have published a further 29 case studies, making this the busiest year for the publication of case studies. We are incredibly grateful for everyone who has made time to contribute a case study despite their other work pressures.

We are very aware that universities, including their Economics Departments, have faced financial uncertainty in the current academic year. This has given rise to delays in receiving annual subscriptions from contributing departments, and some departments struggling to cover the cost of their subscription. Given the savings made from having online rather than face-to-face training workshops, we are temporarily offering lower departmental subscription costs to those departments needing assistance. Please contact Ashley Lait, the Economics Network Manager, for details.

Looking to the future, the Economics Network has started working closely with the Education Committee of the European Economic Association to ensure that we provide complementary support to Economics colleagues across Europe. Similarly, we are working with the RES Education Committee and exploring the kinds of support that would be welcomed by more experienced teaching staff. We are also linking up with the employment-focused site Inomics, so that both organisations can provide more comprehensive information to academic economists thinking about their careers. All of these new liaisons have occasioned a redesign and update of our website to ensure greater ease of navigation around a richer set of resources, and a focus on more up-to-date and topical materials as the pandemic begins to wane.

Inevitably, there has been a large opportunity cost in terms of research effort and other activities that this vast increase in teaching workload has imposed on academic and professional staff. But we end this update on our activities by noting that this intense period of effort has resulted in a number of ways of teaching we hope will be articulated, evaluated, consolidated, and retained as the pandemic eases.

For example, many of us have discovered some advantages of online teaching, such as a reduced nervousness of students giving presentations online, and an increased willingness to ask and respond to questions using the ‘chat’ options (even if they can be reluctant to turn on their cameras). We have seen a move towards more applied and research-based assessments, and a reduction in those that rely heavily on “memory-work”. There is also hope that teaching preparation may be somewhat easier for the forthcoming academic year, given banks of pre-recorded lecture materials that can be re-used or adapted, especially where they were designed with future use in mind.

We are hopeful that these developments may result in longer-term shifts in economics teaching towards more active modes of learning, such as the flipped-classroom approach, and away from more inactive modes such as the delivery of lectures, where students attend with little prior knowledge of the topic to be covered.

Certainly, in the Economics Network, though we have sorely missed face-to-face interaction with our colleagues and the wider teaching community, we are confident that training will always retain large elements of the new modes of teaching and learning that we have learned over the past year.

Visit www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk to access Economics Network resources and find out more about its events and other activities. You can also sign up on the website to receive the Network’s newsletter, where a modified version of this article will appear.