The New Normal in Economics Teaching and Learning

10 Jul 2020

Alvin Birdi and Caroline Elliott of the Economics Network look at the impact that the pandemic has had on the teaching of economics and, looking ahead, what the innovations may mean for a ‘new normal’.

It is tempting, in the time of Covid-19, to claim that higher education is being irreversibly changed. But how profound are the rapid changes we are witnessing and what do they mean for the ‘new normal’ in economics teaching?

In the Economics Network we are used to encouraging new ideas and methods in economics instruction. But the dominant paradigm of active and research-based learning, in which new material is carefully ‘scaffolded’ onto what students have already learned, is hardly a revelation and its hold on educational delivery has been largely unshaken for decades. What has certainly changed considerably over the past few decades is the technological landscape within which economics is taught, and the nature of the content that is routinely covered within economics programmes.

Much of the Network’s training over the past 20 years has centred around these changes in the content of programmes and in the use of technologies to support active learning. An example is the use of classroom games and experiments to take advantage of the increasing amount of economics content that is drawn from theories of strategic behaviour and the asymmetry and scarcity of information. Other examples involve in-class polling and interaction technologies, the use of audio and video in teaching and assessment, lecture capture and, more recently, the use of ‘flipping’ as a new mode of structuring and sequencing teaching.

Many of these methods had already become embedded within many departments of economics before the onset of the current pandemic. The use of lecture capture recordings and online polling were commonplace. Lecturers were used to thinking more carefully about the resources they upload onto virtual learning environments with some staff even creating their own materials and short films, sometimes in the context of flipped classroom learning. The use of video-based student projects, data-based research projects and use of in-class or internet-based games and experiments was steadily increasing and there were many resources already available to support these developments (see for example: https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/themes/games).

Nevertheless, these technologies and pedagogies were in most cases in support of a core face to face model of teaching, centred around lectures and classes.   At the start of 2020 relatively few UK academic economists will have foreseen the rate with which they would be called upon to deliver a purely online education which, regardless of their prowess in developing and using technology based resources, was never a direction of travel most universities had envisaged.

As the UK went into lockdown in late March some university departments were able to breathe a sigh of relief because the term’s teaching had already finished. Other departments almost overnight were obliged to move to purely online teaching delivery until the end of their terms. Three months later, and since the early announcements from the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge that all lectures would be delivered virtually in the forthcoming academic year, we are now expecting the majority of teaching and assessment to take place online in the autumn. We assess the nature and meaning of some of these developments below.

Teaching: Lectures

There has been much debate in recent years of the pros and cons of the use of lecture capture, its benefits as a revision aid, the additional support it offers to international students and students with additional learning needs and the impacts on incentives to attend class. In most cases, lecture recordings are a simple transferral of a live lecture into video format. As such, these recordings replicate not just the substantive content but also the stutters and hesitations as well as the deliberate repetition lecturers use to emphasise the importance and significance of certain material. They are, in a real sense, secondary to the live session and were never intended to supplant it. Indeed, when student attendance started falling in many universities as a result of lecture capture, this was typically seen as an educational problem. Many universities state explicitly that lecture capture is for revision and clarification purposes and is not a substitute for the live session.

We are aware of some universities that have now taken the reverse stand as a response to Covid-19, in which previously recorded material (e.g. from previous years) is made available to students. We do not see this as a sustainable response to the pandemic because students will question the value of paying for material that was not expressly produced for their cohorts.

We have also seen two other responses to the loss of the live physical lecture. First is the use of lecture capture technology, or similar recording technologies, to produce deliberative primary video material for current students which is not derived from a live situation. In this case, the material has typically become shorter or, to use currently popular terminology, ‘chunked’. This has arisen from the advice of many universities’ digital education experts because there is evidence that the optimal length of concentration on a passive medium such as video may be relatively short (see https://prezi.com/v/kqcysvlhc8kg/video-and-the-learning-journey-part-2/).

It is also because lecturers are finding that the recording medium, when treated as primary rather than secondary to a live situation, permits a faster delivery where repetition is unnecessary. Students can, after all, stop and rewind recordings and some lecturers are quickly developing the skills of editing out hesitations and passages where mistakes might be made. We conjecture that for the first time, many lecturers are routinely watching over the recorded material they are producing for students because the material is deliberately produced rather than the resulting by-product of a lecture.

The second response has been the general move to delivering lectures over technologies like Zoom, Collaborate or Microsoft Teams. The benefits of such online lectures are that students continue to enjoy a synchronous experience with staff and other students, albeit in online space. Most of these technologies also allow interaction either through chat or by students using the ‘raise hand’ function to make an audio intervention. Some tools even have polling and other interaction tools like breakout rooms available within them. Many economics staff have quickly become expert in the delivery of the live synchronous lecture.

At the time of writing, we cannot say for certain which of these approaches to the lecture will dominate. As more staff begin to see the benefits of using lecture recording technologies to develop primary asynchronous material, the long debate over the place of the lecture in economics teaching may take a decisive turn. This is because the deep tension between the fundamentally asynchronous nature of recording technologies and the synchronous demands of the live session may become more apparent than ever. A similar case is that of theatre, in which the opportunity costs of attendance (as opposed to viewing a recording) must be outweighed by the singular quality of the live experience. We predict that the flipping model of teaching, in which synchronous experiences in education are reserved for those cases where recordings are either not possible or cannot provide a suitable substitute for the live experience, may become more mainstream in economics teaching.

Flipping as a Mode of Education

Many lecturers are sceptical that flipping constitutes a new approach. The general idea that students should engage with material before the lecture has been a standard expectation of teaching as long as most of us can remember. However, our discussions with lecturers in Economics Network events have led us to believe there may be a kind of time inconsistency problem created by some lecturers who routinely invalidate preparatory work by covering material in lectures even if students have not prepared in advance. We understand the pressures that contribute to this, namely, the need to ensure that students are prepared for assessments by attending and mastering the substantive material of a module which is represented by the course of lectures. In such a setting, many students who are incentivised solely by performing well in assessments may feel that preparation in advance of lectures adds little tangible improvement to their final marks.

The difference permitted through modern methods of flipping is that new technologies have resulted in more accessible and engaging forms of pre-engagement, more creative ways of checking that students have actually engaged, and thereby a better and more transparent complementarity between the resources provided to students in advance and the live class. We are hopeful that one outcome of the rush to online teaching may be a more carefully considered use of recording technologies to ensure that material provided in advance of synchronous meetings between staff and students is complementary to, and supportive of, the live experience. 

Consequently, there may be grounds for us to look forward to the synchronous, live, online classes that we will teach in the autumn. In the best case scenario, students are likely to have better background knowledge and be better prepared. As such there should be more scope for interaction and stimulating discussion. However, the difficulty for the lecturer is that in the live sessions they will have to juggle the demands of presenting live, reminding students when to mute/unmute and turn off video, keeping an eye on questions and comments that come in via the chat facility, dealing with any technological hiccups that may arise, and typically while not being able to see students' reactions to the content being delivered.

We are convinced that the new models of teaching will require a more collective approach to teaching because of these demands of synchronous online teaching. We can see the value of using graduate teaching assistants to support online synchronous sessions to keep track of chats for example, or to monitor and respond to asynchronous interaction, for example, in discussion boards such as Piazza in which we are observing increased interest. It is difficult to predict the pressures on departmental finances in the coming period, but the need for teaching assistants seems to us to be irreducible for providing a high quality teaching experience. It should be remembered that these opportunities also provide great training opportunities for the teaching assistants themselves.

Teaching: Small Group Classes

It is as yet unclear for many universities whether small group classes will be face-to-face, online or some combination of the two in the coming year. At least at the start of the academic year there are likely to be some students who are studying virtually, and in very different time zones, making the scheduling of small group sessions more difficult. If classes do take place on campus larger rooms than usual are likely to be required because of social distancing guidelines, and it may be that rooms will need to be cleaned after each class.

In economics, small group classes are often where problem sets and interactive activities take place. We are observing universities taking different responses to these kinds of sessions. In some universities, there will be a strong reliance on asynchronous materials of high quality, produced in such a way that students can work together on the materials in their own time with help provided by tutors and peers. Such resources will need to be particularly clear so that students can progress through them with minimal support. In other places these sessions will be synchronous live sessions where the practice of screen-sharing may become commonplace so that students can share working and make presentations. It is easy to imagine that students will be comfortable with these technologies and the ways of interacting within them but this is not a given. Together with potential connection problems and internet issues, once again, the preparation of high quality asynchronous materials, which are less affected by such issues, may be a fitting response to the current situation.

The New Economics Lecturer

Economics lecturers are likely to increase their skills considerably in a number of domains by the new term this autumn. We expect them to become consummate producers of online materials such as videos. We expect they will easily master the synchronous forms of online delivery through various tools such as Zoom, Collaborate and Teams. We expect they will engage in team teaching and become well-versed in the principles of learning design and the presentation and sequencing of material online.

But economics, like some STEM subjects, has particular needs in terms of the display of mathematical notation and graphs, both of which are not naturally suited to online environments. We have seen creative approaches to this problem such as the use of ‘Hue’ cameras as makeshift visualisers, electronic whiteboards such as Explain Everything and the use of graphics tablets such as those produced by Wacom. Many staff are equipping themselves with higher quality camera and audio equipment for live presentation and production of resources. Departments of economics will no doubt face demands to support staff with these production tools and equipment. The Economics Network has curated a website where we have collected advice on various technologies, methods and tools that the new economics lecturer will no doubt need: https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/themes/distance.

Assessment

The lockdown began on March 23rd just as most universities were getting ready for the run up to the summer assessment period. Assessments always need to be planned and approved in advance, so there was limited scope to rethink significantly the nature of final economics assessments to be completed in summer 2020. Most economics departments changed their examinations to coursework-type assessments and some used 24 hour examinations where students would be expected to spend around 3 hours to complete an exam over the 24-hour period.

But remaining uncertainty for 20/21 suggests that there is low likelihood of a return to seating large numbers of students in exam rooms. Assessment may, like teaching delivery, become significantly affected by the pandemic. In a recent Economics Network symposium on online engagement, many lecturers were worried about the impacts on collusion and cheating in the new distanced assessment environment. But the evidence we have seen has suggested that assessments in the online environment have become ‘open book’, allowing students to consult books and other resources. The questions themselves have become more problem and research-based.  And we have seen few reports thus far of any significant issues with cheating. To take a single example, students’ assessment submissions were routinely put through Turnitin in the Economics Department at Nottingham Trent this summer, and instances of cheating were found to be extremely rare.

Nevertheless, we should now consider whether it is time to rely less on final exams, only partly because of the practical difficulties associated with arranging exams in the 20/21 academic year. We should think about developing rigorous assessments in which students develop skills that will be valued by future employers. Students can be asked to write analyses/reports where students are assigned or choose to focus on different firms, industries, local or national economies. Similarly, students can be asked to complete quantitative assessments where they create, find or are assigned different data sets. Any collusion between students would be limited to how they are going to approach an assessment, materials and codes to use. It is debatable whether such collusion is problematic. The analysis and interpretation of results would have to be unique to each student or group of students in the case of group work. Thought can also be given as to whether work should be presented in the form of a report, for example to a CEO, CFO or Government Minister, a journal article, dissertation, a slide or film presentation etc.

Conclusions

From our vantage point of promoting active and technology-enhanced teaching in economics over a number of years, we see current moves towards carefully produced multimedia resources, flipping and authentic research-based assessments as an acceleration of a direction of travel that was set by technological improvements such as lecture capture years ago. We conjecture that the new normal in economics teaching will not be so much of an unexpected revolution in education as a case of the future coming sooner than we thought.