Q&A with Simon Angus

The last 12 months have featured some great achievements in the teaching and learning space at the Department of Economics. Simon Angus runs through some of 2018’s highlights, as well as his vision for the future.

What were you most pleased about when it comes to teaching and learning in 2018?

“Along with a terrific year across many units, the two biggest gains in 2018 were around Jaai Parasnis who won a Dean’s Citation for Teaching Excellence, the only one awarded last year. For Jaai this is a terrific first step towards a potential citation at the University level (in the VC’s citations). We haven’t had someone awarded at that level for a while; this is a great outcome for Jaai personally, but also for the Department. Jaai worked hard to provide rich feedback and learning activities for our first year macro students.

“The other individual gain from last year was Wayne Geerling, our new education-focused senior lecturer. He taught some of our largest classes, typically introduction to microeconomics, with hundreds of students. When you look at student satisfaction for the unit he taught he received an adjusted SETU of 4.7, which is the best in the faculty in an equivalent unit for the last few years.

“This semester he’s taken on a very large load, teaching intro micro at both Clayton and Caulfield in S1 and most likely also in S2, so over the year he’ll be teaching about 2500 students. He has brought his characteristic very high standard of himself and his teaching teams, and has a very strong sense of commitment to serving students. They clearly love his approach, and he’s a wonderful asset to the Department.

“More broadly, if you look at average student satisfaction across the faculty, our aspiration is to be the No 1 teaching department in the faculty. Currently we are in equal first position with two other departments, namely the Department of Business, Law and Taxation and the Department of Banking and Finance.

“Other great things that happened in 2018 was that our fantastic TA Marco Lecci again won the outstanding teaching award from the Monash Student (undergraduate) Association which he’d also won in 2014. In addition, I was a finalist for the postgraduate student association award for lecturer of the year. ”

What are your plans and goals for 2019?

“In learning and teaching we handle teaching innovation grants, prizes and awards, mentoring just in the matter of course and we assist the Head of Department with strategic plans in teaching. We are also looking to grow and replicate the success of Wayne Geerling’s teaching economics masterclass for other universities in the city in the second semester.

“Our aspiration is not only to be number one in the faculty but also to become a beacon nationally and internationally for teaching economics. We are starting to pursue that more outward-focused strategy. Wayne will take his material to tutors and lecturers from Melbourne institutions teaching economics and to teachers in senior schools.

“We look to grow and build our online presence and particularly around a public website where students can get an idea of what it is like to learn economics at Monash. We would also like to grow our social media presence for our Teaching Economics beacon project.

“More broadly, we are very actively trying to improve the faculty’s learning and teaching approaches, specifically when it comes to centralising mid-semester testing. We are also very involved in improving learning technology. At the faculty level, we all fight to keep learning and teaching on the agenda since so many resources are taken up with the paperwork and policies around units changing, new courses, and so on – important stuff, but it doesn’t leave much room for driving impact in the actual quality of learning and teaching going on. But as ever, there’s always more to do. This building is never finished!”

How do you see the future when it comes to online lectures versus face-to-face lectures?

“Our approach is to back the educator and where they have their comparative advantage. For instance, some are very good at live face-to-face lectures, such as Wayne Geerling. The best thing we can do for Wayne is support him to teach in the largest lecture theatre in Clayton as often as he can to as many students as he can because he can hold the room and is captivating and impactful in that space. Students really enjoy the experience. Where we have other gifted educators, such as Vai-Lam Mui, who are wonderful on a small scale with the deeper, intellectual interaction. We want to encourage everyone to develop and use their gifts in the context they are best suited.

“Zooming out, the University wants to accommodate as many people as possible who are willing to go down the active learning workshop style, which is the style I prefer; but it only works with a maximum of around 150 students. Of course you can’t get as many people in as you do in a lecture of 900 people so I think this is where we will see the digital shift. A number of students will still attend lectures but the others will consume them by digital means. So I think those two components (workshops, lectures) will be with us for a while.

“The real hiccup is how the digital component is delivered. You can’t afford to have technical problems where the recording doesn’t function if you do the lecture just once a week and a lot of students depend on watching it online in real time or later. It puts the onus on the university to make the recording technology fail-safe. In addition, teachers and TAs need to get proper training in how to produce all this content that is delivered online pre-and post class for workshops. Most of us are happy teaching in a workshop style in the classroom.

“We love the interaction and the freedom but you only get to that point if you can provide a lot of material online before and after the class and there’s not at all enough support, in my opinion, from the University to make and deploy these elements effectively. I don’t think it makes sense to have to train people to use video recorders or how to post-produce video material once it has been captured. We have wonderful thinkers and teachers in the department, I want them to focus on the ideas, and someone else to focus on these other elements. But unfortunately, to this point the university sees us doing it all, and unsurprisingly, very few are going down this path.”

Do you have a role model when it comes to learning and teaching?

MIT do a great job. A few years ago, they started to take seriously algorithmic thinking. Workers of tomorrow weren’t anymore using computers as word processors but for data visualization and coding so they made all their students take these courses in algorithmic thinking to develop their muscle for computational, numerical and data-rich environment. I think it’s a step we are close to taking with the new Dean, Simon Wilkie.

They’ve also done a great job at creating partnerships with large IT companies to invest in the teaching resources and students. They have classes being sponsored by large tech companies which leads to the student experience being very rich and beautiful, which is a new way of thinking about our art. It would be great if we weren’t restricted, if I could say to any of my colleagues, ‘don’t worry about resource limits, how would you like to teach this material?’”

The secondary school visit program initiated by the Department of Economics in collaboration with the Monash Business School has been progressing well. It is in its sixth year now and we receive several requests each year from secondary schools. The sessions are held at the Monash Laboratory for Experimental Economics (MonLEE), Clayton campus and students participate in experiments to learn how to apply economic theory to real-life situations. The lab is used to simulate the behaviour of people in everyday situations, and analyse their actions for economic development and growth.

There were four different activities offered this year by academics in the program: Klaus Abbink, Nick Feltovich, Phil Grossman and Matt Leister. These activities were an economics auction experiment; an experiment on household consumption and saving; an experiment on the provision of public goods; and lastly, an experiment on trading and intermediation in networks. These activities are aligned with the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Year 11 unit study areas.

Schools nominate activity and timing and depending on the availability of the academic and the Lab, every attempt is made to satisfy the requests.

This year we have conducted experimental sessions with secondary school students from Caulfield Grammar School, Loreto Mandeville Hall and Westbourne Grammar. These were very well received by both the students and their teachers.

I would like to thank the academics associated with the school visit program. If you have any questions about the school visit program or would like to be part of it, please feel free to contact me.

Lata Gangadharan
(Coordinator, School Visit Program)

Why doing a PhD at the department is so great

The PhD Economics Students’ Society offers activities outside of the books and contributes to the friendly atmosphere amongst the PhD students in the department of Economics.

It all started very informally back in 2017 with a couple of sessions initiated by first year Econ PhDs Kushneel Prakash, Justin McKinley and Ratul Das Chaudhury where everyone got together and brought plates of food to share. Once they informed the department what they were organising they received some financial support as encouragement and the society was formalised with Kushneel and Ratul taking charge of the activities since the middle of last year.

- The department was very supportive. I think they like that we get together and do stuff outside of our studies, says Kushneel Prakash.

The PhD Economics society also received financial aid from Monash Postgraduate Association which paid for some of their activities, most of which have centred around food. Lunches, barbecues, a Christmas party and an in-house 2018 World Cup soccer predictions.

PhD Economicss students' society

-It’s always a good place to start, says Kushneel.

This year has started off with a roof top barbecue hosted at Kushneel’s apartment where partners and kids were invited.

- It is very important to involve the partners and kids of the PhD students as they are part of our journey, he says.

Kushneel feels that the support of the society is very helpful for his academic progress and his sense of inclusion at Monash.

- There is always someone to discuss the seminars with or ask questions. The exchange of ideas is good.

The reason Kushneel himself ended up at Monash is rather random. In 2017 he attended a workshop and met Russel Smyth who encouraged him to apply to the PhD program. Kushneel had done all his undergrad studies at the University of South Pacific in Fiji, but for his PhD he wanted to go abroad.

- Monash ticked all the boxes in terms of ranking and it was also closer to home than some other options, he says.

He only has one more year left. His research focuses on microeconomics and development. More specifically home ownership, fuel prices and subjective wellbeing.

The best thing about doing a PhD at Monash department of Economics is the welcoming culture.

- I like the kind of open door policy we have with staff here. You can easily talk to anybody and ask for help.

He believes this has assisted him greatly. If there are times when he doesn’t understand something but feels he ought to know, he’ll go ask some of the younger researchers for help so he doesn’t have to disturb his supervisor. His advice is to others interested in doing a PhD is clear and simple:

- Just go for it and have a crack. You may have to change your initial idea, I did, but it will only make it better. Be passionate and Monash Economics is a great place to do a PhD, says Kushneel Prakash.

If there is anything more he would wish for from the department it would be a stand-up desk.

-I think it would improve my productivity even more to be able to stand up and work, he says.

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