Staff in the Economics Department have excelled at dreaming up new and appealing ideas for online teaching. Here come some tips and tricks:

Zac Gross

Zac Gross teaches Current Issues in Macroeconomic Policy and his course contains a lot of graphs showing macroeconomic data. To enable students to understand which parts of a graph he is referring to, he resorted to using a green screen. Very much like the weather report on TV.

“This year with the transition to pre-recorded lectures I wanted to make sure that people could see what I was pointing at while at the same time engaging with something more than a disembodied voice,” he says.

“It allows students to focus on your face while talking which improves engagement, while at the same time allowing you to interact with slides when required. I suspect that having both slides and a separate box for your face risks driving attention between two sources.”

For the "weather trick”, Zac used two different programs to record the videos, both of which are free.

“I used OBS which is a recording program which lets you record videos, including the ability to combine webcams with slides as well as removing green screen backgrounds. To create the green screen effect, I used ChromaCam which digitally adds a background (much like Zoom) - in my case I chose a plain green background which could be easily filtered out by OBS.”

It is still early days but the response from students so far has been positive and he will keep using this method in the future.

“Any course which uses a lot of graphs and figures benefits from the ability to point to different parts of the slide and this seems like the easiest way to achieve that online.” Zac says.

Here is an example of Zac Gross in action:

Paul Raschky

Paul taught Applied Microeconomics for the first time last semester. Straight away he replaced a lot of studies and data examples with new tasks related to COVID-19.

“The majority of the students liked the 'hands-on' approach to the course. The students spent a good portion of the class analysing data, interpreting, and presenting the results.  I was available on slack every day and at almost every hour except 1am - 8am (I had to sleep at some point). The students really appreciated everything but it came at very high costs because I spend a good portion of my time on consulting students via Slack.”

Claudio Labanca

Claudio taught Labour Economics last semester. He mixes theory models with mainstream empirical applications.

“For each topic in my class I first provide students with a theoretical framework to understand a certain aspect of how labour markets work. Then, l go through the most recent empirical evidence on the topic, with the aim of testing whether the model accurately describes the reality or not. If the model fails to describe the reality we analyse the possible causes for such a failure,” he says.

This year students could engage live during class through Q&A forums on echo360 and work on groups during tutorials.

“What always works is to be passionate about what you teach and patient. Students are very sensitive. They perceive your general mode and any variation of it.

"Thus, if they perceive that you are teaching something that you like then, in my experience, they tend to like it too. If you also show that you understand and respect their needs, then they will respect you.

"The final touch is to provide students with mainstream material that has practical applications. For this reason, it is important to always keep the slides updated with the latest studies and/or empirical techniques used to study a certain topic, and to provide real world applications possibly based on settings that are familiar for students.”

Student satisfaction is high in this class. According to Claudio, one reason is that students understand how relevant the content is to develop their knowledge of important public policies such as the minimum wage, migration laws and changes in tax rates.

“Students appreciate the fact that in this class they acquire empirical skills of policy evaluation that can be used in other settings and that are in high demand in the labour market. One comment I often get is ‘Before taking this class I didn’t think Labour Economics could be so useful’,” he says.

Gordon Leslie

Gordon taught Energy Markets and Policy to a small group of 25 students. The semester centred around an interactive online electricity market game where new components were added each week as they were taught new concepts (such as market power and carbon trading).

He mixed readings of academic papers with podcasts, government reports and news articles. Five moodle quizzes were distributed throughout the semester and these proved particularly successful.

“Each quiz had some 'easy' concept-checking questions followed by at least one set of questions derived from a real-world application of the concepts taught in class.

"Where possible I tried to find two interpretations of the same policy or event so students could understand the importance of critical thinking and how two different conclusions could be derived from the same set of facts.

The quizzes were very popular, as was discussing them in the next class. They were a touch labour intensive to grade, but I think it helped them learn and made them think hard. I think it also encouraged them to ask questions in class, where they’d try to translate what was being taught to what they’d seen or heard in the news, helping with participation and interaction. This is obviously a blessing of small class sizes, students appreciate getting comments on their written answers from a lecturer," he says.

Ten percent of the final grade was given for participation. Gordon made a roster of three or four students each week who had the opportunity to lead the discussion on the readings. This was not mandatory and some students gave feedback that they appreciated being treated like adults and not being nagged to participate.

“I was very clear that students needed to be accountable for their own learning. I tried to communicate that studying online under uncertainty would help their resilience and general job and life skill development.”

Zhijun Chen

Zhijun taught Microeconomic Theory in semester one. It's a unit with lots of technical theories - not the easiest for keeping students engaged during online learning. He demonstrated the formulas and computations during the lecture recordings.

“I feel that the existing electronic equipment like WACO is not ideal for my purpose. Instead, I bought a whiteboard covered with flipchart papers, which avoids the problem of reflection on the white board. And I used the black and red pens to make sure they are well highlighted on the paper.”

The pre-recorded lectures were uploaded two days before the lecture and students were requested to go through the content before attending the Zoom lectures.

“In the Zoom lectures, I use about 30 minutes to summarize the main contents of the lecture and highlight the difficult points, and then give the floor to students for questions and discussions. A common problem is that one or two students may occupy most time for their questions, and other students are not happy about that.

"This issue may not be significant in the classroom because other students are watching them and they may stop asking simple questions. Therefore, separate consultation zoom meetings are also needed for a small group of students,” says Zhijun.

Wayne Geerling

Wayne teaches first year Microeconomics to cohorts as large as 1,000-plus students. Making sure they feel welcome and interact with other students is not easy in an online environment. To help students connect with each other and increase engagement, he organised a large “meet and greet” event at the start of the semester.

“The response has been incredible. Some 226 students from my Microeconomics course registered for the social event during week one of term and 146 students participated. Now they want regular social events, so we are running another one right before the mid-semester break,” Wayne says.

Wayne organised the social event with his TA, Nicola Thomas. This is part of a broader project on student engagement with Jadrian Wooten from Penn State University. One of the goals of the welcome event was to increase student connections and encourage the formation of study groups or study buddies at the start of the semester, so that students would feel more connected with the course.

“After a formal introduction, students were told that the evening would proceed similar to a speed dating event, where they would be participating in a series of breakout sessions with different icebreaker questions for each iteration.

"When the time expired the students were called back to the main room and there was a second and third round of breakout rooms with different groups of students, so they would meet new people. At the end of the event, students used the private chat feature to exchange social media contacts with each other,” explains Wayne.

Wayne has already started planning new social events to increase student engagement while studying online: a pop culture trivia quiz and a Netflix watch party, where the facilitator can stop and start the show as they wish and participants can interact through a chat box.

If you want to get inspired or share your teaching tricks with a wider community, here are a couple of useful Facebook groups: Teaching Economics Online (Coronqvirus2020) and Econ Professors Unite.