Tips and tricks to teaching under lockdown
Dr Isaac Gross and Dr Gordon Leslie have been awarded the Department of Economics Teaching awards for 2020. They were awarded for their willingness to try innovative approaches to engage students and the impact their innovations had on other colleagues in the department.
EcoNews caught up with them to talk about what is instrumental in their teaching and what it takes to engage students in online learning during a pandemic.
Dr Isaac Gross received the highest award with the following motivation: "For developing online lecture techniques that engage students and implementing inclusive strategies to inspire students to seek future careers in economics."
He teaches the second-year elective unit called 'Crashes and crises in macroeconomic policy' (ECC2300) – a very timely unit given the macroeconomic crisis associated with COVID-19.
"It has been tricky as things keep changing week-by-week. Something may be happening in week 1 which has totally changed by the time we get to week 12 and exams," he explains.
"This is what it was like last year and now it just keeps on changing. One way I have tried to get around the problem of the content constantly changing is having online discussions of COVID-19 informed by new research being conducted in the area," he says.
Dr Gross has utilised the simple technique of using a green screen to superimpose himself onto his slides, creating the classic 'television weather presenter' illusion. It gives the students a more personal lecture experience, while enabling Dr Gross to point and explain the slides more clearly.
"It's quite a simple technique but it makes it more enjoyable for the students. I have shown other colleagues how to do it so now there are a few of us using it which is good."
He also runs a newsletter informing students of job opportunities within the Economics field.
"There's always a strong demand for people with skills in Economics in consulting and policy. I just want to prompt the students to apply and get a foot in the door and show them where they should apply if they want a career in the field," says Dr Gross.
Are there any advantages with teaching 100 percent online?
"It has forced us to really up our game when it comes to recording lectures and it does seem easier for students to ask questions in the online chat room rather than raising their hands in a lecture theatre. But I can't wait to get back to having students in class and being able to respond to how they react. It is so much easier to tell when a piece of information is understood when it's in person rather than me just talking on zoom," he says.
Dr Gordion Leslie was awarded a commendation for the new unit created in 2020 called 'Energy Markets and Policy' (ECC2460). The motivation reads: "For designing classroom content and activities that motivate, inspire and engage students to apply critical thinking skills and economic knowledge outside the classroom."
Dr Leslie is keen to use daily news in his teaching and assessments. The energy sector, especially in Australia, provides many opportunities for students to practice applying theory and contrasting best practice to what they see in reality. In fact, he believes 12 weeks isn't long enough to fully critique the many federal and state energy and environmental policies Australia has pursued over the years.
Dr Gordon Leslie has a very strong emphasis on applying theory into practice.
He uses an electricity market simulation game as a core teaching tool in his class. Students participate as managers of power stations who experience competition by playing with a goal of generating energy to maximise profit, learning along the way how market-based environmental policies (for instance, carbon taxes) impact markets and working to achieve policy goals.
"The electricity market game is really important to my class, and toward the end of semester I give students the opportunity to immortalise themselves in a final challenge," he says.
"The winners get their name on a trophy that will be displayed in my office whenever lockdown ends. This seems to sharpen focus but also lead to a few laughs as there are always a few students that put their game faces on and get very serious!"
What do you like most about teaching?
"To my surprise, I have found the best part about teaching is not when my students demonstrate they've learned something, but instead I get excited by some questions that get asked. When a student asks the "right" question or applies critical thinking to try to answer new questions, it makes me feel like the lessons from my classroom might extend beyond the end of semester and beyond energy policy contexts," he says.
"My unit has students across different faculties, so I find that teaching how to critically think is a way that I can provide value to all students and get productive interdisciplinary discussions going."
Adapting to the 100 percent online teaching environment has been very challenging and he sees very few advantages with purely online teaching. But the Department of Economics Learning and Teaching team as well as the faculty education support team have been very helpful and supportive.
What do you look forward to when we go back to real life teaching?
"I actually got to teach hybrid in the first semester of 2021 and it was wonderful. You can read the room and just move on to the next slide so much easier when it's in-person. I also found multiple students asking for job application tips or career advice – just a lot of enjoyable, organic conversations that do not occur as easily, if at all, when teaching online," says Dr Leslie.
Reaching out to colleagues
A desire to collaborate more effectively with colleagues has been the impetus for the introduction of a new research group structure within the Department of Economics.
When Professor Sascha Becker first joined the Department of Economics, he already knew several of his future colleagues.
But with a department split across two locations, he struggled to see the full breadth of interests across the department.
"I found it hard to understand what other strengths in the department were and who else in the department was interested in similar topics to me," he says.
So Professor Becker approached his colleagues with an idea: the introduction of research groups, each with a coordinator and a deputy coordinator.
"After various discussions in the department's Research Committee we decided to give it a try. We used the existing research interests as cited on the website. There were over 100 terms to describe what people do, and we tried to group them into eight research groups," he explains.
The result has been a better overview of what people in the department do and formalisation of existing informal groups such as Experimental economists and the Macro group, says Professor Becker.
"It turns out all groups are of roughly similar size and no one felt that there wasn't a group to match their interests," he says.
The idea of everyone belonging to at least two groups is to avoid fractionalisation and encourage cross-cutting research and a higher level of integration.
Anyone in the group can suggest ideas for activities. The coordinator of the group is a more senior researcher and the deputy coordinator is more junior.
"This is an opportunity for junior colleagues to be in charge of something they are excited about without it being too burdensome. It ticks boxes for future promotion and shows they have taken on leadership responsibility," Professor Becker says.
For Professor Becker, a key goal is to make sure all Post-doctoral fellows as well as PhD students belong to the groups and to boost mentoring as partly a group activity.
"The research groups will give PhD students more of an identity and hopefully make them feel more comfortable approaching senior academics because they are all part of the same group," he says.
The different groups will be described on the website and have a dedicated URL where all the members are presented along with their different activities.
Job market candidates will find it easier to see where they might fit in and the groups can be consulted for recruitment.
"In the Development, Growth and History group, we started by taking stock of what we're already doing, such as reading groups, annual conferences and seminars, and we are already doing a lot of activities which are now more transparent for everyone to see. In the future, we can build from there and add more activities, so people can mix and feel they belong," Professor Becker says.
All change: New blood in the Learning and Teaching Committee
As Senior Lecturer Dr Jaai Parasnis takes over from Associate Professor Simon Angus as the Director of Teaching and Learning, they discuss what has been achieved so far and what the future holds in the field of teaching.
A/Prof Angus has held this position since the Learning and Teaching Committee (LTC) was established in January 2018, as the successor to the IQEG (Innovation in Education and Quality Group).
A/Prof Angus had established that original group in 2010, together with Senior Lecturer Gennadi Kazakevitch, A/Prof Vinod Mishra and Associate Dean George Rivers.
Whereas the Education Committee focuses on what we teach (units, courses, programs), the LTC concerns itself with the how of our teaching. During A/Prof Angus' time as director, the teaching community in the Department of Economics has truly thrived.
"I think we have built a broader culture in the department that teaching matters," he says.
"With the support of grants, awards and mentoring, and other initiatives, the IQEG and now LTC has been key to supporting the Head of Department's message to all staff that teaching is really important, both for each of us professionally, and collectively for the Department."
For the last three to four years, students have consistently awarded the teaching in the Department of Economics ‘first' in student satisfaction ratings for the Business School.
This held in 2020, despite COVID-19. Several staff received awards at the faculty, university or national level in recognition of their hard work.
"Seeing my colleagues grow in confidence to tackle new ways of teaching, find success in the classroom, and be awarded so well has probably been the highlight of my time in the role," says A/Prof Angus.
On a University level, ideas that stemmed from the Department – such as centralised mid semester tests – have become best-practice.
"People said it would be too expensive and no one would want them, but now we almost take them for granted."
"The fact that the University is taking teaching more seriously when considering someone for promotion, that helps us too."
The role of Director might be new for Dr Jaai Parasnis but she has been involved in the LTC along with A/Prof Angus for a number of years.
She describes A/Prof Angus as "a pioneer" who has pushed for more prominent recognition of the role of learning and teaching with the Department.
She hopes to build on that. "Learning is fundamental to everything we do. It's the essence of being a human. It is lifelong and has no limits," says Dr Parasnis.
She hopes to support and promote learning in the department and on a broader scale through engaging in innovative pedagogies and translating them into practice.
"As researchers we engage in lifelong learning and we need to transfer this to our students.
"Authenticity is at the core of great learning and students respond to it. It's not hard because we are learners ourselves and trying to capture that with our students is the key."
What further developments would both like to see in the future?
"I think we are very well placed to be a hub of Economics teaching nationally through innovation, pedagogy, techniques and so on. I would like to see us become the leading department in the country," says A/Prof Angus.
"It has been great to work with the LTC team and I wish Jaai Parasnis all the best for the future. I really look forward to seeing where she will take things. I will still be around to help out but it's a good time to change leadership."
This year is turning into a hybrid year for teaching, with innovations and adaptations in both online and face-to-face delivery. Dr Parasnis thinks an important first task will be to assess the learnings from last year.
"I want to consolidate all the accumulated knowledge from 2020 to see what we want to keep doing, what we want to develop further and what we want to bring back from the pre covid-19 era," she says.
"It's important that we keep talking about best practices broadly with our internal colleagues and with external colleagues.
"I very much look forward to the conversations about the learning process with both colleagues and students."