Dr Gordon Leslie and Dr Isaac Gross

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.