Online Teaching and Economics Education: 8 Learning Points

The new academic year will bring many challenges. Most universities are preparing for some form of online/blended delivery, which means many of us have to learn new skills. I started this entry as a note for myself and as a repository of resources, but in case someone find it useful, I share it here.

The last months have been an exciting journey engaging with new methods of teaching, learning about online teaching and pedagogy, and meeting great Economics Educators. This has been possible due to the various seminars and conferences on Economics Education taking place. These events have contributed to the creation of a wealth of resources that have helped me to feel more confident on how to deal with the challenges and changes coming up. Do have a look at these:

I have also met new people willing to share their experiences and practices and I am sure we will all support each other in what is coming. #EconTeach and #TeachEcon on Twitter is a community of engaged and supportive Economics Educators worth engaging with.

I start with few general considerations that, if you stop reading this entry after this point, still may take something away from this. After that, I introduce some learning points from my reflection journey of the last two months.

1. General considerations

Face-to-face does not mean more engaging or better teaching. We all have had poor experiences with non-interactive, poorly paced and badly designed lectures. We may be a bit nostalgic to go back in the classroom and have physical interactions, but let's not allow this to completely dismiss the new opportunities this current situation may create.

Online teaching may be new to us, but it is not new in general. Online courses exist and have been happening before this crisis. There is an extensive literature that describes good pedagogical practice for online teaching and should help us to at least avoid making obvious mistakes. One of the key aspects emphasised in this literature is the importance of active learning in online teaching. Students have to participate in the process rather than to listen passively. This means, students have to be involved at all stages and we need to create opportunities for students to engage. This seems a good advice even for face-to-face teaching, but it becomes crucial under online learning. Maybe because we lose the option to be the centre of attention. As lecturers, we can't simply walk into a classroom, stand in the front and claim for all the attention. Once we withdraw this lecturer-centred option (which is not necessarily good), we need to adopt a more student-centred approach.

Technology helps. Online teaching would be very difficult without the available technology. Zoom/Teams and video making software belong in our teaching toolbox the same as slides e visualisers. However, technology is not a panacea or the solution to all our problems (see points 2 and 3 below). Technology is a tool and as such it can help only if we have a clear project. Our role as educators has evolved and how we teach needs to evolve (see point 4 below). Good teaching and assessment design considers how technology can be integrated in our courses and can be used to provide a good educational experience (see points 5-7). 

There are challenges that we need to deal with.Large cohorts are common in Economics and some are comparing online teaching in these courses to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Some are worried about the high dropouts in MOOC and that we may see a high dropout in next year cohort. I can see why some may be tempted to make these comparisons, but we need to be careful in drawing big conclusions. Students' motivation to register and attend MOOC courses differs from students going to university (the reasons to enrol to MOOC courses are broadly discussed in the literature). This motivation will affect how students engage with the resources provided and will affect performance and progression. Finding what motivates students can help with course design that promotes active learning. Of course, this does not mean that we shouldn't be worried about disengagement and dropout. There are students that are more at risk of under-performing and we need to think about how the new teaching environment may affect them (see point 8 below).

2. Beyond Zoom/Teams meetings

There is lots of advice for how to use Teams (from the TEAL Fest at Warwick) or Zoom (Simon, James and Doug provide good tips in the plenary at #TeachECONference) to engage students and design lectures. These are extremely useful indeed!

However, I also learnt that online teaching means much more than making ourselves familiar with Zoom, Teams or similar platforms to deliver lectures. This is important, but not the only or even the main aspect of online (or blended) education.

3. Making videos is also not enough! 

We need to acquire certain proficiency in making videos too. I have been making videos for a while, and got few good tips and ideas from the Economics Network Symposium (Theme 1 and Theme 2), and more from the TEALFest (e.g. making videos with Echo360).

Learning to make and edit videos for students to watch on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)  is not all what we need to do either. No matter how engaging and high quality the videos are, this alone will not "teach" the subject. There are many engaging videos already available online, so if this were the only thing lecturers have to do, our job would be redundant!

4. Our role in education

Good news for the profession, in promoting active learning, the role of the instructor does not disappear, it becomes even more important!

Arguably, the role of the lecturer has fundamentally changed in the last years (and well before the pandemic adjustments). Lecturers are not (or should not be) information dispensers who students passively listen to, trying to memorise knowledge. Information is not bound in books but it is  (almost) freely - or at least broadly - available. Lecturers' role is to guide students in actively engaging with this information. We are not teaching facts, dates, or concepts. We are teaching how to use these facts, dates and concepts to make sense of the world around us, and to critically engage and analyse any piece of information.

We need to provide learning opportunities and meaningful educational experiences that allow students to engage with the world problems and provide solutions to the challenges we all face. In Economics, our syllabi need to reflect situations that (all) students can relate to their lives. This will  allow us to use students natural curiosity to engage with the subject. Students should not just memorise knowledge from textbooks, but be able to apply what they have learnt and contribute to create new knowledge. In a changing world, it is important to be able to use and adapt knowledge to different and new scenarios.

5. Synchronous AND asynchronous

In this period, we learnt about, debated on, and even took positions on the synchronous and asynchronous debate in online teaching.

Synchronous teaching occurs live through Zoom, Teams, or similar and may be the closest we get to replicate the experience of face-to-face teaching as students can respond to questions and engage with discussions while the lecture delivers the class (teaching through Zoom/Teams is an example of synchronous teaching). Asynchronous means that learning is self-paced. The lecturer and the students are not engaged in the learning process at the same time and there is no real-time interaction (for example, videos).

There are clear advantages and disadvantages for both. Synchronous teaching allows students to collaborate in real time, to ask questions and get immediate clarification and in general allows students to feel part of a classroom as they can connect with peers. Asynchronous teaching allows students to engage with the resources at their own pace, at a time that is suitable to them. Also, asynchronous learning can help to mitigate unequal access to technology e.g. limited access to internet or poor internet connection.

The sync/async resources is not a real debate and we do not need to take sides. They are both important and suited to different learning objectives that contribute to learning and creating an active learning experience. Different learners will prefer different activities. We use a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous resources in online and face-to-face delivery. The decision that we really have to make is on course design.

6. Course design 

Course design has been overlooked for a while. Most Economics departments in UK universities have a model of large lectures and small group delivery. We lecturers have sticked to it, either for conformity or lack of institutional flexibility to change. The new scenario may change this.

Good course design is one of the central pillars of effective (online and face-to-face) teaching. Good design offers students opportunities to acquire knowledge and explore ideas both independently and collaboratively. It requires careful planning and scaffolding of activities that help students to engage with the subject and demonstrate that learning outcomes have been achieved.

Online delivery adds extra-challenges to module design. We may need to rethink structure of large lectures/small tutorials as this may not necessarily suit the new scenario.  The lack of physical presence will affect the lecturer-student and peer interaction. As part of the module design we need to include opportunities to ask questions to lecturers, engage in peer-discussions, actively participate in class activities and receive feedback.

In Theme 1 of the Economics Network symposium there are many ideas to help with students' engagement, and some panellists in Theme 3 discussed alternative pedagogies that may be worth thinking of when designing our modules. The various sessions of the #TeachECONference provided with insightful ideas on how to help the development of students' skills, and small changes that can potentially make a big impact.

7. Assessments

Learning outcomes have to be aligned with (synchronous and asynchronous) teaching activities and all have to be linked to assessments. We learnt a lot during this summer exam session, and we have talked about Assessments in the #EconTEAching chats and in the #TeachECONference. I have already talked about the challenges we faced moving assessments online, especially when these carried a high weight as it is usually the case of Economics final exams.

For next year we have more time and use the lessons learnt to redesign remote assessments. There have been some excellent discussion on how to integrate group work and innovative assessment methods (see for instance the discussion on Video Project at the #EconTEAching chat, and the relevant blog for more resources).

There is still a lot to discuss on assessment and we will be sharing resources and experiences under Theme 4 of the Economics Network Symposium, following up with a #EconTEAching chat in September 2020.

However, no matter whether online or face-to-face, it is important to remember that assessments cannot be an after-thought when designing teaching. These must be an integral part of learning and must be set in a way that provides the opportunity to students to demonstrate their capabilities and measure their academic accomplishments.

8. Diversity and Inclusion

Teaching online should not stop us to continue the good practice we started before the crisis. There is an ongoing discussion on how to make Economics more inclusive. This discussion sparked many initiatives aimed to increase diversity and make our classrooms more inclusive. We need to be aware on how online teaching may affect students from discriminated groups, and try to adapt our initiatives to reduce existent and potential attainment gaps by these groups. There is still lots of work to be done, and some of this was discussed in the Diversity and Inclusion session at the #TeachECONference and the session on Widening Participation at the #EconTEAching chat.

Under the new scenario, we need to facilitate the creation of online learning communities that help students to maintain contact and help to develop a sense of belonging which really matters for engaging with the subject. There was an interesting presentation on this at the TEAL Fest, which inspired me to use Teams to create a Learning Community for the Economics and Politics Degree of which I am Course Director. While these will not be perfect substitutes of campus interactions, may contribute to feel connected.  


This is not the end of the journey. There is still a lot of work to do, and many Economic educators are willing to share their experiences. One positive aspect of the current scenario is that it gives us the possibility to attend more events and share and reach a broader audience.

Check for the future opportunities to engage and be part of the many events happening around. Join us to the next #EconTEAching chats (organised by myself and CTaLE at UCL), Theme 4 of the Economics Network Symposium. There is also the European Economic Association Conference coming up (25-27 August), in which there will be an interesting workshop on Teaching Online on the 27th and you can already contribute filling the online survey.