Economics Network – The challenges and opportunities posed by teaching online

Alvin Birdi and Ashley Lait report on the Economics Network Virtual Symposium.

The spread of the coronavirus pandemic around the world this spring upended universities, and academics found themselves having to quickly adopt entirely new ways of working. Both classes and exams moved online as staff and students returned home and campuses closed. These dramatic events raised significant questions over what teaching would look like, whether students would engage in online classes, and how their learning could be assessed without in-person exams.

As the EN’s core mission is to promote innovative and effective teaching, we felt an imperative to rise to the occasion and offer support to our community as they made this transition online. With the help of our dedicated Associates, we launched a wide-ranging virtual symposium in June. Originally conceived as a one-off event, this symposium has now expanded to four themes and counting, and has welcomed participants from across the globe. In line with best practices in online learning design, and in order to ‘practice what we preach’, each theme has consisted of both asynchronous elements (where participants engage in their own time) and synchronous elements (where participants engage in an online real-time event).

The first theme addressed ‘engaging students and academics with online learning’ and was led by Cloda Jenkins (UCL) and Dimitra Petropoulou (LSE). It was clear from our online survey conducted in May that creating meaningful student engagement and interaction was one of the key concerns of academics regarding online teaching. Yet despite their worries, 81.6 per cent of our survey respondents (87 academics split almost evenly between research and teaching track) also reported that online learning would bring new opportunities for innovative ways of  actively engaging students in their learning.

Contributors to the session emphasised the importance of the carefully planned complementary use of both synchronous and asynchronous sessions to foster a vibrant learning community. The use of various platforms and tools, some appropriate for synchronous teaching such as response systems and  breakout rooms and others geared towards asynchronous teaching such as discussion boards (e.g. Piazza) were discussed as effective methods to encourage student participation.

• There is a wealth of resources on student engagement available on our website at:


The second and third themes tackled some challenges that are specific to economics as a subject discipline, namely teaching data methods online and teaching theoretical economics with Excel online. In class, teachers increasingly invite students to engage in practical data work  in computer labs, using Stata or other software. However, in this new online world, these opportunities for interaction in computer labs have been removed.

Guglielmo Volpe (City University), Ralf Becker (University of Manchester), Steve Proud and Edmund Cannon (University of Bristol) developed a suite of resources with suggestions for their use, designed to help with teaching students the practical skills of data handling and coding within an online environment.

• These resources are available at:


In addition, the symposium explored how one might use Excel for teaching economic theory, rather than as a data manipulation tool. Humberto Barreto (DePauw University) and Annika Johnson (University of Bristol) both demonstrated simple simulations in micro and macro theory that can be used flexibly both in a live teaching session or given to students to work on in their own time. These examples provide a particularly effective use of a simple, well-known and widely available tool for effective teaching in an online world.

• The simulations and other information on teaching with Excel can be found at:


The fourth theme addressed what has been seen as perhaps the most significant challenge since March – namely, how can we assess students if they are unable to sit a closed book exam in an invigilated hall? Led by Cloda Jenkins, Parama Chaudhury (both UCL) and Stefania Paredes-Fuentes (University of Warwick), this theme entitled ‘adaptable assessment in economics’ highlighted how the online environment lends itself well to assessments that explicitly test how students use the content and theory they have learned to solve practical problems rather than the often more memory-oriented testing that is common within closed-book examinations. There was, of course, some discussion about the risks of cheating and collusion in online settings, but the dominant mood in the Zoom chat was that the learning opportunities afforded by a more research-focused and authentic mode of assessment significantly outweighed these risks.

The theme invited a special guest, Kay Sambell, an expert on pedagogy and assessment from Edinburgh Napier University, who was interviewed by Parama Chaudhury. She emphasised the benefits of conceiving of assessments from the perspective of a degree programme as a whole and noted how authentic assessments which invite students to use skills they will need in later life are well suited to the online environment.

 • Resources and guidance on developing adaptable assessments is available at: www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/events/symposium2020/theme4


Overall, the welcome message from the symposium was that the key elements of teaching that we are familiar with, namely relationality and dialogue with students and active learning,  haven’t changed, but they must now be filtered through new tools and methods. There was also a hint of new possibilities in pedagogy and assessment that arise from productive discussions of the kind held in this symposium, and as summed up best in a comment by Fabio Arico (University of East Anglia), it is evident that ‘we have a fantastic community of scholars willing to share resources, debate, and support each other. We should take pride in this’.


Ralf Becker1 adds —

Discussion boards in teaching

As Alvin Birdi and Ashley Lait argue in their piece on the challenges and opportunities of online teaching, we, as lecturers, will have to put an increased emphasis on enabling asynchronous learning opportunities for students. While providing directed reading and recorded videos will be prevalent as a content delivery tool, as lecturers we will also have to think about the communication channels we offer students. With scheduled on-campus meetings not being available, certainly in the short-term future, we should expect an increased need for students to get in touch with teaching staff.

Wouldn’t it be great, if that communication flow could be directed away from our email accounts towards a forum in which communication between students and teaching staff is open and shared? This is exactly what discussion boards do. While they do not promise that we have to communicate less with students, they do offer the possibility for our communication with students to benefit a broader group.

Since university-wide virtual learning environments (VLEs) became prevalent, many colleagues have occasionally dabbled in setting up the built-in discussion boards.2  Anecdotally, and that includes some of my own experiences, just making discussion boards ‘available’ will not make these a vibrant and used space. In fact, it takes significant effort on behalf of lecturers to seed the discussion board and to tie it into the remainder of our unit’s learning opportunities.

This is also a message re-enforced by many comments students made via a survey in which we asked them about their use of discussion boards. The main message coming from that feedback is that, for discussion boards to become a useful place of learning for students, they need to see teaching staff being involved. That role need not be that lecturers have to respond quickly and comprehensively to all queries, but students do feel the need for a guiding and moderating presence of teaching staff.

More ideas and details of my experiences and the student feedback are available from the links below.

• A more detailed experience report of using discussion boards can be found here:


If you missed the symposium, the resources and videos of the live sessions are all available on our website at the links above.


1. University of Manchester and Economics Network

2. Some further reading: Steven Proud (2018) ‘You’ve got mail: The impact of online message-boards on performance in first year undergraduate mathematics and statistical methods units’, International Review of Economics Education, 28, 49-57, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iree.2018.05.003