Review: #EconTEAching Session 12: Creating a Community of Learners Online, by Dr Ramin Nassehi (UCL)

Back in 2015, we introduced the First Year Challenge (FYC), a collaborative student multimedia project, in UCL to create a sense of excitement and community among our freshers upon their arrival to the campus. Soon this project spread to several universities in the UK and around the world. But of course, this September university campuses felt very different; most of us had to start the academic year teaching remotely with most of our students staying outside of campus. One challenge facing us was to adapt the First Year Challenge to this new world of remote/blended teaching. In the 12th session of EconTEAching, Parama Chaudhury (UCL), Annika Johnson (Bristol), Dimitra Petropoulou (LSE) and Margaret Leighton (St Andrews) spoke about their experience of running First Year Challenge in their universities in 2020-2021.

A bit about the FYC first. This is a multimedia assignment designed to introduce first year undergraduates to independent research and group work. Small groups of students are assigned to specific locations (or themes) and are asked to produce a 3-minute multimedia clip which relates to those locations (or themes). These locations range from historical monuments or buildings (Keynes’ house) to simple shops (a local post-office). Sometimes there is an underlaying theme across the chosen locations. Bristol’s theme, for instance, was “Black Lives Matter” in the previous year while LSE focused on the “Welfare State” and UCL on “Capitalism, Growth and Inequality”. As pointed out by one of the speakers in the session, one of the motivations of this project is to “remind students that economics is not just about math but relates to the bigger social and political issues”. You can watch the videos of this year’s FYC winners at UCL here. Beside its academic merits, this project improves the employability of students through boosting their group skills and digital literacy (i.e. video production, editing and script writing). Also due to the shift to remote teaching in various universities, including the UCL, the student had to learn to work with each other via online platforms like MS Teams, hence gaining a valuable experience of doing remote group objects.

FYC is now maturing in a sense that different universities are adapting, and building on this project in various ways. For instance, LSE and Bristol have integrated this project with their personal tutoring system as a way to create a better staff-student bond. There, the personal tutor would act as the mentor for the group video projects and give students some clues about the underlying theme of their assigned locations. Going beyond, St Andrews has started using FYC as an assessed component in one of their modules to diversify assessment in their curriculum. LSE is also considering introducing a similar assessment component for its final year students. In the case of UCL, this year’s FYC served as a good channel for familiarising students with online collaboration platforms (MS Teams in particular) and the skills of virtual group work.

Finally, I would like to stress that this project can be adapted to different cities or towns irrespective of the presence or absence of any major historical legacy. This paper, written by Christian Spielmann and Parama Chaudhury, discusses the adaptability potential of FYC to different contexts in detail. At the heart of it, this project requires students to tell an interesting economic story about a particular location, be it a supermarket or a well-known historical monument. Indeed, one of the locations assigned for Bristol’s FYC was a public toilet! So there is a plenty of room for creativity (and humour) in this project.

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