Review: #EconTEAching Session 13: Engaging Large Classes Online, by Dr Dunli Li (UCL)

The 13th session of the #EconTEAching chats (organised by CTaLE and the Department of Economics at Warwick) took place on 27th January 2021. It featured James Tierney (Penn State) and Michela Tincani (UCL) and was chaired by Parama Chaudhury (UCL). The livestream from the session can be found on the CTaLE YouTube channel.

One of the perennial topics in teaching is how interaction in classes with large sizes can be meaningfully achieved. The COVID-19 pandemic, forcing universities worldwide to develop solutions for the delivery of online teaching (see the summary of designing courses for the transition to online teaching in the 7th of the #EconTEAching chats), amplified this issue. Against this backdrop, one of the important topics has been how to engage students online, especially for large classes. Both Michela and James have been teaching very large modules  and shared their experience on how to engage students in large cohorts online during the session.

Clearly, class engagement is related to how the teaching is delivered. During the pandemic, a combination of asynchronous and synchronous online teaching forms has been widely adopted. In Michela’s statistics module (with more than 600 students), the core content was delivered through asynchronous activities. Pre-recorded videos played a central role here, with all of them being provided to students at the beginning of the term. Compared to the traditional in-person teaching delivery (where students attend the lectures at the same time as the delivery is taking place), students can study the core content via asynchronous activities at their own pace. Students are expected to have watched the relevant pre-recorded videos before they attend synchronous sessions. During the synchronous sessions, Michela used polls via Mentimeter to test students’ understanding of the pre-recorded videos and she solved exercise questions using data collected from students and made the live sessions as interactive as possible. James has been teaching large modules such as introductory macroeconomics (with around 350 students) and intermediate macroeconomics (with around 200-250 students). He designed these modules in a way that students can take them either asynchronously or in the flipped classroom. The asynchronous material mainly consists of lecture notes including texts, graphs and data, supplemented by short videos demonstrating (e.g. calculations). The synchronous sessions are used to review the material and answer students’ questions.  

To engage students in online learning activities, a natural question arises on accessibility issues such as internet access and different time zones. This question is of particular relevance to synchronous activities. Thus it is important to make the core content available to students asynchronously. Moreover, universities have invested to help students with internet access. For example, UCL has provided China connect service to help students in mainland China to access UCL’s teaching and learning resources, and the service for UCL students (and staff) to access BT public Wi-Fi network without a BT account. To accommodate different time zones, it was mentioned that lecturers survey students at the beginning of the term on their physical locations and schedule the office hours of the lecturers and tutors accordingly.

To enhance the interaction between lecturers and students, various approaches are being adopted and tools are being used, e.g. (1) live chat, (2) discussion forum, (3) personalized emails to students and (4) office hours.

  1. In order to get the discussion started in the online chat at the beginning of the live session, the following tip for an ice-breaker exercise was shared: students can be asked to state a fact that is not interesting. For large group teaching, one good practice is to let a second teacher moderate the live chat while the main lecturer is delivering the synchronous session.
  2. A discussion forum can be set up for students to answer their peers’ questions with lecturer’s regular monitoring. However, it was mentioned that the outcomes were mixed, as few students contributed to the discussion and very often the same questions were raised from students who did not check the forum before posting questions.
  3. Lecturers reached out students via personalized emails and helped struggling students (e.g. who did poorly on online quizzes) with an early intervention.
  4. To get to know students better, surveys were sent to students about themselves and the results could be used for discussion in the office hours to build connection with students. Both speakers shared the tip to hold office hours immediately after synchronous sessions.

The online chat, the discussion forum and holding group office hours can help to facilitate the peer interaction and build community among students as well.

On reflection, what can be learnt from the teaching and learning methods implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic and what, in particular, can be carried over to a post-COVID-19 setting? The practice of sharing material (such as pre-recorded videos and lecture notes) beforehand and requiring students to finish the reading and watching the videos before class might stay. The lecture time might be used for interaction with students, answering students’ questions, problem-solving and application. The flipped classroom might the way to go.  

A huge thank you to Michela, James and Parama for the insightful conversation, and to all the participants for the great discussion!

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