Next in our student reflection series is Benjamin, who is a first year and was in London for the most of the year. The first years who started their degree in September 2020 had a particular challenge in that unlike upper year students, they had not had a chance to get to know UCL and the Economics department in “normal” times before the current disruption. On top of that, the cohort was more than twice the typical size, with a total of about 650 enrolled in the BSc Economics degrees and the main core module which includes joint degree students as well having an enrolment of nearly 800 students. Benjamin’s reflection below discusses how in some ways, the cohort size effect was somewhat neutralised by the online design focused on a mix of asynchronous materials and activities and the use of Echo360’s Active Learning Platform and ClassEx for the interactive live sessions. As he notes though, the personal connections and community building aspects of university life are hard to replicate remotely.
Year 1, BSc Economics
Having been at UCL last year and switched degrees over the summer, I was one of the lucky few to come into Economics first year with a strong network of friends from last year living close to me. I was living in a flat with a friend in Camden, who would go to the library every day. I hence had a whole flat to myself and my working days go relatively undisturbed, as opposed to someone who may be working from home alongside his/her family with more distractions. Things might not have been the same for first year students constantly stuck in student accommodation either. I say this because the social and environmental conditions in which you work and live are very likely to impact how positive/negative one’s impression is of the course so far.
Overall, I have been very satisfied with the quality of my education this year, given the COVID-19 circumstances. A huge effort has gone in from the teaching team in adapting so quickly from in person to online teaching and it really shows. Some modules obviously adapt better than others, but it is difficult to distinguish whether some modules did better than others because their material is more suited to an online transition, or simply whether more effort was put in. I did get the impression that the more organised lecturers, moved more effectively to online teaching.
It seems, although I have not seen research on it, that in a certain way the approach in 2020/21 is more efficient and flexible. It lets students find their own rhythm, but it will take time and research to understand the impact of this on student outcomes. I must imagine that for teachers as well it’s more efficient as you can reuse the videos from past years (in the same way we are doing in ECON0010) and dedicate your time to more important things.
My modules were taught through a mix of pre-recorded lectures and live sessions (some face to face but mainly online). I think the pre-recorded lectures are a great tool for initial homogeneity in student understanding as long as the material presented makes sense. It allows everybody to follow their own rhythm when going through the course material, either speeding up when the pace is a bit slow or going back to bits one does not understand. These work perfectly in most modules and I really like this approach. Our compulsory Economics module stands out for having pre-reading rather than videos to pre-watch. The CORE textbook is fantastic, and it has been a real pleasure to be taught economics in such an open-minded way, especially given all the criticism around the discipline and the way things are typically approached.
Of course, having more flexibility over when and how to review course materials makes it easier to procrastinate, as there are less check-ups on your week-to-week learning. It would be interesting to survey students to know how many feel this way. Understanding if there is an appropriate balance between flexibility and efficient engagement is important. This may mean letting everyone learn on their own pace and checking up on this on regular intervals, or constantly engaging with students but not giving them the flexibility.
In Economics, the pre-recorded materials are often followed by live lectures, where the goal is to use some interactive software to engage students (most often, Menti). The biggest success in my opinion was the games used by Professor Jenkins during the Game Theory week in ECON002. It was the classic “have fun while you learn approach” which is very rare to see in more technical education. Other lectures, in Economics and other modules, where the live session involved polls and applications of the material were enjoyable and helpful to my learning. It was less useful if the purpose of the live lectures, in their own right and as a complement to the pre-recorded material, was not clear.
Nonetheless, having these lectures as live doesn’t make any personal difference in terms of learning outcomes, so I very often find myself watching the recording of them at a later time. I think from the overall engagement numbers we see this is probably the case for a lot of other students. Personally, the main reason this happens has to do with lecture pace, I have gotten used to watching pre recorded lectures on 1.5-1.75 times speed, so every live one seems frustratingly slow.
As to how beneficial live lectures overall are on learning outcomes, I would be interested to see research comparing outcomes between students who engage in these live lectures vs students who watch these at a later time. It could be the case that the students who struggle most find these live lectures very helpful while the rest don’t really need them, or the other way around, that there is a clear positive correlation between live lecture engagement and learning outcomes. It could be that the current situation works, with varying levels of engagement across students taking their own approach to learning flexibility. But if it is the case that engagement at the live time is important then it is important to find ways to increase attendance and get everyone to engage.
I also had smaller group tutorials in modules. These were not always as engaged as I would have hoped, often focused on some homework assignment. For me, it would be preferable if there was more interaction and new material. For example, the tutorial leader gives one question to everyone at the start of the tutorial alongside with 10 mins and then students debate the answer. This could push students to engage a bit more. The quiz, assignment, and tutorial immediately put our weekly learning to test, reinforcing key concepts and ideas once again.
One thing I wish had happened more was students turning their camera on in tutorials. It is often forgotten how helpful body language can be and having everyone talking as if they were on the phone to one another took the natural human interaction out of the equation in education. It seems to be a social dilemma that is hard to be fixed. I would hope work is being done to consider how best to incentives students to turn their cameras on, recognising that on average the sentiment is that one is better off not turning on the camera while all others do, so no one does it. It would really make a difference.
We were asked for feedback along the way in modules. Keeping feedback anonymous is very important, as it shields the student from any personal reputation concerns and preserves the integrity of the information. For example, a student might phrase his/her experience differently depending on whether a teacher asks him too or whether it’s an online feedback form.
Online learning is not the same as normal in-person, and I think where the biggest gap is between the two is in inter-student relations. What I mean by this is that a big part of our university experience is also our social education, and not only academic. We come to university hoping to meet new friends, exchange ideas, debate, and in general experience new things and get out of our comfort zones. This is lacking in online learning. As a student, the only thing I would suggest as an improvement to online learning is increasing the share of Team Based Learning (TBL) approaches, depending on where it can and cannot be applied. This could be the case of positive externalities of learning approaches: it might not be the most efficient in terms of learning outcomes (free riding, group tensions, logistics, etc.) but these are tensions that are fundamental to our social education and learning how to overcome these are as important as normal academic education. I base this view from my experience in ECON009, where we are assigned a policy project. While no real project tensions have arisen, Zoom debates have, and concerning completely unrelated topics. This is a refreshing change, and I would encourage UCL lecturers to pursue this approach more.