There’s nothing small-scale about Introduction to Microeconomics, York University’s introductory economics course; it has carved out a large space for itself in the world of online course delivery, thanks to the efforts of the eight-professor team that is teaching the first-year courses.
The team is led by Gordana Colby, an assistant professor who is the Department of Economics’ first teaching-stream faculty member, and Avi Cohen, a University Professor and early adopter of online technology. Together, they and their colleagues have redesigned introductory economics, transforming a conventional multi-section, large-lecture, passive-learning format with a high drop/failure rate to a single meta-course for all 3,000 students that offers a richer, more engaging, online student experience.
“We were forced to finish the 2020 winter term online because of the pandemic and were impressed by how well it went,” said Colby. “We had been thinking about redesigning the course for a while and decided that perhaps this was the right time to do it.
“One of the reasons behind the redesign was to provide more personalized learning opportunities.”
The eight faculty members met for an initial discussion in the spring about the redesign and have been meeting regularly ever since, creating the department’s first community of practice (CoP). Each professor is invested in the redesign, contributing ideas with enthusiasm and discussing what is working and what is not with fellow team members.
Lectures are delivered asynchronously by Cohen, who has a prestigious 3M Teaching Fellowship to his credit. The lectures are designed according to best practices, broken into chunks to allow students to view them bit-by-bit or as it suits their individual schedules. There are interactive knowledge-check questions in each segment that allow students to see if they understand the concepts being taught, complete with targeted oral and written feedback for both correct and incorrect answers. The lectures are professionally produced and closed-captioned and have complete transcripts to ensure they are accessible to all students.
In addition, each student attends a synchronous weekly seminar run by one of the professors. The focus of these smaller group sessions is active learning, and the students learn to apply the concepts and principles they are learning to current events, work through economic models, solve economic problems and conduct economic experiments, all using online clicker technology.
“Students really want to be engaged and participate,” said Colby. “They have a desire to do so, even online.” Post-COVID-19, the teaching team plans on keeping the asynchronous online lectures, but offering some of the seminars face-to-face.
Added Cohen, “As economists, we believe in the need to give incentives, so 20 per cent of their course grade depends on participation.” Attendance at the seminars is averaging 80 to 90 per cent, while attendance for in-class lectures in the past was often below 40 per cent.
For each chapter in the textbook and the related lecture modules, there is also an online discussion board moderated by one of the faculty team members, instead of a teaching assistant – a first for introductory economics. Students can ask questions and offer comments; it’s another way to encourage involvement and dialogue. Students seeking additional help with the material can also attend weekly, synchronous Peer-Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) online. Students can try any or all of the eight available sessions to find a peer leader whose style helps them absorb the material most easily. As well, each faculty team member hosts online office hours and welcomes the students to bring concerns to those sessions.
“The redesign has allowed for a much more personalized learning experience,” said Colby. “The adaptive learning Study Plan, for example, features extra questions for those areas where a student is having trouble. Our focus has been on improving the student experience. For instance, in the past, each section of the course would have had a different website. Now, we all have the same one and it builds community and allows for richer discussions.”
During the term, the faculty members will also be hosting enrichment sessions online for students who want to go beyond the course material: lectures that look at a specific topic in more depth or talks by economists who work in various fields as a way of offering students insights into career possibilities in economics.
“This course is learner-centred, with personal paths tailored to the students’ own specialized needs,” Cohen said. “The technology is just a tool that enables us to do active learning.”
The course’s technology does include some leading-edge tools that haven’t been used previously in York courses. The dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies has taken an interest in the course redesign and considers it a demonstration project that could be applied throughout the faculty if it is successful.
Nonetheless, as the tagline to the course’s introductory video states, “This is a rich, robust learning community – it just happens to be online.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus