Live from Bristol Futures

Bristol webinar 1
By Tim Phillips
Wed 7th November 2018 | Blog

If you want more detail on this story, listen to the podcast we recorded with Bristol Futures teachers.

In August we briefly covered the impending launch of Bristol Futures, which includes a new set of option courses at The University of Bristol. The course we are especially interested in is being taught for the first time this term, and is called Inequality, Crisis and Poverty: how to make sense of the global economy. It was created by adapting and supplementing material in Economy, Society and Public Policy and especially the data exercises in Doing Economics.

Inequality, Crisis and Poverty isn’t a standard economics or social science course: it covers sustainability, climate change and the problem of global cooperation, and inequality, and the causes and effects of innovation. But it also seeks to teach students how to analyse real-world data, and how to communicate and present what they discover.

Flipping the classroom

Last week I went back to Bristol to find out how it’s going, and found that the curriculum isn’t the only thing that is unusual about Inequality, Crisis and Poverty. This is a course with no lectures and no traditional seminars. Students solve problems when they are with instructors and learn the theory at other times—what is often called a “flipped” classroom. So how does learning happen each week?

  • A podcast on that week’s topic. Each week, students can listen to an audio discussion of some of the concepts for that week.
  • A workshop to learn data skills. Students work together in a two-hour practical session to do three data exercises each week—many used in, or adapted from, Doing Economics.
  • An interactive webinar. In which the teachers introduce important topics, and answer student questions.

Data workshops, not problem sets

The workshops have become an enjoyable format for learning, as students work through the practical data exercises together with the help of roving TAs. “It really feels like learning is happening and the time is used in an effective way,” says Christian Spielmann, reader in economics, and one of the teachers on the course.

In each session the students collaborate in small groups, explains Christine Cross, who is a TA for the course. The work is punctuated by discussions and debates on what they have found. “I enjoy this a lot because you can adapt to each student’s needs on the fly,” she adds.

Webinars, not lectures

On the day I visited, Professor Alvin Birdi was setting up that afternoon’s webinar in his office. Cross had joined him in the office to monitor student feedback during the broadcast. Spielmann was also joining the webinar—though students wouldn’t know he was doing that from Germany, via Skype.

Students could choose to skip the webinar because it’s recorded and is available afterwards, but those who joined on the day got a much more interactive environment than a traditional lecture. They responded to Birdi and Spielmann or raised their own questions using instant messaging. At one point, Birdi was able to flash up a URL for a video that students could use to find out more about a topic. At another, student observations on steel pricing took us on a digression into the incentives for innovation.

Does Birdi miss the traditional lecture-theatre-and-problem-set format? Not at all, he says. “There’s no real reason to get everyone sat in a giant tiered room.”

Can anyone teach this way?

Much of the hard work on this course has gone into creating the source material for the interactive workshops, for example, making it possible for students to calculate the Gini coefficient for the city of Bristol. The technique of having students discover the surprises in real-world data overcomes resistance to it being a “data course”. The room set-up for the workshops, with small groups to make collaboration easy, has been important in creating this atmosphere.

Meanwhile Birdi jokes that his office has gradually come to resemble a mini TV studio, partly thanks to his long-term interest in photography. But, Birdi argues, teachers can substitute webinars for lectures using many types of setup, from a mini studio to a standard webcam:

  • Free, or low-cost, software is easy-to-use and sophisticated. “I use this thing called vMix, which is a proper video mixing suite. It allows me to move between my desktop, PowerPoint slides, a virtual whiteboard I can write on, and the video camera,” Birdi says. The output is fed into Blackboard (the university’s Virtual Learning Environment, or VLE), where students access it live, or watch the replay.
  • Most universities support basic webinars in their VLE. If so, then “all you then need is a webcam,” Birdi says, with which you can give a live presentation of slides and video.
  • Our computers have webcams and microphones as standard. While standalone webcams or more sophisticated cameras give a better picture, they aren’t essential.
  • Investing small amounts creates professional quality. “The most important thing for the recipient is the quality of the sound, and the video less so,” Birdi says. An external microphone plugged into a USB port makes your webinar easier to listen to.
  • You can do it yourself, and experiment. Even if your institution doesn’t support broadcasting through a VLE, you can set up a similar webinar format using YouTube Live, or other (paid) communications platforms such as Zoom.

“You’ve got a situation where a lecture is so substitutable that it makes absolutely no sense to do it in the traditional way. It’s so costly, it’s bizarre,” says Birdi, “You want to make your face-to-face time complementary to everything else that you do.”

“The place where we are doesn’t matter,” Spielmann says, down the line from Germany, “It’s something quite special and will potentially change the way we teach in the future, [for example] we can potentially include other experts in different countries in our teaching … this is questioning a lot of what we have been doing traditionally.”