I have just finished the re-design of my Undergraduate Macroeconomics course. This is just a model, so not all the sections are finished, but it should give you a good idea of how I work. The course is set up as a flipped-classroom and the website serves to share content (from the professor, but also the students), link to external sources, discuss, etc.
If you want to learn more about the rationale behind the website, do continue reading.
‘No design stands mute’ said Papanek, author of ‘Design for the Real World’, who saw design as a political tool (2018, 15). The design choices I make when designing an economics course can lead to different understandings of the world, and therefore different choices my students may make as citizens and as business persons. As Dori Tunstall said, design must translate our values into ‘tangible experiences’ (Papanek 2018, 65). I have based the design of the Macroeconomics course on four core values: relationships, curiosity and questioning, respect for diversity, and creating a supportive environment. Although I have already taught the course, this version represents a major re-design including a greater integration of face-to-face and online spaces, the values it embodies (in particular an attention to an emergent curriculum, and diversity) and a new virtual learning environment (VLE).
I first consider the context of the course, looking at the institutional constraints, subject matter specificities and student characteristics. Based on these constraints, I designed a course with a constructive pedagogy within a flipped classroom, and a disciplinarity approach. The course website was built to support these and is discussed throughout the analysis.
The context of the course
I considered three main aspects: the institutional constraints, the subject matter and the students.
The institutional context is that of a private business school, focused on fulfilling the accreditation requirements. The syllabus is given by the institution (learning objectives, the structure of the assessments, grading and course policies). Most sections cannot be changed by the professor as the template is password protected. The curriculum is conceived as a product (Smith 1996, 4), and by applying Taylor’s principles of scientific management, the school hopes to guarantee the production of the intended learning outcomes (Biggs 1996, 199). The accreditation agencies require a complete mapping of the these intended learning outcomes with the assessments and the direct and indirect measures of achievement of these goals (IACBE 2019). All faculty are adjunct, with other professional engagements, creating the possibility of a principal-agent issue as their interests may diverge (CORE Team 2017, 259), so the systems approach may be an attempt to ‘teacher-proof’ the course. This creates a number of issues, as highlighted by Smith: the focus is on the program, leaving little space for the voice of the students; the objectives need to be measurable and topics are therefore often broken down; and unanticipated outcomes may be ignored (1996, 5–6). The first challenge is then to support the students in becoming business professionals, while giving them a voice, remaining open to the unexpected and ensuring that the complexity of economics is not overlooked. An additional constraint is the 3-hour teaching blocks, a challenge for novices in a field with many new concepts. Finally, the LMS (Microsoft Teams) is limited to one long forum thread and the posting of documents. The website format chosen here allows for a visually richer environment (most videos, images and documents are immediately visible) and can be linked to the LMS.
This brings us to our second point, the field of economics. Economics is transdisciplinary (Shumway and Messer-Davidow 1991, 208)), often non-intuitive (e.g., a shift in demand vs. a shift in quantity demanded) and knowledge is cumulative. The complexity of economics, added to the necessity of creating measurable outcomes has led to a tendency to breaking down the concepts into small parts, at the risk of loosing significance. Models are necessary, however, as Gough highlights, it is important to look in whose interest this simplification is done (Gough 2013, 1220). There is clearly a hidden curriculum, to reproduce the current economic model (Edwards 2015), which business schools themselves often benefit from (see the conflicts of interest of the economist and professor Hubbard in the documentary Inside Job (Ferguson 2010)). However, with just one perspective, students come to believe that the world is predictable, and that linear thinking will lead to the one correct answer (Gough 2013, 1220). Beach, already in 1938, underlined the risk of such an approach and that students ‘must learn that one ideas does not contain the whole truth’ (1938, 515). Moreover, the students themselves, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, demand pluralism (“Open Letter” 2014). The economy can only be understood through multiple prisms, based on the real economy (CORE Team 2017, XV) and should take a global perspective. The second challenge is therefore to move beyond the instrumental curriculum, towards an emergent curriculum in which students think critically about the curriculum and economic theories.
Our final, but central element in the overall context of the course is the students. They are busy undergraduate students, taking 4-5 courses, with sometimes a part-time job and long commute. They are not highly academic; the macroeconomics course is compulsory, and they do not all see its relevance to their business ambitions. Creating a motivating and supportive environment and highlighting the relevance of the course to the students as future business people and as citizens is therefore particularly important (Ryan and Deci 2000). The student body is very international (often as many nationalities as students in the course), imposing a global approach.
To meet the institutional requirements to train business people, give the students the tools to challenge their ideas and really understand the global economy, and create an engaging and supportive environment for the students, I have based the design on a constructivist pedagogy within a flipped classroom and a disciplinarity approach.
A constructivist pedagogy within a flipped classroom
Students need to learn how to apply economic tools and ways of thinking, and carry out research. For this learning to happen, they need to ‘do’ economics, so an active approach to learning underlies the whole course. Moreover, Kolb’s learning cycle approach helps students better grasp abstract concepts, by starting with experiential learning (Kayes, Kayes, and Kolb 2005, 334). See the auctioning of muffins experiment to understand demand and supply. However, in a traditional course setting, I spent most of my time lecturing, interspersed with direct applications, so little time was left for experimental learning, higher-order applications, discussions and real-world examples.
The flipped-classroom model, with theory and basic applications done before class, frees up time for active and social learning in class (Bishop et al. 2013). Moreover, it supports the feelings of autonomy, belonging and competence, three basic psychological needs that Ryan and Deci link to motivation (2000). In a group of often little motivated students, this is particularly important for promoting engagement.
The feeling of autonomy is supported in the course by the possibility for students to make choices, for example in their access to content (videos, textbooks or audiobooks), regarding the content itself (the different options for measuring the standard of living -OECD, Bhutan or UNDP resources) and in their assignment (although limited, the choice of country has proven to be a strong motivating factor). Students can regulate their studies thanks to the flexibility offered by the technology: content is accessible any place, any time, creating a form of post digital environment with face-to-face and online time fluidly integrating (“Near Future Teaching” 2019). However, this freedom is structured by the weekly class meetings, creating natural deadlines (the pre-class assignments must be done before the class as we use them in class) (Adams et al. 2014, 206). This is particularly important for busy students, facing multiple demands and often with limited self-direction (at least in their academic life) (Knox 2013b). The face-to-face time offers the space for quality educational time (Sheail 2018, 475) and an emphasis on relationships (teacher-student and student-student). The two parts are deeply integrated, one building on the other to ensure their value to the students (Coyne, Lee, and Petrova 2017). See Appendix 1: Storyboard for ‘Measuring the Standard of Living’.
In the Near Future Teaching project, students emphasised the need for belonging and relatedness (“Near Future Teaching” 2019). Lo highlights how the flipped classroom allows for a Vygotskian approach (2018, 797) with time freed up for group activities, discussions and individual student-teacher interactions. The relatedness is continued outside classroom through the asynchronous discussion board (Padlet) or messages (in Teams). Moreover, WhatsApp is used informally amongst students.
The tools in the flipped format also support a feeling of competence. In 3-hour teaching blocks, students quickly reach cognitive overload, but with videos on demand, they have time to process the content, at their own pace, pausing and reviewing (Coyne, Lee, and Petrova 2017, 3). Although what students actually do cannot be controlled and many students do the work at the last minute, the overall design offers students the option of spaced learning (Carvalho and Goodyear 2018, 34). I have seen students with low English skills or dyslexia take advantage of this setup, with excellent outcomes. Moreover, the video format helps reduce the cognitive overload on a given topic with auditive and visual input supporting each other to further understanding, especially important when explaining changes on a graph, for example (e.g. demand video) (Mayer and Moreno 2003). Moreover, Bishop et al. show that students who usually don’t come to class well prepared when reading is required, are better prepared when videos are suggested (2013, 10). Finally, feedback is timelier. The videos include activity breaks followed by a discussion of the solution, the online quizzes give immediate feedback, and finally high-order skills are developed in class with the support of the teacher.
Overall, by creating a feeling of autonomy, belonging and competence, the flipped classroom tends to offer a more supportive and motivating environment for learning. We next turn to the specific type of content and activities.
A disciplinarity approach
To learn is often to take on a new identity, in this case, learning to become a business person by taking on the profession’s way of thinking and practicing the discipline (McCune and Hounsell 2005). As Kapur noted, to gain procedural and conceptual knowledge, as well as to be able to transfer this knowledge to novel situations, students need to engage in the practices of the discipline, what he calls disciplinarity (Kapur 2019). For example, students will be applying macroeconomic concepts to a specific country in their Country Risk Study, or practice thinking as economists as they role play a monetary policy committee meeting. To avoid the risk that novices run in using ready-made formulas in their approach (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000, 42) or becoming just consumer of ‘authoritative information’, I follow Knox’s suggestion of ‘open as a process’ (Knox 2013a, 26). The course website has an open rather than wall-garden approach. It offers a model of distributed learning, and a first step in building a professional network (RSS and Twitter feeds, use of the IMF data base, link to original content in diverse media), supporting ‘learning (as) a social, collective and material endeavour’ (Evans 2015, 3). But for privacy reasons and to create a safe place to exchange, the website access is limited to course participants. The focus is, however, not on the content per se, but on the ‘process of sensemaking, understanding and creating knowledge together’ (Okada et al. 2012; in Knox 2013a). Students need to solve problems, carry out research, choose relevant data (real, nominal, growth rate, or per capita, for example) and share their findings on the website, co-creating content in the process.
However, disciplinarity has downsides. The risk of excluding other fields and leading to a silo effect (Haynes 2017) can easily be avoided as economics is open to many other fields (politics, sociology, psychology, etc.). Another issue, as explained by Foucault, is the creation of a ‘system of control in the production of knowledge’ (Shumway and Messer-Davidow 1991, 1). As mentioned before, business schools tend towards the reproduction of the current economic system. As a teacher, I want to ensure that my students’ understanding of the world is not limited to a simplified version, broken down into meaningless parts, but that they can see it as complex, nonlinear and emergent, and can question the current beliefs, leaving space for an ‘emergent curriculum’ that allows us to challenge our ideals and ‘think differently about who we (individually and collectively) think we are becoming’ (Gough 2013, 1224). I am far from being able to decolonise the curriculum (LSE 2019), as Danah Abdulla underlines in Decolonising Design (Papanek 2018, 200), we teach what we know. A small first step was to change the textbook, as the recommended one was written for an American audience and by Hubbard, the economist who did not believe in disclosing conflicts of interest. I suggest the Mankiw and Taylor textbook (2017), written for the European market, but still traditional in its approach, and The Economy (2017) written by economists from across the world, open to a diversity of theories. I also share content based on different world views (E.g. the Bhutanese Gross Happiness Index). And more importantly, leave an ‘encounter space’, where the outcome isn’t pre-determined, but allows for emergent activities and understandings (Carvalho and Goodyear 2018). One example was when an Ethiopian refugee student with a religious background found it ethically difficult to accept the concept of profit maximisation. At the time, I discussed this after the course. However, now I integrate such discussions about different economic models across the world today and historically in the course (Heilbroner 1999).
The flipped-classroom and disciplinarity approach have created a supportive environment for students to become business people, while reflecting on their choices and avoiding a superficial understanding. There are many areas that require more work, but I would like to focus on two. How much content can we offer to create a rich, possible rhizomatic, environment, while not overwhelming the students? (Cousin 2005; Knox 2014) The second issue is in line with the Near Future Teaching idea of a playful and experimental approach to technology. Can a teacherbot (Mr Munroe on the course website) create a feeling of presence and attachment, supporting more regular engagement on the website, as the Tamagochi did for children in the 1990s? (Bayne 2015; Kries et al. 2017, 187)
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Appendix 1: Storyboard for ‘Measuring the Standard of Living’
I focus on the sequence related to ‘Measuring the Standard of Living’ to highlight the integration between in class and out of class activities. Link to Trello board.
(The University of Edinburgh ELDeR cards)