Engaging students in an online economics community

Written by Tom Allen, Edward Cartwright, and Swati Virmani, De Montfort University
Published May 2020 as part of the Virtual Symposium on Online Teaching

One of the major benefits of attending university is social interaction with classmates. Clearly as we move to an online setting the opportunities for such interaction will diminish. This is a particular concern regarding first years (undergraduate and postgraduate) who will have dramatically reduced chances to ‘get to know’ each other. But it is also relevant at more advanced stages, e.g. final year students often benefit from interacting in more specialized courses with fewer students. So, how to encourage an online community?

We propose here three specific activities you can use. In principle the three can be aligned and done in turn. They can also work either at a program or course level. Some guiding principles in all of these ideas are:

  1. They need to be student-led as much as possible. While you may be required to ’get them going’ they hopefully take on a life of their own and need little or no input from you once active. This is supposed to be a space for students to interact. You will, though, need to lead by example.
  2. This is not just about the start of term. Many new students will not have access to university email, Blackboard, Moodle etc. in week 0 and will likely be busy anyway with lots of other academic tasks. So, do not rush to do things too soon. Weeks 2 to 5 into term may be a more realistic aim.
  3. Provide incentives to get engagement going. While this space is supposed to be student led it will need a kick start. The key thing is to get a critical mass of students on board so that it becomes a good, self-sustaining space for students to interact. Incentives can be a prize or some form of recognition that can be put on a CV. For instance, you can award online badges for contributions/engagement which accumulate to something that can be put on a student’s CV.
  4. A coordinated approach within a module and program works best. Getting students to engage is likely to be hard work and so multiple, competing platforms is not a good idea. Find a platform/space you want to go with and stick to it until it works.

Idea 1: Social media groups

Engagement on social media can work. Our university has a good track record of engaging students on Facebook and Instagram and is ramping up activity for this year’s new intake. The academic input is relatively low key in providing some useful information (particularly at the start of the year/course to get people involved) and sign posting students where relevant. If you can get critical mass then students will engage. Yammer is another platform that can be used.

Idea 2: Asynchronous ice-breaker

Through social media or a discussion board on Blackboard, Moodle etc. you can instigate a ‘fun’ ice-breaker. For instance, you can ask students to say ‘what Disney/sci-fi character they would be and how much they should be paid for their superhero skills’. This can be fun while also bringing in an element of labour economics. The lecturer or program leader has to lead by example – in this case to make a short video with their answer. Not all students are going to jump to do this but some will and that gets thing started. This can be done asynchronously over the first few weeks of term. You can offer a prize to the best entry to encourage engagement. Obviously, the task does not need to be Disney characters. But we would suggest some non-core task has to be used.

Idea 3: Team competition

Assign students to small groups/teams. This can be done using the ice-breaker task. For instance, you can assign students based on their Disney characters. Then have a team competition with some tangible prize or award at the end. Students can interact through the relevant channel be it social media, Blackboard groups etc. Depending on the context you can continue with a fun task, e.g. model the labour market for superheroes, or go to a more academic topic, e.g. what one thing would you do to reduce homelessness. Again, this can be asynchronous with a fixed end point towards the middle of term.

The suggestions above are not going to work for everyone but they have a chance of bringing plenty of students on board. As we have set out the ideas they are supposed to be fun non-curricular activities. If that is the way you go then keep them simple and not too much work. Idea 3 could easily be converted into a curricular activity if needed.

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