Matthew Greenwood-Nimmo: Keeping a Finger on the Pulse

By Seth Robinson

Associate Professor Matthew Greenwood-Nimmo takes us inside what it takes to build a university subject during the time of COVID-19.

Over the last few months, we’ve all had to modify the way we learn and work to cope with the challenges of COVID-19. For academics, these changes include adapting the way they teach and conduct their research. It also alters the way they develop and build the subjects we study at university. To find out more, we spoke with A/Prof Matthew Greenwood-Nimmo from the Department of Economics.

‘A large part of my work so far this year has involved the development of a postgraduate subject called Forecasting in Economics and Business. It’s a reboot of an old undergraduate subject that was recently retired and has been redeveloped as part of the first year of the Master of Applied Econometrics,’ Matt explains. ‘Approximately half of the content is entirely new, while the remainder covers topics from the old subject in greater depth.’

The single biggest change is the move to a new statistical software suite, which was driven in part by student feedback from previous years.

‘The new course makes extensive use of R, which is a leading programme that is popular in both industry and academia,’ he says.

Matt's work from home set-up
Associate Professor Matthew Greenwood-Nimmo, and his work from home set-up.

‘Like many of my colleagues, I use R in my research, so teaching with it comes naturally. Since I joined Melbourne in 2013, the growth of interest in R among the students has been obvious. R is now used widely in our faculty's econometrics subjects and this gives our students the opportunity to develop computational skills that are in high demand in the job market.’

As a result of COVID-19, the subject has been delivered remotely for most of Semester 1. This has posed particular challenges for the development of a new subject, especially one that requires coding.

‘The old version of the subject employed point-and-click software. This year, by contrast, students are required to write their own codes using R,’ he explains. ‘Some of the students in the group are already familiar with R, while others are new to it. A physical classroom offers great opportunities to foster knowledge spill-over from existing R users to the rest of the group. This is much more difficult in a virtual environment. As a result, I’ve taken to teaching R code in my lectures. This has worked well and it really adds to the sense of learning a practical, applied discipline. I’ve also been impressed by the way that my students have taken to the discussion forum to exchange R hints and tips.’

Another challenge related to remote teaching is the inability to read the room. ‘As a lecturer in a room full of students, you are able to judge whether they’re following what you’re teaching and adjust your delivery accordingly,’ he says.

‘In the absence of face-to-face teaching, I’ve certainly missed that instantaneous feedback. However, necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and I’ve worked out alternative ways to keep my finger on the pulse. The subject tutors, in particular, have done a fantastic job of keeping me informed about the level of student engagement and understanding.’

Matt also stresses the importance of the mid-semester student surveys that were run in Semester 1 this year as a response to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. ‘I value student feedback a great deal – it’s really shaped my teaching over the years. This year, I received a wealth of useful ideas across the two subjects that I taught in Semester 1. Some of these ideas led to immediate changes to my teaching, such as posting annotated R codes to the LMS to supplement my lecture slides, and subtly modifying the way that I use my slides during pre-recorded lectures.’

‘Other ideas are likely to have an impact in future years, such as promoting peer-assisted learning,’ he says. ‘This is something I am already beginning to explore with colleagues at the faculty’.