Challenging Opportunity Costs in Learning & Teaching

As befits a country that’s about to welcome the world, the weather has been particularly dismal here in England.  With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about economics, and particularly about the notion of opportunity cost.

At one level, this is an obvious truism in the observation that doing one thing means you’re not doing another, especially with its logical conclusion that there are no free lunches.  However, as we come to the end of a first year of this blog (more or less), I have been struck by the potential challenge this throws up.

When I tell people that I write a 400 word piece pretty much every week for this blog – and that I do the same for another blog in my School (which I heartily recommend) – they tend to look aghast, ask how much time this all takes and what the point is. Even when I explain that I have a slot in my calendar on the two days I arrive early at work and a post takes about 30 minutes, they still wonder whether I couldn’t be doing something “more useful” (usually undefined).

From my perspective, this is more useful for me.  It’s helped me get back into the habit of writing regularly, of testing out my thoughts and getting feedback, of laying down markers for future research: indeed, pretty much all the things we tell our students to be doing. Going back through the past year’s posts, I can see things that I want to revisit and things I’d like to write up, as well as links to resources that I might use during next academic year.  For an hour a week, that seems like a good deal to me, especially since I’d otherwise be dealing with some random paperwork or checking my Klout score (42, since you ask).

Economics talks about comparative advantage, optimising the resources and abilities one has available to maximise utility.  In Learning & Teaching we have gone some of the way towards that, setting out learning objectives in curricula and aligning teaching to maximise the chances of achieving them.  But it strikes me that sometimes we need to step back from utility maximisation and instead dwell on alternative utilities. In simulations, for example, I typically do not specific very closely what students should gain from a particular game, since I recognise that each person might get something very different, each of which might be of personal value: my priorities are not necessarily universal. As long as people can recognise what is important to them, then surely we should count that as a success.

So the summer break beckons, including a long trip to South East Asia. I’m going to miss posting again until late August, but I hope that I can bring back some new ideas for you. Until then.

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