Category Archives: Latest

334. Making video lectures

Universities around the world have moved to online teaching in response to Covid-19. Many university teachers who have done little or no online teaching are having to upskill rapidly. Here, I share my three top tips for making effective video lectures. 

Pre-recording lectures is not the only option for online teaching, but it’s a good option in some cases. My first major experience of this was making a MOOC (a free online course on Agriculture, Economics and Nature) back in 2015. I read a lot at the time about how to make a good online course, and it paid off as we’ve had around 20,000 people enrol in the course, with overwhelmingly positive feeback.

After that, with my co-teacher Ben White, we decided to convert the lectures for our first-year environmental economics course to pre-recorded videos. We found that the great majority of students were not attending lectures anyway, just watching the videos of the slides (plus audio) that were are recorded automatically. We were sure we could produce videos that would be far better for the students than those lecture-capture videos.

It was quite a bit of work, but I feel it has been worth it. The student-survey scores for the online version of our course have consistently been high.

So what would I advise to somebody who is now getting into pre-recording their lectures?

1. Break the lecture into multiple short videos

This is so important that I was tempted to do the cliched thing and include it as my tip 1, tip 2 and tip 3. The capacity to break the lectures into multiple mini lectures that the students can watch at the speed they choose is a big advantage over a traditional stand-and-deliver lecture. It would seem quite odd to stop a 45-minute face-to-face lecture 5 or 6 times to re-boot the audience’s attention, but it is highly acceptable in a pre-recorded video format.

I include a little piece of music at the start of each lecture part, which provides an additional signal to students that they need to re-engage their attention. At the end of each part I also ask a question to get them to think about what they’ve just heard.

When I’ve asked students how they watch the videos in our unit, most of them say they watch all the videos for one lecture topic one after another, but they still are very positive about the way it is broken into mini-lectures. The fact that there is a question, then a new video starts, then there is music, helps them to keep engaged for longer.

My feeling is that this is likely to be exceptionally important in the current situation, where students are getting all their lectures by staring at a screen. If we just present them with a series of normal-length lectures, it’s soon going to be incredibly difficult for the students to stay awake.

 

2. Use an external microphone

If you use the built-in microphone in your computer to record your lecture, it will probably sound boomy, echo-y and hollow. In bad cases, it may even be difficult for the students to understand you. Using an external microphone that is located close to your mouth can make a huge difference to the listening experience of your students. It doesn’t even have to be a great quality microphone to make a difference. Even a pretty cheap headset with a microphone will probably be much better than the computer’s microphone. But there are lots of better quality USB microphones available if you are keen. Personally, I use this.

The other thing you can do to further improve sound quality is to record in a room without too many hard surfaces. Carpet, curtains, soft furniture, table cloths, wall hangings, etc. can all help.

3. Moderate your pace, explain well, give examples and tell stories

Cheating a bit here: four tips in one. A disadvantage of pre-recording lectures is that you can’t see the faces of your students, so you may fail to realise that you are moving through material too quickly, you are not explaining it well enough, or you are getting too conceptual and failing to give examples. Given that a video is less personal than a face-to-face lecture, it may pay to make it more personal by including more stories and anecdotes.

The other thing I’ve usually done to make it personal is video myself speaking to the camera (which is just my iPhone) as I record the lecture. The video of me speaking is then displayed in the bottom right corner of the slide, and occupies about one-sixth of the screen space. I’m sure this makes a difference to the student experience, but it is somewhat more time consuming to create the videos, and if you are rushing to get prepared, it might be something you choose to explore later.

In case you are interested, I use Camtasia for all my recording of slides and my video editing. It’s a fantastic program.

I upload all my all my lecture videos onto YouTube as unlisted videos (so nobody can find them if I don’t provide the link) and I organise all the mini-lectures into the right sequence using the Playlist facility in YouTube.

p.s. Here is a new free book that many people might find useful: Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily

332. Farmer behaviour and agricultural policy

An understanding of farmers’ adoption of new practices is central to the design of effective and efficient agricultural policies. Aspects of agricultural policy that can be enhanced by good information about adoption include the design of the policy, the targeting of policy effort, and the assessment of additionality. 

In PD330 I advertised a new Special Issue on adoption of agricultural innovations in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. There is an audio interview with me about the Special Issue available here.

One of the papers, by Roger Claassen and me, focuses on the relevance to agricultural policy of understanding farmers’ decisions about taking up new practices.

One simple reason for this relevance is that much agricultural policy is concerned with getting farmers to do something they are not already doing or would not otherwise do. Examples of such policies include the following:

  • Programs of agricultural extension to encourage farmers to adopt a new technology that is believed to be more productive than the existing technology farmers are using (e.g., a higher-yielding crop variety);
  • Programs that pay farmers to adopt a practice that generates public benefits (such as protecting or planting vegetation that provides habitat for wildlife);
  • Policies that fund agricultural research, with the intent of generating information or technologies that will be beneficial for farmers or the community; and
  • Policies that use regulations to constrain the behaviour of farmers (such as regulations on clearing of native vegetation).

Since all these policies are about influencing the behaviour of farmers, of course it makes sense that their design and implementation could be enhanced if the designers had a good understanding of what influences the behaviour of farmers. Sometimes policy makers do take this seriously, but not always. I’ve been critical of Australian agri-environmental policies, for example, for often being making overly optimistic assumptions about what farmers will do if we just provide them with some information or pay them a little bit.

In practice, some practices are more attractive to farmers than others. Zero till is used by about 90% of Western Australian farmers, but a practice like variable-rate precision agriculture is used by only a minority. Any one practice is more attractive to some farmers than to others due to varying local conditions, such as rainfall or soil types. Being able to predict variations in adoption would be very helpful to policy makers for targeting their resources. Having a sense of which practices can potentially be adopted, and where, is one of the factors that ought to influence where policies like extension or incentive payments are applied.

Another policy concept that is tangled up with farmer behaviour is additionality. As we say in the paper:

A conservation action (and the resulting environmental gain) that is supported by a payment is additional if the farmer would not have taken the action if he or she had not received the payment. Environmental gains that flow from nonadditional actions cannot be attributed to the incentive program.

If the additionality of a proposed agri-environmental payment scheme is too low, it’s not worth running the scheme. Most farmers were going to adopt the practice anyway, so any incentive payment to them is just a gift, making no difference to environmental outcomes. Policies to promote some practices have high additionality (e.g. filter strips or cover crops in the U.S.) while others have much lower additionality (e.g. conservation tillage in the U.S.).

Assessing additionality is essentially about predicting behaviour. In fact, for programs that aren’t in place yet, assessment of additionality required two predictions about behaviour: what will farmers do if the program does offer them the proposed incentive scheme, and what will they do if there is no incentive payment scheme. The difference between those two predictions tells you the additional change that is attributable to the scheme.

Even assessing an incentive scheme that is already well established requires a sort of prediction. You can observe what farmers are doing with the scheme in place, but to assess additionality you still need to estimate what they would have done in the absence of the scheme.

For all these reasons, an ability to understand and predict farmers’ adoption of new practices is critically important to agricultural policy makers if they want their policies to be effective and efficient.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and R. Claassen. 2020. The Roles of Adoption and Behavior Change in Agricultural Policy. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 31-41.

331. Conservation opportunities on uncontested lands

Not all agricultural land is productive and valuable. Looking for low-value land might be a useful strategy when seeking to increase the area devoted to conservation. In addition to being relatively cheap to purchase, it may be relatively unlikely to strike problems with social or political opposition.

I’m part of a team of researchers that is looking at this issue, led by Eve McDonald-Madden from the University of Queensland. We have a new open-access paper out in Nature Sustainability that presents a framework for thinking about whether and when restoring low-value, or “uncontested”, agricultural land for conservation purposes is likely to be a good idea.

In the paper, we talk about the different costs that are involved in acquiring and restoring a piece of land. They include the purchase price of the land, which reflects its long-term economic productivity, the transaction costs involved in acquiring the land, and the cost of restoring the land to an improved ecological condition.

We suggest that these costs are likely to be related systematically to the opportunity cost of the land for agriculture (that is, the amount of income that would have to be given up if the land was converted away from agricultural production), but that the patterns may vary.

If the reason for some land having a very low opportunity cost is that it is highly degraded and therefore unproductive, the restoration cost may be particularly high. Restoring the most degraded lands is more difficult and more expensive. In that case, it might be better to seek to acquire and restore land that is degraded, but not so extremely degraded.

If the reason for agricultural land having a low opportunity cost is low market prices for agricultural outputs, rather than land degradation, then there is no reason to expect this land to be especially expensive to restore, potentially making it an attractive target for restoration. Although, not necessarily. Whether the purchase price would be particularly low depends in part on farmers expectations about future prices, not just current prices.

In some situations, acquiring land involves particularly high transaction costs. This might be the case, for example, if there is social and political oppositon to conversion of agricultural land to conservation land. As a generalisation, we might expect that to be less of an issue if the land is degraded and unproductive for agriculture.

Another example of high transation costs could be the effects of corruption. “If corruption is socially normalized, this may lead to low levels of trust, with the result that parties incur high costs for negotiation, contracting and monitoring an agreement. If legal institutions are weak, the cost of enforcing an agreement could be very high.” In this case, even though the land might be cheap, the overall cost might mean it is better to look in a less-corrupt country for land to restore.

Recognising those complexities, we are using spatial data to try to identify cost-effective opportunities for investing in restoration of land.

Further reading

Xie, Z., Game, E.T., Hobbs, R.J., Pannell, D.J., Phinn, S.R., and McDonald-Madden, E. (2020). Conservation opportunities on uncontested lands, Nature Sustainability 3, 9–15. Journal web page (open access)

330. Adoption of agricultural innovations Special Issue

I’m the guest editor for a new Special Issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. The theme of the issue is “Adoption of Agricultural Innovations” and it includes 11 papers by some of the world’s leading researchers on this topic.

There is an audio interview with me about the Special Issue available here.

The papers are intended to provide reviews or syntheses of key issues related to farmers’ adoption of new practices and technologies. Each paper focuses on a particular aspect of the literature, and the collection as a whole provides an excellent introduction to this enormous body of research.

A particularly nice feature is that all the papers in the issue are open access, meaning that anybody can read them without needing a subscription to the journal. You can access the issue here.

You can hear a brief interview with me providing background and an overview of the Special Issue on the journal’s web page for the issue. As of late Feb 2020, it is the second item in the list under the heading AEPP Podcast.

The first item in that list is another interview related to the Special Issue. In that one I interview Leah Palm-Forster about one of the papers that she and I helped to co-author, called “Agricultural Adoption and Behavioral Economics: Bridging the Gap”. In that paper we talk about the similarities and differences between those two related bodies of research literature, and about possible connections that could be made between them.

Further reading

Here’s a list of all the articles in the issue.

Pannell, D.J. and Zilberman, D. 2020. Understanding adoption of innovations and behavior change to improve agricultural policy. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 3-7.

Norton, G.W. and J. Alwang. 2020. Changes in Agricultural Extension and Implications for Farmer Adoption of New Practices. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 8-20.

Heiman, A., Ferguson, J. and D. Zilberman. 2020. Marketing and Technology Adoption. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 21-30.

Pannell, D.J. and R. Claassen. 2020. The Roles of Adoption and Behavior Change in Agricultural Policy. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 31-41.

Chavas, J.-P. and C. Nauges. 2020. Uncertainty, Learning and Technology Adoption in Agriculture. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 42-53.

Streletskaya, N.A., S.D. Bell, M. Kecinski, T. Li, S. Banerjee, L.H. Palm-Forster, and D.J. Pannell. 2020. Agriculture Adoption and Behavioral Economics: Bridging the Gap. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 54-66.

Weersink, A. and M. Fulton. 2020. Limits to Profit Maximization as a Guide to Behavior Change. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 67-79.

Montes de Oca Munguia, O. and Llewellyn, R. 2020. The Adopters Versus The Technology: Which Matters More When Predicting or Explaining Adoption? Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 80-91.

Huffman, W.E. 2020. Human Capital and Adoption of Innovations: Policy Implications. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 92-99.

Llewellyn, R. and B. Brown. 2020. Predicting adoption of innovations by farmers: how is it different in smallholder agriculture? Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 100-112.

Rola-Rubzen, F., T.R. Paris, J. Hawkins and B. Sapkota. 2020. Improving Gender Participation in Agricultural Technology Adoption in Asia: From Rhetoric to Practical Action. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42(1), 113-125.

329. Best albums of the 2010s

Where did the decade go? Here are my 20 favourite albums over the past 10 years. 

In the previous two decades, my choice of best album was completely obvious and clear-cut: OK Computer in the 1990s and In Rainbows in the 2000s. This decade lacked such a standout album, so it wasn’t easy to settle on a ranking at the top. Although, for a change, Radiohead didn’t come in at number 1, they came close.

My top 10 is a testament to longevity, as half of the acts started performing in the 1960s (Bowie, Crimson, Beatles) or the 1970s (Wire, Costello). But there are also acts on the full list of 20 who emerged in each of the subsequent decades.

The criterion used for the ranking is how much I love these albums, so it’s totally subjective, and others would have completely different lists. The point is to raise awareness of some great music that might otherwise have escaped your notice. I know from some of the feedback I got for the equivalent list 10 years ago that it did achieve that for some people.

1. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010). Arcade Fire’s third album was a fantastic surprise. Creative, but highly accessible and memorable pop/rock songs. Consistently wonderful throughout. An album that I was actually excited to play, and still love. And it surprised everybody even more by winning the Grammy Award for album of the year in 2011. The competition was Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum (whoever that is).

 

2. Change Become Us by Wire (2013). I am well aware that most readers of my blog will never have heard of the band Wire, and that’s a real shame. Their third album, 154 (1979), was extraordinarily creative and compelling. It is still one of my all-time favourites. Over the following 30 years they broke up a couple of times, and made some pretty ordinary albums, but starting in 2009 they’ve released a series of gems. This is the best, and it’s almost as good as 154.

3. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead (2016). Another stunningly beautiful album from the world’s greatest and most creative existing band (noting that The Beatles continue to have regular releases and to top charts with ease without actually existing). This is gentler than their previous albums, but it’s not easy listening.

 

 

4. Blackstar by David Bowie (2016). Speaking of not existing, Bowie died two days after the release of this stunning album, his best since his heyday in the 1970s. It really seems that he intended to go out with the strongest possible creative statement, and he fully delivered.

 

 

5. Have One On Me by Joanna Newsom (2010). There is so much music in this triple album, and not just in terms of duration. These are gorgeous but rather complex songs that take time to really get fully into, but it is so worth putting in the effort. Her beautiful vocals (reminiscent of early Kate Bush) are accompanied by her harp and piano playing, plus a backing band that really understands this music and adds value to it.

 

6. Meltdown: Live in Mexico City by King Crimson (2018). King Crimson have been going for 50 years in a series of radically different incarnations, with the only common denominator being guitarist Robert Fripp. He seemed to retire in 2008, but then in 2014 created a new version of KC with seven members (there are eight on this album), playing wonderfully challenging and virtuosic music from across their whole career, plus new material. In the past five years they’ve put out a bunch of live albums that are all incredible. This triple album is almost an arbitrary choice amongst them, chosen because it includes a high-quality video of one of the concerts from which the album is drawn.

7. National Ransom by Elvis Costello (2010). Elvis claimed for a while that this would be his last studio album. If that had been true, it would have been a great one to go out on. Remarkably eclectic, great songs, great performances throughout, and with Elvis in outstanding voice.

 

 

 

8. The Weatherman by Gregory Alan Isakov (2013). Excellent gentle folky/country album of thoughtful and beatiful songs.

 

 

 

9. The Beatles (White Album) Super Deluxe Version by The Beatles (2018). I should be clear that this ranking of number 9 relates to the bonus material provided with this Super Deluxe Version of the album. The original album from 1968 would be number 1 on my list for any year. The bonus material includes a CD of acoustic demos and three CDs of outtakes from the recording sessions, which provide fantastic insights into the recording of the world’s best-ever album. If you know the album, you’ll know how appropriate it is that it came in at number 9.

10. Jen Cloher by Jen Cloher (2017). I bought this on the strength of a five-star review in The Guardian, and found that that rating is fully justified.

 

 

 

11. Bon Iver by Bon Iver (2011). Not quite as good as the first Bon Iver album, which featured on my list of best albums of the noughties, but much better than his subsequent albums, which go too far into electronics for my taste.

 

 

 

12. Tooth and Nail by Billy Bragg (2013). I’ve loved a few Billy Bragg albums down the years (and that means down more than 40 years), but I think this might be his very best. I see it’s been described as Americana and Alt-Country, and those labels seem to fit.

 

 

 

13. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometime I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett (2015). I first saw Courtney Barnett when she was Billy Bragg’s support act at the Perth Concert Hall in 2014, and I loved what she was doing immediately. That was just a solo gig, but her first album has a full band. The album did not disappoint. It didn’t disappoint a whole lot of other people either, and Courtney rapidly became one of Australia’s most successfuly and best respected music exports. She was nominated for a Grammy Award for best new act. The second time I saw her in concert was when she was the guitar player in Jen Cloher’s band (they are a couple).

14. Schmilco by Wilco (2016). Wilco never disappoints. As well as their great albums, their live shows are fantastic. This gentle album was my favourite Wilco release of the decade.

 

 

 

15. … Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age (2013). This was not a gentle release. The usual high-quality heavy rock approach from QOTSA. Arguably their best collection of songs.

 

 

 

16. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes by Thom Yorke (2014). I generally don’t like electronica or dance music much, but there is something compelling about this album, in classic Thom Yorke off-kilter style.

 

 

 

17. Silver/Lead by Wire (2105). Another Wire album on the list. Another great collection of heavy but melodic music.

 

 

 

 

18. Fantastic Guitars by Reeves Gabrels and Bill Nelson (2014). Reeves used to play guitar for David Bowie. Bill played guitar and sang in Be Bop Deluxe. They combine beautifully on this collection of instrumental guitar music.

 

 

 

19. Night Music by Suede (2016). After their hugely successful early phase from 1993 to 2003, Suede broke up. After a long break they reformed and released excellent albums in 2013, 2016 and 2019. This is my favourite of the three. I also recommend the autobiography published by lead singer Brett Anderson in 2018, titled “Coal Black Mornings”. There is now a second volume of the autobiography, but I haven’t read that yet.

 

20. New by Paul McCartney (2013). Paul’s best album since 1982. He used four fairly young producers to give the album a modern sound, and for me it really works. I love the sound of it, and the songs and arrangements are great. The cover is pretty neat too.