Online Class Results

in Agriculture, Economics, Projects

In-Person Versus Online Commodity Price Analysis Class


This semester in my Commodity Price Analysis class, I conducted an experiment. I delivered the class in person as I have done in the past, but I also provided all the content online through a web-based textbook, and YouTube videos. The first day of class I invited students who preferred online classes to treat this class as an online class and to give me feedback about how the content compared to good and bad classes they have taken before. Students who like face-to-face classes could attend class as usual.


At the end of class I surveyed students about their experiences and I am reporting the results here.

Online Delivery Background

See Background for more context about the class itself.

After teaching Price Analysis for a couple of years I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a section of the class online in the fall and/or in the summer in addition to the face-to-face section I have been teaching.

I wanted the online content to give the students the ‘feeling’ of attending class, with the dynamic of class discussion preserved. My idea was for my TA (this year my TA was first-year Master student Felipe Avileis) to use my cell phone to record what I write on the board and show on the computer screen. My thought process was that cell phone video quality is pretty good these days, so we could just capture what is going on in class and that would be a good way to capture and digitize the content without a lot of extra time spent on my part. By recording the lectures the students would kind of get to know me, and they would have the feel of actually being there.

This failed spectacularly and immediately. The first day Felipe recorded the lecture; you couldn’t hear the audio and you couldn’t see what I wrote on the board or showed on the screen. I realized you would need at least two high quality video cameras and mics to accomplish this format (one recording me, and one recording class questions and discussion), then someone to edit it all together. This would far exceed my budget of $0. Since I had already promised students they could take the course online if they would like, I had to come up with a backup way to deliver the content online.

I ended up using Screencast-o-matic to record voice-overs of lectures and exercises. This took a lot more time than I originally planned for, but in the end I think I have a pretty decent set of digital content I can use to offer the course online if I need to.

Here is an example of a video for the lab exercise on soybean crushing margins:

The rest of the videos are here.

Class Logistics for Online and In-Person Versions of the Class

In-Person Online
Students come to traditional in-class lecture based on the text Students watch a video with me discussing the text
In-Person Online
Students bring their laptops to class and we do a lab exercise with some kind of commodity markets data in Excel Students follow along as they watch a video of me walking through the same lab exercise with commodity markets data in Excel. They complete the assignment on their own time on their own computer

Students did not have to commit to one format or the other, they could come to the in-person class when they felt like it, or just do the requirements online when they felt like it. Everyone took the same in-person, paper-and-pencil exam, however.

Survey Details

I gave this survey to my class for my own benefit, to get a feel for how the online content worked out. Some things you should know:

  • Not Anonymous. I took the easy route and administered the survey via Compass (our ‘learning management system’), which means the students were logged in when they completed the survey. I gave ‘opt out’ as an option to every survey question, and I tried to assure them that their responses would not affect their grades. However, at the end of the day, I can’t rule out that some students’ rosey responses were influenced by the fact that I could figure out who they are. I probably could have gotten this on the official anonymous course evaluations for this class, but that would have required forethought – not my strong suit.
  • Selection. I did not randomly assign students into the online and in-person groups, so I will refrain from any kind of prognostication about the use of educational technology on learning outcomes.
  • Response Rate. There were 93 students enrolled at the end of the class. The survey had a response rate of 85%. This was influenced by the fact that I gave extra credit for completing the survey worth the equivalent of one half of one lab exercise.

What I Learned from Offering Price Analysis In-person and Online Simultaneously

Takeaways Online Students

  • I regret the content layout design I chose in Compass. This came up several times with the online students in question 12. Since this is the primary way they interacted with the course, I am not surprised.
  • It seemed more difficult for these students to anticipate what would be on the exam. They were more likely to ask for study guide, or example questions for the test.
    • When I asked the students what they liked in an online course at the beginning of the year they said predictability is big. Since they are sitting alone with the course material, they appreciate clear expectations and anything that verifies to them they are on the right track. Looks like I could do a better job at this.

Takeaways In-Person Students

  • I was surprised how many in-person students said they really liked having the content online in addition to attending in person. Many said they really liked the videos for review.
    • It would be too costly to develop online content for a class that is only offered in-person, but if the class is offered online as well, there seems to be a lot of value to giving students access to the online content as well.

Takeaways for Both

  • We had an issue in that I developed the lab exercises on a Windows machine and many of the students had Apple labtops. The menus in Excel and just different enough on the two operating systems to cause problems. I haven’t used an Apple since 1999, so I had no clue how to translate for them. A couple students mention this in their response to question 12.
    + I’m not sure what to do about this. I guess over time I will learn the Apple Excel menus or learn resources to send them to.

    • One partial solution would be to cap the in-person section at a level where we could get into a computer lab (around 60 here at Illinois).

Survey Results

Question 1: Did you primarily treat ACE 427 as an in person class or as an online class?

The split of students who chose in-person versus online was roughly 50%-50%

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Question 2:What letter grade do you expect to get in ACE 427 (I will use +/- grading but you can answer with A, B, C, D, F)?

The students who chose to attend the class in-person were more likely to earn an A and students who chose to attend online were more likely to earn a B.

**Note: Either some students were thinking optimistically or the students who did poorest were the ones who did not complete the survey. I could be accused of being too softhearted to undergraduates, but not quite as much as these responses suggest!

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Question 3: On average, how many hours per week did you spend on this class?

Not sure what to make of this.

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Question 4:On average, how much time did you spend reading the textbook?

Seems like attending the class in-person is a natural substitution for having to read the book.

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Question 5: On average, how much time did you spend watching lecture videos?

Based on YouTube views, these have to be over-reported. Lab videos got way more views than the lecture videos.

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Question 6: On average, how much time did you spend per week watching lab videos?

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Question 7: The content covered in the textbook helped me understand how agricultural commodity markets work, and how prices are formed.

I am pleased to see the results of this question.

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Question 8: The content covered in the labs helped me understand how agricultural commodity markets work and how prices are formed.

And pleased with the answers to this question.

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Question 9: If you primarily took the class online, what was your main reason for doing so?

Almost everyone who choose to take the class online said the just like the flexibility.

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Question 10: If you primariliy took this class in-person, what was your primary reason?

For those who took the class in-person it was split between liking the more structured environment of having to show up versus wanting the face-to-face interaction with the professor.

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Question 11: The quality of the online content was very good.

I was worried the videos would be perceived as cheap or poor quality. It doesn’t seem to be the case.

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Question 12: Please feel free to tell me here any additional problems with the class, or things that you really liked about the class.

I’ve included all the responses, positive and negative, here. To me, it is the most informative part.

Online In-Person
I really thought the on line alternative of the course was helpful. You went out of your way to create multiple detailed videos for us which helped tremendously. My only issue was the content that I was learning seemed almost foreign to me because I am not from a farm nor do I know anyone from a farm background. For me I was just having trouble grasping the most basic of concepts which was reflected in my first midterm score. After I was able to grasp the concepts I felt that I was able to understand the concepts more. The only thing I would say is that maybe add a video about things we should know before the class starts almost as like a prerequisite. Other than this, which may have been only an issue that I encountered, I feel this class was extremely well put together. The class really helped me understand what influences prices among agriculture products and why the influence them in such ways. One thing I feel like I could’ve gotten more out of was the labs. I felt like the labs were more of a lesson with excel rather than deeply trying to understand what the material was meaning. This is partially my own and the other students fault for not being as up to date with excel as we probably should be, however, I feel like it would’ve helped if the nitty gritty excel details had already been done for us and then the main portion of understanding how to predict futures prices was left up to us in the lab. I did like that we had to learn how and where to obtain the information we were using though. Overall, I really like this course and the quality of it. I know other students complained after tests, feeling like they were unfair in the knowledge they tested. I personally thought the exams were great, covering all the main topics we had hit in class. Very happy I took the course.
I really enjoyed the lecture videos and the lab videos. I was able to pause, stop, and start the videos whenever I wanted to – which was super helpful to me and my learning pace. It was very convenient when I would study every night because I would take notes while listening and watching your videos. Sometimes, even after reading the book and watching the videos, I would not feel prepared for the exams as there was a lot of information being thrown at us at one time. I think a study guide (or similiar to your review video you posted for the first midterm) was very helpful. I personally enjoy online classes because I can work at my own pace so I enjoyed taking the course as an online one. The course contents are fair, and interesting even from the perspective of an industrial engineering major. I like the way that this course is taught and particularly that Professor Mallory was willing to cooperate with students to better the course experience. One thing I think was a little unfair was that on the first exam, an unexpectedly large portion of the contents was about the USDA reports, which I did not think we were going to be tested heavily on before. Admittedly, the USDA reports are important in the commodity market world, but things like reports we can easily get our hands on, the only thing we need to do is to comprehend them, rather than memorizing too much about the release dates and so on. Thats just my opinion though, I did not study the contents thoroughly enough, I deserved it. Overall, the course was a success to me, I have had a great time learning the commodity market, and I think what I learned in this course will definitely help me somehow in the future. Thank you!
I think that I was better able to allocate my time to study the concepts better by myself than in the class. Oftentimes in the beginning of the semester when I did attend lecture, I could not keep up with the excel functions. Sometimes the functions would not be able to be done on my Macbook so I had to go to the library and do the labs anyways.</p> <p>Something that I really liked about the class is that I learned a lot about excel. I think that what I Iearned on excel is difficult to transfer to an exam questions so the grades sometimes did not truly reflect how much I did learn in the class. This class was fantastic, and I have learned a lot about commodity markets. However, one thing I have realized is that there is a lot more that could have been covered. The whole &quot;do the homework in class&quot; thing is a massive waste of time, where you are basically performing the job that a TA could do. There are so many more things that you could have covered in the time lost on Thursdays.</p> <p>Every minute of lecture is a minute that you have a room of students’ undivided attention. This precious time should be used to show them any and everything there is to see in the world of commodity markets. Literally half the semester was wasted on doing the labs on Thursdays.</p> <p>If you want you can still put the lab videos up, but doing them in class is not a good idea. The opportunity cost is just too high.</p> <br> <p>Also, the book has a lot of typos. You should get an editor (or just a TA) to double check everything before posting.
I enjoyed this class as an online class because it allowed me to finish the work on my own terms. The one difficult part was the lab videos and the due dates were posted with not a lot of time to complete. I also think you should utilize the announcements more because I missed one of the days you were going over the midterm, and that would’ve been helpful to know when that was happening so I could plan to come to class that day. Overall, the course was structured in a great way for an online course! I really liked coming to class and usually being able to finish the labs during class time.  If I was unable to finish for some reason it was really easy for me to go onto compass and watch the lab videos to complete the assignment.  Also if I ever missed a class I could easily watch a lecture video to recap on anything I may have missed.  The videos were extremely helpful for the exams. Even if I did prefer the in-person class style I think that the videos that you posted, between the lectures and labs, were valuable supplemental information.  I think the videos are a key component to why I am doing well thus far. </p> <br> <p>I think the only thing that I would suggest is possibly trying to make a review sheet for the exams, or practices quizzes, or a review in person session that maybe you or the TA would lead.
At first I attended the class every week, but I found the labs to be hard to follow along with because I had a mac computer, so eventually I stoped going all toghether.  I liked the fact that the labs were online so I could use a school computer that was the same version as excel that was used in the viedos. I could then pause the videos if I needed to. I thought that the tests were a little challenging, because I am not good at math, and did not know what to expect on the first exam. I thought this style of class was very beneficial for me. As a senior, I had several group projects and job recruiting going on this semester and it was nice to be able to treat this class like an online one. Although i took this class primarily in class, the ability to miss a few classes and not feel like im missing much was very beneficial. I do feel like I learned a lot about the commodity markets and how prices are formed. The recommendation i would make would be in regards to the final group project. Personally it was not difficult to meet with my group because i knew the majority of them previously, but for people that don’t know anyone could have some difficulty with this. Other than that i thought the class was well organized and very informative.
Overall I really enjoyed the option to attend class or work on the course online. I personally like taking courses in person, but with this class the option to work online was helpful when I could not make it due to conflicts. I appreciated the flexibility of the course to work around my schedule, and were I normally feel like I was missing something not going to class, the quality of the videos and online material was very good and I never felt that way in this class. I really liked how the class was structured. I felt like I could actually learn about the material instead of learning for an exam, and I feel like I actually have a better sense of the material as a result. The textbook was also very clear and helpful. Because I am an Industrial Engineering student, this isn’t the type of class that I would normally take, and I’m happy that I took it. Only thing that was tough was some of the issues with Mac/windows compatibility with the labs. I had to download extra software for the regression analysis because of my version of excel. Other than that, this was a great class!
Grading seemed too reliant on specific tidbits of information. The problem was that these tidbits that needed to be presented to earn credit, where not guided in the exam. Obviously, written responses have to be open-ended, but I don’t think &quot;Tell me everything about S.American production&quot; is a fair question. Basically I just feel like the questions should have been more guiding to what the expected answers should be. I think that this course can be improved when it comes to expectations for the class exams. I think that during the week before all tests, Professor Mallory should post a video on Compass, stating what she thinks will be emphasized on the exams and which material she suggests students should study, so that they are better prepared and are less surprised about the questions that will be asked. If we had a better understanding of what subjects would be emphasized on the exams, I think that overall class scores would improve.
I think that the course website on compass could be organized a little better by putting each week into a folder instead of having all the weeks on one page. I really liked the videos of the labs because they did a great job explaining what to do and the importance of them. The only thing I would change is give directions for mac users as well because the mac is set up differently than other computers for excel. I enjoy having both formats. Especially while interview season was happening, I really liked having the videos to fall back on while I was out and still be on top of my work. They were also excellent for study material. I was able to take better notes when I could stop and restart a video as needed (I’m a slow note taker) but going to class meant I could hear the content more than once and have a better grasp of the concepts. Thank you for all the effort you put into this class! I had a great time learning from you!
Overall, I think valuable resources were made available when taking the course in an online setting. The textbook is thorough in its explanations of commodity markets and is useful as a studying tool for labs and exams. The lab videos are especially helpful as they address any possible questions and/or confusions that I may have had for various weeks. Professor,</p> <p>I was primarily an in-class student, but I really valued the content you posted online. Whether I did not understand something in class, wanted to review material for the exams, or could not make it to a specific lab or lecture, the material was always there. It was both thorough and useful, so having it always there was a great resource for this class. Overall, I got a lot out of this class from both the text itself and the teaching style.
Really liked the flexibility offered for this class. With that, I am able to learn more at my own personal pace if in-class time wasnt ideal. I enjoyed the lectures in person and the Thursday labs using the online videos for the sake of going at my own pace in the excel files. I think this course was set up really well with students in mind. Sometimes the labs where so complex and you did all the work for us.  That was good because there was no way I could have done anything we learned in lab by myself.  I think by you doing that it made it difficult to comprehend what was going on in the lab.  Essentially, I only knew what to expect because you did all the work for us and you answered the questions for us.  The labs helped but I also don’t feel like I learned a great deal from them.
Each module/chapter every week, if continued as an online/in-person course, would be better suited to categorize it further than just on the welcome page, and instead be broken down into weeks or lessons. The videos on the welcome page were not very easy to see, and I ended up going to youtube most of the time in order to view lab videos. I enjoyed having the textbook available online and I enjoyed reading it.  It was very helpful and beneficial to be able to listen to Dr. Mallory talk about the chapters in the book and follow along on my own.  In class, the labs were easy to follow and having the videos available to look over before tests was good.  In the future, I would go back to having labs in the ACES lab so that students with Macs can complete the lab during class.
The only suggestion I would have is to have maybe more clear examples of problems we will have on the test.  It is hard to practice problems on excel that may be on the midterms because there is so much data.  I really enjoyed the flexibility of the course where we could come if we wanted to and look at lectures on our time. One thing which I thought the course could improve in was exam study materials. Perhaps a study guide with possible topics that will be tested on, or a printed out copy of a practice problem such as the flour mill/ soybean crush examples. Just a little bit of structure to guide students studying could be helpful. Especially before the first exam when students don’t have a prior assessment to refer to difficulty/ layout of exam.
I do not believe the labs were beneficial in helping me understand the topics covered. I spent the whole time trying to quickly follow along with the excel files rather than paying attention to what was actually happening. I would have rather done it all by hand, that way I would have been better prepared for the exams. I attend classes regularly because I prefer in class lecture over online classes. However, when I am preparing for the exams, the videos online really help me with my notes and are a good review material. I like how the class is structure this way so I can learn the concepts I need to improve on more multiple times after I go home from class.
I thought that the layout of the compass website sometimes made it hard to find certain assignments or when things were due but other than that I loved the fact that everything was available online because I prefer having the flexibility to learn the content when it is most convenient for me. The only problem I find is that the first midterm is really hard but it gets much better the second exam. I really like the content of the class and the fact that we can choose freely between going to a class or study online by ourselves. Thank you, Professor.
Liked the practice midterm and was disappointed it wasn’t for the second test. Make going to class seem more benifital if you want people to show up in person I would usually watch the lecture videos before exams but I always used the lab videos because they were almost perfect. It was a very effectively taught class, but I think that there needs to be a decision on whether it’s an online or in-person class. Maybe students could just sign up for different sections, and then they could be treated differently more easily
I enjoyed the flexibility of the course. Professor Mallory made all materials accessible on Compass so students who miss the regular class can still learn through the videos. Thank you Professor for the great course experience!  <div class=“grammarly-disable-indicator”></div> I think having the option of the video lectures was nice in case I sometimes needed to miss class or wanted to go over notes in more detail. I think it would be useful for some of the labs to have instructions for Mac users as well.
I felt that it was hard to take the material we learned in class and in labs and convert it into success on the exams since all work for the class was done on excel but then the exams were pencil and paper. I really enjoyed having the option to take the class online though. Sometimes the youtube videos were hard to see, because the data was so small. I think the class is helpful helping students understand the basics of price analysis and hope to continue trying to understand it in the future.
I really liked the format of the labs. Not only did they teach class content, they also developed basic Excel skills that I know will be useful in post-grad life. I appreciate the opportunity to hone these skills in this class. The biggest issue I had was not knowing what the first midterm would be like. I performed rather poorly, and I feel I would have done better if I had more of a hint on the structure and style of the exam.
I really liked that we had the option to do it either online or in class. The one thing that I felt really hurt my grade was that I did not adequately prepare for the first exam. I was not expecting the short answer format. I feel like more time could be spent on different pricing models for the different markets. I don’t feel 100% confident in my ability/intuition to make reasonable pricing models alone.
I liked the online aspect about this class but I wish there were more explanations about certain lectures. Also, a practice test for each test would be very helpful just to see the format and what you have asked before. Reading the textbook i found many little errors in spelling and sentence wording.  Would have been nice to know more of what to study for exams rather than just the big problems.
I think the online textbook could use some improvement in terms of editing and content. Overall, fully enjoyed and benefited from this class though! Professor Mallory is always very enthusiastic and makes the class more fun. She’s also very lenient. I’d definitely recommend her and this class to my friends.
I wish we had an actual lab section where we can do some practice problems, and thoroughly understand the concepts that we cover in the class The over all class I thought was good. The only thing I believe that could be worked on is the labs. At times it became difficult especially for Mac users.
I really liked the lab videos because it helped me have a better context which really helped when studying for exams. The videos with you showing exactly on your computer were extremely helpful – it was how I learned basically everything by seeing you doing it. Thank you!
The tests checked for memorization instead of understanding. Labs were a great way to teach concepts. I liked how we had the online class option because I could refer back to videos if I had any questions.
i feel like the online videos are really helpful, it helps me review the materials for the midterms. I really enjoy the class, I feel like it covered many commodities and it exceeded my expectations.
I don’t really have much else to say, I really enjoyed the entire structure of this class! You did a great job at teaching and making sure we understood what we had to understand.
The textbook could have provided more information that was useful on the midterms. I enjoyed the class and was able to learn a lot, thanks for the semester!
Very much enjoyed the online videos for studying and understanding the material. Well organized and the topics covered were ordered in a way that flowed.
Nothing else to note. A study guide before exams would be nice.
very good class It was a great class. Fair grading.
<Unanswered> Awesome class!
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Background {#background}

The class, “Commodity Price Analysis,” is a class that is taught in one form or another at most Ag Econ departments in the U.S. The class studies how agricultural commodity prices are formed. Scott Irwin has taught the class once per year at the University of Illinois for a long time, but demand for the class grew to the point where we needed to offer it once per semester, so I began teaching it each every fall starting in 2015.

Scott tells people that he structured the course to be an overview of how Darrel Good went about putting together weekly Outlook articles for FarmDoc Daily and other U of I extension publications and talks. Roughly speaking, this approach teaches how to understand, follow, and predict balance sheets like reported in the USDA’s WASDE report, and their impact on prices. I liked this approach, especially since it basically matches what I hear most every expert analyst (academic and industry alike) talking about with regards to grain markets. So, I decided to adopt this format too and Scott was kind enough to give me his PowerPoint lectures as an outline to get me started.

While I liked this approach, there is not really a textbook out there that I could follow. I figured that it would take about the same amount of time to write lecture slides and think about what to say in class as it would to just write it down in a ‘book’, so I started drafting, Price Analysis: A Fundamental Approach to the Study of Commodity Prices, writing a chapter just in time to teach it in class.

The second year I wrote exercises for each chapter that teaches students how to go and find relevant data from vendors and the USDA and how to do some kind of analysis with it. In tandem with this, we end up learning a fair bit of advanced Excel skills, which I feel is worthwhile to them no matter what they are destined for.


  • Tymur Shyshlov

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  1. This is cool stuff—thanks for sharing! One of my take always was that traditional students still liked the online material. A blended format makes a lot of sense for many of our classes. It would be good to have more resources available to do this.


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