Issue 3, 1996
The Economist's Desktop for Windows: A Review
- Barry P. Andrew
- University of Portsmouth
The Economist's Desktop for Windows forms part of the 16-19 Economics
project fostered by the Economics & Business Education Association. It is
clearly a WINECON (A TLTP initiative) derivative and it not only draws
upon the look and feel of that program but also upon its content. It will
be of no surprise to anyone, therefore, that the contact for ideas and how
desktop may be used in the classroom is given as the Centre for Computing
in Economics at Bristol (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The slim line pack which consists of a 32 page booklet and two 3.5" disks
and which carries a price tag of £99.95 belies the true value of this
learning resource. The booklet is effectively a set of teacher's notes and
student assignments from which sheets may be "freely photocopied for
school use in the purchasing institution". It is also refreshing in this
environment of restrictive software licensing to read the words "Purchase
of this pack includes a site licence to use the software in the purchasing
institution". This presents the Economics teacher with an effective
teaching resource at a realistic price.
When evaluating computer-based learning resources it is as well to be
aware of the authors' intentions. Desktop is presented as a learning by
doing package and "offers opportunities for an experimental, exploratory
approach". However it is clear that Desktop is designed to be a supportive
system to conventional learning (with references made to Core Economics)
rather than replacing it.
Its approach can be, broadly, separated into four sequential stages. The
first element is what the package decribes as explorations. This attempts
to clarify the students understanding of core economics and conforms to
the conventional understanding of that phrase in covering
inter-relationships, supply & demand, aggregate supply & demand,
production possibilities frontier and circular flow. The second introduces
the student to using evidence to identify relationships. For this it
provides a series of electronic "press clippings" and a database. The
third leads the student through the difficult aspects of model building.
Finally, in order that these can be expressed in terms of output, there is
a report writer section which has a button accessing to windows notepad.
Throughout there are buttons allowing access to windows cardfile,
calculator and notepad.
The conventional supply & demand, aggregate supply & demand, production
possibilities frontier and circular flow diagram are all excellent in
presentation and operation. A screen dump of the production possibilities
frontier provides the readers of this review with the necessary
information on the look and feel of this part of the program. I am less
sure about the "sliders" used to introduce students to the concept of
relationships. This is a difficult area of economics teaching so I am not
prepared to be too critical but would be a little happier if there was an
info button to explain that "supply" was in fact a function. An info
button is provided on the aggregate supply & demand element to explain
conditions pertaining to the results and could be extended to a more exact
explanation of "supply" especially as the glossary (obtained by the right
hand mouse button) does not include an explanation.
This section is the real hands on student investigation through which we
hope that the true understanding will result. The process of seeking an
understanding to relationships, searching for data and revealing the
relationship(s) in graph format are all there. The basis for the student
investigation is restricted to one of two issues - Housing or Growth. For
these issues "press" clippings and data are provided. The dichotomy in the
quality of the two sections of evidence is stark and doesn't do justice to
the rest of the programming. The "press" clippings appear made up and
false and probably will not convince any 16 year old. In this day of
newspapers in CD rom form couldn't real examples have been used? There was
something toy-towny about this part of the programme analagous to a six
year old playing with a toy post office with make believe stamps etc.. By
contrast in the data-handling section the evidence was excellent which
(presumably) uses real data. There is a satisfactory selection of
variables with an effective time series for each. This element closely
follows the reality of research in economics and is to be highly
The model building section slips back to the informative approach adopted
by explorations. There is, of course, opportunity for student involvement
but this is limited and the degree of "modelling" possible is confined to
determining the dependant and independant (up to 4) variables, indicating
the sign relevant to each of the independant variables and guessing at the
parameter values. This is a valuable part of the package and whilst the
limitations are annoying they are only to be expected given the target age
group. It teaches the students to present relationships formally and to
consider independant variables having positive or negative effects on the
dependant variable. This is good, thought provoking, material and again to
The package provides for systematic note taking by a button to windows
cardfile and should calculations be needed along the way to windows
calculator. The report writer is, in fact, a button to windows notepad.
These are all useful tools and sensibly arranged but for one essential
point, you cannot paste any graph generated by your investigation of data
into your report! My disbelief of the lack of this feature took me to the
manual whereupon page 22 can be seen to admit that "you cannot paste
your report". Obviously if a windows word-processor is available to the
students then you could via a screen dump to the clipboard paste the graph
into that report but you cannot paste into the connected report writer
used by this programme. I think this
is a severe limitation of this product but what is worse (for a "windows"
based product) is that you cannot cut the graph but have to use clipboard.
Making a more general point it is also interesting that I never managed to
get the screen window to size.
This may be a question of system set up but in view of the previous point
I have my doubts.
The Economist's desktop for windows is a good product. It has some
limitations most of which appear to be unneccessary but if I was a teacher
of Economics for 16-19 year olds I would certainly want it amongst my
teaching resources. Provided the schools have the computers to make the
programme viable the program cost should ensure that it is used. However
its use must be part of a structured approach to learning economics and
cannot replace them. I tried using it as a stand alone device (replacing
reading by clicking) and found that it soon got very boring indeed! So a
16 year old would give up in a few seconds on that basis. However that is
using the program in a way that it was not designed to be used so by all
means, if you are an Economics teacher, buy
it. It has some excellent features which causes the contrast with the
less effective elements of the program to be more stark than you would
expect. Buy it for those excellent features and realise what good value
you are getting in terms of economics education and try and ignore the
An 80486 or higher ( "will run on a 386 machine but users may find the system slow" ).
4 megabytes of Random Access Memory.
Monitor - SVGA or higher.
A mouse and printer supported by Windows.
Microsoft Windows 3.1 or higher
See the entry for this item in the software catalogue for further contact details and pointers to on-line information.