Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 10 Issue 3, 1996


A Report on the VIII Annual International CALECO Conference held at the Forte Posthouse Hotel Bristol, 4th-5th September 1996

Guy Judge
University of Portsmouth

The venue

Following last year's successful move from university to hotel accommodation, the CALECO conference organising committee had planned to return to the Hilton National Hotel Bristol for this year's conference. However just a few weeks before the conference it was discovered that the Hilton Hotel had been forced to undertake urgent structural building work and as a result the conference venue was switched at short notice to the Forte Posthouse Hotel. Fortunately this late change of venue caused no major difficulties. Indeed, although the location of the Forte Posthouse close to the intersections of the M4 and M32 motorways meant that some delegates complained that they were kept awake at night by road noise, the accommodation itself was of superior quality and the function rooms used for the conference sessions were excellent. Delegates also received a complimentary bottle of wine from the management of the Hilton Hotel by way of an apology for any inconvenience caused, leading to quips that this year's was the WINE-ECON conference.

The focus

This year's slogan or catch-phrase was "Supporting Innovative Teaching and Learning" and compared with last year, where with the launch of WinEcon most of the focus was on that piece of courseware, there was perhaps less excitement and more realism about the sessions. Recurring themes were the customisation of software for use in different teaching environments, the evaluation of courseware and its effectiveness in the context of actual teaching and learning programmes and the further exploitation of familiar tools such as spreadsheets and Internet resources.

As always there was a mix of review sessions and invited lectures, formal papers, and hands-on workshops sessions. The report below will focus mainly on the plenary sessions.

The Keynote Address

This year's Keynote Address, entitled "CAL Opportunities and Challenges: A View from the USA", was given by Professor Arnie Katz from the University of Pittsburgh who is currently on sabbatical in Bristol. He began with some complimentary remarks about the Centre and its work in coordinating computer based learning projects in the UK and in disseminating experience and good practice via CHEER and the Web pages, the CALECO conference, workshops and departmental visits. He said that this was looked on with some envy from the USA. There is a paradox in that in the US the special CAI sessions at the AEA convention and the various regional meetings are always well attended, and various individuals have developed excellent software or put in incredible effort to develop on-line services, but underneath what seems like a lot of effort there is precious little carry through to the classroom.

One area that Katz is aware of where the use of computers in teaching is being extended at the moment is experimental economics - he gave the example of double auctions - which can be used in the classroom to develop the students' understanding of economic concepts and institutions. Katz said he was initially rather skeptical of such approaches but has been pleasantly surprised by what can be done. He also mentioned the work of Robin Bartlett on collaborative learning at Denison University, but conceded that the bottom line is that the proportion of instructors in the US who use non-traditional methods of any kind is very small. In considering why this should be he began by noting that there was still very little evidence on the effectiveness of CAL in teaching and learning economics. Until there were more studies which assessed the cost and benefits of CAI in different circumstances it was perhaps not too surprising that the take up of new methods was quite slow. Recent reductions in state subsidies have meant that there has been a build up of pressures for studies of the effectiveness of all forms of instruction and this may overcome the reluctance of instructors to undertake careful evaluation of what they do in the classroom.

Katz wondered if, in any case, the rate at which hardware and software are developing is the optimal rate. We seem to be in a situation of "winner takes all" in these markets where there are very large prizes. This often leads to overinvestment in product development as players seek to establish a monopoly position in their markets. We get a "superoptimal" rate of technological progress. The result is that the product life cycle becomes incredibly short - perhaps only two to three years - and it is hard for instructors to keep up in customising and implementing CAI material for their courses.

Katz suggested three things which could be done to ameliorate the situation. Firstly we should try to ensure a strong user input in faculty and university budgetary decisions to prevent serious errors and to act as a counterfoil to market forces. Secondly we should share as much information as possible with each other. Lastly we should go back to basics and look at what we are trying to achieve, subjecting all initiatives to properly designed evaluation projects.

In answering questions it was clear that Katz is somewhat skeptical about the benefits of the World-Wide Web for computer- based learning in economics, at least in the short term. Whilst recognising the phenomonal growth both in the number of Web sites and the number of users he argued that there would be a need for further investment in Internet links and Web servers to ensure reliability and acceptable response times before one can trust the Internet as a teaching medium.

CAL in 1996 - Review Sessions

Providing a view from the Further Education sector, Steve Lepper, who is with Norfolk Inspection Advisory and Training Services, said that everything had to be seen in the context of the enormous changes which have been brought to bear on FE with the incorporation of colleges and the introduction of the FE funding councils.

As well as the new learning and support needs resulting from initiatives such as the GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) the new managerial and administrative structures had placed enormous informational requirements on institutions. The climate was one with continuous change where the system was asked to deliver more for less.

The picture was one of pockets of excellence but also huge areas of neglect. Many institutions had created new Resource Centres but there were also large areas which remained unaffected by technology. Resources were usually heavily used but inadequately supported. A survey carried out by NCET (National Council for Educational Technology) had shown heavy use of word processors but comparatively little use of genuine CAL material. One of the problems was a shortage of good quality courseware for this level, with much of what was available being biased towards the US market. The survey had also revealed large variations in the level of IT provision in FE institutions. Internet access showed only about 28% of institutions were connected in 1995, but this is changing quite rapidly. Overall the evidence indicates that in FE colleges the main use of IT is for word processing, where there is good quality provision it is often concentrated in one or two main areas, there are typically resource constraints which prevent the effective use of flexible learning facilities (for example opening hours are restricted), and one often encounters staff reluctance to become involved with new IT initiatives. This may be because of the climate of incorporation and the suspicions of colleagues who are unwilling to be associated with programmes which at the same time involve cut backs in the lecturing staff.

Looking on the more positive side a number of institutions had taken advantage of EU funding or tie ups with cable TV companies to improve their IT provision. Lepper cited the Northern Colleges Network as an example of what could be achieved by a consortium of colleges working together. Several regional centres have been established as recommended in the Higginson Report (for information on this and other IT matters for the post-16 age group see the NCET web pages. [NCET has since undergone a change of name and remit to become Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency). Post 16 resources and lifelong learning resources are on separate areas of the site. - Web Editor]

Turning to the HE sector Phil Hobbs, who emphasiszed that he was just giving his personal view, said that it was difficult to disengage economics from some of the general trends in the HE sector. A number of hares had been set running in the last few years, some of which had produced worthwhile outcomes while some hadn't. In trying to identify key issues looked for push and pull factors.

A key push development was the delivery of a number of encyclopaedic packages such as WinEcon, Quest and Virual Economics. These may be monolithic constructions but they did at least try to provide a complete solution.

Another key development has been the establishment of key one- stop World-Wide Web sites such as SOSIG, Biz/ed and WopEc. With so much material out there on the Web it was important to have reliable quality filters such as these.

There have also been a number of cases of software developers linking their programs to the Web and its browsers. Hobbs gave the example reported in the last issue of CHEER by Barry Murphy of Adept Scientific whose web sites hold collections of Mathcad worksheets which can be opened, viewed, edited and saved on-line.

On the pull side of things Hobbs mentioned both the RAE (Research Asessment Exercise) and the TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment). The former might possibly be seen as exerting a negative influence on innovation in teaching as lecturers place greater emphasis on their research, while the latter might provide only a short term focus on teaching quality if institutions failed to give a long term commitment to teaching excellence.

Hobbs raised an important issue concerning investment in IT. In his experience depreciation was rarely factored in (unlike allowances made on some other major capital projects such as the replacement of heating boilers). This was particularly important in the light of the rapid pace of innovation, as Katz had identified in his talk. As he put it "what Intel gives, MicroSoft takes away".

Hobbs also referred to the Dearing Review (The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education). One of the Working Groups is focusing on Teaching, Quality and Standards while another is looking at the whole area of Information Technology. Efficiency gains were back on the agenda and IT would have an important part to play in delivering such gains. However it could also play a positive role in opening up access, increasing interactivity and generally improving the student learning experience.

During questions Colin Lewis of Aston University said that this was all very well, but asked why economics should continue to be given less than half the funding which is provided to students on engineering courses. The days when the subject was delivered by chalk and talk were long over and the funding authorities should recognise this.

Day 2 plenary sessions

The second day of the conference began with two further plenary sessions, the first of which was by Richard Young, the Biz/ed Project Director, on Business Education on the Internet (see also his paper elsewhere in this issue of CHEER).

Young began by explaining what biz/ed is and why it had been felt helpful to create it. Biz/ed is an information gateway for economics and business educators. The target audience is UK teachers and lecturers. With over 2 billion words and 19 million pages on the Internet (doubling every month) there was a huge amount on the Web but it could be difficult to track down what you needed. Essentially you could rely on "luck surfing", you could try keyword searching or you could use information gateways. The latter could provide an efficient means of locating key resources and would operate a quality filter. But biz/ed not only provides links to other sites, it has also added new resources in the form of a glossary, a collection of on-line assignments and data. Young illustrated two sets of data available via biz/ed: the Penn World data and economics data from the Office of National Statistics. Biz/ed has tried to provide very flexible methods of data extraction - for example it is the only site which lets you extract your data as a comma separated file. You select the data style you want via an on-line form. In showing the ONS data available Young said that biz/ed was not trying to compete with MIDAS, which would remain the source for data needed for serious research. However biz/ed did offer an easy to use service with a good range of data for students.

Young then moved on to illustrate some of biz/ed's links to what he called "Exemplar Education Resources" covering the mailbase lists, Be Your Own Chancellor and the Times Interactive Archives.

Young talked about some other extensions which are planned for biz/ed. It was hoped to have some material from Reuters and FT Extel accessible from the biz/ed site in the near future. He was also keen to have exemplar assignment material available on-line.

In drawing to a conclusion Young emphasized that the Internet was just another resource, and that we should operate on a "hourses for courses" basis. However there were some areas where the Internet had a clear edge on other sources of information such as books, journals, and CD-ROMs. It could provide up to date immediate information; it could provide minority information for use by small but dedicated groups; and it could provide links and interactivity not possible in other media. However if the Internet was to have real value you had to be able to be assured of the quality of the information and this was where gateways like biz/ed come in.

The second part of the plenary session on day two was devoted to a presentation on WinEcon, given by Simon Price and Li Lin Cheah. Price provided an update on the latest developments, concentrating on the customisable features of the product and its management information features. He explained the difference between two new versions of the product; version 4.0a which is version 4.0 corrected for a few bugs, and version 4.1 which was a major revision incorporating changes from the evaluation exercises and general feedback received. Some international versions of the product are also expected in the near future.

We were shown how to work through the Lecturer's Interface to customise the product for example by restricting it to certain selected topics or extending it by adding extra questions into the database.

Li Lin then took over to give us a sneak preview of WinEcon version 4.1 and some of its new features such as the Data Tool and the Spreadsheet. The latter was not meant to be a substitute for Excel, but to provide a convenient tool to use with data available within WinEcon. We saw that macroeconomics data for a number of key series and a wide selection of countries was available from OECD and World Bank sources. Using Canadian consumption and income data to illustrate the approach, she showed how data could be plotted or transformed (by taking logarithms), and how simple least squares regression lines could be added to scatter diagrams.

Li Lin talked about how data based assignments could be set using WinEcon, either by selecting one of the prepackaged problems or by constructing new problems making use of WinEcon data.

WinEcon Users are reminded that the WinEcon Web site provides up to date on the product and a mechanism for informing the developers of probllems encountered, suggestions for new features, ideas for using WinEcon in teaching, etc..

End key note:

As is now customary at CALECO conferences the closing session included the presentation of a number of awards to speakers and and other conference delegates. This year saw Jasper Thredgold receive a special award of a large key. This was in recognition of the fact that on the evening before the conference, after helping load up the hired van with computers from the university labs to be taken to the hotel for the conference sessions, he then went off home with the van key in his pocket!
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