Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 12, Issue 2, 1998

Report on the conference on 'Advancing the Integration of New Technologies into the Undergraduate Teaching of Economics'

Dave Fysh
University of Portsmouth

At the heart of the University of Pittsburgh lies a ‘Cathedral of Learning’. A great Gothic skyscraper, it once housed much of the University teaching accommodation, but now has other uses. However its towering assertion of the joys and importance of learning provided a fitting backdrop for the conference, sponsored by the University and the Journal of Economic Education (with the support of the US National Science Foundation and National Council on Economic Education and endorsed by the AEA Committee on Economic Education).

Becker (1997) and Becker and Watts (1996) had noted that economics lagged behind other disciplines in successfully incorporating the new technology into its teaching mehtods. With the aim to improve this the conference was suitably challenged by Bob Parks, in his keynote speech, to prove the benefits of computer based methods, the conference response was more classical than Gothic. We heard of Greek versus Babylonian methodology and of Socratic methods, as well as the better known issues of active learning, collaborative learning, problem based methods and distance learning. Issues of cost, particularly in terms of preparation time for much computer or multimedia-based material were aired and a number of papers reported ideas and experiences in this area. ‘Hands-on’ demonstrations and poster illustrations of current projects added to the impression of plenty of dedicated work going on.

John Chizmar and Mark Walbert’s ‘Web-based Learning Environments: Issues of Best Teaching Practice’ in the first session emphasised the need to use technology appropriate to the teaching and learning strategies of a course. They reported how their extensive use of the Web had been based on Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles of good undergraduate teaching (Chickering and Gamson (1987)). Contact between students and students and staff was seen as crucial, as were active learning methods. A host of valuable techniques from threaded forums to spreadsheet applications were demonstrated and discussed. The importance of human contact was illustrated by comparing student results between those taught on campus (with the all the technology) and others taught the same course with the similar technology but entirely on-line with no physical contact. The on-campus group did significantly better. The sheer extent of John and Mark’s experience using internet technology provided a rich source of ideas and techniques to start the conference.

Scott Simkins in ‘Promoting Active Student Learning Using the World Wide Web in Economics Courses: Theory and Practice, with Examples for Teaching and Learning’ also emphasised the importance of active learning and human interaction. Both were seen as necessary because the strong point of the internet is the provision of information, which is not in itself sufficient to provided what in Bloom’s taxonomy are the higher level thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, application, evaluation, principles and methods. Yet it is generally held that the development of these skills is the true purpose of higher education. He went on to describe how the internet can help in collaborative learning and developing these skills. Two examples from the many he presented are: using Web information to get students to simulate Federal Open Market Committee meetings (with Fed Reserve District information available from the Web) and make monetary policy recommendations; getting students to compute daily their own Dow Jones Industrial Average from Web based information.

Mark McBride in ‘Using Asynchronous and Synchronous Experiments via World Wide Web in Teaching Economics’ continued the theme of the importance of active learning, seeing higher education as essentially concerned with what Laurillard (1993) has called mediated or second order (beyond immediate experience) learning. To achieve this he advocated the use of experimental economics as a teaching and learning tool. He showed how the Web could increase the ease and decrease the cost of experiments. The Web meant that students participating in synchronous (ie real-time) experiments were space independent. Room availability and capacity did not limit class size and numbers taking part in the experiment. Asynchronous (all inputs being stored over a period of time by the server then processed reported and a responding set of inputs invited) experiments were not only space but time independent. As long as the student could reach a node at some point each period, whether over lunch or at 2am, they could participate. He reported that his experiments (with a call market (asynchronous) a double auction market (synchronous and undertaken in a single class period) and a bargaining experiment) did in fact increase the number of participants and so reduce the per-student cost. Clearly the experimental environment could easily be enriched using standard multimedia programs, electronic discussion forums etc.

Roger McCain’s paper ‘Socratic Teaching of Principles of Economics on the World Wide Web with Javascript, HyperTextMarkupLanguage, and Filemaker’ also dealt with the question of cost. Presenting his ‘Principles of Economics’ course via HTML and Javascript he used a Socratic teaching and learning strategy in which students discover economic principles through questions and answers and debate. More specifically, based on the Karplus Learning Cycle, each chapter of his ‘electronic book’ of the course proceeds from a concrete example via a ‘reasonable dialogue’ or debate to a generalised principle. Javascripted forms provide students with questions and the means to communicate answers and engage in the ‘reasonable dialogue’ across the system. The production of HTML (ie ‘content’) pages was automated using ‘Filemaker’, a method which frees authors from most of the bother of inserting mark-ups, header commands etc. into their text. The Javascript files were placed on a parent page, making them generic and usable with any ‘content’ HTML page. Thus the cost and time taken to produce courseware can be minimised.

Leonie Stone’s paper, ‘A Methodology for Multimedia Instruction’ described how she used Toolbook - familiar to CHEER subscribers as the authoring package for WinEcon – to produce some excellent multimedia lectures and classes. Using properly programmed effects allowed presentations to escape not only the traditional chalk and talk method, but also the linearity of PowerPoint. Most importantly however a mass of material otherwise only accessible in very clumsy ways could be easily incorporated. So a video clip of a President talking about his views on economic doctrines could be neatly inserted into a macro economics lecture or pictures of locations and physical resources inserted into environmental economics classes, all mixed with the first rate diagrams Toolbook can present. Tutorial material such as quizzes, assignments, administrative details etc. were added on the course web pages and experiments to encourage active and collaborative learning could easily be added. Student feedback was enormously positive. Giving an invaluable list of best practices distilled from her experience of producing and using multimedia to give lectures and classes, Leonie pointed out that Toolbook has a steep learning curve. However, investing in Toolbook expertise can produce excellent results and programs, once set-up, can be easily modified and extended.

Michael Murray’s ‘Teaching in a Multimedia Classroom’ pointed out that equipping and using multimedia classrooms was extremely expensive and needed to be well justified by improved learning. To obtain such improvement his approach to teaching econometrics has changed to meet the possibilities multimedia technology offers. Carefully thought out lectures enabled all students in a class to use their computers to help conduct Monte Carlo experiments to discover the properties of, and compare, various basic or plausible estimators. This approach contrasted vividly with more conventional ones which tended to assume a particular estimator then explore its properties analytically. Both approaches have the same aim – to establish basic econometric theory – but Michael’s approach allowed students to discover first principles. A Babylonian means to Greek ends! He was also able to list best practices in multimedia teaching and inspire us all with his enthusiasm.

In contrast to intensive classroom activity, Michelle Vachris in her paper ‘Teaching Principles of Economics without “Chalk and Talk”: The Experience of CNU Online’ discussed her computer based distance learning course. Her institution, Christopher Newport University offers a number of courses ‘Online’, amongst which is her ‘Principles of Economics’ course. Students need no physical presence on campus, everything is disseminated electronically. Using a mixture of proprietary software and WWW, her course was designed to reach students who, for a variety of reasons from location to disability, could not easily get to the campus. In fact most of the students came from within the normal campus ‘service area’ and did not report themselves as disabled. However, there was no discernible reduction in demand for the conventional campus based course. For on-line students, efforts were made to encourage collaborative learning through compulsory email messages from each student to the whole class, and through the use of electronic media for the production of group essays. The teaching and learning was discovery based, assignments leading the learning process, with lecture notes (electronically disseminated) and text books (with software) playing the role of information bases. Because the campus-based course was very similar to the online course, interesting comparisons could be made. Satisfaction with the course was as good for on-line students as on-campus students and little difference was found between the assessment performance of each group, though there were some interesting differences in very specific matters both with respect to satisfaction and performance. A number of crucial issues concerning ‘virtual universities’ were raised, not least of which were how could they be funded, how could staff be properly rewarded for their work, how could academic work be properly apportioned between on-line courses and on-campus teaching, who holds the intellectual property rights for on-line work?

Closing the papers’ sessions, Joseph Daniel presented various ideas on some institutional and allocative issues. His paper, ‘Computer Aided Instruction on the World Wide Web: The Third Generation’ argued that the Web provided a better base for the development of educational materials than commercial presentation programs because of its simplicity, multimedia potential, cheapness and enormous range of potential users. But beyond these, he showed its potential for interactivity. The full programming language Java provided the basis for this, but had the disadvantage of involving complexities in which academics developing courses had no inherent interest and for which they had little time to gain expertise. The Web itself could help overcome these problems. Java utilities could be written by specialists and then made available elsewhere through a Web library, accessible anywhere in the World through a simple HTML tag. Developers in any one university department could concentrate on the content of their own Web-based course and simply call any applets they needed from the virtual library. Joe showed some examples of utilities from his oo_Micro (object oriented Micro) site (which, incidentally, all CHEER subscribers should visit if they haven’t already done so) at the University of Delaware. His graphic calculator, on which students can draw or manipulate graphs and let the program determine and present the equation they represent, is perhaps the most startling and enjoyable of his applets. But there are others, a spreadsheet and regression package, a programmable model builder in which students can change any one graph and see how it affects others in the model (perhaps for example seeing how changes in a particular function can affect its contours), all designed for interactive Web based presentations. He has generously offered to make his applets available for at least a year, on the basis of calling a utility from his site with an HTML tag, not downloading the object code. But clearly generosity is not sufficient to pay for the development of a utilities library, so he finished his paper with some ideas on proper pricing and institutional frameworks to fund developers.

Ending the conference was a discussion on finding ways to develop the production and dissemination of new technologies into economics teaching, including ways to acknowledge and warrant good sites and practices, the role of journals (perhaps including CHEER), the importance of universities recognising and rewarding work in this area. Arnie Katz (from the University of Pittsburgh) and Bill Becker (from the Journal of Economic Education) deserve congratulations on organising such an enthusiastic and useful conference (at which the technology was extraordinarily well behaved), as does Irene Petrovich for her efficient administration. The Journal of Economic Education is to publish a Conference issue in which full URL references will be given. Abstracts of the papers and some URLs are to be found on the JEE site at


Becker W. E. (1997) Teaching Economics to Undergraduates
35(3) September pp 1347-73

Becker W. E. and M. Watts (1996) Chalk and Talk: A National Survey on Teaching Undergraduate Economics. American Economic Review 86(2) May pp448-453

Chickering A.W. and Z Gamson. 1987. Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin 39 (7) pp3-7.

Laurillard, D. 1993. Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. New York: Routledge.

Top | CHEER Home

Copyright 1989-2007