Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 12, Issue 2, 1998

CALECO 98: A diet of carrots and plenty of food for thought

A report on the 10th Annual International conference held in Bristol, September 1998

Guy Judge
CALECO Research Group

Chris Mitchell
ILRT

The CALECO 98 conference (Enhancing the Learning Technology - Experience in Economics and Business) was held earlier this month at the Redwood Lodge Hotel in Bristol. Jointly hosted by the CTI Centre for Economics and the CALECO Research Group, the conference served up an interesting mix of software and hardware demonstrations, commentaries on classroom experiences and speculations as to what the future might hold.

After a welcome to the delegates by Nicky Ferguson, the keynote address was given by Mary Spence of the Kings Hill Institute at the University of Greenwich. In it she conjectured on what the future might hold for the University in the light of current government thinking and developments in Communications and Information Technology. Referring to the Dearing report, the government paper “The Learning Age” and two other current government funded projects (The National Grid for Learning and the University for Industry) she considered how the structure of the university of the future would need to change in order to deliver the objectives set for it.

Perhaps we would have a “mega-university” of the type predicted by John Daniel, the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University? This model would have campus universities being replaced by a small number of very large institutions operating on a global scale to deliver courses to hundreds of thousands of students through open and distance learning - rather like an enhanced OU, in fact.

However Mary Spence suggested that there was something important missing from this model, namely the local dimension. Universities have important roles to play as regional focal points for learning, research and consultancy and this part of the agenda was missing from the mega-university model.

However there are other challenges to traditional campus universities (and especially to Business Schools). Developments in the private sector pose a threat because they offer a system where

Referring to a recent article by Stuart Crainer in Management Today, Mary Spence said that to rise to these challenges universities must restructure themselves with an organisational model based on

Having identified some of the critical success factors Mary Spence suggested that these “new” universities would be likely to have the following key features

The Kings Hill Institute at the University of Greenwich (which has only just been created this month) has been established to try out some of these assumptions. It will be interesting to see how the experiment goes.

The conference then split into three parallel sessions. There were a number of demonstrations of software and presentations about information services, beginning with James Denman from the Office for National Statistics who introduced STATBASE, a new information service which will shortly be available via the World-Wide Web. It is designed to increase public awareness of “official” statistics and will have two linked components. “StatSearch” will contain metadata about the statistics to facilitate the search process, while “StatStore” will hold the actual statistics. StatSearch will contain a comprehensive catalogue of all the censuses, surveys, sources, products and services covered by the Government Statistical Service. StatStore will be a linked Database covering a wide range of social and economic statistics. Users will be able to gain access to StatBase via the GSS website. Access to core data will be free but some of the more specialised data in StatStore will be chargeable. The GSS Website may be found at http://www.statistics.gov.uk and James may be contacted at james.denman@ons.gov.uk.

Graham Stark and Jocelyn Paine of the Institute for Fiscal Studies gave us a first look at “Virtual Economy”, the new teaching version of “Be Your Own Chancellor” (see elsewhere in this edition of CHEER for more details), and Jeff Evans from the University of Sunderland demonstrated Statwise, the multimedia introductory statistics package which has been developed at Napier University. Jeff liked the clear way the screens have been laid out with just the right amount of information and with good use of interaction (see http://www.stats.gla.ac.uk/cti/activities/reviews/97_08/statwise.html for further information).

Sailesh Tanna from Coventry University showed us OEDIPUS, an interrogation program for analysing cross country data. The software combines the use of the Access database for storing and retrieving the data, the Excel spreadsheet for displaying and analysing it and a front-end written in Visual Basic. It now covers 40 variables and 150 countries for the time period 1960-1992. Sailesh demonstrated the use of the program and talked about its use in research and teaching.

Simon Price told us about WinEcon II, the newly funded extension to the WinEcon project. Unlike Alien II, he said, the follow up would be even better than the original. Certainly it will be if the spanking new logo is anything to go by! For anyone who still doesn’t know about it, the original WinEcon is a highly integrated computer based learning package providing seventy-five hours of interactive learning material covering the whole of the introductory course in economics. WinEcon is marketed by Blackwell Publishers and there is a complementary workbook which can be used with it. It has now developed into a family of related products, including a fully customised network version, a more limited network version and a student CD ROM version (see http://www.ilrt.bris.ac.uk/winecon/welcome.htm and http://www.blackwellpublishers.co.uk/). There is also an American version of the product which will be available through McGraw-Hill.

The WinEcon II project has three work packages to enhance the program developed by the Economics Consortium. In Work Package 1 (The Dissemination and Evaluation Programme) the team will develop additional support materials and arrange workshops to disseminate good practice in the use of WinEcon. The focus will be on the integration of WinEcon into teaching programmes and the monitoring of its effectiveness and efficiency. Work Package II will involve the “webification” of WinEcon. Some elements of the program are being converted into Web form through the use of the Asymetrix Neuron plug-in. Other parts will have to be rewritten using HTML and Java applets. The aim is to produce a Web version of WinEcon which can be viewed through a browser such as Netscape so as to simplify integration of all or parts of the software into lecturers’ teaching. The final Workpackage involves the production of a Business versions of WinEcon (BusEcon). Some parts of the existing WinEcon will be converted to fit the new “Case Study” approach and there will also be some entirely new material developed to go with this. The Neuron conversions should be complete by July 1999 and alpha versions of the new Web version of WinEcon and BusEcon should be ready by the end of 1999 or early 2000. The workshop programme is planned to run from about October 1999 onwards. For more information, or to make any suggestions, contact Simon Price by e-mail at Simon.Price@bris.ac.uk.

Dave Fysh showed us the Web pages he has developed for use on his Economics of Personal Savings and Insurance module, and talked about the characteristics of the Web that now give it the potential to turn computer based learning from a minority sport into something that all lecturers use. HTML makes it possible for individual lecturers to produce good quality material cheaply and easily, and in one system to relate to different kinds of students, accommodating different learning styles. Dave’s web site attempts to be comprehensive with all the course administration handled through the Web as well as the active learning material. He talked candidly about his first experience of running the course in this way this year. His lecture ratings went down slightly (he admitted a different style of lectures is needed to work with the web site). On the other hand he got rave reviews from the students for the site itself. Student performance, as measured by the marks for the unit were not significantly different from those he got using traditional methods. Dave discussed copyright issues, the problems of putting mathematics into Web displays, the value of on-line simulations and video clips, and the use of the web for heterodox economics methodologies (he argued that the use of the web imparted no bias into courses whether they be straight down the line neoclassical in approach or taking any other viewpoint).

Jocelyn Paine’s presentation had the arresting title “Model Master: Making Spreadsheets Safe”. In it he first provided alarming evidence that “spreadsheets are dangerous”, citing studies by Professor Ray Panko of the University of Hawaii (on average 30% of spreadsheets contain errors, including wrong data and formulae), Coopers and Lybrand (in spreadsheets with over 150 rows over 90% contain at least one significant mistake in a formula) and the Customs and Excise Computer Audit Unit (only 11% of spreadsheets they examined contained errors, but those that did were out by amounts varying from £100s to £1Ms). Jocelyn’s solution has been to develop a front end (Model Master) which will generate spreadsheet code and allow you to produce spreadsheets which are easy to read, write and maintain and are free of positioning errors. Model Master is flexible and portable; the compiler can generate formulae for different makes of spreadsheet. It is object-oriented. Via inheritance, this makes code-reuse easy. A graphical user interface can be added on so that programs can be built visually. Jocelyn illustrated the approach with a small program to generate a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Further details can be found at http://users.ox.ac.uk/~popx/mm_presentation/title.html. See also New Scientist [''It all adds up'', 10th September 1998].

Robbie Mochrie from Heriot Watt University described his use of a series of Web based maths tests in his teaching of elementary mathematics to undergraduate economics students. He called his paper “A Diet of Carrots: Autonomy in Learning mathematics for Economics” and he explained how the tests (developed using the university’s WebTest engine) had helped students to build up their skills and their confidence in working with mathematics. Students were tested each week, with every student facing a slightly different version of each problem (based on randomised selection of the parameters). Students were allowed as many attempts as they needed in order to pass, but of course each time they took the test the problem would be based on different parameter values. Robbie said that he had become aware of students collecting sets of questions and answers to work on together in small groups until the weaker members were able to develop sufficient understanding to pass the test. This was not a matter of concern as he was happy for them to engage in group work provided that each individual eventually took the test on his own. Some problems had arisen due to difficulties of inputting answers in a form recognisable to the computer (for example 8/3 might be marked correct if 2.67 was entered but wrong if 2.7 was entered). This was an unanticipated feature of the underlying WebTest engine which has now been fixed. This year students will be able to make hypertext connections to module lecture notes as attempts are made to increase students’ learner autonomy still further.

There were two other plenary sessions at the conference, the first being a Social Science Internet Roadshow session featuring presentations on


SOSIG		(http://sosig.esrc.bris.ac.uk/), 

Biz/ed		(http://www.bized.ac.uk/) 

REGARD		(http://www.regard.ac.uk/ 
- see also the paper by Sue Timmis in the last issue of CHEER) and

Grapevine	(http://www.grapevine.bris.ac.uk). 

This last service offers you a chance to put your CV on-line, search for jobs in the Social Science area, or just to make contact with researchers with similar interests through the Likeminds scheme. Sadly Jules Cook’s live link up with Bill Goffe and Bob Parks in the US didn’t happen because of problems with the line. Even the link to the Slough where Jane Gorst of the PictureTel company was on hand to discuss the uses of Videoconferencing didn’t go without a hitch. Despite having worked successfully in tests the day before the system decided not to cooperate fully on the day, although well enough to provide a taster of what this kind of technology can offer.

Earlier on a number of interesting workshops included Martin Belcher and Jan Chipchase on Authoring on the Web, Peter Munday of the BBC Education Unit on Making Use of Video in the Learning Process and Richard Taylor on his Live Authoring method (see CHEER Volume 11 Issue 2). Throughout the conference Martin Poulter maintained a suite of PCs for hands-on trials of a number of software packages including one which helps us to return to our “food for thought” theme - Pork Meat Pathfinders - an offering from the British Meat Education Service to illustrate the importance of data to marketing.

Other sessions included the paper by Judge, Jaffry and Fysh on identifying and assessing key computing skills for economics students (available elsewhere in this issue of CHEER), one from Harald Mattfeldt and Holger Paetow from Hamburg on Using Spreadsheets for Analysing and Teaching Complex Economic Problems, and another from Karen Shipp of the OU who looked at Guided Discovery software for a third level micro-economics course. Our apologies to those whose papers we haven’t mentioned. Sadly we couldn’t get to all of them between us, especially at the times when there were three parallel sessions. However the full conference proceedings are now available.

If you were at the conference and you haven’t yet returned your evaluation form can we please urge you to do so. We would also be pleased to receive any suggestions about the timing, location or content of next year’s conference.

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