The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

When an experiment requires many rounds and complicated matching schemes it is easiest done on a computer network. A typical example is the Bertrand duopoly game where it is best to use two different types of matching (fixed/random) and/or two different group sizes.

A large selection of computerised experiments is available via Charlie Holt’s Veconlab, Econport and our own FEELE website. Typing any of these keywords into Google will lead you directly to the relevant site. Veconlab offers the most information and help for a beginner. Once this system is familiar, it is easy to switch to our site which is deliberately of a similar design. Econport offers the best market experiment software, in particular for some experiments on financial markets. It is well-documented and easy to understand. How well it works in your computer lab depends on the ingenuity of your university IT group. The more complex and convoluted their firewall system, the less likely it is that the JAVA applets Econport uses will work and communicate without problems. This system has to be tested in every room where you intend to use it, preferably by your computing officers and IT services.

Advantages

Many of the most popular classroom experiments are offered via the Internet for free. Apart from this, the big advantage of computerised experiments is their availability and the ease at which beginners can get started. The student experience tends to be uniform. The results are available immediately and can easily be distributed to students for evaluation. In many cases, there are tools provided for simple analysis of the results. A large number of rounds can be run as well as several treatments. An experienced instructor or teaching assistant can handle a computer classroom alone, although it is easier, particularly if there are more than ten students, if one instructor concentrates on the software and another on the students.

Disadvantages

One main disadvantage is that the experiments are standardised. While there are some parameters a lecturer can change, there is not the broad opportunity for drastic innovation that a hand run experiment offers.

A second problem is the requirement to have a special computer room (and it helps to have a projection screen for the instructor’s computer). There is the usual hassle of reserving the room and organising the students to meet there. On a practical level, there is a limit to how many students can fit in the room. When there is a large class, you may have to split it up into several groups. This creates an additional teaching burden. The alternative is to use tutorials, which may have a higher opportunity cost.

Another problem is that in many cases the experiment tends to run as fast as the slowest student. You constantly have to control the monitor program to see how the experiment is progressing and may also have to check the screens of individual students. Students often check their email or Facebook accounts and therefore the experiment becomes stuck. If the experiment runs too slowly, boredom may set in, creating a free-rider problem for students paying attention. Once things are started and running smoothly, there is also the danger that the instructors may check their email as well and not realise that there is a delay. Luckily there is now a KIOSK program that keeps the computer locked in the experiment (see the hints).

Finally, there is a risk of technical problems, such as software bugs, network failure and IT-related problems. This is particularly true for experiments using technically more advanced software. However, such problems have only rarely occurred with our software and that of Veconlab, since they require only a standard web browser.

Helpful hints for computerised experiments

  • Place two students per computer to make decisions jointly. The students will discuss their options and this will typically lead to better decisions; they will ‘catch on’ quicker and have a deeper learning experience. It also helps foreign students who have difficulties with the oral or written instructions. Moreover, the amount of web surfing, etc. will be reduced. It also eliminates the danger of holding up the whole class with a single toilet break.
  • Give instructions by email or handouts beforehand. Again, this helps non-English speakers and students with reading difficulties, in particular dyslexic students. Getting students to read and understand the instructions takes substantial time out of the experiment.
  • Let students in different sessions play the same treatments in a similar order. Otherwise, they do not have the same learning experience.
  • Try setting up and playing the experiment beforehand. One can do this by setting up a smaller number of players in different web browsers on a single computer’s desktop (sometimes one needs different browsers rather than different tabs within a browser).This would help you not only decide if you like the experiment, but help decide what treatments and parameters to run. It is also important to have you see what the students see, for discussion and questions.
  • Try configuring the experiment beforehand. Doing so saves time and reduces the number of errors or restarts. There is, however, a limit to what is possible, since many experiments need the full number of participants (or terminals) to be logged in before the experiment can be started. Luckily, both Veconlab and our website are currently enhancing the possibilities to change the number of participants on the spot.
  • Prevent email checks by students. The terminals can be run in KIOSK mode which prevents students from using the computer for anything but the experiment. Via our FEELE website you can start the KIOSK program to either run our experiments or those on Veconlab (simply google ‘feele kiosk’; this requires Internet Explorer).
  • Distribute handouts explaining how to log in; reduces 'finger trouble' and saves time.
  • Number the handouts beforehand and distribute one per computer; avoids headcount errors when configuring subject numbers.