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4 Designing Web-based activities

4.1 The information skills challenge

Traditionally, a student working on an essay would have had recourse to a library and perhaps inter-library loans. Now, in addition to the traditional non-digital library, there is a large and increasing range of resources; not just electronic forms of primary texts, but also interactive tutorials and online economic models. Whereas the traditional library is managed by librarians, the Web is relatively anarchic. There is no guarantee of academic status, objectivity or educational appropriateness in the results of a Google search. Chizmar and Walbert (1999) warn that fruitless Web searching may detract from study time and conclude, 'the prudent strategy might be to plan a modest increase in Web use as part of a well-balanced learning program'.

Box 1 shows what can happen when students search indiscriminately for economics terms. Looking in a variety of economics glossaries, we found that explanations of a term differ not only in length and amount of context, but on questions of emphasis and meaning. 'Deflation' was usually defined in terms of prices, but one definition does not mention prices. Definitions of 'unemployment' disagreed on whether it was a number or a state, and on what could be unemployed. The ease with which multiple, potentially confusing explanations can be found makes it advisable to refer students to chosen resources rather than asking them to 'look on the Web'.

Box 1. Contrasting definitions of economic terms from the Web

Deflation

'Deflation occurs when prices are declining over time. This is the opposite of inflation; when the inflation rate (by some measure) is negative, the economy is in a deflationary period.'
About.com

'A reduction in national income and output.'
Bized

'A fall in the general level of prices. Unlikely unless the rate of inflation is already low, it may then be due either to a surge in productivity or, less favorably, to a recession.'
Deardorff's Glossary of International Economics

'The opposite of inflation - that is, a sustained fall over time in the general level of prices, normally measured by the annual percentage increases or decreases of a weighted index of prices of some large and representative sample of goods and services (both consumers' goods and producers' goods) regularly traded in the particular economy under consideration. Just as very large scale inflations are normally the result of large percentage increases in the money stock, large-scale deflations are normally the consequence of substantial reductions in the available money stock.'
Glossary of Political Economy Terms

Unemployment

'The difference between the number of people in the labor force and those working for pay.'
Digital Economist

'The non-utilization of labour resources; the condition in which members of the labour force are without jobs. Sometimes used more broadly to refer to the waste of resources when the economy is operating at less than its full potential.
Glossary for a Course in Basic Economics

'The state of an individual looking for a paying job but not having one. Does not include full-time students, the retired, children, or those not actively looking for a paying job.'
Glossary of Research Economics

'The unemployment rate is the percentage of the population who are willing to work for the current market wage for someone of his or her skill level but cannot find employment.'
About.com

Then again, the fact that this plethora of resources has no quality control means that both students and lecturers need a new skill – of identifying relevant, appropriate material. Lecturers should check that material they recommend is suitable for their students and their educational style. This is a transferable skill and part of critical thinking. Students, from their formative university years, also need to work towards the skill of quality appraisal of Web-based material.

Today's resource list is conceptually a cross searcher, locating digital and non-digital objects (abstract, textual, visual, musical, social, multimedia) using different kinds of finding aid (a term from the pre-digital world!). A catalogue is one finding aid. A bibliography is another. Internet search engines are increasingly gaining importance as finding aids, simply because of their immediacy.

Hence there is an extra skills burden for students, in terms of both technology and critical thinking, if they are to become users of online sources. One might view this as an extra burden on the curriculum, but we view it more positively. At a time when degree courses are under pressure to show evidence of transferable skills, the fact that a course includes internet information skills may be a positive selling-point. You might introduce these skills in dedicated sessions for freshers: for example, by getting students to work through the Internet Economist tutorial or its associated exercises (Poulter and Mitchell, 2001). Alternatively, you can set online activities which teach technology skills, information skills and economic content at the same time, as we show below.

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4.2 Making the leap from text-based study to Web-based study