Using LiveEcon to teach Macroeconomics

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Contact: Dr W. David McCausland
University of Aberdeen
d.mccausland@abdn.ac.uk
Published July 2006

Background

LiveEcon is a new interactive learning package for economics undergraduates. The first two titles are already available: Macroeconomics Principles and Macroeconomics Intermediate, covering the standard first and second year syllabus respectively. The second two titles will be the corresponding Microeconomics Principles and Microeconomics Intermediate, which are scheduled for completion by summer 2007. LiveEcon's major strength lies in the totally interactive "U-Drive-It!" section which allows students, through the use of scroll bars, to change all the economic assumptions (interest rate, investment, government spending etc) in a model and see the effects immediately on the dynamic graphs and tables on the screen. Students can also watch moving tutorials accompanied by explanatory text covering all the main economic topics and then test their understanding with the quizzes which accompany each chapter. The authors of the two Macroeconomics volumes are Chris Taylor, former Head of Economics and Chief Adviser at the Bank of England, Dr Jochen Runde, Reader in Economics at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge and Dr W. David McCausland, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Aberdeen.

Using LiveEcon to teach Macroeconomics at Aberdeen

Those of us who teach Macroeconomics will, without doubt, have reflected in recent years on the many challenges that such an endeavour can bring to light. For example, with policies to widen access to higher education, students now entering Economics degree programmes come from more diverse backgrounds and have a wider variety of prior skills and training. Indeed, with the decline of Economics as a discipline at school level, fewer students have had prior experience of thinking like an economist. Moreover, many students now experience Economics only for a single semester as part of a cognate degree programme, such as Management or Finance. On the other hand, students now tend to be comfortable with (though not necessarily good at) using IT as part of their learning plan. These changes to our learner profiles have encouraged us to reflect on the appropriateness of the way in which we teach our discipline and to actively seek out methods that could enable us to enhance the experience of learning Economics for our students.

The purpose of this short case study is to profile how LiveEcon can be used in the classroom to improve the way Economics is learnt, following extensive evaluation and development of the package at the University of Aberdeen. LiveEcon has been used both at Intermediate undergraduate level (these students had already taken a Principles level course in macroeconomics) and at conversion postgraduate level (typically these students had not had any or much prior exposure to Economics) over several years.

One main purpose of introducing LiveEcon into the curriculum at the University of Aberdeen was to help students overcome a common barrier to the enjoyment of Economics, namely lack of confidence with mathematics. Many students today have, not just a lack of confidence with, but a fear of anything remotely quantitative. This may be due to negative prior experiences of mathematics (at school, for example), or a lack of repeat exposure to key techniques over a significant time period (as the school curriculum becomes thinner and more modular). Moreover, quantitative methods are often not taught as part of many business degrees, so one cannot rely on students having this prerequisite. By Intermediate level, however, it becomes increasingly hard to teach effectively the complex and interrelated systems that characterise the macro economy without recourse to mathematics. Using LiveEcon was seen as a useful tool to smooth the transition to using these more sophisticated techniques – allowing the student to get to the understanding of macroeconomic policy without grinding through so much math. Moreover, the fundamentally visual and dynamic presentation embodied in LiveEcon sat comfortably with students' increased confidence with such an electronic medium.

Introducing LiveEcon into the curriculum was achieved at several levels. First, the LiveEcon "tutorials" were used as a more modern form of "pre-reading" to support lecture, seminar or tutorial activity and encourage students to gain some familiarity with the key ideas before entering the classroom.

Second, LiveEcon was particularly successfully when employed in computer workshops. Students at the University of Aberdeen were able to access the network version of the package in computer laboratories. During staffed workshops, students were able to experiment with policy analysis using the LiveEcon "U-Drive-It!", and put into practice what they had learnt in lectures or tutorials. The greatest success was achieved when their activity was structured towards achieving some particular policy goals chosen by the instructor. Repeated exposure to policy application in this rather fun way fostered a greater appreciation of the transmission mechanisms at work behind macroeconomic policy than could have been achieved by traditional methods. In this way concepts were assimilated faster and more thoroughly, and hence LiveEcon provided a useful supplement to the normal lecture and tutorial activity.

Third, LiveEcon proved useful as a revision aid. The formative assessment quizzes provided useful feedback to students allowing them to monitor their understanding and develop their own learning pace.

Using anything new and innovative is not always plain sailing. However, at the University of Aberdeen we were fortunate to be involved in the initial trials of early versions of the package, and hence many early suggestions students had in improving features and navigation were subsequently incorporated in the development of the package. Our use of LiveEcon, was however, partial, in the sense that it was used alongside a traditional text (Gärtner, in the case of our intermediate level course). In theory, LiveEcon should be able to be used as a ready made course for those instructors without an existing text or who are unhappy with existing conventional texts. A key advantage would be that each point in the accompanying PowerPoint slides can be immediately illustrated by switching to the U-Drive-It! mode and dragging the appropriate scrollbar. Students can print out the embedded text and access the accompanying slides which may also be uploaded to your VLE, e.g. WebCT. However, to date not all chapters of the package have been released, and this has precluded the use of LiveEcon as a replacement for a traditional text thus far. I did not use all of the material contained in the package, since some topics were a little too sophisticated for the scope of the course I taught, and it would have been desirable if these topics could have been edited out by the user. I would also like to have been able to change some minor definitions so as to correspond to those used in my adopted text, such as the definition of the exchange rate, which proved confusing to students. A level of user customisability would certainly be a big step forward for this package if it could be achieved. Another drawback was that the LiveEcon "quizzes" were not editable, nor did they integrate with any gradebook for use as summative assessment. However, I believe that their developers have taken this criticism on board and integration with WebCT is planned for Autumn 2006. Finally, although I did not use LiveEcon in this capacity, it did strike me as having enormous potential for use in distance learning environments. The tutorials, with their integrated voiceovers (which are scheduled in the next release), could be employed as virtual tutorials, the U-Drive-It! as virtual workshops, and the quizzes as either formative or summative assessment.

Students responded very positively to LiveEcon – most wishing it had been available in their earlier studies. The visual and dynamic aspects of the package were definite winners, and many found it more fun than the less interactive traditional way of learning and revising. I could certainly see that they were getting hold of the key ideas much quicker and getting a much better "feel" for the way economic policy works. I think one quote from our student feedback will suffice: "thank you for making this term's Macro enjoyable, the interactive lectures and no death by power point was thoroughly enticing - trust me, my (previous) term at (another university) was suicidally dry!"

Note: More information and a trial free download can be found at http://www.interactyx.com/economic-content-online .

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