Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 9, Issue 3, 1995

Hotel CALECO: A Report on the VII Annual International CALECO Conference held at the Hilton National Hotel, Bristol, 6th - 7th September 1995

The venue

All previous CALECO conferences have been held in university accommodation at Portsmouth, but this year for the first time we decided to join forces with the CTI Centre at Bristol and at the same time move to a hotel venue with the consequent benefits in terms of a better environment and catering facilites for delegates and and improved logistical support for the organisers.

The venue was the Hilton National Hotel in Bristol and the experiment was undoubtedly a success. The general response of delegates towards the new approach was very positive and the organisers found it much easier to liaise with the hotel administration than the multi-layered bureaucracy of a university. Of course it costs more to put on a conference in a hotel and this meant an increase in the conference fee compared with previous years. However we are grateful to Blackwell Publishers who provided sponsorship for the conference and to the National Council for Educational Technology who also assisted us by supporting the conference.

The conference was divided into plenary sessions with invited papers, reviews and software demonstrations for everyone to attend, and parallel sessions with conference papers and workshop sessions in the three adjoining suites which were available for use. Obviously I was unable to attend all the sessions so my report will concentrate mainly on the plenary sessions. However CHEER readers may like to know that the Conference Proceedings are to be published sometime next year by Blackwell.

The focus

For much of the time the focus of the conference was WinEcon. The plenary session on the second day included a demonstration by Simon Price of WinEcon 4.00 (the first publicly available version of the product), an independent review of the software provided by John Sloman, a report on the WinEcon evaluation project by Pauline Crichton and Guy Judge, and the official handover of WinEcon to Rene Olivieri the Managing Director of Blackwell Publishers (who will handle the worldwide distribution and marketing of the product). In addition four of the other papers presented at the conference were connected with various aspects of WinEcon. However there were many other interesting and useful sessions including the keynote address by Professor Graeme Davies in one of his last engagements as Chief Executive of HEFCE, a paper by Jason Probert and Kathy Monro on the use of CAL in addressing the legacy of apartheid in teaching economics at South African universities (published elsewhere in this issue of CHEER) and two excellent papers by Barry Murphy demonstrating the potential of respectively Derive 3.0 and MathCAD Plus 5.0 for teaching quantitative economics.

Introductory plenary sessions

The plenary session on the first day began with a talk by Adrian Longstaffe, Director of the Educational Technology Service at the University of Bristol. With a Powerpoint display to guide him Adrian addressed three basic questions: what is learning technology in 1995? what are the current trends? and what support systems are needed for learning technology? In dealing with the first question he argued that computers are currently used in three basic ways in education - for presentation, for information search and retrieval and for interactive tasks. In terms of presentation this could be to enhance oral communication through a computer generated OHP slide or an LCD tablet display, or in the composition of printed material using word processors or desk top publishing packages. Computers and IT provide access to information sources and with developments in Multimedia and hypertext the information can be visual as well as textual or numerical with embedded links and searching tools providing many interesting pathways through a knowledge universe.

CD-ROMs and the Internet provide two practical ways of exploiting such information, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Longstaffe argued that access to large amounts of information is intrinsically educational but there must be a learning strategy to guide the user. Interactive tasks include interactive tutorials such as those in WinEcon and case studies such as modelling and simulation exercises. Under this heading he also talked about group work where the computer could facilitate communications between members of the group via e-mail or computer conferencing.

In discussing current trends Longstaffe stressed the value of the TLTP initiative which had given a valuable kick start to much useful work and the impact of new technology, particularly the Internet, which had made new forms of learning possible. He threw up some interesting ideas which are beginning to be taken up - for example he mentioned the student production of CAL material on the Vetinary Studies course at Bristol. Students learn about anatomy by producing learning software on the subject. Some of it is so good it is immediately useable with other groups of students. Perhaps this is an idea which can be taken up in economics.

Next Longstaffe talked about the implications of the development of the Internet for education. Although 95% of the material currently accessible through the Internet (particularly via the World-Wide Web) may be of poor or questionable quality and value, some material is excellent and with properly designed tasks and search strategies students could learn about their subject and develop IT skills at the same time.

In the long run the implications of the new technology could be profound. Will we all become like the Open University providing cheap and accessible material for distance learners? Perhaps we should remember to remind the government of the non-academic virtues of studying AT a university? Certainly there would be a need to look carefully at the purpose and structure of universities. Sometimes things move so quickly that we were not thinking enough about what we are doing and why. He joked that our brains have not had a hardware upgrade for ten thousand years.

Lastly he turned to the need for the development of Learning Technology Support Systems, to provide services to improve awareness, training, production, integration, evaluation and project design and management. In his view what was needed was not only national discipline based centres (such as the CTI Centres) but also institutional centres (such as the ETS at Bristol) to provide local services and support. They should be staffed by teachers rather than techies and stress effectiveness and efficiency in their work. He briefly described some of the projects at Bristol in which the ETS is involved. Asking "What needs to change?" he suggested that we need more collaborative teamwork and less rugged individualism, more constructive academic criticism and less educational paranoia. We must be flexible but sure of the educational principles of our work. To find out more information on the service provided by the Bristol ETS consult their home page at

The other two talks in the first plenary session considered the current experience of CAL in Economics and Business Education, first from the perspective of Higher Education (I was asked to speak on this) and then from the perspective of Further Education (Richard Young, Director of the Economic and Business Education Association spoke). I sub-titled my talk "on-line, on-course and on-going" and I concentrated on four areas: computer-based course delivery, the use of the Internet and the World-Wide Web as a learning environment, the use of spreadsheets and mathematical application packages and the use of econometrics and statistics software. The "on-line" was supposed to signify the growing importance of the Internet and stressed the live and interactive nature of the activity. Despite all the hype it seems to me that the WWW offers tremendous opportunities to teachers and learners across all subject areas, including economics and business. It provides hypertext links to documents distributed all over the world in much the same kind of way envisaged by Ted Nelson back in the 1960s. Things have developed much more rapidly than I envisaged five years ago at the 1990 CALECO conference when I was promoting hypertext as a potential teaching tool for economics. Of course students need guidance on how best to make use of such facilities and there is room for new books and articles outlining best practice in this area. I mentioned the article by Alan Sangster in the journal Active Learning (No 2, July 1995) as a useful first step but more material specifically targetted at economics students would help.

"On-course" was supposed to be a rhetorical prompt - are we sure that we know where we want to go? Like Adrain Longstaffe I was suggesting that perhaps now is the time for a careful rethink of what we are trying to achieve with Computer Based Learning projects. CBL courseware should be seen as a means of improving the quality of education and not simply in terms of a capital for labour substitution. This might mean re-thinking our course structures and organisation if we are to use products such as WinEcon most effectively. The term "on-going" was used partly to remind members of the Economics Consortium that although the first version of WinEcon was about to be delivered the project was far from over. The consortium would need to give advice on the use of WinEcon in teaching, monitor its use and evaluate its effectiveness and stay together to provide upgrades and extensions. In completing my talk I returned to the familiar ground (for me) of spreadsheets, statistics and econometrics software. These packages are useful for students who can learn economics while actually doing it (cf. the pun in the title of Berndt's textbook "The Practice of Econometrics"). Software has been upgraded both to incorporate new procedures (such as unit root and cointegration tests in econometrics) and to be compatible with new operating systems and user interfaces (such as the Windows versions of many products). Expertise and supporting documentation needs to be upgraded to go along with the new software. It was a mental note to me to upgrade my already dating book on the use of spreadsheets in economics and to encourage others to produce books and articles which would illustrate the way that these packages can be used for those teaching and learning the subject. I mentioned also here the comparatively unexplored area of mathematical applications packages as vehicles for teaching and learning quantitative economics, a theme taken up by my colleague Barry Murphy in his papers (see below).

Richard Young started with some benchmark statistics - there are 3600 schools with sixth-forms, 500 colleges of Further Education and another 167 sixth-form colleges. He referred to a survey recently completed by Steve Hurd who had discovered that the average student of economics in such institutions spent about 6 hours a week with computers, but 75% of this time was used for word-processing or DTP applications. Why, he asked, are teachers avoiding CBL? Perhaps the available material was not good enough? Here there was good news, he said, with a new wave of material, citing especially The Marketing Mix and Economist's Desktop. Next Young turned to the Internet take-up of FE colleges - around 27% so far, but predicted to rise to 80% by August 1996. At this level too the Internet could make a profound contribution to economics and business education. Thanks to the CTI Centre at Bristol the EBEA already has a presence on the Internet ([since changed to Web Editor] and there is also an e-mail discussion list (send a one line message subscribe econ-business-educators to Lastly he talked about his current project BizNet. This is a one-stop gateway (rather like the SOSIG gateway described in previous issues of CHEER by Nicky Ferguson and Debra Hiom) providing links to all the most useful material and sources for college students of economics and business. (We will provide further information about this development in a future issue of CHEER).

Graeme Davis talked about the role of the funding councils, and particularly the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), in steering the system towards solutions which would meet government targets in terms of the expansion of student numbers, wider access and high quality educational provision. In his time as Chief Executive, he said, he had sought to develop an open and accountable approach and to provide incentives rather than directives.

He showed figures to illustrate the trends in student numbers and concluded that the increase in student-staff ratios meant that universities must change the way they behave and adapt to the new circumstances. The visual analogy he used was that somehow we have to make headroom under the collapsing roof. Students must be encouraged to become more self-reliant. There was also an important role for IT and Computer Based Learning. He briefly traced the history of the CTI, TLTP and other initiatives. The CTI was primarily about dissemination while the TLTP projects were funded to produce materials which could free up staff time on certain parts of the curriculum. He stressed that they should be seen as an adjunct to teaching and not a substitute.

Although enthusiastic individuals could and did develop very good material, it was often too specific in form and not properly documented to be transferable to other institutions. He had therefore been keen to develop consortia to work on collaborative projects and congratulated the Economics Consortium on the success of the WinEcon project.

Davis expressed the importance of good documentation and the benefits of more dissemination on an international scale. There would be new initiatives, such as the Fund for the Development of Teaching, to provide money to buy back time from staff who were engaged in dissemination projects. At the end of the talk members of the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions. There were two main issues raised. First the tension between the need for collaboration and the increasing competition between instutitions seeking to attract the best students. Secondly, the tension that exists between teaching and research, particularly as so much attention was given to research in promotions and the Research Assessment Exercise. Davis said that some of the responses by universitites had been out of proportion to the new circumstances with institutions indulging in "feeding frenzies" and expanding numbers too rapidly. He thought there was some movement on the promotions front - according to information given to him by Vice Chancellors some 20% of recent promotions had been acknowledging teaching skills, a statistic greeted with some skepticism by members of the audience.

The WinEcon demo and related sessions

The demonstration of the release version (4.0) of WinEcon by Simon Price, the Senior Programmer for the Economics Consortium, looked at the program both from the student's point of view and from the lecturer's perspective. With its 25 chapters the program covers the whole of the introductory economics curriculum, but lecturers could choose prepackaged subsets (say for Business Economics or just Macroeconomics) or they could customise the program to include the elements required for their own course topics. Each topic includes narrative material combined with interactive elements which will engage the user and assist the learning process. There is a full glossary, references to the four leading introductory texts, additional tools and utilities (such as the calculator, graphing and spreadsheet tools), and full self-test and examination/assessment material. All these elements were illustrated with a quick run through some of the material in the chapter on Demand.

In turning to the lecturer's interface, Price discussed the customisation features (including the way in which glossary entries and test material could be supplemented or amended) and management systems such as the user log which can keep track of students' use.

Due to the rather tight time constraint (by then the session was running late) Simon's session ended up being a bit of a "Wizz through WinEcon", but delegates were able to take a more leisurely look at the program features on the machines in the lab in the adjoining suite later in the conference.

The WinEcon demonstration was followed by a review of WinEcon by John Sloman, essentially a "live" presentation of his review of the product in the September 1995 issue of the Economic Journal. Sloman began by reiterating the point about increasing student:staff ratios (from 8:1 to over 24:1 in his institution). On top of this there was a trend away from economics at "A" level, possibly because of a perception that the subject is hard and boring, and towards business studies. In this competitive environment the subject must be presented in an interesting and lively way. The potential for a product such as WinEcon was enhanced by the fact that students are increasingly familiar with computers, and the recognition that economics is inherently suitable for CBL treatments which allow for graphical and quantitative interactions.

To attract students the product needed to be interesting, friendly and easy to use. It also had to be attractive to staff to persuade them that it would be worth changing their teaching patterns to accomodate it. In most respects, Sloman said, WinEcon had been succesful in identifying and meeting these design requirements. He then went on to talk about the different ways that WinEcon could be used in teaching, identifying twenty-six different approaches to its integration into the teaching and learning process. These included individual student-centred tutorial approaches (both directed and self-directed), lab and workshop sessions, and as an adjunct to lectures to make them more dynamic and animated. The program could be used as course material or as pre-course remedial material for courses at different levels. There could be a role for it on post-graduate conversion courses where entering students had some exposure to the subject but lacked a thorough coverage even at the introductory level. The use of WinEcon did not have to be an isolated thing. Students could be asked to work together in groups and discuss what they had learned.

He ended his talk with two critical points (offered in a constructive way). He wondered about the wisdom of using the IS- LM framework in the macroeconomics chapters. Many introductory courses (particularly those for non-specialists) don't use this approach and such users really need a route through the macroeconomics materail which would avoid IS/LM. Perhaps this should have been kept for the advanced button pages? It might be argued, he said, that the coverage was too traditional. There was little or no material included on Marxist or even NeoKeynesian schools of thought. Secondly, although there had been a significant improvement since the very early versions, in his view some chapteres still did not have enough interactive material. Here he made the distinction between interaction and animation. The latter did not require users to do anything other than watch and the effect could sometimes just be mesmerising.

Overall though he liked the program. He would use it this year on a trail basis to win over staff to WinEcon and give them time to adapt their teaching methods to it. He would also put it on the network so that students not on courses making direct use of the material could nevertheless "dabble" with it (you surf the Internet but dabble with WinEcon!?).

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