The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

3. Finding and sharing open resources for economics

The tools for finding and sharing open resources include tailored collections of material, specialist educational databases, and general web search engines. Some tools are dedicated to open educational resources, while others combine open resources with other categories.

With any tool for finding material, there is a tradeoff. A general sharing site such as YouTube will host anyone and everyone’s opinion on economic topics, from conspiracy theorists to Nobel laureates. An institutional showcase will have higher overall quality but is less likely to have exactly what you want. Lacking the time to post your material to every possible forum, you face that same trade-off when sharing materials: whether to put things on mass-audience sites where most people are looking for them, or on specialist sites where they will be highlighted.

One starting point is the Economics Network links database which is regularly updated with educational resources across dozens of economic topics. Resources with open licences appear higher up on the page. Merlot is a US-based database which links to more than a thousand educational resources for economics, with options for users to comment and review.

3.1 Economics projects

Among the many publicly-funded projects hosting open educational resources, some are specific to economics, or to the social sciences. Although the official funding period for these projects is over, it is still possible to add your own materials to these showcases.

TRUE

Teaching Resources for Undergraduate Economics is a series of sub-sites hosted by the Economics Network, sharing resources for second and third year economics modules under a Creative Commons NonCommercial Attribution licence. Each has been set up by an academic subject specialist, and it is still possible to submit material of any kind to showcase on the site.

​DeSTRESS

DeSTRESS is a collection of reusable resources for contextualising statistics in social sciences. It includes twenty professionally-produced videos hosted by Ken Heather of the University of Portsmouth, along with handouts, interactive graphs and other types of resource. The videos can be watched on YouTube or downloaded directly for offline use.

METAL

A forerunner of DeSTRESS, the METAL project consists of various resources to help teach mathematical concepts in a setting of real-world economics decisions. They include a set of 73 videos, shorter than the DeSTRESS videos, presented by Ken Heather, with worked examples. The materials have a variety of licences.

3.2 Institutional collections

Some institutions run their own repositories of freely reusable materials as a way to drive interest in their courses and to support open education. A few of them have substantial amounts of material relevant to economics.

MIT OpenCourseWare started in 2001 and has been very influential in the open education movement. Thousands of courses—including dozens in Economics—are represented in some form: sometimes just a reading list, sometimes a complete set of course materials.

The University of Nottingham’s repository, U-Now, has a variety of materials including slides and audio podcasts. The Open University has OpenLearn, which is strong in introductory material for economics and statistics.

3.3 Open textbook collections

OpenStax

OpenStax is a charity, connected to Rice University, which is creating a set of peer-reviewed open textbooks, including one in Economics. All their material has a very liberal licence so readers can do practically anything they like with the material as long as they attribute the source. You can browse community-created remixes which provide free alternatives to specific editions of commercial textbooks. OpenStax are partners in the UK Open Textbook Project which is adapting textbooks for the UK and building a network of adopters.

CORE

CORE is based at University College, London, and backed by a consortium of universities in the UK and internationally. Its funders include HM Treasury. It has created an e-book and related resources to support a distinctively post-crash module in economics, with topical illustrations of central ideas, examples driven by data, and broader theoretical perspectives than standard modules. The licence is Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives so it is possible to copy content to other platforms for educational use.

Saylor

Saylor Academy is another charity offering sets of course materials to cover core modules in Economics and other subjects. A lot of their content consists of links to materials elsewhere online, such as Khan Academy videos. Some of these modules are under active development; those that are not are in a dedicated “legacy” area of the site.

School of data

This is an unusual charitable project, providing not a conventional textbook but dozens of online modules aiming to help learners work with data, including “How is aid data used in the media?” They encourage copying and adaptation of their materials.

Boundless

Boundless is a company offering textbooks and related materials under a licence that allows copying and adaptation. There are intrusive adverts scattered through the content for unregistered users. For those who want to pay, the site offers a learning management system.

Wikibooks

This is a sister-site of Wikipedia, using the same collaborative process to create open textbooks. The economics section of Wikibooks is mostly a graveyard of skeletal books that were started off with good intentions but abandoned. On the other hand, the platform allows interesting projects, including those in which students create their own textbook. The Bestiary of Behavioral Economics, created by students in 2012, is an example.

3.4 Media sharing sites

Most people looking for an economics video will go to a video site and search for “economics” rather than the other way round. Image-sharing and video-sharing sites are among the first places that anyone looks. This section looks at some of the most popular sites, in each case describing what it does, a key strength and key weakness, and examples relevant to economics.

YouTube

Although there are competitor sites, YouTube is where most video gets uploaded and watched. It is open to anyone with an opinion, so although there is a large amount of academic material, it is surrounded by political rants and conspiracy theories. A lot of YouTube’s educational content in economics is listed in the Economics Network’s Video and Audio index, but even this is just the tip of the iceberg.

YouTube’s strengths are that its videos can be embedded in other sites, and that viewers with an account can subscribe to channels they are interested in and be notified of new videos. You can organise videos—your own or other people’s—into playlists which have their own link; for example the sequence of videos associated with a particular course.

Contributors benefit from extensive analytics, showing how many people viewed each video, how much time they spent watching and how they responded. The comments sections of YouTube are notoriously infantile, but video owners can set it so that comments have to be approved before being publicly visible. In 2010, the Open University reported that their most popular YouTube videos were getting more views than television broadcasts on BBC4 or even BBC2.[1]

When uploading a video, you can choose either the Standard YouTube Licence (which effectively reserves all rights, but lets YouTube host and distribute the video) or a Creative Commons Attribution-only (CC-BY) licence. YouTube has a built-in video editor that allows users to create videos from existing, suitably licensed YouTube videos, and which automatically credits and links the source videos. If your videos have another CC licence, you can specify it in the description. Almost all the video lectures shared by the University of Utah Economics Department have the attribution-only licence.

  • Strength: Huge volume of material, easily bookmarked or integrated with other materials and clearly labelled with what is fully copyrighted and what is freely reusable.

  • Weakness: Comments and “related” videos can drag viewers into conspiracy theories and other junk.

Top tip:

Once you do a search in YouTube, click “Filters” to bring up a menu of ways to customise the search. You can restrict the search to videos shorter than 4 minutes, videos uploaded in the past year, or freely remixable videos, among other options.

Wikimedia Commons

This is a media repository hosted by the same charity behind Wikipedia, and maintained by a similar volunteer community. The name reflects that all the files here (mainly photographs and diagrams, but also some video and audio clips) are freely reusable by anyone for any purpose. Each file comes with different download options and, when you scroll down, the conditions for reuse, which vary.

Almost all of the images that illustrate Wikipedia and Wikiversity are hosted on Commons, and the site’s purpose is to help resources created on these and other education or reference sites. For this reason, Commons is solely for images with educational or research value, although that is interpreted very broadly. This means the site avoids the huge numbers of holiday snaps and “selfies” that pour onto other image-sharing sites. A lot of the images here have come from museums, libraries and archives, or even from figures in open access research papers. The site is multilingual so, on searching for a particular diagram, you might find the exact type you want, but labelled in the wrong language.

If an image was generated by a piece of code, it is possible to include the code along with the image, including links to data sources. The Wikipedia article on TED Spread is illustrated with a graph generated from official data with some R code. The code, data, and link to the data source are shared along with the image on Commons, allowing others to update the graph.

For a site that aims to support education, it is frustrating that Commons does not support office file formats, including slide shows or spreadsheets, because it is hard to protect them from viruses. Slides and documents do get shared on Commons in the form of PDFs, but this discourages remixing and repurposing. Graphs can be shared as vector diagrams in the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format which is editable in desktop publishing software but not in Microsoft Office.

  • Strength: Everything here has both an educational purpose and a licence allowing free reuse by anyone.

  • Weakness: A confusing interface compared to commercial sites

Top Tip:

The icons above each image give instructions for reuse in various contexts (online, in print etc.). Below the image are links to download in different resolutions. For an image to use in a Powerpoint, downloading an 800-pixel-tall version will be more efficient than a 3000-pixel-tall version.

Flickr

To get a picture of an identifiable thing, not necessarily with an educational purpose, Flickr’s truly enormous database of images is very likely to be helpful. Some cultural institutions such as the British Library or the Smithsonian share image collections here so, as with Commons, you can stumble on images of genuine historical interest.

From an uploader’s perspective, Flickr has a very nice interface for adding and tagging files with description, location and other information. As with other services in this section (see Slideshare and Soundcloud below) there is a subscription version, but the free version gives you all the functions you practically need unless you are sharing a lot of content.

When I wanted images of the City of London and central Nairobi, and restricted the search to images I could use in a presentation without asking permission, Flickr obliged with these:

The Square Mile by Michael Garnett via Flickr, CC-BY-NC Central Nairobi by Ninara via Flickr, CC-BY
  • Strength: A huge number of images for every conceivable purpose

  • Weakness: It can be difficult to find suitable content for academic use amongst all that.

Top Tips:

  • When you search on Flickr, the licence search options are in the top left of the screen, allowing you to only search for images that you can reproduce or modify. There are hundreds of millions of images on Flickr, so even a restricted search makes use of a large database.

  • Beware that, intentionally or not, Flickr has a lot of incorrect licences. Someone might copy a page from The Economist and tag that image with a licence that allows free reuse, but the copyright in that image still resides with The Economist.

iTunesU

This is a service run by Apple that makes educational materials  including audio, video, and documents such as text transcripts — freely available through iTunes software. Whereas a site like YouTube lets anyone upload material, iTunesU has sharing agreements that cover a whole university, so you need to be in one of the partner institutions.

iTunesU content, like iTunes software itself, is free of charge to download, but not necessarily open in the sense of freely reusable: the licence is chosen by the institution.[2] Although iTunes works on a variety of platforms including iPads and desktop computers, there are users who cannot access it, so it is sensible to give an alternative route to the material. For example, the University of Oxford’s audio programmes are released on the university’s site as well as iTunes.

  • Strength: convenience for end user, and a potentially very large audience for academic lectures.

  • Weakness: a closed system that excludes a lot of users

60-Second Adventures in Economics is a series of short videos from the Open University, narrated by the comedian David Mitchell. It is available through iTunesU as both video and text transcripts, but also shared on YouTube. Imperial College Business School has audio programmes on a variety of economic topics, available both through iTunes and a direct download.

Top Tip:

You can make a web link to a resource in iTunesU, but the reader will have to have iTunes software on their computer to follow the link. Left-click on the download button and select “Copy link” from the menu that appears.

SlideShare

This site is mainly focused on presentation slides, but other document types are shared here as well. It gives a convenient way to turn a Powerpoint file into an interactive web page which can be shared and linked. SlideShare displays all the text from the presentation to make it accessible to search engines. There is also a download link for the presentation file, if the uploader has allowed it.

The web presentation treats the slideshow mostly as a succession of still images, so if your presentation uses complicated animation, it won’t be visible in the online version. However, YouTube videos can be incorporated into the slides.

  • Strength: focused on one type of resource and with an active contributor community

  • Weakness: university-level material on economics and business is mixed in with much more from other educational levels, or presentations from businesses

Stephen Kinsella of the University of Limerick, Ireland, shares more than 150 presentations on SlideShare. The Office for National Statistics also has an official presence with short summaries of newly released statistics and presentations from its research events.

Soundcloud

This site is for sharing all kinds of audio, including lectures or academic discussions. As with YouTube, any user can subscribe to the channels they are interested in, and assemble tracks into customised playlists which can be bookmarked and shared. End users can listen via the web or via a free app on a mobile device.

A distinctive feature is that comments can attach to a particular point in the timeline, so you can see what they are reacting to.

  • Strength: Great for subscribing and bookmarking audio from events and news sources.

  • Weakness: Principally a music site with a relatively small proportion of academic content

The Economist, the International Monetary Fund, and the London School of Economics are among those with a SoundCloud presence. There are also archived recordings of past events including the Festival of Economics in Bristol and the Warwick Economics Summer School.

Footnotes

[1] Mick Norman (2010) “The Economy of Free – Andrew Law, Director Multi-Platform Broadcasting, The Open University” University of Kent Unit for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching

[2] Terese Bird (2011) “YouTube and iTunes U for Beyond-Text Open Educational Resources“ Seminar presentation