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1.2 Networked learning materials

In economics, we are often trying to convey mathematical models. In particular, we are concerned with the effect of changing a parameter; how curves shift, how equilibria move, how different kinds of change interact with each other. In a standard lecture, we would usually convey this by building up different coloured lines on a static whiteboard or OHP diagram.

Since long before the Web, computer software and electronic workbooks have enabled students to experiment with models, experiencing them in an immediate and visual way which, at least in principle, allows them to gain a feel for the behaviour of the model, along with their formal understanding. For this software to be used by students, it had to be either paid for or programmed in-house, then made available in the student computer rooms.

The Web combines that interactivity with immediacy. Rather than putting the ThinkEconomics interactive graphs on our students' computers, for example, we only need to give them the relevant URL (Web address), in this case: http://www.whitenova.com/thinkEconomics/. This is an example of how 'The Web fundamentally alters the cost structure of instruction and learning by changing the costs of authoring, publishing, distributing, modifying, updating, applying, and using economic course materials' (Daniel, 1999).

The material being shared across the Web is not just documents, but interactive resources like self-test quizzes, spreadsheets, animations and complete economic models. Figure 1 shows one of many interactive macro models from Manfred Gärtner's site (Gärtner, 2001). The instructions on the right guide the student through a series of activities. The curves on the graph move in response to student input.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Manfred Gärtner's European macro site

Building on the traditional idea of a reading list, the Web permits the creation of a resource list - a site with links to all these kinds of material. The context of an online discussion board allows students to build the resource list themselves. If you are using a problem-based learning (PBL) approach, you might present students with a research question and then challenge them to contribute relevant sources to a list. The role of the lecturer is to guide this process rather than provide a fully formed list of sources (see the chapter on PBL in this handbook).

Finding useful online materials is a non-trivial task that we will explore in the next two sections. Then in section 4, we will see how online resources can be given a meaningful educational context.

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2.1 Website basics