Using the Web to teach economics: a personal reflection

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Contact: Kevin Hinde
Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Northumbria
kevin.hinde@unn.ac.uk
Published October 2001

I started using the Web in 1996 largely as a means to provide unit outlines and reading lists for the courses I taught. My early rationale was that it might cut down on the numbers who used to knock on my door to ask for a spare handout. However, my strategy as to how the Web can be applied in the teaching and learning of economics has evolved and, indeed, is evolving. All units I currently teach are supported by a dedicated Web site, www.kevinhinde.com, a domain name I purchased because it was easier for students to remember than www.unn.ac.uk/~egkh1 .

The updated rationale for this more substantive site is based on pragmatism and pedagogy. Higher education in the UK, as we all know, has dramatically changed in recent times. The unitised curriculum presents limited learning time and numerous assessments for our students. Many on-campus learners face financial hardships that force them to work and the rapidly growing cohort of part time students are usually juggling career aspirations with family and work commitments. Managing the learning process can therefore be difficult for many students. One aim of the Web site is therefore to provide a valued 'desktop' information resource for students who follow my courses. To this end there is a Pop-Up Notice Board for each unit that gives details on a weekly basis of what is going on in classrooms and what is expected of students. This facilitates transparency for the individual, particularly if they are immersed in a large year group, and for teaching teams. There are also opportunities for students to access key articles electronically from the library or the Web and students can even buy the course textbook on-line.

Another aim is to provide a visually appealing learning medium that enhances the student educational experience and certainly developments in Web software have helped this. One of my early ventures was the initiation of an interactive textbook though like most who use the Web there are also the obligatory plethora of notes and slides. A recent innovation is that of slides with streaming audio. Students enjoy the opportunity to pause and rewind an audio-slide show and I am considering using it as an occasional substitute for one or two lectures. I have experimented with video but our university does not currently have the technical infrastructure to support such a development. Moreover, there are still internet traffic problems associated with video so that their effective use is still restricted to wide bandwidths. For the moment I am using slides with streaming audio as a compromise.

The Website is now integral to teaching and learning for the units I teach. I run computer based workshops alongside lectures and seminars. There are Web based group activities in which students work on case studies, e.g. National Lottery regulation, and email their findings to me. I then provide feedback on their work and email a reply before the next session. Such cases usually form the basis of a future exam question. There are also formative on-line multiple-choice style assessments, usually with diagrams and providing extensive feedback, that prepare students for short summative assessments half way through the semester. Students can also reflect on the learning process via an electronic evaluation form and an on-line Guest Book and so far the feedback has been, on the whole, very positive.

There have been two major drawbacks in putting together these Web pages - the time constraint and the lack of cutting edge technical support. Both cause immense frustrations on occasion but obviously I believe the learning benefits outweigh the personal costs of such a project. Many universities have now invested in Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) software packages such as Blackboard, WebCT and so on. This will make the initial construction of electronic courses much simpler for lecturers. However, let me finish with two concerns about the use of VLEs for teaching and learning, at least as they currently stand. First, you will be constrained by the platform design as to what you can do. Changes to the platform design are extremely limited and developing more sophisticated visual presentations will still require time and technical support. Second, whilst each of these platforms has an on-line community where teachers can share ideas you'll be extremely lucky to view the original site because Universities are unlikely to allow passwords to outside users. Thus the sharing of ideas is probably going to be stifled by corporate bodies who want to retain control over intellectual property. By contrast, kevinhinde.com is in the public domain and everyone who wants to gets a chance to see it - warts and all!

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