Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 15, Issue 1, 2002

Software Applications and Web Resources: A Report on Computing Sessions at the ASSA Meetings, Atlanta 2002

Jean Soper
University of Leicester, and
Inna Pomorina
Economics LTSN

The biggest snow storm to strike the South of the USA since 1993 reached Georgia two days before the start of the 2002 ASSA meetings. Economists trying to get to Atlanta encountered diverted flights, together with intensified airport security measures that had even one-year-old children taking off their shoes for bomb checks. With the computing sessions organised by Betty Blecha, and Tod Porter, scheduled at the start of the meetings, some of the presenters demonstrated their familiarity with just-in-time techniques.

A Barter-Based Simulation for Teaching Economics

Tod Porter, Youngstown University

Users interact with one another in a simulated market with the software developed by Porter and Schueller, based on the concepts of Eco-Sim. Participation in the Jeremy's Market and Adam's Market courseware is via the Web, running Internet Explorer under Windows 2000. Two market modes are provided in Jeremy's Market and a third in Adam's Market. These are:

The pedagogical goals of the developers were to provide flexible curriculum-based materials for an active learning approach. Jeremy's Market relates to the course topics of consumer choice, elasticity and production. It reinforces concepts such as opportunity cost and gains from trade. Adam's Market relates to the topics of market structures and factor markets. Instructors can change the parameters of the utility functions and production functions as they wish. Students work together in groups and progress to a more complex model as their understanding develops.

Three types of pages are provided: Worksheet, Action, and Functions and Graphs. Students start by planning their strategy on Worksheet pages. They enter numbers that the computer substitutes into an underlying function to see how a dependent variable changes. The Functions and Graphs pages are used to view graphs of the models. The Action pages relate to production and consumption and are used by the students to make or accept offers.

In the 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Barter' modes the model allocates households a fixed number of hours that they can use either for production or for leisure. Given their utility and production functions and a time constraint, each group of students tries to maximise its utility. In the 'Monetary' mode each student group is responsible for both a household and a firm. Households are allocated an amount of time that they can either sell to firms as labour or use as leisure. Firms buy labour, produce goods (including capital goods) and sell output. The objectives for each student group are to maximise household utility and firm profits.

Jeremy's Model has been used with two classes of undergraduates studying microeconomic principles. Participation in using the courseware was timetabled as part of the module, and students gained assessment points by taking part. Out of a total of 550 points, 20 were awarded to all students who participated, and another 20 points indicated each student's performance relative to the other students in the same group. The 93 students generated a total of 2,099 logins to the software and 706 offers to trade. The results of the simulation were generally compatible with economic theory. The exchange rate centred around its theoretical value, although even in later rounds a few groups did make wild offers. The user interface was rated 'easy' or 'very easy' to use by 77% of the students, and a majority of them agreed that the program gave them a better understanding of the course material. The discussant Betty Blecha pointed out that this simulation is a practical means of giving students in large classes an 'active learning' experience.

Teaching with Macromedia's Flash

Thomas Creahan, Morehead State University

Flash comprises a drawing program and time line that allow you to produce animated graphs. The software generates a HTML file that can be cut and pasted into a Web page, and can also provide output in other graphics formats. Since Flash lets you draw a graph and then demonstrate the effect of shifting one or more of the curves, it is an ideal tool for delivery of concepts in economics. It is especially valuable for teaching distance learning students who have no face to face contact with a teacher.

Material can be generated as Powerpoint slides, with the slides containing links to the graphs created with Flash. Clicking on a link opens a browser window displaying the graph. Buttons on the graph allow students to move the curves and investigate the results. Campus-based students can be shown the graph in a lecture and then recommended to review it on the Web.

Flash can be used to add animation to graphs that have been drawn by mathematics software. This is useful for generating more complex diagrams, such as a 3 dimensional graph representing a long run production function. Once the graph has been plotted using a package such as Mathematica, different cross sections can be highlighted with Flash so that students can separately examine the marginal products of labour and capital.

Another topic where comprehension is enhanced when it is represented dynamically is the circular flow of income. Students often have difficulty grasping the difference between stocks and flows, but with an animated diagram they can see the flow of income. Buttons can be provided to allow students to investigate how growth and inflation generate different effects on the real and monetary variables.

The discussant, Scott Simpkins, asked why everyone is not using these kinds of resources, if they are so good. He suggested that there is a steep learning curve in integrating technology into teaching, especially if you develop the software yourself. In addition to the software itself, guides are needed about how to use it. Given this, more evidence is required about the effectiveness of computer-based learning. Student evaluations show that students feel it is helpful, but there is a difficulty in measuring cognitive gains. If it could be shown that the new teaching methods increased learning that would be persuasive.

Betty Blecha demonstrated simple curve movements with Flash that you can do easily by constructing a Flash button. The approach is effective and a good way to begin using Flash.

An Update on CAI in the United Kingdom

Inna Pomorina, University of Bristol and
Jean Soper, University of Leicester

The UK government has now set a target that higher education should become the norm. More young people are entering university, but the numbers of university staff are increasing less than proportionately. This has stimulated interest in computer based learning materials and the government has funded various initiatives to encourage their development and use. A key feature of several of these government initiatives has been to encourage departments in different universities to work together.

The mission of the Economics Learning and Teaching Support Network Centre based at the University of Bristol is to promote high quality learning, teaching and assessment practices. A wealth of information services and value-added resources for academic economists are freely accessible from the Centre Web site . These include a textbook guide that contains information on economics textbooks listed by category and a software guide that provides information about software for use in economics teaching and learning. Two journals and a termly newsletter are available, together with advice sheets on various topics including the use of computer materials. The Good Practice Showcase offers short accounts of the implementation and evaluation of a variety of teaching innovations. More case studies would be very welcome. The Centre also organizes workshops and conferences.

One example of the LTSN Economics Center's role is the way it disseminates information about the costs and benefits of using Virtual Learning Environments. It organizes workshops to give new users hands-on experience in the use of Blackboard or WebCT for teaching economics; it encourages users to share their experiences in a 'Good Practice Showcase' and it puts advice sheets on the Web site. Last year saw considerable growth in the use of Virtual Learning Environments with some universities putting all their economics modules on line. Feedback shows that most staff is convinced that the approach will save time and enhance their teaching in the longer term. Students also rate the system highly with 51% valuing its contribution to their learning as 'good' or 'excellent'.

The Internet Economist is a free 'teach yourself' tutorial on Internet information skills for economists. It aims to help users to develop the skills needed to effectively use Internet information resources to support their learning, teaching or research. The interactive online tutorial is structured in four sections. Users are given a tour of key sites in their area, with the ability to collect links in a virtual "shopping basket" for later use. The discover section explains how to develop a fruitful and efficient Internet search strategy. Principles for evaluating the credibility and usability of information found on the Internet are set out in the review section. Examples of best use then prompt readers to reflect on the Internet's benefits for them.

The Biz/ed website, is a unique and completely free online resource. An exciting new section that covers a range of economics and business topics is The Virtual Learning Arcade (VLA). This provides interactive online models such as price elasticity of demand, advertising elasticity of demand and interrelationship of markets, together with simulations on topics such as labour supply and determination of house prices.

BusEcon is a new package produced by the Economics Consortium funded by the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme set up by the UK higher education funding bodies. It builds on the strengths of their earlier product, WinEcon but emphasizes the aspects of economic analysis that are particularly relevant to students on Business related degrees. Details are at .

This courseware has been produced to meet the growing demand within economics departments for material related to business and finance rather than purely theoretical analysis. Student motivation is often improved if a topic is introduced as a real-world problem and so BusEcon includes both case studies and theoretical analysis. Examples of case studies are Lonely Planet, used to introduce the concept of a firm; Nike, Procter and Gamble, HB Fuller and BP as multinational companies; and the cost of the legal and financial advice taken by merging firms.

The Web provides a wealth of readily available and up-to-date materials for case studies, but Web sites change frequently. If students are directed to look at particular Web sites they may not find the material that was there when a case study was prepared. A way of avoiding this problem is for material to be copied to another Web page. Copyright problems can be circumvented by acknowledging the quoted material. The case study web page can then incorporate multiple choice questions that ask students to apply theoretical concepts. This is the approach used in BusEcon.

The discussant, Scott Simpkins, commented on the differences between the UK and the US in developing computer based materials. The UK has encouraged co-ordinated effort, whereas in the US the materials have been developed more by individual initiatives. There is more emphasis on business oriented materials in the UK, and on theory oriented ones in the US. Both countries experience the same problems in motivating students to study and it may be that dynamic, interactive materials can make a contribution to solving these. Although there is little evidence of an increase in learning when students use computer courseware, there may be an increase in efficiency. This would occur if learning stays at least at its previous level while the student/staff ratio increases.

Web-Based Auctions and Games in the Virtual Classroom

Charles Holt, University of Virginia

Vecon Lab is a suite of about 30 Web-based programs that can be used to run interactive social science experiments. Its distribution is made possible by an interdisciplinary National Science Foundation Infrastructure Grant. The programs run in a Web browser, and no additional software is required. To obtain a password to run the programs, send your name, academic affiliation and three initials to Charles Holt at

The instructor chooses the experiment that the class is to use and sets the default parameters. The student participants then sign on, read the instructions and take part. Users are typically in the same computer classroom, but they could log on from remote locations. After working through the instructions page, which often includes a quiz, users move to a page that asks them to submit a decision by clicking the appropriate button. The resulting earnings are displayed at the end of each round. Each student's earnings typically depend on the decisions of others as well as their own decisions. At the end of the game the summary sheet that shows all players' decisions and earnings can be used to stimulate a class discussion about appropriate strategy.

'Irrigation Reduction' is an auction simulation that is both educational and fun. In this game, farmers are paid not to irrigate and individuals make or accept bids as to the amount of the payment. Another experiment, the Volunteer's Dilemma, illustrates the concept of Public Goods. Participants find that they would prefer to volunteer providing everyone volunteers, but otherwise they would rather sit back. This program is appropriate for 4th year undergraduates who have a fairly sophisticated understanding of economic theory.

The discussant, Marcelo Clerici-Arias, commended the Vecon package. He pointed out that on line experiments allow longer and more complex games than does classroom instruction. The computing requirements of the package are low and the instructions are clear, making it easily accessible.

What Works Best in the Cyber Classroom

Peter Navarro, University of California-Irvine

Technology has provided the possibility of on-line teaching, both synchronist and asynchronist (where students work individually). Uptake of the different methods, however, is variable. On-line lecture notes and e-mail are used almost universally, but techniques such as streaming video have so far had limited take up. More use will be made of it in future, however, because the simplest techniques such as putting text on the Web are much less effective.

The actual cybereconomics market is still in infancy, with just a few percents of students learning economics in cyberspace. But it is growing and increasing both the market scope and overall pool of students. The most common cybereconomics courses are introductory micro and macroeconomics. Peter Navarro shared some data from his own experience producing " The power of Macroeconomics" and "The Power of Microeconomics" for Irwin/McGraw Hill. This set of interactive CD-ROMs was designed as a traditional lecture substitute for use in cyberbased principles courses. The cost of production was about $115,000, with the labour costs at around $100,000. This example shows that any institution seeking to offer cybereconomics course must face two fundamental issues. First, the development of high quality, customised multimedia course content is expensive. It could cost from $10,000 to $90,000 per course hour. And second, such development invariably raises copyright issues. Lecturers are not always aware that this may be a problem. 58% of computer-based materials are owned by universities.

In meeting the challenges of cybercourse design and production, there are two broad options: build it within the institution or buy it from outside. According to the survey, 18 percent of the institutions currently providing cybercourses use their own proprietary software and deliver 40% of the courses currently available, while on-line campus integrators account for 25 percent of the course offerings and learning platform providers for 27 percent.

Technical problems and failures appear to be a common fact of cyberlearning life. Over 90% of instructors reported frequent problems, with web congestion and web infrastructure failures being the most common complaints. At the same time, as reported in Navarro, P. 'Economics in the Cyberclassroom', Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 2000, Vol.14, No.2, pp.119-132, Cyber learners were shown to perform as well or better than traditional learners, and also to achieve a higher level of satisfaction.

The discussant, Teresa Riley, asked if the Cyber Classroom increases student learning. The evidence presented in the paper is that it does, and that it also increases student satisfaction. It is less clear, however, whether this would also be true for small classes. There is little research into this, because doing research into how students learn economics gains less recognition than other economic research.

In the discussion that followed that presentation, some of the participants stressed that there is considerable opposition to use of the new technology for teaching. Administrators fear brand competition and don't want to promote the paradigm of 'one world Harvard'. Many teachers are hostile, fearing it may make them redundant, and teachers' unions are similarly hostile. Publishers are hostile, fearing it threatens their cash cow of textbooks. Some publishers say there is no demand for computer-based materials. Others are making such materials available. These materials now need to be highly sophisticated, because students are accustomed to playing computer games. It was also mentioned, that if students work through the theory for themselves before coming to class, then classroom time can be used for more interesting things, such as discussing applications, perhaps using material from the Wall Street Journal.

Finalising the discussion Betty Blecha said, that effective use of the new technology requires vision. Anyone can use it, but it only works if you have the ability to see its potential. Perhaps the ideal medium is still to come. Students often print everything they can from the computer. What is needed is a kind of intellectual glue to (metaphorically) bind the various materials into a text.

What's on the Internet for Economists: An Update

Bill Goffe, SUNY Oswego,
George Greenwade, VMI and
Bob Parks, Washington University

This paper focuses on the latest Internet developments that are likely to be of interest to economists. Appropriately enough you can view the paper on the Web at , and you can also download a bookmarks or favorites file giving you easy access to all the mentioned Web sites from your own computer. The paper contains a wealth of new information, tips, resources and ideas that have been added to the authors' Resources for Economists Web site during the past year.

Web developments are introduced in the paper with some facts and figures showing that Internet usage continues to increase, but more slowly than in the recent past. For those interested in who is using the new top level domain names such as .biz, .info, .pro there is information about the registrars at ICANN . As regards future Web developments, the Internet2 consortium of universities, industry and government aims to create a leading edge network capability for the national research community, to enable revolutionary Internet applications and to ensure the rapid transfer of new developments to the broader Internet community. Their site is at .

Standard reference Web sites mentioned in the paper include WebEc at which offers World Wide Web Resources in Economics with more description of them than does Resources for Economists . The HoPEc project at aims to link economists with their research papers in various online bibliographic databases. At Economagic's Economic Time Series Page you can browse through student-friendly data collections.

The Tools section of the paper offers utilities and advice for all computer users. You can get a program for creating bibliographies within TeX or LaTeX documents at BibTex and a graphic viewer with Multiple (animated) GIF support at IrfanView . Virus protection needs updating at least once a week from a site such as Symantec . To avoid spam email you should not reply to any that you receive, and be careful where you use your email address. Sites such as Fight Spam on the Internet at may be helpful.

The myriad useful resources mentioned in the paper include NAJ Economics at which produces brief reviews of economic articles that are freely available on the Internet and the Ideas site which has working papers in economics, together with a ranking of the most important. The Internet Public Library at lets you browse an online texts collection of over 19,000 titles. The FreeLunch site, provides you with free access to over 1,000,000 economic and financial data series.

Teaching resources sites that may be attractive to students include Current Value of Old Money which has information on what you could buy with your currency in Europe and USA at various times, both ancient and modern. With 69% of instructors finding at least one case of plagiarism each year, of more interest to them may be the Turnitin site, , the world's most widely recognized and trusted resource for helping prevent Internet plagiarism.

The wealth of teaching ideas that colleagues now make available for sharing on the Web include John Kane's tape/slide lectures on labor economics at . More interactive is the presentation on the Lorenz curve and Gini coefficient provided by Robert Rycroft at [No longer online- Wed Editor] . An active learning approach is suggested by Scott Simkins in the College Price Index (CPI) Project at . This gets students to monitor the prices of goods and services bought by a "typical" college student and construct a price index that represents the "cost of college living."

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