Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 8, Issue 3, 1994


A report on the Sixth Annual Conference on Computer Applications in the Social Sciences and Business, University of Portsmouth, September 1994

Guy Judge
University of Portsmouth

As in previous years the conference was held over a two day period in mid-September and featured a variety of lecture presentations, papers and practical "hands-on" computer workshops. Conference delegates came from a number of different subject areas, but with a strong economics presence. Both the Economics and the Accounting, Finance and Management CTI Centres had stands at the conference.

Although not all the papers presented at the conference can be conveniently categorised, there were three conspicuously recurrent themes; the production and use of computer-based learning material, the use of the Internet for making available and accessing information, and the design and development of computer-based systems for student assessment and course administration.

The first theme was exemplified by the sessions devoted to the work of the Economics Consortium and its computer-based learning product for introductory economics, "WinEcon". The conference opened with a presentation by Phil Hobbs, Simon Price and Jason Probert from the Consortium's "Head Office" at Bristol. They provided a brief update on the progress of the project and then illustrated points about the philosophy and style of WinEcon by running through screens from the WinEcon sampler program. This was followed up the next day by two lab sessions where conference delegates could try out some of the modules for themselves under the guidance of WinEcon authors and developers from Bristol, Leicester, London Guildhall, Portsmouth and Staffordshire universities.

Winfried Reiss, from the University of Paderborn, provided another excellent illustration of the power and flexibility of spreadsheet software for developing computer-based learning material in his paper "Kaldor on a Spreadsheet". Using Microsoft Excel, Reiss showed how Kaldor's original trade cycle model could be setup within a worksheet so that it could be examined diagramatically in phase space as well as in the time domain. Drawing on more recent work on non-linear models, Reiss went on to explain how the spreadsheet environment could be used to examine the way in which for certain parameters the Kaldor model can give rise to chaotic behaviour. Most unfortunately at this point the BARCO device, which was being used to project the image from the computer VDU onto the large screen in the lecture theatre, decided to explode with a rather disturbing bang! With impressive calm and professionalism Reiss switched to OHP slides to complete the talk, while the conference organiser was left to run around arranging a temporary LCD tablet for use by later speakers!

Nicky Ferguson and Debra Hiom, of the ESRC and Bristol University, gave a live interactive demonstration of the new Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG - pronounced "sausage") which they have developed for easy access to economics and other social science information on the Internet. To illustrate the way in which the system can be used they posed a number of hypothetical queries and then proceeded to show how SOSIG could search for the answers over the World Wide Web. The presentation in the lecture theatre was followed after the tea break by a "hands-on" practical session in one of the computer-labs.

Continuing the theme of the use of the World Wide Web, Mike Emslie put on a workshop showing how to set up a World Wide Web Server. Edited versions of the material produced for the conference by Emslie and by Ferguson and Hiom are published as papers in this issue of CHEER.

Both Carole Gill and Fred Garlick (both from Portsmouth) dealt with aspects of the increasingly pressing administrative problems of dealing with large numbers of students, which takes on extra urgency when the courses being taken are unitised and semesterised. Gill demonstrated a computer-based tracking system developed using BESPOKE while Garlick showed his integrated course administration software produced with a standard PC relational database software package. Both discussed the difficulties of designing a system which is flexible enough to be modified as course structures evolve, or as course managers remember the special rules and exceptions which they had forgotten to tell the programmer about! George Davies and Derek Fry gave a paper on a related theme dealing with the problems of implementing computer assessed tests on the university network and showed how the system which has been developed at the University of Derby has been able to cope.

Among the other papers from the conference one which may be of particular interest to economists was presented by Alan Freeman and Julian Wells of the University of Greenwich. It discussed possible strategies for the full integration of IT into the curriculum. They argued for a Resource Based Learning Unit to be set up which could provide expertise and advice to assist lecturers to redefine their teaching material for computer-based delivery and to ensure consistency of approach across units.

As usual the conference provided an opportunity for colleagues who are developing the use of computers in teaching and research working across a number of disciplines to get together to compare approaches, tools and techniques. The informal and social sessions (especially the conference Dinner) contributed further occasions to establish contacts and for the exchange of ideas. Despite the proliferation of conferences relating to computers and their applications in recent years, the CALECO conference does seem to have established itself in the academic calendar. However, to give the Portsmouth organizers a bit of a rest (my special thanks to Val for the administrative help provided over the years) and to provide a change of scenery, I have kindly accepted Phil Hobbs' offer to host a joint CTI/CALECO conference in Bristol next September.

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