DEBE 2003 Economics LTSNBized

Conference Report by John Bradbeer

Your People and Our People: a Geographer at DEBE 2003

I was surprised and flattered as a geographer to be asked to come to the conference and run a workshop on student learning styles. I did spend some twenty-five years contributing to a joint honours programme in economics and geography, so I do have some slight second hand knowledge of your discipline. I was delighted to come as I have found that those of us interested in understanding learning and teaching have more in common across disciplines than we do with our peers researching other topics within the discipline. My experiences in Edinburgh confirmed my beliefs. So in this account I want to stress the things that struck me, especially the concerns that we seem to share and the ideas I could take from your deliberations to share with my colleagues in geography, earth and environmental sciences (the GEES LTSN disciplines).

One common theme between us all is a concern for the future of our disciplines. I guess that the evidence suggests a greater threat facing economics than geography (though not necessarily earth and environmental scientists). Numbers entering higher education to read economics are falling and more disturbingly, economics is declining in UK state schools. Falling A-level entry and severe competition from business studies plus a perception that economics is hard and abstract has unnerved British economics educators. According to your keynote speaker Bill Becker, the US is in no better shape, although the sharp decline in enrolments on economics courses of the early and mid 1990s seems to have been arrested. There were calls for the discipline to be more proactive and send its undergraduates into schools to promote the discipline. Perhaps geography, at least, is just a step ahead on this with its Geographers into Teaching initiatives promoted by the Royal Geographical Society. Of course geography has a greater presence in the secondary school, but the problems of losing curriculum time and content to other subjects and a growing shortage of specialist teachers.

Economics has one advantage over the GEES disciplines. It is sufficiently important for newspapers to have several economics correspondents. I found the discussion of Edward Lucas of the Economist of the decline of economics in education most interesting. His speculation that disciplines, like radioactive isotopes have half-lives was a stimulating metaphor. I too wondered whether our disciplines had shorter half-lives than we believe. When he worried that both school and university economics might be addressing the wrong issues I found myself agreeing that this could as well apply to geography. We too went over-mathematical and then probably over-reacted with na´ve appropriation of cultural studies.

Bill Becker and Michael Salemi talked about issues of economic literacy. Here is something that we should address for the GEES disciplines. Bill Becker pointed out that there was precious little sense in introductory economics courses of either influential living practitioners of the discipline or of disciplinary concepts that could be immediately applied to everyday life or to world citizenship. Michael Salemi agreed and called for a clearer emphasis in introductory course units on disciplinary literacy and immediate application. I know that some of my fellow geographers are thinking along these same lines and it is encouraging to hear economists saying the same things. Michael Salemi was brave to suggest what should be dropped to make room for more economic literacy but again this is something that geographers at least ought to address for our discipline.

I knew that economists are strongly into web-based learning and make extensive use of virtual learning environments and computer delivered assessment. Like us, too, they have not found this trouble-free but I guess that they have been rather more persistent in their efforts and probably have much advice to offer and some useful models to follow. I have an interest in problem-based learning and so was keen to hear what Geert Woltjer of the University of Maastricht had to say about PBL and electronic media in its support. It does look as if electronic discussion is replacing some previous face-to-face discussion in PBL but he reported that students are reluctant to use the discussion forum in Blackboard. He also said that lectures were increasing in frequency in the economics PBL programme, (from one per week per unit originally to two per week per unit) and wondered whether this confirmed students in an information-transfer rather than a personal construction of meaning conception of learning and so explained their reluctance to engage in electronic discussion.

I suppose that as I was invited to run a workshop on students' learning styles I would be expected to find another session on student learning processes the most interesting. So I really enjoyed Christine Johnston's paper on helping students become aware of their learning processes and how to use them effectively to tackle different types of learning tasks. She introduced the Learning Combination Inventory, which I had not previously encountered, and the strategy card that she had developed to help students recognise the different demands of learning and assessment tasks and the pitfalls of using just their default learning and study processes to tackle them.

In summary, then, this was a most enjoyable conference. Like all education-orientated conferences I have ever attended, it was friendly, helpful and welcoming. Are economists further ahead in pedagogic research than we in GEES? I think that I would have to answer no. While a few delegates clearly knew well the wider HE education literature, most really knew only that they loved teaching and wanted to help make learning easier and more enjoyable for their students. I enjoyed my two days among the economists and was made to feel most welcome. And of course Edinburgh is truly splendid venue for any conference.

DEBE 2003 was organised by Economics LTSN and Biz/ed (Business Education on the Internet).