Economics Network IREE Virtual Edition

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Addressing the Challenges of Economics Education: To Be or Not To Be?

Lim Cher Ping
International Review of Economics Education, volume 2, issue 1 (2003), pp. 25-54
DOI: 10.1016/S1477-3880(15)30153-5 (Note that this link takes you to the Elsevier version of this paper)

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Drawing upon international research studies of ICT in education, this paper identifies and discusses the cognitive opportunities and limitations of ICT in addressing the challenges in learning and teaching introductory economics. It considers the situation of ICT in a learning environment that supports learner autonomy and provides students with access to the economics discipline. Teaching and learning activities have to be planned and organised to ensure continuity between ICT and non-ICT lessons, the employment of ICT and non-ICT tools to provide support for one another, and the interactions between the tools and course participants. It is only then that students in the introductory economics course are likely to think ‘in an economics way’.

JEL Classification: A22


Research studies of information and communication technologies (ICT) in economics education have shown that ICT facilitates the acquisition of important cognitive skills required for effective economic analysis and evaluation. It provides the cognitive scaffolding for students to acquire complex concepts and understand the connection between them (Scheraga, 1986; Smith and Smith, 1989; MacDonald and Shields, 1998; Katz, 1999), allows teachers and students to communicate both their thoughts and interests in the subject matter (Manning, 1996; Greenlaw, 1999), and offers a better match to students’ learning style (Lage et al., 2000). Moreover, it is a medium through which students can observe the real-life implications of economic theories (Lumsden and Scott, 1988; Hallberg, 1996; Agarwal and Day, 1998; Bredon, 1999; Simkins, 1999).

Drawing upon international studies of ICT in education, this paper identifies and discusses the cognitive opportunities and limitations of ICT in addressing the challenges in learning and teaching introductory economics. Although ICT is no longer misunderstood as ‘only giving people greater access to more information, faster, more conveniently, and in more diverse forms’ (Postman, 1995, p. 42), it is easy but inaccurate to describe the future of education in terms of hardware, software, boxes and wires. Craig (1996, p. 8) cautions: ‘Before you become entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerising video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of each other, and we need them all.’

Therefore, this paper is more interested in the ways ICT is situated within a learning context, rather than merely ICT per se. It investigates and describes what actually takes place when ICT is used in a particular context, and the meanings that participants bring to that context. This is particularly critical to education research, where the object of inquiry is not simply knowledge, but useable knowledge (Richey, 1998).

Challenges of teaching and learning introductory economics

This section discusses the challenges of teaching and learning introductory economics. To avoid reducing learning to the development of mechanical skills, the nature of economics and the goals of economics education are first laid out. There must be ‘the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for education’ (Postman, 1995, p. 3). They provide the platform for discussing the challenges of teaching and learning introductory economics.

The nature of economics

Like all academic disciplines, economics has a specialised form of linguistic structure that produces distinct ways of thinking. These distinct modes of thought are embodied in the models used, and in the way these models are compared with those elements of reality that the methodology of economics can adequately identify. Robbins (1952, p. 99) claims:

The propositions of economic theory, like all scientific theory, are obviously deductions from a series of postulates. And the chief of these postulates are all assumptions involving in some way simple and indisputable facts of experience, relating to the way in which the scarcity of goods, which is the subject matter of our science, actually shows itself in the world of reality.

Therefore, the methodology of economics is essentially a matter of deductive analysis. For example, once a firm’s objective is specified as profit maximisation, it follows as a matter of logic that the price–output strategy consistent with that goal is that which equates marginal revenue and marginal cost. It follows just as formally that a profit-maximising monopolist will charge a price where the demand elasticity is greater than 1.

Inductive reasoning becomes important as the economics course develops. Inductive reasoning starts not with a premise but with real-world facts, or sets of facts, and then proceeds to an explanation. For instance, by analysing the homelessness in a country, students are given the opportunity to apply economic concepts such as inferior goods, shifts in curves, price ceilings, disequilibrium and conditions when a market ceases to exist (Wasson, 1998). Demand and supply curves, and their assumptions, may then be explained.

Given the role of inductive reasoning in economics, statistical support is necessary. Students must be equipped to handle real-world data with simple statistical techniques. It is only when such techniques are acquired that students will be able to cope with inductive reasoning in seeking explanations of real-world problems (Simkins, 1999). Moreover, students must ‘deal with the interrelatedness of things (concepts and theories) and the overall balance between the larger picture and the smaller elements that go to make it up’ (Wilkes, 1986, p. 66).

Therefore, the teaching of introductory economics must be directed towards deductive analysis and inductive reasoning. Students will then be able to take materials dealing with economic behaviour and phenomena, and reason through their own analyses rather than passively describing economic phenomena. The pedagogic emphasis should be on encouraging students to be inside the discipline, operating, in however limited a sense, as economists. In this way, economics educators are being faithful to the discipline and imparting economic training to their students.

Aims of economics education: to think ‘in an economics way’

Introductory economics courses are run in educational institutions all over the world. Although their structure may vary, the aims of the courses are consistent. The general aim is to provide students with an adequate knowledge and understanding of the tools of economic analysis and of the situations and problems to which these tools are applied. This aim is then translated into assessment objectives of skills to be tested: knowledge and understanding, analysis, application, interpretation and evaluation, and organisation and presentation.

The following quotation from the report of the Joint Committee for Economics Education captures the types of thinking inherent in the discipline, as well as the interconnectivity of economic concepts and ideas.

A capacity to understand the mutual interrelations and interdependencies of the various elements in an economics system and to take account of them in handling economic problems; a capacity to apply to an economic problem the models of economics analysis that are most appropriate to it; a capacity to follow and sustain an economic argument and to make logical inferences from given information. (Joint Committee on Economics Education, 1977, p. 23)

The above quotation suggests that to facilitate students to think ‘in an economics way’, the introductory economics course must promote learner autonomy, and provide access to the world of economic concepts and ideas. In this paper, I adopt Little’s (1991, p. 4) definition of learner autonomy, which includes the provision of learner control, task orientation and critical reflection among students in the learning environment:

Autonomy is a capacity – for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action. It presupposes, but also entails, that the learner will develop a particular kind of psychological relation to the process and content of his learning. The capacity of autonomy will be displayed both in the way the learner learns and in the way he or she transfers what has been learned to a wider context.

It is a commonplace to note that learning depends on access – to adequate facilities, informed teachers, illuminating materials, and so on. However, students also need to gain access to the academic environment of economics. Laurillard (1993, p. 26) claims that ‘every academic subject faces this same kind of challenge, to help students go beyond their experience, to use it and reflect on it, and thereby change their perspective of it, and therefore change the way they experience the world’.

The cognitive capabilities that are appropriate to learning in the natural environment of the real world do not work as well in the academic environment of the economics discipline. Learning in naturalistic contexts is synergistic with the context, where the learning outcome is an aspect of both the situation and the relationship between learner, activity and environment. However, learning in an academic context requires learning about descriptions of the world, about a particular way of looking at the world. It is necessary to generalise from these experiences to obtain an abstraction, a description of the world that does not consist in doing the activity alone (Laurillard, 1987).

For example, many students through dictation of notes may know that the market equilibrium price is determined by the intersection of supply and demand curves; but may perceive price as a means of exploitation by sellers. Such misconceptions are due to well-established precepts as students attempt to create order out of, and impose some sort of sense upon, their everyday experiences (Thomas, 1985). Economics teachers who want their students to think ‘in an economics way’ cannot assume that ‘economics as a substantive activity’ will suffice (Henderson 1985, p. 38): that is, the experiences of the economic system do not necessarily incorporate the form of comprehension that provides an access to the discipline.

Without autonomy and access, students are likely to be plagued by the problem of inert knowledge and to approach the discipline as bundles of facts and descriptions. As a result, they may lack an appreciation of and ability to participate in the economics way of thinking.

Lack of learner autonomy

The deductive nature of economics requires students to work through and understand the concepts or principles themselves. In most educational contexts, students are heterogeneous in terms of aptitudes, prerequisite knowledge, motivation, experience and learning styles. Many problems in economics courses are brought about by heterogeneity among students (Bach, 1990). Teachers are faced with the fundamental dilemma of where to pitch their lessons. If the lessons are pitched too high, the weaker students become hopelessly lost in the course. If the lessons are pitched too low, the brighter students are turned off as the course fails to stimulate them intellectually (Lage et al., 2000).

Moreover, Becker (1997, p. 1354) states that most instructional practices in economics courses tend to be ‘consistent with a passive learning environment that does not engage students’ and encourage them to take an active role in their own learning. Such an environment also does not promote critical reflection and independent learning on the part of students, and hence impedes learner autonomy.

Lack of access into the world of economics concepts and ideas

Most students use their everyday experiences to interpret the meaning of economic concepts. Although such experiences can help the development of economics thinking, many misconceptions are formed as a result. For example, students who perceive price as a means of exploitation by suppliers cannot articulate comparative static equilibrium analysis of the effect of changes in demand and supply.

Another problem is that students tend to equate knowledge to facts. However, economics is a way of thinking about problems, not a set of answers ready to be taken off the shelf. Keynes states: ‘The theory of Economics is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking which helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions’ (Keynes, 1921, p. v). Students are expected to develop an ability to apply analytical tools in thinking independently about economic problems (Bach, 1990). But students may not have experienced this particular version of learning. They may have problems in understanding economic concepts and principles, let alone in applying and evaluating them.

Another common problem is that students’ expectations of the course are sometimes not met. Many students expect the course to provide them with clear-cut and simple answers to current socioeconomic problems. They often encounter a sense of disappointment when they cannot apply the theories and principles that they have learnt to real-world economic situations (Parks, 1999). For example, students experience difficulties in recognising the whole range of different kinds of allocation problem that can be explored by simple demand and supply analysis. This problem of reorganising the economic dimension to a problem is likely to become more acute as economic techniques become more complex.

Opportunities and limitations of ICT in economics education

Research studies of ICT use in economics education have shown that ICT empowers students and allows them access to the discipline (Scheraga, 1986; Smith and Smith, 1989; Hallberg, 1996; MacDonald and Shields, 1998; Bredon, 1999; Katz, 1999; Simkins, 1999; Lage et al., 2000). Various types of ICT tool are used in economics courses: tutorial, testing, simulation/game, database, spreadsheet, and tools of local area network and the internet (Whitehead, 1996). Each provides opportunities for students to think ‘in an economics way’.

In this paper, I am not dismissing traditional classrooms for failing to support learner autonomy and provide access to the discipline; instead, I am taking the stance that ICT in an economics course offers teachers more options to create a learning environment that enables students to think ‘in an economics way’. Whether these opportunities are perceived and taken up depends on the course participants, the tools and the learning environment.

Perkins (1993) cites various studies to assert that it is erroneous to assume that ‘as long as a support system is available, people will more or less automatically take advantage of the opportunities that it affords’. Daiute (1985) and Cochran-Smith (1991), in their studies of the use of word-processors in the classroom, observed that most students used them primarily to make minor stylistic, grammatical and spelling corrections and to get nice print-outs. It was the more experienced writers who were able to utilise the powerful editing mechanisms of the word-processor. They used it to plan their essays and make structural revisions that would have been done more painfully by hand.

In their research, Ford et al. (1995) state that most ICT packages do not have a significant effect on learning and teaching activities in schools because only a small proportion of their potential is used. The extent to which learning opportunities are actually taken up depends on where and how ICT is situated in the economics course. If ICT is treated as an add-on, isolated from all other aspects of the course, few if any of the opportunities will be taken up (Salomon, 1993).

Learner autonomy: opportunities and limitations

For decades, there had been a lack of delivery systems designed to adjust teaching to individual students in an economics class (Oliver, 1973; Wilkes, 1986; Saunders and Welsh, 1990). Advocates of ICT in economics education argued that ICT packages provide students with learner autonomy that is crucial to the learning process (Cullimore et al., 1996; Brooksbank et al., 1998; Lim, 1998). The following sections discuss the different aspects of learner autonomy: learner control, task orientation and critical reflection.

Learner control and working at own pace

Learner control refers to the options in the ICT package that allow students to make decisions about what sections to study, and what paths to follow through the interactive material (Siegel, 1994). In contrast to traditional methods of instruction, ICT gives students the opportunity to determine when instruction will occur and at what pace. It does so by providing facilities that give students control over the presentation of content and the sequence of the learning activities (see Table 1), and hence by promoting learner autonomy (Laurillard, 1988).

Table 1 Facilities providing control over the sequence of content and learning activities

Control over sequence of content Control over sequence of learning activities
Index of content See examples
Content map Do exercises
Escape at any time to index or map Receive information
Skip forward or back a chosen amount Consult glossary
Retrace chosen route through materials Ask for explanation
Take test

Source: Laurillard (1988), pp. 217–18.

Students can set the pace of instruction and work through the course content at a rate commensurate with their ability and motivation. They have the option to repeat portions when necessary or desired, and change the speed at which they progress through each section. Moreover, students exhibit a wide range of navigation routes. Some begin by looking at what they already know, while others start with unfamiliar concepts and principles. Some work through the materials in a linear fashion, while others leave an exercise half done to explore another section before returning to complete the initial exercise (Laurillard, 1993). These navigational opportunities facilitate students’ own learning style (Pérez et al., 1995).

While the teacher who prepares the materials may determine what is delivered, students have a substantial amount of control over the rate of learning and the learning sequence. Students are then in a better position to make judgements about their progress and to monitor their own learning needs. This ultimately results in a more favourable feeling towards learning, more efficient operation in the learning environment, and better performances in their examinations (Chou, 1993; Taylor, 1996).

Task orientation versus learner control

ICT offers a means for learner control, where students have greater flexibility and self-determination to acquire economic knowledge and construct their own meaning of the knowledge. This assumes that students have acquired the necessary learning strategies to work through the ICT package, knowledge about learning from the package and the attitudes that enable them to use these strategies and knowledge confidently, flexibly, appropriately and independently of a teacher (Anita, 1991). In the real world, these assumptions seldom hold.

It is clear from the above discussion that students cannot be assumed to be ‘expert’ learners in the ICT environment. Without the active design and management of activities to support and be supported by the learner autonomy that ICT provides, students may ‘get lost’ and, as a result, lose task orientation or fail to complete the task. Taylor et al. (1997, p. 230) distinguish between ‘task semantics’, which refers to the implicit knowledge students use to understand the task, and ‘task syntax’, the aspects of the interface that students operate in order to address the task semantics. Students lose task orientation in the ICT environment because so much attention is focused on the task syntax – the navigation aspects of the interface – that they lose sight of the task semantics.

Even for more experienced learners, if effort is involved in navigating and interacting with the material presented in the ICT package, mental resources available for comprehension and achievement of the learning goal may be reduced. In one study of ICT use in a class of mature students doing an education course, the teacher had to keep on reminding students to take down notes and yet refrain from taking down everything (Draper et al., 1996).

To address the above-mentioned assumptions, teachers may organise orienting activities to help students manage learning from the package. An orienting activity is a mediator through which new information is presented (Hannafin and Hughes, 1986). It provides students with a structure that guides them on a given task or learning activity as they work through the ICT package (Fels, 1990; Hannafin, 1992). Studies (Klein and Pridemore, 1994; Cavalier and Klein, 1998) show that students who receive orienting activities are more task-oriented than those who do not. Examples include advance organisers and worksheets.

Advance organisers are ‘relevant and inclusive introductory materials . . . introduced in advance of learning . . . at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness’ (Ausubel, 1968, p. 148). Gagné and Driscoll (1988) claim that advance organisers provide students with a framework that allows for integrative relationships to be formed between new and existing knowledge; and hence, knowledge that is acquired goes beyond an isolated fact or concept and is integrated into a larger scheme. Tucker (1990) asserts that students who are provided with advance organisers while navigating through ICT packages are in a better position to organise the new information that is learnt. As the structure of to-be-learned material decreases, the advantage of using an advance organiser as an orienting activity increases (Cavalier and Klein, 1998).

Accompanying worksheets developed by teachers or developers in the ICT environment provide the structure of the task for students and keep them task-oriented (Plowman, 1996). Based on her study of the use of interactive media, Plowman (1996) notes that it is necessary for specific teacher guidance to structure the task in the ICT environment, as students usually lack overall strategies for dealing with a task. The structure of the task makes apparent the connections between sequences, and develops guided progression from one sequence to another. She suggests that such a structure can be given by accompanying worksheets, to be used with ICT packages. Therefore, activities should be designed to support and guide students as they are given control of their own learning.

Inserted questions and critical reflection

To ensure that learner autonomy is promoted, students must be capable of critically reflecting upon their learning experiences (Little, 1991). Reflection encompasses processes such as integrating and accommodating new information, planning immediate and long-term goals, evaluating current actions against feedback and goals, and relating all these to the structure of the whole (Gagné and Driscoll, 1988). Laurillard (1993, p. 64) defines this process as reflection on the goal–action–feedback cycle: ‘The presence of a goal is prefigured in the unity between action, feedback and integration; these aspects of the process only make sense with the direction provided by a goal. The link between them is only made if the learner can reflect on the relationship between them all.’

In her research study of first-year economics undergraduates, Soper (1997) claims that the insertion of questions throughout the tutorial mode in WinEcon (see Figure 1) encourages critical reflection on the part of students and promotes learner autonomy. Rothkopf (1970, p. 328) hypothesises that inserted questions give rise to ‘inspective behaviours’ which ‘give birth to learning’. As these inserted questions usually require application of principles or concepts to new examples, they encourage students to process the content of the instruction more thoroughly; in fact, to transform it, in the effort to apply it in a new situation (Watts and Anderson, 1971).

Figure 1 Inserted question in WinEcon tutorial mode

However, previous findings from a large-scale investigation of teaching and learning with ICT packages (Laurillard and Taylor, 1994; Plowman and Chambers, 1994; Plowman, 1996) suggest that the lure of interactivity usually leads to students’ failure to reflect on the task in which they are engaged. Even with inserted questions, the immediate feedback provided by the ICT package and the pressure on students to complete the next task conspire to reduce attention to the outcome of previous actions or materials. Laurillard and Taylor (1994) emphasise the importance of combining ICT packages with some non-ICT reflective activities for the packages to enhance learning. Therefore, students may require a combination of support provided by the ICT package and support provided by the teacher and other students.

Access to an academic environment: opportunities and limitations

In order to gain access to the world of academic concepts, principles and theories, Perkins and his colleagues (1995) state that students must be offered access to a wide repertoire of higher-order knowledge, accessible representations and rich contexts that facilitate activation of relevant knowledge. The following sections provide a discussion of how the use of ICT in introductory economics offers students access to the academic environment:

Visualisation and animation

Since Wundt (1912) claimed that all thought processes were accompanied by images, numerous studies have been conducted to investigate instructional strategies facilitating the visual thought process (Levin and Lesgold, 1978; Mayer and Anderson, 1992; Mayer and Sims, 1994). The instructional effectiveness of visualisation and animation as devices for facilitating the visual learning process has been a primary issue in many recent ICT studies (Resnick and Johnson, 1988; Reiber, 1990; Reusser, 1993; Mayer et al., 1996). These representations offer effective ‘conceptual anchors’, ‘disclosing important networks of relationships in a vivid and memorable way’ (Perkins et al., 1995, p. 77).

There are some economic concepts that are especially difficult to teach by lecture and discussion – for example, the law of diminishing marginal returns and the multiplier effect. Many studies have shown that visualisation and animation in ICT packages such as WinEcon facilitate this understanding by affording access to the academic environment of economics ideas (Sloman, 1995; Hobbs and Judge, 1995; Soper, 1997; Brooksbank et al., 1998; Lim, 2001a).

ICT packages, such as WinEcon, demonstrate exactly what happens through graphical animation and simultaneous changes in a table within the same screen (Figure 2). This allows students to see the connections between concepts by changing one representation that leads to changes in the other representations. It allows an almost unlimited number of possible scenarios as compared to textbooks or traditional modes of instruction without computers. These serve as objects for students to think about, and thus help students to develop certain aspects of economic thinking.

Figure 2 Graphical animation and changes in a table within the same screen

Moreover, the visual presentation employs teaching strategies based on the methods of phenomenography defined by Marton and Ramsden (1988). One such strategy is to present the learner with new ways of seeing a concept or principle (Marton and Ramsden, 1988). Diagrams in WinEcon are built up step by step. For example, in the plotting of the demand curve, a table depicting the relationship between price and quantity demanded is first presented (see Figure 2). The X–Y Cartesian of quantity demanded against price is situated next to the table. As the student clicks on each of the coordinates in the table, the corresponding point is being plotted on the graph. After all the points are plotted, a line is drawn through all the points to show the individual demand curve. WinEcon allows students to discover how the curve is built up rather than being presented with the completed diagram (Lim, 2001a).

The other strategy suggested by Marton and Ramsden (1988) is to focus on a few critical issues and show how they relate to each other. It is very common for students not to be able to distinguish between a movement along the demand curve and a shift of the demand curve. The price slider in the WinEcon package allows students to investigate how the quantity demanded changes as price alters; and more importantly, depicts a movement along the demand curve (Figure 3). In the next screen, a shift of the demand curve is shown with various step cards, emphasising a rise in income with the price of the good and other demand determinants held constant. The step-by-step plotting of the curve and the multiple representations mediate between idiosyncratic and informal analyses of concepts and relationships, and more formal analyses by:

Figure 3 The price slider used to investigate quantity changes as price alters

Although such visualisation and animation has the undoubted advantage of allowing students to see economic relationships and analyses more clearly, teachers have to be mindful of the limitations of these diagrams. A good example is the Philips relationship between the rate of inflation on the y-axis and the magnitude of unemployment on the x-axis (Figure 4). The curve postulates high inflation at low unemployment levels, low inflation at high unemployment levels and falling prices at yet higher levels of unemployment. This diagram does not prove or explain anything; it simply asserts something. Visual aids may reinforce what has been taught or what is to be taught, but they are most unlikely to lead to inductive/deductive reasoning in economics.

Figure 4 Short-run Philips curve

Moreover, some diagrams in economics are suitable only for mathematically adept students. For example, under the profit maximisation topic, students are usually presented with two diagrams, one on total cost/total revenue, and the other on marginal revenue/marginal cost (Figure 5). The first diagram shows that profits are maximised when the distance between the total revenue and total cost curves is the greatest, at an output of 78 units. Through observation, students can see that at the profit-maximising output, the tangents to the curves are parallel to each other (as compared to the other outputs). The students are then presented with another diagram to show that when the tangents are parallel, the marginal revenue curve intersects the marginal cost curve. However, it takes the mathematically trained to realise that the tangents to total revenue and total cost curves are exactly the same concepts as marginal cost and marginal revenue.

Figure 5 Profit maximisation for mathematically adept students

Students may also not be aware that the equality of marginal revenue and cost is only a necessary condition. A further condition is that the output preceding the marginal equality should have been profitable: that is, earning at least normal profits in the long run. Without stating the profit maximisation conditions explicitly, the diagrams above may lead to misconceptions among students.

Therefore, it is necessary to consider whether the attributes of visualisation and animation are congruent with the specific learning requirement of the given task (Reiber, 1990). The issue of whether there are adequate narratives explaining their instructional roles in the given material must also be considered (Mayer et al., 1996).

Cognitive scaffolding

Very often, students see the study of economics as a mass of garbled concepts that must be memorised for tests. However, the treatment of the nature of economics emphasises deductive and inductive thinking. Oliver (1973) argues that, if a classroom explanation is to be a valid training in economics and is the correct explanation, then it must take account of the kind of thinking required in economics: that is, the learning and teaching activities must scaffold deductive and inductive thinking processes.

Scaffolding is the support that enables students to achieve a goal or action that will not be possible without that support. It also facilitates students learning to achieve the goal or action without the support in the future (Guzdial, 1994). Under the instructional design of ICT tutorial packages, students are usually presented with an initial series of rule screens, which have been designed to present (1) the definition of the concept, (2) the list of steps in the procedure and (3) the statement of relationship between concepts. After these rule screens, students may view either the example screens or the practice screens. The example screens demonstrate the procedure or show an application of the principle, while the practice screens allow students to apply the rule to a specific object or event (Shlechter, 1991). These screens provide the full set of scaffolding activities in the limited bandwidth of the human–computer interaction. Therefore, the instructional design of ICT tutorial packages provides students with the cognitive structures necessary for dealing with abstract economic relationships.

However, this is only one part of scaffolding. A critical aspect of scaffolding is fading. For students to do their own thinking without the scaffolding, the scaffolding must fade. Fading of the scaffolding should be adapted to individual needs, typically through gradual reductions in scaffolding (Guzdial, 1994). Each student is facilitated in the thinking process without being stifled by too much scaffolding or failing due to too little scaffolding. By itself, ICT packages lack the mutual re-adaptation that human teachers use to support the fading of scaffolding.

Moreover, most ICT packages do not encourage students to formulate questions and answers of their own. This may impede the development of epistemic knowledge and problem-solving skills among students. When students are not encouraged to formulate questions and answers of their own, they may not understand how the manifestly practical reality of economic life can be analysed meaningfully via such a structure (Hansen and Salemi, 1990). Activities must be designed to support and to be supported by ICT in order to develop epistemic knowledge and problem solving skills.

Immediate feedback

The feedback afforded by ICT packages is usually provided continuously (rather than just at the end of the module), reinforcing the positives (rather than emphasising the negatives), and focusing feedback on how performance can be improved in the future (rather than dwelling on the past). Such feedback deals explicitly with any misconceptions that the students have and may help in self-correction. When feedback is delivered as soon as possible after the act that initiated it, it can become a very powerful reinforcer: that is, it is possible to change behaviour quickly and to maintain it in strength for long periods of time (Skinner, 1986).

More effective feedback also allows for a context of exploration, where initial investigation of the problem helps in developing one’s thinking about the solution, where ‘it is all right to be wrong’; in fact, where being wrong to begin with is an important step on the way to knowledge. If students can acknowledge that ‘it is all right to be wrong’, then they are more likely to claim authorship of knowledge. They are more likely to hold their knowledge claims contingently; they are more likely to think that others’ knowledge claims may not be the final; and perhaps, they are more likely to look behind what is usually taken for granted (Povey, 1997). Thus, ICT opens up possibilities for conjecturing and taking risk; it opens up the possibility of a different (more emanicipatory) relationship to knowledge.

ICT packages, especially those with inserted questions and tests, help monitor a very important component of learning – misconceptions. Misconceptions might arise when students try to fit new information to familiar interpretation. For example, as has been stated, many students perceive price as a means of exploitation by sellers. There is a need to identify this erroneous interpretation and correct the misconception quickly. One advantage of ICT packages is the immediate and predominantly encouraging feedback provided to students. It does more than simply inform students that their response is correct or incorrect. When an incorrect response is made, the feedback may prompt students for the correct response by giving hints. When a correct response is made, the ICT package may provide explanations for students to validate their interpretations of the question and response.

However, it should be noted that the essence of economics is analysis. ICT will not do justice to economics if it reinforces economic theory as a set of ideas to be learned and nothing more (Fels, 1990). ICT needs to be situated in a learning environment where students are taught to think ‘in an economics way’. The learning and teaching activities in this environment must support and be supported by ICT to ensure students can see that the economic concepts and principles serve as an analytical toolbox for economists to identify and solve real-world problems.

Relevance to the real world

It is very difficult to answer the ‘what if?’ questions in economics with traditional textbooks, lecture and discussion methods (Li and Stoecker, 1995, p. 324). The internet, simulation programs, database and spreadsheet applications may allow students to see the relevance of their studies by providing them with opportunities to address these ‘what if?’ questions. At the same time, such experiences fulfil the pedagogical goals of allowing students to apply theories, use evidence and recognise the legitimate range of application of economic analysis (Velenchik, 1995).

For example, after completing a topic on demand, students can launch the web browser to access an online newspaper article such as ‘Games Watch’ (Guardian Unlimited, 1999) (Figure 6). Students are expected to apply their understanding of the factors affecting demand to the article on the games machine price war among Sega, Sony and Nintendo.

Figure 6 Online newspaper article on ‘Games Watch’

The teacher can also integrate spreadsheet applications into the course. For example, if one looks at the price of a good and the quantity of the good, one might link the increases in quantity demanded of the good to a fall in its price. However, one can always find alternative explanations that link the increase in the quantity demanded of the good to an increase in income, an increase in price of substitutes or an increase in population size. Quite different inquiries will all produce encouraging results and none is incorrect.

Spreadsheets can handle complex and interacting formulae and are also flexible in that changes of the variables can be made quickly and easily. Thus, they are very useful for such inquiries in economics (Cook, 1987). Students can explore the effects of the changes in variables on the quantity demanded of the good. They can also attempt to develop complex models of their own and test them against other real-world data. This process supports interpretation and analysis, which provides better access to the academic environment of the economics discipline (Judge, 1996).

However, discovering relationships based on real-world data is difficult. The real world is far less organised than many students expect and exact relationships do not exist. The use of ICT may serve as an ‘anchor’ for course activities, but guidance has to be given, especially during the beginning of the course, to help students acquire and develop data-handling skills.

Data-response-type questions can be set to help give students a focus while they are investigating and analysing the data (Welford, 1986). Moreover, part of the responsibility of gathering data can be shifted to students. Gathering data is actually part of the task of becoming an economist. If the teacher does the data collection, the authenticity of economics education is taken away. These activities should be integrated into the economics course to support the opportunities provided by ICT.

There is a need for students to understand at the outset that economics courses go beyond memorisation of key terms and manipulation of equations. Students are expected to develop thinking skills along with an appreciation of the importance and relevance of the concepts taught. By providing a relevance to real life through ICT, there is bound to be a trade-off between course breadth and depth (Hansen and Salemi, 1990). Teachers must find the balance to optimise learning outcomes given the constraints of curriculum and resources.

It is also necessary for students to understand that the course will not provide them with clear-cut and unassailable answers to current socioeconomic problems. In many critical instances, answers cannot be provided. Despite the considerable amount of research done, economists have not provided a convincing and generally accepted explanation for many economic phenomena such as a productivity slowdown. Moreover, good answers to socioeconomic problems frequently require a substantial box of analytical tools, which exceeds those of the introductory economics course. Besides, answers usually transcend the discipline of economics. For example, economic analysis alone is inadequate to explain the growth of the ‘Asian Tigers’ and their subsequent fall.

Dialogic dimensions of learning

Cognitivist and constructivist explanations of learning assert that the dialogic process is essential to effective learning. The interactive design of most ICT learning packages attempts to model the various dialogic dimensions of learning (Stoney and Wild, 1998). Laurillard’s (1993) ‘conversation framework’ is used in this paper to discuss the dialogic dimensions of learning which provide students with access to the academic environment of the discipline (Figure 7). There are four components in the dialogue – discussion, interaction, adaptation and reflection – and two levels in the framework, one being action on the world, and the other being talk about those interactions with the world. Interaction between the teacher and student happens at the action-on-world level, whereas discussion is carried out at the representation of the action-on-world level. Adaptation and reflection are conscious processes on the part of both the teacher and the student.

Figure 7 Laurillard’s (1993) conversational framework

Source: adapted from Laurillard (1993), p. 103, Figure II.1.

Although the dialogue may essentially be between the teacher and student, certain discussions and interactions may be carried out with ICT as a tool. For example, the ICT package may describe the conception, set the task goal and give feedback on the student’s action. The student adapts his or her action in light of the ICT package’s description and reflects on the interaction to modify the description, while the teacher reflects on the student’s performance and adapts the task goal in light of the student’s description. Moreover, the dialogue may be based on past experiences or ‘thought experiments’ rather than actually involving action-on-the-world. The student’s reflection on that imagined interaction and the discussion with the teacher may be sufficient to enable the student to represent those interactions with the world (Lim, 2001b).

Although ICT packages may be interactive, they may lack the various dialogic dimensions of learning. Teaching and learning in the classroom are distributed between the teacher, the students and many other tools, such as textbooks, worksheets, notes, whiteboards, videos, televisions, newspapers and ICT. Dialogues among students, and between students and teachers, promote the guided construction of knowledge in the learning environment (Lim, 2001b). This section does not intend to explore how ICT replicates or fails to replicate such social relations that surround learning in the design of ICT packages. Instead, the discussion is on how the use of ICT promotes these dialogic processes in the learning environment, namely the dialogues between the teacher and student, and dialogues among students.

One-to-one dialogue between teacher and student

Bloom (1984) maintains that one-to-one tutorial teaching provides the ideal learning environment. Laurillard (1993) also claims that a one-to-one, face-to-face meeting between the teacher and student provides access to the academic environment. Although it is impossible to design an ICT package completely on a pure conversation model, ICT packages afford an environment for such a model to be applied: a one-to-one dialogue between the teacher and student. As the rest of the students are working through ICT packages at their own pace, there are opportunities for the teacher to engage in a one-to-one dialogue with individual students in the ICT learning environment. This dialogue may take place face-to-face or may be mediated by ICT, such as asynchronous discussion boards or synchronous chats.

The one-to-one dialogue between the teacher and student ‘ensures intensive intellectual participation on the part of the student, guides students through optimal sequences of discrete pieces of economic knowledge accumulating to a desired learning objective, diagnoses and treats errors in reasoning, and builds on unique characteristics of individual students’ (Sumansky, 1985, p. 482). Such dialogue, with the ICT package as a tool, offers an adaptive learning environment that may help students to access the academic environment. Research studies by Driver et al. (1994, p. 11) suggest that:

If students are to adopt scientific ways of knowing, then intervention and negotiation with an authority, usually the teacher, is essential. Here, the critical feature is the nature of the dialogic process. The role of the authority figure has two important components. The first is to introduce new ideas or cultural tools where necessary and to provide the support and guidance [for students] to make sense of these for themselves. The other is to listen and diagnose the ways in which the instructional activities are being interpreted to inform further action.

Student–student dialogue

The ‘conversational framework’ is also applicable in student–student dialogues, providing students with better access to the academic environment (Slavin, 1990; Laurillard, 1993; Lookatch, 1996). Fisher and his colleagues (1996) state that the use of ICT packages encourages more student dialogues than traditional classrooms. This is especially so when computers and small-group learning methods are used together in the classroom. Moreover, grouping students at the computer could enhance computer access and compensate for the existing financial constraints in schools.

In a study that relates group process variables using ICT to a computer programming outcome, Wizer (1995) claims that ICT encourages group interaction that includes giving and receiving explanations, receiving responses to questions, and verbalising output aloud while handling the keyboard. As compared to work on small-group learning in non-ICT settings, the study shows that students nearly always receive explanations in response to questions.

In a more recent study by Pea et al. (1994), the ICT package allows students to work together with other students or with scientists across the boundaries of space and time. The software in the package supports students as they conduct scientific inquiries as members of a community. The ICT package also requires students to record their activities, observations and hypotheses as they perform scientific inquiry. Hence, it allows the students to share and comment upon each other’s work, which encourages communication and collaboration. Moreover, sharing responsibility creates a safe environment where getting the wrong answer is not a problem so long as students can analyse why and learn from their mistakes.

Although student dialogues are encouraged when students are assigned to work in pairs or small groups at a limited number of computers, they are also present when each student has a computer. Crook (1994) notes that ICT-based tasks involve many subtasks (for example, creating a button for a HyperCard stack or making columns with word-processing software), leading to situations where students need help and find their neighbours a convenient source of assistance. The habit of such dialogues once established carries over into other ICT or non-ICT activities. Moreover, students often look over each other’s shoulders, comment on each other’s work, offer assistance and discuss what they are doing (Crook, 1994).

Brown and Palincsar (1989) suggest that dialogues among students provide them with the means to gauge their own progress, which in turn assists them in identifying their relative strengths and weaknesses and permits them the insights necessary to enhance their own learning. A student can also make a contribution to another student’s cognitive and affective domain by providing hints, advice, feedback, correction, evaluation and encouragement (Chou, 1993). Another frequently noted advantage of student dialogue is that it calls on students to justify their conclusions and to act as external critics for each other. In so doing, they become more reflective about their own thinking. Over time, students internalise the role of critic so that they begin to act as critics for their own works (Lim, 2001b).

Moreover, when student dialogues are unscripted, some students tend to assume the teacher’s role: that is, they summarise and explain the material to peers, and answer their peers’ questions about the material. Other students may assume the role of learner: that is, they listen to peers’ summaries of the material, compare what they know with the material being presented by peers, and ask questions about parts of the material that are initially unclear (Rada et al., 1993).


The discussion in this paper has explored the opportunities and limitations of ICT in economics education. Changing the design of the ICT tool to fit the learning environment in which it is used will certainly improve learning, but it is an expensive and time-consuming enterprise (Draper, 1998). Moreover, within the same learning environment, the learning needs of students may differ and the opportunities of the ICT tool may not be taken up. Although the opportunities and limitations of ICT have been discussed, the emphasis of the discussion has been on the learning and teaching activities in introductory economics that support and are supported by ICT.

Teaching and learning activities have to be organised to take up the opportunities and address the limitations of ICT. The activities planned and organised have to ensure: the continuity between ICT and non-ICT lessons, the employment of ICT and non-ICT tools to provide mutual support for one another, and the interactions between the tools and course participants. With a better knowledge of how these activities may be organised, economics educators are more likely to take up the opportunities provided by ICT to ensure that their students think ‘in an economics way’.

Contact details

Cher Ping, Lim
Assistant Professor
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University
1 Nanyang Walk
Singapore 637616

Tel: +65 790-3279
Fax: +65 399-4057


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