Making the Leap to Web-based Study
In the core first-year economics module at Glasgow Caledonian University, students are assessed through classwork (presentations), an essay and an unseen exam. Under the general class heading of 'presentations', students investigate topics and present their findings, resulting in class discussion and comments from the tutor. This allows a report to be written up which is subsequently marked. We use the first (common) presentation (which, unlike the others, does not involve a follow-up written report) as a method of encouraging group work, introducing students to academic use of the Web, and hopefully illustrating common pitfalls to avoid in their study.
Essentially the presentation is a 'dry run' that all students have to undertake in week 4, the week before the 'real' presentation programme starts. Students are allocated into groups of three or four – the groups they will stay in throughout the rest of the module and subsequently do their 'real' presentation in. They are all directed to undertake this first presentation, details of which are available only on the divisional website, the URL of which is given in their paper-based module guide. This forces students to find and use the Web-based resources we have provided.
The core of the presentation (found at http://cbs3.gcal.ac.uk/eco/website/EME/EMEpresentation1a.html) is to find 'robust' economic data about a topic - in this instance, Lone Parents and Poverty in Scotland. Students are asked to do this via the university route: that is, using our recommended online gateways, such as those found on the divisional website or those found on the university library website. Additionally, they are asked to undertake the same task via the different 'route' of using any standard internet search engine. Within this task they are specifically asked to visit a named site that we as lecturers know is out of date and quite 'ropey' (but the drawbacks of this site are not flagged up to the students).
In their presentation to the rest of the class, each group has to give their evaluation as to which is the best 'route' to finding material, and why, and which are the best sites and worst sites they have found (here we would hope they make a critical assessment of the inferior site mentioned above). As individuals they must also e-mail a message to the seminar class bulletin board explaining their choice of best site, and why (as 'economists') they have made this judgement. This also forces them to find the bulletin board and use it! Specifically, the responsibility is on the individual student to do this, not the group. We hope by this to help students to proceed from the linking and lurking stage – reading others' contributions – and to enter into the contributing stage, where they are getting experience in hands-on involvement themselves. Finally, they have to properly reference all the sites they mention.
The resultant presentations on this topic are made by each group to the rest of their colleagues in successive 5-minute slots, with the rest of the class asked to 'rate' the best presentations informally.
This approach has been found invaluable for several reasons. Firstly, it is quite informal because it is not officially marked, thus helping to calm students' nerves. It also allows class members to see how a tutor would distinguish a good presentation from a bad one. Secondly, it illustrates several very useful issues. For instance, we invariably find that a large minority of groups do not read the question properly. There are always some who come with a presentation on the topic of lone parents, rather than on 'How to find information in the most robust manner about a topic on the Web – in this case, lone parents'. Many only carry out part of the presentation: perhaps they do not post the message, or they only use one route, or they obviously have not visited the links suggested to them regarding how to reference online sources properly.
The approach is therefore very useful in showing how a presentation may suffer from carelessness and lack of attention. We have found that this is invaluable, as it is done in an informal manner, but students are made well aware of how they might have lost badly if it had been a summative assignment. It also allows the tutor to summarise what will be key issues, such as the proper manner of evaluating and referencing online resources.
Subsequent to student groups undertaking the 'mock' presentation above, they then move on to class presentations that illustrate economic theory through the use of real case studies. One example is using the current shortage of staff car parking spaces at Glasgow Caledonian to illustrate demand and supply. (See http://cbs3.gcal.ac.uk/eco/website/EME/EMECarParkProject.html).
Essentially, there are approximately 100 places for 1,500 staff, with a campus-wide ballot for permits which, if successfully obtained, cost approximately £600.
On choosing this topic, the student group is asked to construct a market diagram using figures supplied on the university website above. These figures indicate the number of spaces, the approximate number of staff, the ballot details and price, and also refer to actual questionnaire responses from staff detailing facts such as the maximum price they would be willing to pay to use the car park. The figures (with a little thought) allow them to construct relevant demand curves by constructing the points at which the demand curve would cross each axis. The question is very contemporary given the on-going construction work at the university, of which the students are very much aware. This has cut the number of spaces available for parking, which allows us to ask the students to construct two scenarios: 'before construction work' and 'now'. The issue of the supply curve is also challenging, given that it is totally inelastic in both snapshots, requiring thoughtful interpretation of textbooks which often illustrate only upward sloping examples.
Once students have constructed the necessary diagrams, they are asked to consider the effect of external changes such as the imposition of congestion charges. They are also asked to consider the issue of 'scarcity' in a broader context by looking at questions of opportunity cost and also alternative uses of the car parking spaces.
Among the websites referenced are those of neighbouring car parks, the local bus companies, a 'sustainable transport site' and Friends of the Earth Scotland. They are, of course, asked to make use of the theory in their economic textbook. Finally, a short tongue-in-cheek video (3 minutes) made by economics staff, looking at congestion, is also made available on disc or downloadable from the Web. This mixture of paper, up-to-date internet and multimedia resources has proven in practice to be very popular with the students. A series of similar presentations forms part of every student's 'coursework' element, the follow-up written report of which is formally assessed. Student reactions from the reports are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Extracts from written group reports
'In our presentation, we got the figures correct for demand but the supply curve was impossible until we discussed a totally inelastic one in class. The books don't always cover all the examples from real life, so you have to think.'
'The Friends of the Earth website made it clear that our car park was not necessary since we had many alternatives available. The opportunity cost of the car park could have been green spaces in the university to allow the students to de-stress. This would allow rich lecturers to de-stress as well, as they wouldn't have to worry about the cost of running expensive cars.'
'The hardest bit of the presentation was explaining what happened when the university fixed the price for entry. This meant that there wasn't a market equilibrium. It had been fixed by the authorities.'
See Also: The Internet Economist