Thursday, September 01, 2005

Economists lead the way in showing what’s wrong with college teaching.

A colleague of mine pointed out this gem of an article by Robert Frank from today’s New York Times. As it turns out I was an undergraduate at Cornell 30 years ago when Robert Frank started there. I never had him for a professor. I did take macroeconomic principles a Cornell, but from Ed Burton. I believe Frank and another faculty member came to class on one day to debate something that I certainly don’t remember now; in any event that’s it for my classroom experience with him. I have used Professor Frank’s intermediate microeconomics text and thought it was among the better ones on the market. And perhaps 10 years ago, I had a brief thread with Frank about an op-ed piece he had written, also for the NY Times.

The idea that trained professionals in the field don’t know the fundamentals of the principles course is scary, but I’m guessing it is not that uncommon and I’m guessing it happens in disciplines other than economics. Look at me. I never took that principles course where opportunity cost is taught and I never took the intermediate course where presumably the opportunity cost idea is amplified and used extensively. And while I think my graduate education was excellent, it really helped me to think seriously about economic models, the language and technique that were used from the get go was meant for insiders in the field.

The principles course is meant for outsiders, those who will get only a smattering of economics as they work as part of their “general education.” I believe I learned what was in principles by being a TA for it. How that happened, I’m not sure and don’t remember at the detail level. I suspect I just read the text just as the students themselves had to read it, but since I understood graduate microeconomics quite well, I had the confidence and capacity to explain what was really going on in the principles book. Another part, perhaps, was that the learning was fresh with me and so I was into it. I don’t know on that, but I believe the students thought I was a good TA and I believe they learned in my class.

Yet based on Frank’s piece, apparently they don’t learn the basics in many other principles classes. Let’s say that is attributable to the instructor issues Frank describes. Is it possible for really good courseware to rectify the situation? I believe the answer is yes. But it is not the technology per se. It is that the technology enables a “kind of writing” (writing is the wrong word here but I’m using it to emphasize that it is planned communication) that really gets the point across. And on this particular issue, getting students to understand opportunity cost, I have an Excel module that I believe does the trick nicely.

But before turning to that I want to talk about the authoring of this type of content. It is hard. That is because one has to have one eye on visualizing how the content should be presented (often that is other than the way it currently is presented in textbooks) and one has to have another eye on what the technology can do. The authorship then marries the two views into something that is easy to use and readily intelligible to the students. I believe this type of authoring can be taught and I think it would be enormously useful to have more people who can design content in this way. It is one way that technology can promote quality instruction that is getting very little play at the moment.

We talked this way a lot in the late ‘90s but what we didn’t do then is talk about the “writing skills” needed to make good courseware. It seems to me that we should be talking about that now. But it almost never comes up because there are no funds to support such a writing effort. That is a shame and it is problem. What is the opportunity cost of that?

The Excel module can be accessed here. You must enable macros and “log in” but you can use any name and birth date for that. Once done with that go to the worksheet called reservation price. Don’t scroll in the upper pane. You can play with the buttons there, but don’t scroll. You can and should scroll in the lower pane.

If you play with the buttons for a bit you will see values change in the table and a point move in the graph. Note the use of conditional font formatting. It is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on and yet it is so simple to do. Try to work your way through at least the first couple of multiple choice questions and then maybe one or two of fill in the blank questions that follow. Use the table and the graph to help you. I believe that any student who seriously worked his way through that sheet would have a reasonable understanding of Opportunity Cost and of a related concept, the Reservation Price. The exercise makes these fundamental ideas transparent. That’s the point.

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