Friday, February 02, 2007

What’s in the can?

The next series of posts represents an extended “thinking aloud” exercise on how to move from the traditional approach we are taking at the College of Business at both the undergraduate and graduate professional level, to a blended/online approach. In this post, first in the series, I want to ask what type of materials should be available online in advance of class discussion or group work activity, irrespective of whether the discussion and group work happens online or face to face. Others, of course, have already gone through an exercise of this sort and there are definitely lessons to learn from them. But on a disciplinary front Business courses cover the gamut from the highly technical, e.g., management science and financial engineering to the humanistic, e.g., organizational behavior and decision making for accounting. So there is a question of situating those other experiences into the particular course in which we are implementing here. Further there are issues of pedagogic philosophy and matters of taste that might favor one alternative over another. I’m going to try to work through those issues in the context of intermediate microeconomics, a course I’m intimately familiar with, and one that might very well play an exemplar role for implementations in other business classes.

Using stuff that is “out there”

This morning I did some Web searching to identify freely available online material that might be appropriate for a course. Among the sites I searched were Google Video (which now includes searches of content on uTube), (which is an educational “referatory” meaning the actual content resides elsewhere), Podcasts at iTunes, MIT’s OCW, Carnegie Mellon’s OLI, The American Economic Review at JSTOR, Slate Magazine, The Becker-Posner Blog, and if time permitted it could be a much longer list. I would term this partial list eclectic in the sense that some sites are obvious and others much less so. Here’s some of what I found, most of which I was not aware of before.

1. The Annenberg Series Econ U$A, a high production news or documentary format that touches on a variety of economics issues. Once you find this it triggers the thought that perhaps there is good content on other News sites such as NPR or the News Hour.

2. Some fairly math heavy lectures on intermediate micro/graduate micrecon by Professor Baker of Hunter College. (Follow the first few links from this particular search).

3. An intro course from Berkeley that covers the same topics. Note that both for this and the previous item the content is capture of a live class offering and the online use is clearly of secondary purpose to the instructor, with the main purpose to deliver the class to the students who are present face to face.

4. A list of Steven Landsburg columns for Slate. I have used Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist in the past. He is able to provoke students to think about ordinary life from an economics perspective and thereby get their juices flowing, though I must say I often don’t agree with his conclusions or his analysis.

5. An article by John McMillan in the Papers and Proceeding of the American Economic Review about how modern economic theory has had important effects on government policy making. (This link may require that your campus subscribes to JSTOR.)

6. A fully online self-paced course for introductory microeconomics that was designed for the purpose. This is in the Carnegie OLI series.

Let me draw some conclusions from this search. There is both formal classroom content and quite informal content appropriate for the virtual analog of coffee table reading. One must ask what type of content would be useful and what comparative advantage you have in making your own content. Personally, I like to present theory my own way so that I can add my own narrative to the theory. I’m much more likely to pull in the Landsburg Content or the Becker-Posner content in my own courses, to add some flavor, to help satisfy student curiosity, and also to show that there can be real disagreements among professional economists. I also might pull in the McMillan paper. I have as a goal that students read the professional writing of other economists and the more of that I can bring in the better.

I would not use the lectures from Hunter College or Berkeley but I believe those are useful to see the strengths and weaknesses of providing that type of content. There are some production quality issues: can the content on the blackboard or the screen be read? is this too dry to hold a student’s attention when viewed online? are they taking appropriate advantage of the medium in which the content is delivered? These materials are useful in thinking about what we might do as an alternative if we produced our own content or to focus on what we might look for if we purchase content from a publisher.

There’s one other conclusion that struck me immediately. There is quite a lot of stuff out there and it comes in many different flavors. So to use this stuff there is a need to weave it into the tapestry of the course. And that makes for some challenges even with material that in itself is quite well done. In other words, it’s not plug-and-play with outside content. It requires some substantial thought to integrate this content into your courses and I believe that to think along these dimensions it is necessary to have good command of the pattern and flow of the course in advance, to see where the outside content would fit in. I believe it is just too hard conceptually to construct a course around such outside materials unless you stick with only one course (e.g., the Berkeley lectures, and then let the outside materials set the agenda. But doing that brings to question what value you are adding in teaching your own course and a subsidiary question about branding the course you teach. (After all, this is the University of Illinois, not the University of California.)

One further issue regards the seeming lack of tie between the formal and informal content although especially in the case of the Becker-Posner blog the content is produced by eminent economists – Becker won the Nobel prize while Posner is the founding editor of the Journal of Law and Economics. Can we effectively mix the formal and informal in instruction for course credit or should we keep that separated? I’m definitely in the camp that it’s good to mix the two, but that means crossing a line that others might not want to cross. I believe that once you cross that line you want cross back, but it also makes it harder to understand the views of others who’ve not yet made that journey.

Content We Produce for Online Consumption

Let me turn to some content I’ve made myself to illustrate a few ideas I’ve got about what type of materials we need and what goals we should be aiming for when we produce these materials. There are three types of content: (1) a talking head video to introduce the other material, (2) a spreadsheet and some accompanying screen capture videos that I described a bit in my post about the ELI conference, and (3) a narrative delivered as a Word document with hyperlinks to further references, that aims to give some real world context for the economic model and to show some extensions in the thinking that would occur if some further complexity were introduced into the analysis. I will take each of these up in some detail.

Talking Head Video

I used to not be able to stand hearing the sound of my recorded voice and also felt very uncomfortable in front of the camera. Through a process of numbness and getting more comfortable with the technology I’m more relaxed in making this sort of thing now. But I still think the use should be limited to making it evident that the instructor has a personal investment in the online materials and to provide a generally welcoming environment for the students. One might envision delivering the narrative I’ve written in Word as a video instead or possibly as a podcast. Some others might be able to pull that off. I can’t. If I’m reading from a script I just don’t sound natural. If I’m taking an extemporaneous approach, which is what I prefer in front of the camera, but in the absence of an audience to keep me on the right path I’m not sufficiently reflective and will miss key points or not elaborate sufficiently on points that I do make. Also, there is the possibility of jumping around and that might be quite confusing for the students. I prefer, therefore, to deliver the narrative in writing, which also allows for much easier editing ex post. There is the question of whether the students would prefer it in another format in spite of my personal limitations. I don’t really know the answer to that, but I believe that if the writing is good people will want to read it.

Math/Analytic Content in Excel

When I was a brand new assistant professor I was a real math econ guy and taught the intermediate course with algebraic representation of the ideas, the way I then though appropriate. I recall some more senior faculty member in the department, one who taught the large introductory course, saying that some of the students couldn’t grasp the ideas that way and it would be better for them to represent things with actual numbers. At the time I was not convinced by this point. I didn’t think the number approach was sufficiently rigorous. Many years later, I softened my views somewhat noting that while rigor is important, so is transparency and students can’t learn things unless they can make some headway with the ideas and spend sufficient time on task.

The approach with Excel allows both number (in the values that the cells display) and algebraic representation (the formulas that are within the cells). Further Excel has a nice analog to the economic distinction between a variable and a parameter, in Excel there is a relative reference and an absolute reference and the association between these is straightforward. There is the further math issue that many core economic ideas are most easily understood in a discrete choice model. However, the math representation of these ideas is simplest in a continuous choice model that relies on calculus to characterize the solution. Many students are not able to make the translation between these two approaches and so economics instructors who rely only on the calculus mode end up confusing students or not getting through to them at all. Excel enables both types of representations and thus one can get the needed intuitions for the students and yet also provides the rigor that the instructor wants to deliver.

The Excel spreadsheet I’ve made along with the associated Screen movies (click the green arrows to download) deals with the elements of consumer theory – the budget constraint and choice given the budget constraint. Many students find this material not just impenetrable because of the math, but also extremely dry because they are not used to this type of abstract modeling. The spreadsheets and the rapid feedback that is embedded within give it a type of game element that should make it more interesting for the students. (Admittedly I’ve not yet tested this particular content with students but that has been the reaction of students to other content I’ve made in a similar vein.)

Some might feel that the Excel content doesn’t look as jazzy as similar content produced in Java or Flash and on straight visual appearance I’d have to agree. However, there are some other arguments in favor of this format. First, it requires essentially no programming skill. (There is one macro, the reset button.) Instead it relies heavily on functionality built into Excel. This means, I believe, that it is easier to understand how this content is made and hence allow it to be revised readily by somebody else as long as that person understands the economics. Second, it is completely stand alone and so students can work on it on their own desktop and so the performance is fine. There are no capacity issues that might emerge because a lot of students are banging on the content at the same time, clogging up the server. Third, there is the possibility of introducing substantial complexity – parametric variation in the graphs, for example, that is hard to do with these other approaches. This type of content takes a while to author, but I believe one can produce quite durable content as a consequence.

Narrative Content as Text with Hyperlinks

From the work of many others and trying this type of thing myself in my own teaching, I now think that one of the most important things we can do is to help students tie the theory we teach to more familiar ideas from their own personal experience and to other ideas they are hearing about from the outside world. There is a big advantage in keeping their interest if part of the teaching is about practical stuff. And a lot of time should be spent on interpreting the model. I fear that we who teach economics at this level spend too much time on the model itself. That’s all right if the students themselves are math modelers (though even then they might not be able to apply the model to context where it is appropriate to do so) but it is a shame for those students who find modeling a skill to fear rather than to master. Students will appreciate the theory much more if they have good stories to tell where the theory helps them to make sense of what’s going on. They also need stories to help fill in the gaps where the theory doesn’t speak at all, because the theory, by design, is only meant as an approximation of reality.

I wrote this narrative to accompany the spreadsheet and screen capture videos, to provide the requisite stories for the budget constraint and basic consumer choice. I’m not aware of any textbooks that take this type of approach in explaining the ideas, though every economics textbook spends substantial space on this topic as it is absolutely core in intermediate microeconomics. Stylistically, I aimed to approximate the writing in my blog posts, informal and discursive. Whether I’ve hit my mark I leave to the reader, as with the spreadsheet material I’ve not yet tested this with students, but on the goals I was trying to achieve with this content it should be quite clear.

And I want to make one more point about the narrative before I conclude. I deliberately went down the wrong path in the narrative, where I talked about setting up the categories in the personal finance software. Thus this definitely is not the shortest distance between two points type of writing. There is a need to discover the mistake and then go backwards to undo it. I don’t know any textbook that does this either. Nor does this happen even in the OLI Econ materials, which profess to be based on the book How People Learn. Well, we learn by making mistakes. Further, we learn what is pleasing about a “right answer” or an “elegant solution” by seeing what is not pleasing about an alternative that is neither right nor elegant. So I believe that narrative must have errors in it, errors of commission that are made to make clear why the solution makes sense. The doing it wrong approach take longer to make the point. That means that fewer points can be made (unless we’ve engaged the students sufficiently that we have their attention for a longer amount of time). But if I’m right about it, then the doing it wrong approach gives the students a deeper understanding. And that is why the narrative is needed along with the theory itself.

A Diversity of Presentation Content

Let me conclude by noting that I believe online content should be done in multiple modalities, with each particular approach to achieve a well defined purpose and where collectively the pieces of content support each other, they are each part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are others who argue for a diversity of content based on differences in student learning style. These are quite different arguments with the latter suggesting for, example, that the narrative should be delivered both as text and as video and let the student choose the preferred mode. If instructor time were abundant (a complete counterfactual) then I might embrace the learning styles argument, especially if I saw evidence that serious students do vary in their prefer mode of having the content delivered.

My argument for diversity of presentation content, which fully acknowledges the scarcity of instructor time, is that every learner needs both the basic theoretical ideas so as to appreciate the rigor and the generality of the argument and a narrative structure so that the theory can be embedded in a richness of experience that makes the theory relevant to the learner. And to tie this post to my previous one, that’s why I believe in the Humanism Across the Curriculum concept.

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