Years ago, about the only technology economists had to master in writing up their research was a typewriter. For empirical work, they only had to know how to run regressions and simulations on a mainframe computer. Even these two tasks were many times delegated to typists and research assistants. The tremendous increase in computing power over the past thirty years, along with the proliferation of user-friendly software, now present economists with an array of technological tools with which to conduct research. During this same period, rising labour costs have caused the economist to substitute away from labour, and towards performing these tasks with the help of technology.
Undergraduate students in economics are generally only taught econometrics in conjunction with computers. Other computing skills, such as use of word-processing and spreadsheet software, as well as various Internet software are left to students to pick on their own, or are taught in other subject areas. Increasingly, however, information technology is making its way into education in economics (see Agarwal and Day (1996) on use of the Internet in economic education). At Nanyang Business School in Singapore, the Division of Applied Economics wanted additional instruction for their students. A need for technologically proficient economic students was noted by prospective employers. It was felt that students should feel at ease utilising up-to-date software in the course of their work. I was asked to develop and teach a subject to third-year Applied Economics students that would assist them in acquiring computer skills necessary in their future work as economists. The subject also had to encompass teaching students writing skills required for economic research. The aim was to somehow combine these two seemingly disparate objectives into a single subject. The Internet became the vehicle through which to accomplish this aim. In particular, the World Wide Web (specifically, the Netscape Browser) was used to teach material both on computing software as well as on writing skills.
I present results of my 'experiment' in teaching using this medium. Specifically,
Undergraduate business degrees in Singapore follow British tradition; they are completed in three years. As a consequence, programmes tend to be more specialised than those found at North American universities.
Students doing a Bachelor of Business at Nanyang Technological
University take a common first-year set of business courses, including
principles of economics. After the first two semesters, students
who specialise in Applied Economics normally read a total of 12
core and 4 elective subjects. The core subjects are:
|Economic Theory I||Economic Theory II|
|Applied Econometrics||Management Accounting|
|Economics of Money and Banking||Public Sector Economics|
|International Economics I||Economic Development and Growth|
|Contemporary Economic and Business Issues, Policies and Trends|
|Applied Research Project|
In addition to the full credit core subjects, students must also complete a half-credit subject, Research Methodology, before they can proceed with their Applied Research Project.
Depending on their interests, students may use their elective slots to read prescribed Economics Electives which include:
|Industrial Economics||Labour Economics|
|Financial Economics||Chinese Business Policies and Ethics|
|Urban and Transport Economics||Environmental Economics|
Alternatively, they may opt to read for a Minor in any of the other Business specialisations or in Business Law, Entrepreneurship, Information Technology, Research or Accountancy. The four subjects constituting a Minor in Accountancy are Corporate Accounting and Reporting, Auditing, Income Tax Law and Practice and Advanced Management Accounting.
All Applied Economics students are expected to develop good research and writing abilities. As part of their training, they are required to submit at least one research paper for each subject in each semester. In addition, they are required to pursue their Applied Research Projects individually and independently.
The structure of the Bachelor of Business (Applied Economics) curriculum ensures that the Applied Economics graduate will have obtained definitive training in business, applied economics and (because of the strong emphasis on quantitative methods) research.
The division publishes a series of joint staff-student working papers based on the students' Applied Research Projects. Many of these are in the areas of international and industrial economics and involve considerable econometric modelling. Some of these papers will eventually be targetted for publication in learned journals.
Using the World Wide Web for course material is easier said than done. Converting lecture notes into hypertext markup language is rather an ugly affair. However, I was fortunate to have a Word6.0 template (called htmlauth.dot by HtmlAuthor) which did most of the job for me.
Software in this area is evolving quickly. Now that I use Windows95 with Office95, I am using Internet Assistant 2.0z for Word7.0. I also convert lecture notes containing equations and graphics into Adobe's portable document format (pdf) files which can be opened using Acrobat Reader (see International Economics I).
Graphics were handled by a programme called LviewPro. It allows one to copy portions of the desktop to a file, saved in .gif format.
My overall intent was to write up the material with the first part of each area as notes, followed by questions for the students to work on during the workshop. I used the OHP PC projection panel in the front to show where I was in the lecture.
The material for each area was mostly cumulative rather than self-contained. That is, they had to understand each topic before proceeding to the next topic. Moreover, material was very technically oriented--more of the how-to variety rather than theoretical. There were exceptions--such as when I discussed file compression and archiving. Overall, I hoped that when the students finished, the url would serve as a reference source.
The best way to see how I organised the subject is to view the Table of Contents.
As noted from the table of contents, I covered quite a number of areas. The major parts are:
The first section focused primarily on how to use different software packages. The subsection on Internet tools consisted of a collection of software I felt students needed to master in order to make effective use of the Internet for doing research in economics. In fact, the last subsection of Internet Tools is really an application of software introduced in the previous subsections.
Click on Electronic Mail to view one of the technical modules. You can see the general organisation -- overview--how to--exercises. I designed each subsection to be handled within one two-hour tutorial. I developed a style of describing menu actions (e.g. Windows/Nicknames for choosing the Windows Menu in Eudora, then selecting Nicknames).
The section, Using the Internet as a Research Tool in Economics first discusses search engines and then focuses on information relevant to economists. It serves as a front end to Bill Goffe's Internet Resources for Economists -NTU mirror site (in the US, Internet Resources for Economists - Washington University).
I assumed that students had basic Word6.0 knowledge. That was, for the most part, true. However, I found students tended to use only the basic word-processing features, not realising how much time they could save through using 'power' features. Specifically, I emphasised labour-saving word-processing features useful for economists. These ranged from using styles to typesetting mathematical equations. I tried to entice them to resort to (horrors) the Help menu if they were unsure of how to do something.
I explained how Excel could be used for data manipulation (for data used in their dinosaur econometric software) as well as for graphs which could be pasted back into Word. I also pointed out a few statistical tests which could be carried out in Excel.
Dbank is a terrific time-series database package. But, I did not have enough time to go over it other than to refer to what I had written about it.
This portion of the subject dealt more with writing issues. I browsed the Internet and came up with links to some very good writing resources. McMurrey's Technical Writing Guide was so useful I emailed the author asking if I could mirror his site; he was delighted.
Aside from the links to writing resources, I used the magic of the World Wide Web genre to develop a sequence of writing tutorials. Some of the information was accessed from the Technical Writing Guide but exercises were based on economic examples. I hid the answers (through changing the name of the html file) until students had worked out the answers for themselves.
Obviously this is a very hard characteristic to evaluate. I wish to evaluate it from several perspectives:
Students are a (although certainly not the only nor even the definitive) good source of feedback on teaching effectiveness.
On average, ratings for the subject were in the 3.5 -4 range which indicates vaguely, a sort of satisfaction with the subject (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 indicating strong agreement). However the comments are what really bring to light issues which need to be addressed.
Obviously this brings to light the problem of having a heterogeneous set of students taking the subject. Some were quite advanced whilst others did not even know how to use Alt Tab to switch applications. I found myself trying to keep the advanced students interested whilst struggling to give enough instruction to the computer-challenged students.
I believe that this problem will be reduced over time, as students arrive to University with higher computer literacy. I also think that some of the basic skills I had to teach were due, in part, to the fact that the SIS first-year unit two years ago did not include MS Office or even Windows. Now that it is standard to teach this software (as well as Windows Internet tools) students, will, I think, be on more of an even footing. I will then be able to focus on other aspects.
Both third-year (the final-year in the undergraduate programme at Nanyang Business School) students who had taken the course as well as students who will take the course next year were surveyed (separately) at the end of the academic year. Since the course was taught first semester, the third-year students had second semester to ponder the usefulness of the course before taking the survey. 90 percent of the third-year class and 70 percent of the second-year class were surveyed. 60 percent of the third-year class and 50 percent of the second-year class are female.
The questions focused on two areas - frequency and type of software and Internet use and perceived usefulness. Results (as well as the questions asked) are found in Tables 1 and 2.
Table 1 presents frequency distributions of the first 5 questions dealing with frequency of software use as well as type of software used. Both third year (89 percent) and second year students (52 percent) tend to use Windows 3.1, although a sizeable share of second year students (29 percent) appear to have upgraded to Windows95. Word processing is most frequently done weekly by both groups, although there is more of a spread of use by second year students. Speadsheet software is more frequently used by third year students; over 40 percent of the second year students have never used such software. More third year students knew how to include graphics in word-processed documents (72 percent as opposed to 57 percent), perhaps indicating that they retained knowledge of how to do that in the enrichment class.
Distributions for frequency of world wide web browser access of the Internet differed for the two cohorts. Twice as many second year as third year students (17 versus 33 percent) had never accessed the Internet via a world wide web browser. On the other hand, almost three times as many second year students read electronic mail on a daily basis as did third-year students. Newsgroups and downloading software were the least frequently used features of the Internet for both groups, with over 60 percent never having utilised either function.
Table 2 presents means and standard deviations of responses to questions 6 to 12 on attitudes about perceived usefulness of software and the Internet, both for classwork and work after graduation. The questions use a five-point scale with 1 being 'agree strongly' and 5 being 'strongly disagree.' Table 2 contains results for both third-year as well as second-year students.
Overall, the third-year students appear neutral to slightly positive about the usefulness of the course, although usefulness of the Internet was perceived to be slightly less than neutral. In particular, third year students are approximately neutral (2.39) about the usefulness learning about word processing and spreadsheet software from the enrichment subject, whilst the second year students are decidedly in agreement (1.33) with idea that better knowledge of such software would allow them to carry out their final year projects faster. Similar percentages are noted for usefulness of such a knowledge for work after graduation. Differences between cohorts is less marked for perceptions about the Internet. Both groups are, on average, neutral, although the second year group is slightly more in agreement with usefulness of the Internet.
The second-year students perceive the course to be more useful, both to their studies as well as upon graduation. Both sets of students perceived the course as being useful for enhancing their productivity. Moreover, the third year students who had taken the course were, on average (1.89), favourably disposed to recommending it to the second year students.
Tables 3 and 4 present correlation matricies of questions for each cohort. This information is incorporated into the factor analysis performed below.
Tables 5 and 6 present rotated factor matricies for third-year and second-year students respectively. Principal components analysis was performed to see if the questions could be distilled to general areas. For both classes, scree plots indicated the presence of two factors. These factors were then rotated using the Varimax method to enhance the distinction between factors. As expected, Factor 1 correlates most highly with the non-Internet questions, whilst Factor 2 correlates most highly with Internet questions (Questions 9 and 10 for third-year students and Questions 9, 10, and 11 for second-year students). The distinction is the most marked for the second-year students. The presence of these two distinct factors may indicate students perceptions of the usefulness of the Internet differ from their perceptions of computer software in their work.
My general impression is that the students did gain knowledge from the exercise. Some have thanked me; I think their productivity was perceptibly enhanced. It would be far better, though, to have some way of formally assessing their technical expertise.
I was able to gain some information regarding their technical word-processing abilities as I have edited the division's joint student-staff Regional Issues in Economics volumes over the past two years. Within my course this year, I had given them instructions on how to use a special template I created (containing styles) in Word. The styles dictated various aspects of formatting, ranging from headers to equations. There was a marked improvement in files I received this year relative to last year. Last year, almost without exception, I had to strip the formatting and start from scratch. However, many students still seemed to make basic word-processing mistakes that I had to correct in order to ensure consistency throughout the book-so there is ample room for instructional improvement.
Could we devise a better way of knowledge transfer? I think that we need to separate two things--the content from the method of delivery. The content will change, but is using the World Wide Web as the delivery vehicle the best way for teaching effectiveness? I think it has benefits which are not available to conventional methods. Students can access the notes and tutorial exercises during their free time if they did not understand something. It is a more interactive medium, so it may entice them to learn more than what could be possible with just paper notes. They have more available to them. There were a plethora of information on writing available that the enquiring student could access.
Nevertheless, there were shortcomings. I originally thought that students would be satisfied with notes being available only through the World Wide Web. This was not the case. Firstly they needed something on paper with them as they worked through software instructions. Secondly, some students do not have access to the World Wide Web at home. Even the computer labs are not really well-enough equipped for them to access material whenever they wish. These problems will disappear as our labs improve and as students gain better dialup access and/or make use of commercial Internet service providers to gain access to the Internet.
Some of the technical material could be taught more effectively through computer-assisted learning. CD Roms on the subject could replace instruction on the technical aspects.
I think that the idea of teaching Applied Economics students technical computer skills using this medium has great potential. However, I hope that, as each cohort's computer literacy improves, I will be able to focus more attention on acquisition of specialist skills. For example, I would like to focus much more on equipping students with knowledge about economic resources available on the Internet rather than so much on knowledge about the basic Internet tools themselves. I spent very little time discussing where/how to download working papers (increasingly now in Acrobat pdf files) as well as very little time on where/how to download data. Likewise, I would like to teach students on the advanced features of Word and Excel which enhance their productivity as professionals.
I have also discovered that a basic key to how much students learn is directly correlated with numbers of exercises. In fact I had very few, and almost none were for students to complete on their own time. Many more exercises will have to be added and homework will need to be assigned in order to enhance student learning. The technical material just cannot be 'heard' by students to be understood.
With regard to writing up these results, I plan to draw up a much more comprehensive survey which will be given to the second year students before and after they take the enrichment subject.
Quino (Joaquin Salvador Lavado). Dejanme Inventar. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor. 1983.
n = 18
(90 % resp.)
(60 % female)
n = 21
(70 % resp.)
(50 % male)
|Operating system used:|
Windows 3.1x or Windows for Workgroups
Macintosh, System x.x
|Frequency of use of:|
|I know how to include graphics in my word-processed documents:|
|Frequency of use of Internet Software:|
|World Wide Web|
|I download software and other information from the Internet:|
Notes: Total 3rd year class: 20 students; total 2nd year class: 30 students. Percentages may not total 100 due to roundoff error.
|6. Material learnt about word processing and spreadsheets from the Enrichment Subject for Economists unit I took last semester helped me complete assignments faster.|
6. Better knowledge of word processing and spreadsheet software would be useful in allowing me to carry out assignments faster.
|7. Material learnt about word processing and spreadsheets from the Enrichment Subject for Economists unit I took last semester helped me complete my final-year project faster.|
7. Better knowledge of word processing and spreadsheet software would be useful in allowing me to carry out the final year project better.
|8. Knowledge of word processing and spreadsheet software acquired from the Enrichment Subject for Economists unit I took last semester will be useful in my probable area of work after graduation.|
8. Better knowledge of word processing and spreadsheet software will be useful in my probable area of work after graduation.
|9. Knowledge of the Internet acquired from the Enrichment Subject for Economists unit I took last semester will be useful in my probable area of work after graduation.|
11. Better knowledge of the Internet will be useful in my probable area of work after graduation.
|10. Knowledge of the Internet acquired from the Enrichment Subject for Economists unit I took last semester was useful in helping me obtain information for the final year project.|
10. Better knowledge of the Internet would be useful in finding or helping me obtain information for the final year project.
|11. I would recommend to second-year students that they take the Enrichment Subject for Economists unit as it will enhance their productivity as an economist.|
12. A course on use of information technology for economists would enhance my efficiency.
|xx. no comparable question|
9. Better knowledge of the Internet would be useful in finding or helping me obtain information for assignments.
Notes: Marks are on a scale of 5 points with 1 = Agree Strongly
and 5 = Strongly Disagree
|Question||Factor 1||Factor 2|
Note: Principal components, varimax rotation-questions as input variables.
|Question||Factor 1||Factor 2|
Note: Principal components, varimax rotation-questions as input
Agarwal, Rajshree and A. E. Day (1996), "The Impact of the Internet on Economic Education, paper presented at 71st WEA Conference, San Francisco, USA, July.
Goren, Gabriel and Efraim Turban (1995), "Teaching Internet in IS Classes: A Case Study and Generalisation, working paper, Nanyang Technological University, December.