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Ross Emmett

The Online Transformation of Economics Education

Ross Emmett*

 
"The key to understanding how economic activity will be changed by the introduction of a new communications medium is recognition of which costs change"
The much discussed e-commerce revolution has been accompanied by a quieter, but equally far-reaching, transformation of educational services. Because the e-education revolution began before e-commerce took off, we sometimes forget the extent to which it has transformed education in economics and other fields. But consider the economics classroom of today. Students and professors routinely converse via e-mail. The course web site provides the syllabus, along with answer keys to assignments and tests, announcements of schedule changes, and perhaps a web-form for feedback on the last lecture. The instructor's computerized presentation is laced with downloaded images and statistics, and the experimental game used at the beginning of class is adapted from a message on an e-mail list for economics instructors.
 

Outside of class, the Internet continues to play a role in the student's studying and research. Assignments regularly require access to web sites, and the assignment itself is often posted on the web (Q: define Ricardian equivalence—here is what Ricardo said). The textbook's website is regularly used to access study questions, problems, and additional links. Students in remote locations are able to find online versions of classic texts in the history of economics that may not be held in their university's library, and they access the lecture notes of professors they will never have the opportunity to hear. Keeping up with national and international economic indicators is easy on the web, and students sometimes know about changes in interest rates or financial market news before the professor does. Library research for a term paper or for help with class problems begins at a terminal where the student searches the online catalogue and databases, some of which provide full-text versions of scholarly journal articles on-screen. And for the professor, there are the anti-plagiarism sites which assist with the ever-present need to ensure that students complete their own work.

Equally important, the e-education revolution is transforming the educational services available to those outside the university classroom or other traditional channels of economics education. "Distance education" (a misnomer since the introduction of cyber-courses) has experienced significant growth, of course, but other, less formal, educational services have also expanded. About a quarter of the questions regarding the history of economic thought I receive through the EH.Net "Ask the Professor" service are from individuals in the general public who are advancing their knowledge independently. Many are university-trained, but would not have time for courses or workshops. The Internet has given them greater access to classic texts, current studies and commentary, and to experts in their fields of interest.

What ever did we do before the web?

The economist, of course, will point out that the transformation of economics education is the result of the lower cost of information on the Internet. True enough. But as Canadian economist Harold Innis taught his student Marshall McLuhan long ago, the key to understanding how economic activity will be changed by the introduction of a new communications medium is recognition of which costs change, and this requires a closer look at the medium itself.

E-education builds upon the three key social dimensions of Internet communication: connectivity, interactivity, and hypertextuality.1Connectivity speaks to the Internet's ability to connect people faster, more frequently, and at a lower cost than previous forms of technologically-assisted communication. From the individual professor or student's standpoint, connectivity means that she can be in contact with the class outside of scheduled sessions, on her own terms and at times convenient for her. The web of people with whom she can connect regarding the class is also enlarged: instructors have expanded resources to draw on and contact with others teaching similar courses; students have expanded resources and in some fields of economics professional expertise they can draw on apart from their instructor, through "Ask the Professor" services provided by scholarly organizations such as EH.Net. Closely related to connectivity is interactivity, which refers to the web's intermediation of an activity shared by two or more people (or computers). Two students working together on a problem via the web is one example; interactive quizzes or searchable databases are others. Finally, the hypertextuality of the underlying format of the web allows text, graphics, etc. to be displayed simultaneously. Economic educators have taken advantage of hypertext to make presentations-quality lectures available online to their students (and others), to build java-scripted simulation models, and to make on-line textbooks available.

The range of possibilities for e-education in economics created by the web's connectivity, interactivity, and hypertextuality, however, have only begun to be explored. For example, two professors teaching the same course at different universities could link their classes together, using a common on-line text, allowing email discussion among both classes on topics or occasional video-conferences, and providing feedback from both professors. Tutoring services for introductory courses within a consortium of cooperating universities could be centralized, with one group of graduate students serving all students across the consortium. Statistical databases oriented to the general needs of students, rather than the specialized needs of researchers, could be developed, as could more accessible versions of the classic texts of economics. And, of course, the range of cyberspace courses offered by recognized leaders in the field of economics education could be expanded.

But will the connectivity, interactivity and hypertextuality of the Internet allow it to replace previous modes of delivering economics education? Educators warn that connectivity and interactivity threaten the tradition of personal contact with one professor and a few other students with whom the student sustains an ongoing conversation for at least one term within a small classroom. They also worry that hypertextuality plays to the shortened attention span of a generation raised on TV and video-games. Will the next generation be able to sustain the logic of an argument longer than it takes to click away to a more entertaining web site? University administrators have their own worries: will an e-education equivalent of Amazon.com spring up and replace the university as the most important provider of educational services?

Before we succumb to the hysteria, however, let's ask what the actual tradeoffs in the integration of the Internet into economics education are. The majority of economics students in North America are introduced to economics in university classrooms alongside more than 50 other students (in many cases, more than 100). Even elective offerings in the upper-levels have close to that many students in them. Personal contact with the professor is unlikely, and the classroom is more frequently a place of one-way communication than interactivity. The Internet provides a realistic and low-cost way of increasing the degree of contact and interaction between professor and student, and among students. The typical student today (who is not the unencumbered male in the prime of life!) is reasonably comfortable on the Internet and may find that it provides an expanded range of resources and more flexibility in relation to her other obligations in life. Cyberspace courses are a realistic option for many students and their providers, if not universities themselves, will become significant partners with the academy.

Gazing into crystal balls is not my style, and I have no intention of closing this essay with some vague prediction of what economics education will look like in the future. But today, in between the hype and the fears of what the Internet may bring, lies the reality of educational experiences already changed. Whatever we did before the web, we do it differently now.


Footnotes
1.

The themes of my description of the Internet's role and the terms used to describe them (connectivity, interactivity, and hypertextuality) come from Derrick de Kerckhove's Connected Intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society (Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1997). de Kerckhove is Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.


*Ross Emmett is the John P. Tandberg Chair and Associate Professor of Economics at Augustana University College. He is the editor of a two volume collection of the writings of Frank H. Knight recently released by the University of Chicago Press, and of a three volume collection of interdisciplinary material on the Tulipomania and the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles, forthcoming with Pickering & Chatto.

To read follow-ups to this essay, see Follow-up Posts and Letters.
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