Letters to the Editor

February 11, 2000
To the Editor:

    As Ross Emmett points out, the Internet has changed the classroom teaching of economics but there are still a lot of potential changes yet to come. Will those changes ever get here? Will we ever see widespread distance learning, the linking of classrooms across universities or the growth of on-line alternatives to traditional classrooms? I think the likely place some of these innovations will occur if they are to occur at all, will be in MBA programs. MBA programs face competitive pressures quite different from undergraduate and even most graduate education. The reason? The national rankings that come out of Business Week and U.S. News and World Report make a huge difference in the lives of faculty and administrators. MBA programs are much more customer-conscious than other parts of a university. Most of the current use of the internet among economics faculty makes the lives of faculty easier and more convenient with some side benefits for students. For the real stuff, the stuff that has the potential to transform the educational process, it may take a B-School.

Russell Roberts
John M. Olin Visiting Professor of Labor Economics and Public Policy
Center for the Study of American Business

February 11, 2000
To the Editor:

    Ross Emmett makes a good cases for the Internet's promise in furthering economic education. He focuses, though, on improvements in delivering information and wisdom, and on new and creative ways for both students and professors to connect with people whom they would never connect with outside of cyberspace.

    I think that there's another way that the Internet might contribute to economics education. This other way is the actual experience with the invisible hand that the Net affords. By actually witnessing, for example, how netiquette evolves and works, the Net teaches all of us to understand better how spontaneous-ordering processes evolve and work in settings outside of cyberspace.

Don Boudreaux
President of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)

February 11, 2000
To the Editor:

    Ross Emmett ("The Online Transformation of Economics Education") makes a persuasive case that Internet communication, because of its distinctive features of connectivity, interactivity, and hypertextuality, will serve to enhance education in economics and other fields of study. Critics of "distance learning" via the Internet often bemoan its impersonality or loss of immediacy, but on that score such instruction hardly suffers by comparison to huge on-site lecture courses or even to college courses of more modest size. In most cases the crucial variables would seem to be the competency of the instructor, a student-faculty ratio favorable to interaction, and the motivation of the students, not physical proximity. Certainly the Internet offers students an almost unimaginable wealth of resources, once they develop the capacity to work independently.

    Readers who want to pursue this issue might take a look at an article by Jeffrey R. Young in the Chronicle of Higher Education for February 10, 2000 ("Scholar Concludes that Distance Ed is as Effective as Traditional Instruction") which reports on research by Thomas L. Russell of North Carolina State University. Russell has a searchable Website that indexes a large number of studies on the effectiveness of online instruction. After reviewing this research, Russell finds it "incomprehensible that any reasonable, knowledgeable, unbiased, and professional person could deny the fact that [the new] technology can deliver instruction as well as traditional modes-at least when we look at student populations as large groups."

    Still, while Internet instruction appears to rival or outshine classroom instruction under some circumstances, it falls short in other ways. Russell's findings may hold for students viewed in aggregate, but do they hold for individual students of high ability who are taught the traditional way in more intimate settings? Jacques Barzun has described teaching as "a hand-to-hand, face-to-face encounter" (Teacher in America, Liberty Press, p. xxi). What Barzun has in mind, I think, is the Socratic dimension of good teaching-the encounter with a probing mind that shakes our opinions to the core, creates a sense of puzzlement, draws our attention to fundamental questions, lays before us the range of important alternatives, introduces us to the greatest writings, and stimulates a life-long quest for knowledge. The best and most highly motivated students, at least, stand in need of such teaching, and while it is true that the young men of Athens encountered Socrates himself chiefly in the marketplace, in the streets, or in private homes, such encounters are most likely to occur today in the classroom or seminar setting. When most of us look back on our formal education, don't we attach a special importance to encounters with a few teachers of this sort? I don't suppose that Ross Emmett would disagree with these points, but they do need to be underscored.

    Looking beyond Professor Emmett's essay, I would like to hear what economists have to say not only about the Internet's impact on economic eduation, but also about the economic impact of the Internet on education. (A disclaimer: I am not an economist myself.) Even without the Internet, the trend in higher education has been away from the traditional four-year course of study in a residential setting. Will this trend be intensified by the availability of instruction online? Will states and private donors be willing to continue subsidizing expensive programs of residential instruction in "brick and mortar" colleges if the "virtual university" can provide instruction less expensively? What about predictions that except for a few prestigious ones, "the law school as a physical entity may vanish with the growth of online legal education" (see article by Wendy R. Leibowitz [link requires subscription] in the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 21, 2000)? One need not be a reductionist to suspect that rival assessments of online instruction reflect in some measure competing economic interests. Is it coincidental that teachers' unions tend to take a more critical view of distance education than do business entrepreneurs? How will our very notion of a "university" be affected by the Internet? Studies of the origins of the university point out, for example, that the term "university" initially meant a trade association and was applied initially in the 13th century not just to associations of scholars, but to various groups of craftsmen or artisans. Couldn't the "virtual university" be just such an association of scholarly entrepreneurs with no fixed and durable physical location? Will the Internet blur or obliterate the line between traditional universities, educational foundations, and business enterprises? These at least are some of the questions that I have about the economic impact of the Internet on education.

Eugene F. Miller
Professor of Political Science,
University of Georgia, and
Visiting Scholar, Liberty Fund

February 15, 2000
To the Editor:

    I am at a university that was founded with a strong technology base and a distance education mission - Florida Gulf Coast University. We are in the third year of this experiment with technology and the jury is still out from what I can ascertain. I teach from a $23,000 podium that allows me access to the web and all its accruements. We have video, CD-ROM, and a VizCam which projects my writing onto a screen (unfortunately, the colors wash out and my tried and true "red for costs and blue for revenues" is gone.) Having said that, I do enjoy having access to the web in front of a class. Email has changed my ability to communicate with students greatly, though it can become a classic example of how not to best manage your time.

    There are a number of aspects of the article from Ross Emmett that I agree with - in particular that these new technologies allow opportunities for increased connectivity, interactivity, and hypertextuality. Students can escape their parochial notions of the world with connectivity and interactivity. I also see particularly exciting potentialities in tutoring for the principles of economics using hypertextuality. I think we will develop materials that are far better at anticipating the next question in the argument and allowing students to pursue the many nooks and crannies of it.

    I do wonder however, where those first sparks of interest will come from. Let me take the analogy a bit further. If you want a full and roaring fire... sparks need tinder, tinder needs twigs, twigs need sticks and sticks need logs...bear with me on the realization that if any one element fails in this chain of events, the reality of a full and roaring fire can be easily lost.

    Getting students engaged is only a first step. Developing their interests and allowing them to mature is far more complex. I believe we do our best educational work by preparing students to recognize that they are stuck because they lack the content or contextual knowledge to move ahead... they know their toolbox lacks depth and they want to keep building. Only then, are they willing to engage in the intellectual hard work that allows movement to the next level. In other words, education involves a "a round about" method of production leading to broader and deeper understandings of content (education professors aside...)

    The nuances of this process can be easily lost on the web. Let's look at chat rooms. Much of what I have seen transpire is the intellectual equivalent of shouting. The one with the quickest and loudest response gets heard -- more reasoned and thoughtful answers may not even come into play. Time and effort are rewarded and there is little critical analysis - just more "shouting." It certainly doesn't approach the types in intellectual experiences I value most highly. I want my students to model Liberty Fund conferences not the World Wrestling Foundation!

    But I digress. This issue is extremely important and I leave it for now with two thoughts: (1) The tool is never the job, and (2) The Luddites were wrong. I look forward to any further postings on this issue.

Bradley K. Hobbs, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Economics
Florida Gulf Coast University

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