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Economics instruction with Lotus 1-2-3.



The microcomputer can accelerate the display of classroom material and enhance its visual clarity. Recent display methods have permitted viewing by classes of up to 100-150 students, and this size is increasing with improvements in display resolution. An electronic spreadsheet such as Lotus 1-2-3 enables instructors to prepare materials with relative ease and flexibility, and in-class use facilitates the demonstration of interactions among changing economic variables. The preparation time for individual instructors is substantial, however. Computer assisted lectures could become more widespread if publishers were to provide textbook tables, figures, etc. formatted for computer input.

The microcomputer significantly expands the range of choice in teaching techniques. I have used it extensively as a tool in teaching undergraduate economics courses in recent years, both in the classroom and for laboratory assignments. Much of this application, of which only the classroom portion will be discussed here, has been accomplished through use of the software program Lotus 1-2-3, the electronic spreadsheet with graphics capabilities. As with any other innovation, there are benefits and costs for the user; just what these entail may be of interest to others who ponder whether this new technology can be adapted to their needs.

When one contemplates using the microcomputer as a instructional adjunct, several questions arise: (1) how will the computer's output be displayed to a class; (2) what software will assist in presentations; and (3) what material within the discipline is the computer-cum-software appropriate to convey? Decisions should be guided ultimately by what one wants a class to learn, yet display methods and software were severe constraints until a few years ago.


The microcomputer can supplant, at least in substantial part, the use of the chalkboard during lectures. The instructor can show previously prepared text, tables and figures at a substantial reduction in classroom input time and a substantial gain in visual clarity. But the pre-class preparation time for this method is a considerable cost.

Direct output from the computer can be shown by a video projector, by large video monitors or by a liquid crystal display (LCD) projector. My university adopted the video projector method in 1984, because of its ability to provide a 10 foot diagonal picture utilizing the IBM Color/Graphics Adapter (CGA) standard. This displays 80 columns of text and 40 columns of graphics, and is suitable for groups of up to 100-150 viewers. The room's lighting must be subdued for this equipment, but it is not difficult to find the level which preserves screen legibility while still enabling students to take lecture notes.(1)

The market offers monochrome and color projectors; the RGB color version was selected at my university because it enhances viewer interest and comprehension. The CGA standard has a few shortcomings: a sloping line is somewhat jagged, and only 4 colors can be shown at a time. This is expensive, too. The price of a color video projector has been in the $5,000-6,000 range, and it isn't likely to decline much in the near future. Rather, the price is likely to hold steady while upgrades are made to the improved EGA and VGA resolution standards.

As an alternative method of display, monitors with improved resolution are emerging, and even the price of large ones (with screen size of 25 inches or greater) is falling to the point where they may warrant consideration. Earlier large monitors could provide legible text only with a 40 column display, so the amount of information per screen was unsatisfactory. Several monitors are required to preserve viewability for everyone in a class.

The LCD projector is the most recent type of display instrument to emerge, and it may become the most cost effective method for large groups. This is an electronic panel which is placed atop a standard overhead projector and wired to a microcomputer. Already, more than half a dozen U.S. and Japanese manufacturers offer versions of this device [Bican, 1988]. The resolution is at least as good as with a video projector and large monitors, and classroom lighting adjustments are not as critical. LCD projectors which support the EGA and VGA resolution standards have emerged, and multi-color support is expected in the not very distant future. For now, however, the only panels providing acceptable displays are monochrome. Good quality monochrome units are priced under $1000 (without the attendant overhead projector), but this can easily double for the higher resolution standards.

The microcomputer need not physically enter the classroom to assist in lectures. Much of what one wishes to present can be prepared with a computer beforehand, and then made into transparencies. This method reduces the classroom equipment requirement just to an overhead projector (and alleviates the problem of security from theft). It shares the rapidity and clarity features of in-class electronic projectors, as well as the extensive time of preparation. But it also removes the special advantages of in-class microcomputer availability: being able to demonstrate complex interactions among changing variables and to modify material during class periods.


One can use a formal programming language such as Pascal or BASIC to develop software. Many instances using the mainframe are reported in the literature [Dolbear et al., 1968; Paden et al., 1977; Soper, 1974]. More recently, applications on the microcomputer have appeared [Lovell, 1987; Scheraga, 1986]. This approach provides maximum flexibility to the instructor, but learning needed skills is time consuming and preparing teaching applications involves further time and complexity.

Discipline-specific instructional software available from commercial publishers usually has a relatively brief learning period. But publishers thus far have focused mainly on software for tutorials and the laboratory rather than the classroom. Also, making modifications to improve these items is difficult and can violate their copyright.

An integrated spreadsheet such as Lotus 1-2-3 provides a sort of middle ground for the instructor. It is highly flexible in displaying text, data and graphics, and only a relatively brief learning period is required to become acquainted with its basic commands. The word processing capabilities of Lotus 1-2-3 are somewhat primitive, but they are adequate for outlining course material and defining terms.(2) Switching between the spreadsheet and a more capable word processor in class is presently too time consuming, and word processors handle numerical operations poorly and interactive graphics not at all. This shifts the balance toward primary reliance on a spreadsheet.


The spreadsheet has a distinct advantage over most other software in the construction and use of interrelated data sets. Because economic analysis lends itself to quantitative expression, textbooks are replete with data tables and figures - empirical and hypothetical. Writing on a chalkboard consumes much class time, whereas use of the microcomputer-cum-spreadsheet leaves more time for in-class manipulation and analysis. A demand schedule can be constructed by formula, for example, and a related figure can be shown at the touch of a key. Changed slope or intercept parameters are instantly recalculated, and old and new curves can be graphed. I have made dozens of templates, for the firm's output decisions, IS & LM curves, the multiple expansion of deposits, etc. The spreadsheet does matrix inversion and simple regression too, though it won't replace SAS or TSP.

The graphics capabilities of Lotus 1-2-3 have been the subject of much comment. Favorable features include the ease of setup for line, bar and pie charts, and the automatic redrawing of figures when the underlying data are modified. But the menu of graph forms is limited, the fonts for labelling are rudimentary, and the graphics have only medium resolution. Drawing a vertical line on a diagram is awkward. Switching between a figure and a text (or data) table is a simple operation, and printing text is convenient; but text and graphs cannot be displayed simultaneously. Newer spreadsheet programs overcome some of these shortcomings, and many are alleviated in a new version of 1-2-3 itself.

Experimentation with this teaching technique is time consuming, but that is part of the innovation process. For computer-assisted lectures to become commonplace, a mechanism must be developed to reduce instructor time in the preparation of spreadsheet templates. Teaching material interchanges such as the multi-university CONDUIT and the Joint Council on Economic Education's NEED are useful. Yet instructional materials become outmoded, and voluntary interchanges lack a built in mechanism for updating. Publishers have begun to discuss the feasibility of providing textbook tables and figures on floppy disks for computer users [DeLoughry, 1988]. This approach could be extended still further. The emerging "Interactive CD-ROM" technology should enable an entire text to be available for instructors to "cut and paste" for computer input. Though this could raise copyright issues, it would broaden opportunities for blending multiple sources in educational uses. REFERENCES Bican, Frank, "Presenting...Real-Time Overhead Displays for the Big Screen." PC Magazine,

15 March 1988, 161-182. DeLoughry, Thomas J., "Publishers Consider Including Computer Disks in textbooks For a Variety

of Disciplines." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 January 1988, A11, 18. Dolbear Jr., F. Trenery, Richard Attiyeh and William C. Brainard, "A Simulation Policy Game For

Teaching Macroeconomics." American Economic Review, May 1968, 458-468. Lovell, Michael C., "CAI on PCs--Some Economic Applications." Journal of Economic

Education, Summer 1987, 319-328. Paden, Donald W., Bruce R. Dalgaard and Michael D. Barr, "A Decade of Computer-Assisted

Instruction." Journal of Economic Education, Fall 1977, 14-20. Scheraga, Joel D., "Instruction in Economics Through Simulated Computer Programming."

Journal of Economic Education, Spring 1986, 129-139. Soper, John C., "Computer-Assisted Instruction in Economics: A Survey." Journal of Economic

Education, Fall 1974, 5-28.
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Title Annotation:computer applications
Author:Towey, Richard E.
Publication:Economic Inquiry
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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