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July 2018 newsletter – Doing Economics

We have reported many times on the CORE project and the RES’s support for it. Here, Eileen Tipoe1 describes a new ‘hands on’ initiative from CORE designed to develop students’ skills and confidence in handling data.

Handling data can be scary, especially for anyone trying it for the first time. Real-world data is often messy, and getting it into a state where one can start to make sense of it can be a daunting task for many students. Besides data cleaning, there are also the challenges of understanding what the data actually measures, figuring out the appropriate statistical tools to use, and interpreting the output.

Doing Economics, part of the EQuSS project funded by The Nuffield Foundation, and with support from the RES, is a novel online resource developed by the CORE Team (www.core-econ.org) to address the issues of data literacy and data handling.2 As with other CORE projects, Doing Economics is free and open-access. From September 2018, this resource will be piloted in some universities in the UK — some parts of Doing Economics will be used by the University of Exeter Business School for course assessment, and by the University of Bristol for their ‘Bristol Futures’ initiative.

These projects were showcased at the June 18-19 RES Nuffield Foundation Workshop Teaching and Learning with CORE hosted by the Economics Network, and received an overwhelmingly positive response, with the majority of participants interested in using parts of Doing Economics for teaching in the next academic year.

The full resource will consist of 12 standalone projects, which can also be used in conjunction with CORE’s new Economy, Society, and Public Policy (ESPP) or The Economy eBooks. Each project guides students through a series of tasks to investigate an important policy issue, using publicly available data and easily-available software (Excel and R). The first nine projects are already available online, with the remaining three projects to be released in mid-August.

Figure 1: Doing Economics main page

The Doing Economics projects are aimed at anyone interested in using data to measure the economy and the effects of policies. Students don’t even have to be taking an economics course — Doing Economics may encourage then to sign up for their first one. To be accessible to a broad audience, Doing Economics was designed so that anyone with maths knowledge at GCSE Grade C or equivalent (the minimum maths requirement to enter a British university) can do the projects. Under this non-technical approach, statistical concepts such as correlation and standard deviation are introduced and explained using visual examples and interpretation of Excel and R output, but not derived from first principles. Further details, such as how to formally conduct a hypothesis test, are provided as optional material for those seeking a more technical treatment of the concepts.

Figure 2: Explanation of statistical concepts is integrated with data handling tasks in Excel (left) 
and R (right).

In addition, no prior knowledge of economics, statistics, or statistical programs is required, except a familiarity with the interface and some basic operations, such as opening a datafile. To show students how to complete specific tasks and understand the output, projects contain step-by-step ‘walk-throughs’. The Excel walk-throughs consist of annotated screenshots, and the interactive click-through format helps students understand how each step builds on the previous step. The R walk-throughs deconstruct the code and explain the general syntax so students can readily apply the same functions to different contexts.

Figure 3: Walk-throughs in Excel (left) and R (right)

Aside from teaching data handling, data visualization, and presentation skills, the projects are intended to get students thinking about issues related to data collection and the way that variables or concepts are measured. Before working with a specific dataset, students are asked to download the accompanying documentation and use it to explain how the variables of interest were measured and consider the limitations of these measures. These considerations are also present throughout each project. For example, the project 'Measuring wellbeing' involves a comparison between different ways of measuring living standards (GDP and the HDI), and students use UN data to create their own index.

Other unique features of Doing Economics include the exposure to a variety of data sources and contexts, ranging from household surveys to self-generated experimental data. The way that these data sources are used is quite flexible; in many cases, students can choose the countries, subgroups, or indicators of interest to use for a particular task. The projects are also easily adaptable to specific teaching settings. Parts of a project relating to a sub-topic can be done independently as a short exercise or altogether as an extended assignment.

Aside from teaching data handling, data visualization, and presentation skills, the projects are intended to get students thinking about issues related to data collection and the way that variables or concepts are measured. Before working with a specific dataset, students are asked to download the accompanying documentation and use it to explain how the variables of interest were measured and consider the limitations of these measures. These considerations are also present throughout each project. For example, the project 'Measuring wellbeing' involves a comparison between different ways of measuring living standards (GDP and the HDI), and students use UN data to create their own index.

Table 1: The full set of projects in Doing Economics.

Other unique features of Doing Economics include the exposure to a variety of data sources and contexts, ranging from household surveys to self-generated experimental data. The way that these data sources are used is quite flexible; in many cases, students can choose the countries, subgroups, or indicators of interest to use for a particular task. The projects are also easily adaptable to specific teaching settings. Parts of a project relating to a sub-topic can be done independently as a short exercise or altogether as an extended assignment.

By giving students hands-on experience with using real-world data to investigate important policy issues, Doing Economics will strengthen the link between real-world phenomena and abstract economic concepts, while enabling students to develop skills that are transferable to other courses and to the workplace.

Notes:
1. For further information about Doing Economics, visit www.core-econ.org/doing-economics/ or contact Eileen Tipoe, the CORE EQuSS researcher (eileen@core-econ.org).

2Doing Economics and Economy, Society and Public Policy (ESPP) are products of the CORE EQuSS project. ESPP is an introductory economics text, based on CORE’s The Economy, intended for students who are not specialising in economics. CORE EQuSS is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Foundation.