|[ ASCILITE ]
[ 2004 Proceedings Contents ]
This paper details the application of SMS messaging to facilitate 'classroom experiments' in microeconomics classes. Laboratory style experiments and simulations have long been used for teaching and learning in many disciplines, however classroom experiments in economics have a feature that distinguishes them from their counterparts in many other disciplines. This is that students participate in dual roles as both experimental subjects and as researchers in analysing the outcomes of an experiment. Good experimental designs should thus support student learning with feedback at both levels. In the past, this was done most effectively by conducting experiments in fully networked laboratories. However in view of the cost of developing fully computerised experiments, paper based designs have remained prevalent, even though these are cumbersome and time consuming to conduct. By using SMS as a response medium, the limitations of paper based experiments are overcome without incurring the costs of full computerisation. Individual feedback is delivered by return messaging, while aggregate results are summarised in automated charts and tables. This makes it possible to conduct classroom experiments in large classes in lecture halls.
In the past, the only way to quickly and efficiently generate both forms of feedback simultaneously has been to conduct classroom experiments in a fully networked laboratory environment. Each student is seated at a separate computer terminal and interacts with a software program which is responsible for collating responses and providing feedback. Computerisation facilitates the control of information and speeds up communication, making experiments simpler and less time consuming to conduct. However as such experiments are costly to develop, their use has largely been confined to instructors who conduct similar experiments for research purposes. Moreover, participation is limited by the size and availability of computer laboratories, and the experiments cannot be conducted in classes held in lecture theatres.
As such, the most prevalent means of conducting classroom experiments remains to do so by hand using pencil and paper. Students record their decisions on printed 'record sheets' which are handed in and analysed manually. This is both time consuming and inefficient, such that aggregate level results are often not compiled until after class, for reporting at a later class meeting. Even individual level feedback can be cumbersome for groups in excess of about fifty students - for example, in the paper based version of the bargaining game (Dickenson, 2002), the instructor must not only physically transfer messages between proponents and respondents, but also keep track of how these are matched to one another. Once again, such experiments are unsuited to large lecture classes. In addition, most standard paper based experiments require a minimum of one hour of class time.
In short, while there is a compelling teaching and learning rationale for classroom experiments in economics classes, their adoption has been limited by what is essentially a technical bottleneck in data assembly and analysis. The challenge is firstly to assemble student responses in an electronic format amenable to efficient processing, and secondly to report feedback on results at both individual and aggregate levels. Infrared based audience response technologies are suited to collecting responses from large numbers of students and generating live displays of results in class, however they do not permit feedback to be sent back to students on an individual basis. However mobile phone messaging technology holds the potential to facilitate fully interactive classroom experiments, even in large lecture classes.
Thus, unlike traditional paper based experiments, no manual intervention is required by the instructor - either in reporting feedback to individual students or presenting results for display - as this is all done automatically from downloaded student data at a single mouse click. This means that SMS mediated experiments can be conducted with only a marginal expense in terms of time, being the time taken to set out instructions at the start of class, and then the time required to download the responses and display results at an appropriate point in class. Since individual students' handsets are used for data entry, no specialised hardware investment is required and the experiments can be run in any classroom from which the instructor can access the Internet.
Figure 1: SMS mediated classroom experiment
During semester one of 2004, four simple SMS experiments - including the two examples cited above - were developed by the author for use in lectures in a core microeconomics unit for postgraduate students of commerce and international business. In each experiment, all analysis, manipulation and reporting of responses is performed by a series of macros within Microsoft Excel, which was chosen because of its inbuilt programmability, charting capabilities, and suitability to processing data organised as lists. In each experiment, students' responses are read in as a comma delimited (CSV) text file containing the originating mobile phone numbers and messages, and an output file is written in the same format containing outgoing messages for upload and broadcast back to students' phones. Provided arrangements can be made for text messages to be uploaded and downloaded in these simple, standard file formats, the experiments can run without modification, thus they are not in principle dependent on any specific service provider. While the ability to download incoming messages in CSV format is a standard feature of most SMS gateway providers, the ability to upload a similar list of replies for broadcast was not available from any known Australian provider. Custom software development was thus commissioned to implement this feature as an add in to an existing application.
The work completed to date has established the technical feasibility of SMS messaging as a medium to facilitate classroom experiments in economics, both in assembling responses from students and for reporting feedback to individual students. Moreover these experiments are suitable for use in large lecture classes, an environment in which options have previously been very limited. Further work is underway focusing on issues of student accessibility, including the possible use of premium SMS services to offset costs to students, and to evaluate student satisfaction and learning outcomes.
Cheung, S.L. (2003). On the use of classroom experiments in 'aligned' teaching. Economic Analysis and Policy, 33(1), 61-72.
Dickenson, D.L. (2002). A bargaining experiment to motivate discussion on fairness. Journal of Economic Education, 33(2), 136-151.
Harrison, G.W. & McCabe, K.A. (1996). Expectations and fairness in a simple bargaining experiment. International Journal of Game Theory, 25(3), 303-327.
Leuthold, J.H. (1993). A free rider experiment for the large class. Journal of Economic Education, 24(4), 353-363.
Noussair, C.N. & Walker, J.M. (1998). Student decision making as active learning: Experimental economics in the classroom. In W.E. Becker & M.W. Watts (Eds.), Teaching economics to undergraduates: Alternatives to chalk and talk. (pp. 49-77). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Williams, A.W. & Walker, J.M. (1993). Computerized laboratory exercises for microeconomics education: Three applications motivated by experimental economics. Journal of Economic Education, 24(4), 291-315.
|Author: Stephen L. Cheung (S.Cheung@econ.usyd.edu.au), School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
The author thanks the School of Economics and Political Science for funding the project reported in this paper, Mark Melatos for allowing his class to be used for one of the experiments, and Andrew Grill of LegionONE for facilitating technical development of the software interface.
Please cite as: Cheung, S.L. (2004). Fun and games with mobile phones: SMS messaging in microeconomics experiments. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 180-183). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/cheung.html
© 2004 Stephen L. Cheung
The author assigns to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document on the ASCILITE web site (including any mirror or archival sites that may be developed) and in printed form within the ASCILITE 2004 Conference Proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.