The many uses of ESPP

By Tim Phillips | 7 March 2018

Yesterday we launched our new project: Economy, Society, and Public Policy (ESPP). But CORE has published an economics textbook already. So who is ESPP designed to help?

The short answer is: anyone who wants to learn about the economy, society and public policy for whom The Economy might be too big a step. Our main target audience is students (undergrad or postgrad), who are not studying economics already, but who want to take an economics course; although, of course, we hope the text is accessible to anyone, whether in formal education or not. We asked the people who teach non-economics majors in a variety of institutions how ESPP could fit into their syllabus, and identified several areas in which ESPP and Doing Economics can be used, either in whole or in part.

1 Undergraduate economics courses for students who are not taking economics (yet)

Most economics departments offers a course for non-majors, which often attracts large numbers of social sciences and other undergraduates looking to learn about the most pressing policy problems facing our societies from an economic standpoint: inequality, financial instability, the future of work, environmental degradation, wealth creation and innovation. Some of the teachers for these courses told us that students were often put off economics or didn’t enjoy their course, because they were made to study what they considered to be unrealistic assumptions about the world around them.

“In traditional economics we assume the individual is rational, and they make optimisation decisions and they are all self-interested. These are strong assumptions and not necessarily realistic,” says Dunli Li, who teaches “An Introduction to Applied Economic Analysis” to non-economists at UCL. A result, she says, is that students struggle to connect the abstract economic models they study to the rest of their studies, or to the real-world problems that brought them to the subject in the first place.

“These students, who are dipping their toe into economics, they think of the economy as part of the wider world,” adds Wendy Carlin, who leads the ESPP project at CORE, “And they just don’t get that from a standard, boilerplate economics course centred around this rather lonely individual, homo economicus.”

Li has helped us to create ESPP, and will be teaching it in her course in 2018. Her students vary from computer scientists, who enjoy the chance to investigate economic problems using R, to arts students who have had no experience working with statistics at all.

Also, we know that many  liberal arts course structures encourage students to try a wide range of courses before specialising. We want to show as many people as possible that economics is not a dismal pursuit, and inspire them to take more advanced courses.

2 Advanced policy-focused courses

Because ESPP introduces how policy is made and evaluated almost from the beginning, it suits students who are learning economics mostly because it helps to create and evaluate policy options. “At the University of Namur in Belgium I will teach a course called Institutional Foundations of Markets next year, which is the third-year elective course for students in Political Science and Social Sciences: I think ESPP would be a perfect fit for this audience,” says Gani Aldashev, right, “as soon as there is a French version, I would probably adopt it for my Introduction to Economics course, which is a second-year undergraduate mandatory course for Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, and Communications students, at Université Libre de Bruxelles.”

One of the advantages for Aldashev is the way that ESPP presents new economic knowledge and techniques. It shows them that the subject is an evolving discipline that is increasingly connecting with, and learning from, other subjects, he says, rather than presenting them with a fixed body of knowledge to be acquired.

3 Innovative or customised courses

Like all CORE material ESPP is designed to be adapted to fit your your needs (a simple example are the optional “Find out more” sections, right, that cover topics that may be too complex for students who do not have mathematics or statistics skills. You can open or close them with a click.).

In our note to instructors we have suggested various ways in which ESPP, perhaps supplemented with units from The Economy, can be structured as a one-semester or two-semester course. But, if you want to use it more creatively, in any department and for any purpose, that’s fine by us. It’s one of the reasons we publish under a Creative Commons licence.

One of the most exciting and innovative applications of ESPP in 2018 will be at the University of Bristol, where it will become part of the Bristol Futures programme of courses. These courses are intended to provide a more multidisciplinary education inside their degree course to help students think about sustainability, the challenges of citizenship, and the causes and consequences of innovation. Bristol Futures courses will be offered as options for all students who can take elective courses, which means that the material will need to be accessible for students in almost every discipline.

Alvin Birdi, left, professor of economics education at the University of Bristol (and a teacher with impeccable interdisciplinary credentials: he is one of the few economists with a PhD in English Literature), has conducted focus groups with potential students from all disciplines to ensure that they are engaged with the material, and that it is challenging but not intimidating.

“We’ve shown them some of the draft materials,” he says, “We did one group with art students, and then a second focus group with social sciences students, and then a third one with STEM students. These are the kinds of students who would have had the option for doing this if these courses were already available. We worried that students from more technical backgrounds would have an advantage, for example. But I think that the material is sufficiently interesting for most students. The kind of narrative approach is something I think that the students really attach to. That’s kind of important when you’re dealing with students for whom economics is not their first subject. You’ve got to find a way in for those students.”

4 To teach data-handling skills

We will explain more about Doing Economics, right, our standalone collection of empirical projects, in our next blog. ESPP is designed so that students learn by doing, and contains data exercises and well as the multiple-choice questions and exercises that you will be familiar with, if you have read The Economy.

Note: if you want to set empirical projects to improve your students’ data-handling skills, either in Excel today or in R later in 2018, you don’t have to teach ESPP to use the projects from Doing Economics.

ESPP was made by teachers, for teachers

We are trying to cover a wide range of applications and skillsets. Deciding what to include in ESPP, and how to present it so that it is rigorous, interesting, and accessible for students with no economics background, has been a challenge.

We encourage you to selectively use and adapt our text, if that’s what suits your needs. You don’t need to swallow it whole, but of course we will support you as much as we can if you do. While the beta versions of the units we have posted are teachable today, we know from our experience with The Economy that we will learn a lot from (and apply a lot of) the feedback that our teachers give us.

We have relied on feedback from a global network of experienced teachers already, such as Gani Aldashev in Brussels. For economics to reach a broader audience, Aldashev says, it has to transfer some new skills, while respecting and building on the existing skills, of students from other disciplines: “Students in Political Science or Sociology are not at all used to models and formal reasoning, even geometric solutions such as indifference curves or feasible frontiers,” he says, “Overcoming this barrier is hard. On the other hand, compared to economics students, they are typically more used to comparing theories critically, and debating them. The challenge is to best exploit this for their understanding.”

Some suggestions on how to plan your course using ESPP