Playconomics video game teaches theory of economics
So economics really is a game after all. Two economics lecturers have found that the fastest route to an undergraduate's brain is to use a computer game that plays out the theory of economics.
Called Playconomics, the online game sets up economic environments and allows students to interact with other agents, make economic decisions and analyse the outcomes. Students can play the game in their own time, on their own devices and can progress at their own speed.
Devised by lecturers Alberto Motta and Isabella Dobrescu from the Australian School of Business (ASB), the concept is learning by playing. "Think of it as an ebook, only gamified," says Dr Dobrescu.
With masterly understatement, Dr Motta says: "Textbooks are not really as exciting as they could be especially for students raised in an online world.
"Playconomics plays like a video game, but also teaches like a regular textbook. It puts the student into a vibrant, simulated world, but is also very academically accurate."
Around 2,500 students a year take Microeconomics 1, one of the largest courses at ASB, and a key subject in many degree programs crucial in attracting students to higher-level studies.
The lecturers first tested the learning potential of the game in a laboratory environment. Playing the game produced the same exam results as learning by textbook – and was, no doubt, more fun.
Confident in these results, they went on and deployed one full level of Playconomics to more than 1,200 students.
"In the first four weeks, we had more than 1,300 games played or roughly 2,000 hours of play," says Motta. But crucially, the corresponding students' scores increased by 25% and failure rates dropped by half.
"Generally, it is hard to motivate students to adopt extracurricular material," says Dobrescu. "But the optional Playconomics had a staggering 80% adoption rate." "It is perfect for self-education and we really think it will change the way we teach economics," concludes Motta.
The pair was awarded the 2013 Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in the use of Learning & Teaching Technologies and the Heinz Harant Award for Teaching Innovation.
Another ASB lecturer whose adaptation of technology for the classroom has won plaudits (a Vice-Chancellor's Award for Initiatives that Enhance Learning) is senior lecturer Dr Robert Tumarkin.
His innovation is credited with tackling one of the greatest threats to the integrity of university education – cheating in exams.
The logistics of exam preparation are a challenge for any lecturer. They can either deliver the tests during precious lecture time or during tutorials. But with the large class sizes for first-year students and multiple tutorials over the study week, "leakage" has meant that students tested on a Friday perform better than those tested on a Monday.
Tumarkin has created a program that generates a unique exam that enables each student to get a personally designed, but randomly generated, series of questions and answers, with the occasional red herring that highlights attempts to subvert the system. It can be used for quantitative, qualitative, multiple choice and open-ended questions, and it is simple to use.
Tumarkin's motivation was to create a fairer system. "This is a way of rewarding the 99% of students who do the right thing rather than the 1% who do the wrong thing."