David R. Henderson  

John Papola on Teaching Economics

Bryan's Challenge... Murray and Marriage...

I gave a talk at a joint Institute for Humane Studies/Mercatus Center event in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. One of the other speakers was John Papola who, along with Russ Roberts, made the two Keynes/Hayek videos (here and here). John Papola talked about how the web and cheap movie cameras might revolutionize economics education. John said words roughly like the following:

Why go in and have the students listen to your lecture and take notes when, instead, you can hone the lecture and do your best job? Then it can be filmed, the students can watch the film, and then you can use class time for questions and the various things they've thought of or had trouble with.

That made sense. Then I thought about the implications for the students' time. Now, outside of class, they would need not only to do the readings but also to watch a film. Granted that I could do a honed lecture in 75 minutes or less rather than the 100 minutes we spend in class. So that would free up 25 minutes. But that still means the students are spending x (where x is the amount of time they spend reading) + 75 minutes. So for the same time commitment by the students, that would give us 25 minutes for class time. Maybe I'm just too stuck in my ways, but I'm trying to imagine how this would work.

Anyone? John Papola? Bueller?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (32 to date)

So X + 100 minutes is better than X + 75 minutes?

Where's the downside?

SB7 writes:

Why try and hold students' minutes constant?

They aren't, after all. I've seen studies that students' time dedicated to studying has come down pretty significantly in a few decades. Different disciplines require different time commitments from students — lab or studio time, film screenings, discussions, along with other variations. Different teachers require different amounts of reading even within the same sub-discipline.

Why try and hold your students' time used constant when it comes to this one variable?

Peter H writes:

I think you're seriously overestimating how long your lecture tapes would need to be. I have generally found that about 1/4 to 1/3 of most lectures is devoted to covering the core material, and the remaining 3/4 to 2/3 is related to answering questions, having students work out examples, the slower pace you need to keep to allow note taking, and general logistics. For an example of the pace that can be kept in a video, look at some Khan Academy videos, and compare them to how much time a university lecture or lectures on the same topic would take.

Some lecturers do take a Ben Stein* approach and perhaps use 75+% of a lecture towards one sided communication, but these tend to be bad lecturers.

*Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Lunar Curry writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

econ student writes:

I've listened to hundreds of podcasts from Russ, and I prefer it to reading any day. The reason: that time isn't actually lost. I've found that I can do mindless enjoyable tasks while listening to the podcast and still soak up all of the information.

Favorite thing to do is play minecraft, but it works for driving, getting ready in the morning, or exercising.

Time in class: testing their knowledge. I feel much more comfortable about my grades taking a daily short quiz, and seeing the results. It also teaches me how to study for the finals in the class.

Joshua writes:

I think this TED lecture from Salman Khan will steer you in the right direction.


He explains why it's better to watch lectures at home - but there are also a bunch of other observations about learning that are... embarrassinbly obvious. (in a good way).

JohnF writes:

The obvious implication is that it's time to get rid of 99% of classes altogether. At least from a learning point of view. Why bother with a live performance from an 80th percentile teacher when you can have a recording of a 99.99th percentile teacher?

Of course, if that was going to happen it would probably already have happened. Like with recordings mostly replacing inferior live music. Personally I suspect signalling and the economic/status interest of professors. That is, student wants impressive professors and professors want the comparatively easy work of doing lectures as well as being the center of attention from a bunch of students.

Cahal writes:

Not so sure about this...I think there are benefits from going to a lecture in person. I guess in the same way that people go to the library to revise when they could stay home.

Charlie writes:

I've been using the MIT open courseware lectures on mathematics to brush up on a few courses, before entering a Ph.D. program in finance, so I am open to the idea that digital media can be very powerful.

But there's a great line in Good Will Hunting about getting a world class education for $20 in library fines. In theory I could get all the same info from textbooks in the library.

I guess in the end I am more persuaded by the idea that college is about something different than learning things.

Charlie writes:


I am glad you posted that video. I moonlight as a math tutor and a lot of the info hit home. I don't know if Khan Academy gets advanced enough, but I will check it out for my own learning too.

Andy writes:

As Khan (of Khan Academy) says, I think the idea is to listen to lectures at home and do problem sets in class. Large class sizes obviously aren't going to come in to work on problems, but a large class just devoted to listening to lectures shouldn't really exist.

Jody writes:

Why go to class if you don't have questions? The time commitment for the students only goes up if classroom attendance is mandatory.

What you've really done is:
*swap in class lecture for an out-of-class video
*replaced (or added) a portion of office hours with an optional classroom question period

Now the majority of the benefit (reduced commuting time and added convenience) will accrue to your brighter students who don't need the question period, but that's true of almost any innovation.

Rimfax writes:

I fourth commenter Joshua's Khan TED Lecture link.

Mike Hammock writes:

As others have mentioned, the Khan approach is the one being proposed by Papola, I think.

Also, in my experience with traditional lectures (in which the professor teaches the material in class), most students do not actually read the textbook, except when they need help with a particular topic they do not understand. In-class lectures, online lectures, and textbooks are all substitutes for each other. Having online lectures, and requiring that students watch them, and then doing problems and answering questions in class (instead of lecturing), seems to me a great way to run an economics class. In fact, I might try it next semester.

It is true that if students have not been reading the textbook, requiring them to watch videos will consume more of their time--but that is time they should have been spending reading the textbook anyway. The textbook might still be available as a last-resort backup (for those students who cannot stand the way I teach), but I think the textbook is becoming less important, or at least, it is in my classes.

Brian Clendinen writes:

Every heard the "medium is the message"? Our brains reacts to the same information being conveyed across different mediums differently. Although I think Marshall McLuhan overstated the case that the medium is everything. I think his research shows that the medium is extremely important in communication. There is something about human interaction in person that video/telephone cannot replace. The problem is how does one quantify them to analyze for cost/benefit.

In regards to Khan, I thought what a great idea with the TED lecture. I actual tried it out and it is not that great. The videos are nothing special. I mean the videos are about as good as an average textbook. I find a good math textbook is lot easier to learn from than these videos.

I was homeschooled and 70%+ of my education time past 4th or 5th was reading/problems. Only when I got into high school did I need any real human lecture time and that was mostly with English and Science.

I was a little shocked when I went to college and the professors would just teach what was in the book. It was such a waste of time and I just thought most students were lazy. Granted after about two years I stopped reading textbooks for most classes till test time, it just made the lecture boring most of the time. If one is a decent writer, reads the textbook twice, and does most of the problems then an average student can get an A in 80% of the classes (assuming adequate time is spent on research papers).

So I really don’t know the advantage of a video over reading other than learning styles.

In my mind two thirds to three forths of the value of teachers is accoutablity. This is the reason why I think most professional classes are worthless.

There is the rare teacher who add a lot of value. These are the teachers who should be doing the video intructions.

PrometheeFeu writes:

In most classes I have taken, lectures are usually interactive with the professor pausing to ask or answer questions. That's not possible if the lecture is recorded. But then again, that may not be the case for everyone out there.

I have to go along with the majority here.

I had one class where the professor did this, taped his lecture and then posted it, and we could watch it online or go to class and get the same lecture. I found the online video to be much more helpful.

There's no pauses for other people's dumb questions, but you can replay anything that you didn't quite catch. You can email about any questions and so you can ask exactly what you want to know and you're not wasting anyone else's time with them.

And the monetary incentives are fairly significant, at least for me. Each drive into class with gas and parking is $20. By only going in on test days, I spent $60 versus $280. In addition, I could watch the video during my free time and not have to pay for babysitting.

Noah Yetter writes:

A) don't get hung up on the value of "the readings," because it is less than you think

B) watch the TED talk linked above by Joshua, then watch it again

GU writes:

I believe Kahn invented his videos to help his foreign family members, who desperately want to learn and convert that knowledge into earning power. Most people are not so motivated to learn, even good, promising college students. This blog's readership is probably over-represented by highly motivated autodidacts. I think the accountability point that another commenter raised is important. Myopia might cause one to blow off the video lectures, but many (not all) feel some duty to attend live lectures out of respect for the professor.

Also, the idea of everyone learning from the 99.9th percentile lecturers is absurd and dangerous. Different professors have different approaches, points of view, and ideologies. Sure, good professors don't overtly indoctrinate their students. But indoctrination by omission is a real phenomenon. If the best economics lecturer in the world is a Progressive Keynesian, are you comfortable that libertarian views will get a fair shake, if aired at all? Sure, some professors are so bad that they do more harm than good, but I think we're better off learning from at least the top 30% of lecturers in a field. Diverse approaches to problems (Hayek anyone?) instead of one overarching top-down solution shouldn't be too hard a sell to the readers of this blog.

Seth writes:

Why wouldn't you shrink class time?

Eileen writes:

I think the taped lecture is a great idea. Giving kids access to re-watch the lectures is important, since isn't that where the value of the professor comes in?

I wonder why all our technological progress has not revolutionized the way we educate from the ground up. Why do we bunch all kids born in the same year together for years and years while maybe offering remedial or gifted classes to some?

What if schools and universities became more like certification centers?

James Oswald writes:

Students are underworked as it is, and they are more likely to watch a video than do readings. Actually, what I would do is break it up further. Do 5 - 10 minute videos hitting each key point in turn, that way students don't have to sit through a full hour and get burned out. There is no reason to do a full length lecture without the transaction cost of getting all the students together at one place at one time.

Daublin writes:

I agree, David. You need to think about the opportunity cost. If you really want students to spend another thirty minutes outside the classroom, would you have them read the book more or watch a video?

The place that taped lectures are taking off is in online education. There, people pay less, and they don't travel to the university, and they will just take what they can get within those constraints. I don't think it's competitive to a traditional classroom if you lift the constraints, though. You would never attend a university but then be better off staying home watching videos. Think of it as mass market education.

All this said, I think we are making a poor analogy. Fight of the Century isn't a lecture, but a short film that is used to express an important idea: more top down, or more bottom up? A similar video that was influential to me is one called Powers of Ten. Sometimes an idea is expressed so well, you want to record it and reproduce it and have everyone see it. Fight of the Century, Round Two, is just such a gem.

Robert Smith - Dallas writes:

I may bring a different perspective to this conversation. I taught Series 7 Test prep for more than 10 years. The students are provided a text, approximately 300 pages, to study prior to the class. Ideally, they should spend approximately 100 hours studying the material and doing the included questions, prior to coming to class. This allows the instructor – who has approximately 30 hours – to cover the material in such a manner as to focus on the difficult parts and avoiding the more basic issues (Option strategies and Selling Short on the Margin vs. “What’s a stock?” “ What’s a mutual fund?”)
Today, in that industry, recorded sessions are quickly replacing live instructors’ class time. This, I believe, has two causes. It allows the students to see the instructor cover an issue multiple times, until they get a grasp of the idea/concept/rule/etc. It also reduces the cost to the firm that provides the service. Instead of paying multiple instructors, they pay for one presentation.
Telephone calls to Tutors & Email to the firm, answering student questions, supplements the process.
While I wouldn’t want to attend a college that used this process exclusively, the college experience is more than simply fact learning, I can see where this would result in more time in discussing important matters to a greater depth in the classroom. Particularly in a student’s foundational classes. If a student asked basic questions, they could be told to simply review the class online. Social pressure from the student’s peers would reduce this from happening repeatedly and would probably only occur in the first semester of a student’s freshman year.
Just an opinion

Various writes:

Well all you are doing is reversing the venue for lectures vs. homework. The students now watch the lectures at home and do the homework in class. In reality, you may mix and match some of this. Do some lectures live in class, etc. You may also have some of the video not of you, but of world class (or I should say equally world class as you) profs.

I always remember watching interviews with Richard Feynman when I was a kid. What a brilliant guy! You'd want to mix in some video from guys like him, Friedman, etc. Even if the kids didn't understand everything, they would be inspired and not bored off their rocker.

Troy Camplin writes:

With each new technological advance, people claim people will work less, when in fact they end up working more. (Remember the computer was supposed to make everything paper-free too -- so much for that!) So it will probably make for more homework, not less. Unless, you put the video on in class for everyone to watch, then you show up after to take questions.

Scott G writes:

Prof. Henderson,

I saw John's WAKE-UP talk in SF also.

First off, I think the teaching services in America are as ill-ordered as its medical care services, and students receive service similar in quality as patrons of hospitals.

As far as the Khan model goes, it's a good starting place for a teacher wanting to innovate his services, but since Khan mostly teaches math I wouldn't spend too much time thinking about it as a model for teaching economics. Math is a fairly unique subject in my opinion.

Here's where I think you should focus your thinking on this matter.

Start off with something like the Khan model and then modify it by trying to imagine what it would look like with no government interference in education and taking into account innovations made possible by the internet like Econtalk and "Fight of the Century."

This is not easy to imagine, but my guess is that the fraction of full-time students will decrease relative the the fraction of part-time students (because I see government shrinking in the future and the internet making it less costly to be a part-time student).

Econtalk is already providing a great economics education to thousands of part-time economics students.

Also, try not to imagine part-time students like they were before 2005. Think about a part-time student working for a company called Emergent Order Studios, the CEO of which is a guy named John Papola who hires young individuals who are eager to create educational products which teach economics. These young folks will work on different aspects of John's films, such as writing song lyrics, developing plots, working out new free market rhetoric, imagining and bringing to life voluntarist worlds, conducting background research, and determining what audiences want. Some of John's employees will setup contracts with expert economists like David Henderson, Don Boudreaux or Russ Roberts and work with them to improve the quality of the film.

My guess is that economists will be more like engineers after this innovation takes place. They will help create products and services that people want and are willing to pay for.

My suggestion is that if GMU wants to be a player in teaching economics in the future, it should create an economics class which teaches students how to create Fight of the Century-like videos. I'm suggesting at least one class on film (cinematography, writing for film, video editing etc.) and one or more classes in which students create videos that teach economics.

Rather than grade homework, one of my professors in graduate school posted it on the internet as a way of motivating us to do a good job on it. One of my larger reports is even used by practicing engineers wanting to learn the about the material properties of Invar (low thermal expansion nickel steel commonly used in optics). I actually visit his class website occasionally to learn about topics I didn't have time to learn in school. This professor is doing with student homework what Salmon Kahn is doing with video lectures.

The wave of the future is to post both finished homework and teacher's lectures to the internet.

By having the students both create videos and post them to the internet, many, many more videos could be created that would educate Bryan Caplan's well known voters. These videos could also be helpful to students applying for jobs. For example, part of their portfolio.

Professors like yourself would spend more time helping young economists/employees do economics research at companies like Emergent Order Studios.

[re-posted from Scott's blog --Econlib Ed.]

Roger Sweeny writes:

Having online lectures, and requiring that students watch them, and then doing problems and answering questions in class (instead of lecturing), seems to me a great way to run an economics class. In fact, I might try it next semester.

It is true that if students have not been reading the textbook--but that is time they should have been spending reading the textbook anyway.

So you used to require them to read the textbook and they didn't. Now you're going to require them to watch the lecture.

Anyone else see a problem?

John Papola writes:

Hey David,

I haven’t read any of the comments, so excuse that.

The answer is simple: have them watch the video IN CLASS. Make it short enough to do a Q&A in that period then have full blown discussion the next class. I’ve had more than a few classes while at Penn State where I simply stopped going to the lectures because they were boring and worthless. Usually they were taught by guys who clearly were there for the research and had no interest in teaching.

Anyway, this could be a real teacher productivity booster. Also, the videos wouldn’t be that long. I think shorter films in the 10 to 20 minute range that cover one subject and do it really well are probably best.

Of course, the other reality is that the really cool kids will teach themselves, so I intend to empower them with the teachers have an interest or not. Considering the current state of macro pedagogy, NOT going to class is probably the best advice I can give. ;) ZING!

Lauren writes:

Hi, John.

Many of your suggestions are excellent.

But, everyone's different. Those classes taught by "guys who clearly were there for the research and had no interest in teaching" may have bored you, but they were often exactly the ones whose on-the-spot struggles to work things out in class inspired me.

Plus, whenever I had the courage to ask a thoughtful question or go to the very next office hours, it was only those guys who you toss off as just "there for the research" who most rewarded me with as much time it took to get my questions answered--and occasionally even more inspiration beyond that. Not all profs were that amenable to spending time after class or during office hours, but I had enough great experiences with one-on-one time with profs in college that it made up for hours and years of being lectured at with no ability to interact--in both high school and college.

One might argue that I could have gotten that time all the same by listening to a recorded lecture and then scheduling an appointment with the prof. But I am convinced that my--and other classmates'--attending class and looking either alert or puzzled right away added to the class lecture as it evolved on the spot, even if we didn't ask questions right there on the spot. Recognizing class attendees who were alert and attentive as the prof spoke also added to the prof's willingness to talk to us during office hours to sort out what was puzzling in the lecture.

Even with everyone listening together to a pre-recorded lecture played in class, a prof can't be expected to stay alert to what is and isn't being understood during a classroom listening hour any more than a student can be expected to stay alert and hang on every word when there is no incentive to listen while it happens as with a one-time experience. I'm also not sure I would as often have had the courage to go to a prof's office with a question had I thought he'd spent so much time pre-recording the lecture that he just had to be right--so I must be wrong to question it or to be puzzled. Pre-recorded lectures are simply not the same kind of interactivity. It surely offers more for some students, and less for others; and probably either more or less in some dimensions for everyone. I'm not sure where the balance lies; but I suspect that to the extent that colleges respond to the market incentives created by paying students and private grants (and the incentives created by government grants), this will get sorted out, with different university experiences available at different schools.

I should also remark that I was definitely never also a "really cool kid." I'm not sure where you are going with that last paragraph.

Finally, let me remark that, as a teacher, there is something to be said for freshness. Why make a second rap video if there were not more and better ways to say what you want to say, things you left out the first time or have realized since were better ways to say things, or a new direction you could go in? Every recording gets stale over time. (In fact, as soon as you commit something to words and review it, you can usually think of improvements; or someone may point out some great new insights worth incorporating.) If a prof has to re-record a lecture once a year to keep it fresh with new examples, new ideas, new technology, or to make sure the preceding year's best student questions and ideas are incorporated, is there any substantive time saver for the prof?

I'm certainly not saying that you are not onto something! I think recorded lectures or partial lectures are a great teaching tool in some circumstances and for lots of students. I'm just suggesting that it's not quite as easy as you describe to compartmentalize the best aspects of the different functions and styles of teaching and learning.

MBA Student writes:

Dr. Henderson,

Many of the previous commenters have made myriad great points, but it comes down to each student being very different in their learning styles and studing habits.

Those of us, like myself, who prefer to hear the lecture in person and then work problem sets could benefit from this by using it as tool to use either ahead of lecture, or as a refresher in case something during lecture wasn't crystal clear.

Others who dare not go to class without having read the assigned readings and worked at least 75% of the assigned (and unassigned) homework problems can certainly benefit from this by using it as another means of preparing themselves for lecture and discussion.

Bottom line: Use only as a mild supplement to your discussion-based lectures and not as a substitute. It is only a short hop from here to replacing all lectures with videos, discussions held on e-boards, and exams administered by privatized testing centers...just too Phoenix-esque in my opinion and cheapens the MBA experience.

John Papola writes:


My point here is to be additive to the set of options available for people interested in learning. Commoditize the easier stuff in a thousand variations and free more teachers to devote more time to the kind of one-on-one experiences you cherished. I loved college (Penn State). I also saw how many people were wasting their money there. Making learning easier and more accessible is the goal. My efforts should be one of a thousand entrepreneurial efforts. I think that what exists now for most students is one-size-fits-all, so I'm trying to change that.

Secondarily, I want to undermine the current stock macro education because it is, in my opinion, barbaric and socially destructive. The most shocking thing I discovered as I spoke to teachersin economics is that the crude keynesian models that get taught intro macro are disregarded as wrong in advanced classes. Why teach this nonsense, then? It's like a physics class teaching pre-newtonian theories of gravity for the sake of walking through the history of thought. The circular flow model shouldn't be taught as it is now.

[broken url (duplicate occurrence of http) fixed--Econlib Ed.]

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