Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Economics: getting up to speed

Economics is one of SAIS's distinguishing features.

Each SAIS student graduates with a solid understanding of international economics. It starts even before SAIS: each admitted candidate must have passed both introductory micro and macro before being able to take any courses at SAIS.

Of course not all applicants have a background in economics. We appreciate diversity in all of its forms, including the varied educational backgrounds of our students.

To prepare themselves for the challenge, many students without substantial training in economics take our Online Principles of Economics course taught by Prof. Dale Larson in the summer before the start of pre-term classes.

Prof. Larson has taught the "dismal science" for most of his career and the Principles of Economics at SAIS since 2005. Currently he teaches the course from Kabul, where he also instructs at the American University in Afghanistan.

(I took Prof. Larson's online course last fall and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was the first time I had taken an online course and would recommend following Prof. Larson's advice to students who've never taken a virtual course.)

We receive many questions on the introductory economics course. We thought we'd ask some of Prof. Larson himself.

Q: What’s the goal of the course?
Larson: The primary goal of the course is to prepare students for required economics courses at SAIS and other graduate schools. It is the equivalent of a two-semester undergraduate introduction and survey of almost the entire field of economics.

Q: What’s its general structure?
Prof. Dale Larson
Larson: The course spans 12 weeks. The course material is divided into ten weekly modules, and one week each is devoted to a midterm and a final examination. For each module, a student must read textbook assignments, view narrated PowerPoint slides, and complete both a graded quiz on that week’s material and post two responses to a discussion question.

Q: How is the course tailored to SAIS’s needs?
Larson: The course is designed to prepare students for the SAIS curriculum in microeconomics and macroeconomics. It provides the basic tools needed to succeed in these graduate-level courses.

Most SAIS students are particularly interested in international trade and investment, and in economic development in less developed countries. A grounding in microeconomics is necessary to understand international trade, and a grounding in macroeconomics is necessary to understand international finance. Both international trade and finance are important for understanding policies to promote economic development.

Q: What would you say are the key differences with an in situ course? 
Larson: The most obvious difference is the lack of face-to-face interaction, both between the instructor and students and among the students, and the competitive motivation that face-to-face interaction often arouses in students. The course tries to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction by requiring students to introduce themselves to their classmates during the first few days, which often leads to student-to-student interaction. As the instructor I am available via email seven days a week, and on three days hold “office hours” in the form of a chat room. This provides what is probably more individual attention than students get in a traditional classroom. For the discussion question, the students work in groups.

An advantage of an online course is that students may take the course from anywhere in the world as long as they have Internet service. Students need not be physically present at a particular time and a particular place. Although the course is not entirely self-paced, the students do have a few days within which to complete each assignment. Students can travel while completing all the assignments.

Q: What advice would you give to those who are taking an online course for the first time?
Larson: A student must realize that this is a serious course. It is not self-paced but has frequent assignments due each Thursday and Saturday. Each term a few students are slow to begin the first week, but thereafter they realize that the course requires almost daily effort.

Q: How much time should one invest in the course to do well?
Larson: This of course depends on each student’s background. For some students, 10 hours per week would suffice, but other students would need more time. Although the only mathematics required for this course is arithmetic, students who have studied more mathematics usually are able to acquire economics concepts more quickly.

Q: Any advice for students about to have their first encounter with economics?
Larson: First, do not judge the field of economics immediately. Students sometimes begin by complaining that the assumptions on which economic models are based are too simple, and later complain that economics is very complicated.

Second, economics is both abstract and logical. The abstraction lies in economic models’ simplifying assumptions, which are like premises in a logical syllogism.

Amina Abdiuahab

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