Sunday, September 03, 2017

Innovation in Economics Pedagogy and Publishing

Well, it's Labor Day weekend, which means that Barnard and Columbia students are back on campus and classes are about to begin. This semester I'm teaching a seminar based on a book I'm writing with Dan O'Flaherty, and... Introduction to Economic Reasoning.

It's my first time teaching an introductory course in well over a decade and, to be honest, I never thought I'd ever do so willingly again. But this time I volunteered, and am excited to start. It's the culmination of an extraordinary journey that began almost five years ago, when Wendy Carlin of UCL contacted me about joining an initiative that eventually led to the CORE Project. Our first major accomplishment is a new book, The Economy, produced simultaneously for digital and print:

The digital version is available free of charge worldwide, released under a Creative Commons license, while the print version sold by Oxford University Press retails for under fifty dollars in the United States, about a sixth of the price of a standard textbook.

And it's a lot more interesting and fun to read than a standard text. We started from scratch in producing it, incorporating a lot of economic history, data, experiments, and interesting theory – including social preferences, strategic interaction, incomplete information, incomplete contracts, disequilibrium dynamics, and more.

But the content innovation is just part of the story. Above all, it was an incredible process innovation, involving authorship by more than twenty scholars scattered across the world, some making contributions to just a couple of units while others (Wendy Carlin, Sam Bowles, and Margaret Stevens) contributed to just about everything and ensured continuity and coherence. My own substantive contributions were to units 11 and 12, on market dynamics and market breakdowns, and to the profiles of some great economists of the past. But we all chipped in here and there, reading and offering minor suggestions wherever our own particular expertise turned out to be an asset.

And then there's the publishing innovation, which Arthur Attwell describes very nicely here
I’m a book-maker, which, for the most part, means I turn Word documents and Powerpoint slides into books. These days, my team and I also turn them into websites and ebooks. To do it well, we draw on 500 years of book-making craft. And very rarely we get to try to add something to that craft.

The CORE project – specifically, the production of their textbook The Economy – has enabled us to do really exciting, perhaps pioneering, book-making work...

For over fifteen years, book-makers like me have been pulled in two directions: you’re a print person or you’re a digital person. This is largely a practical matter: the skills and tools for each have been completely different. Which meant the workflows for creating each format were completely different, as were their distribution channels... the practical matter of skills has framed the evolution of publishing as ‘print vs digital’, when of course the conversation should be about print and digital. Not just because we’re stuck with a multiformat world whether we like it or not, but because print and digital formats are symbiotic. In ambitious book projects, especially where we want a book to have a social impact, neither can be successful without the other.
Print books generate instant credibility. They carry a sense of permanence and authority that digital formats cannot muster... But print does not scale, and it’s locked into a funding model where the end-user pays for every copy.
Digital formats, and websites in particular, are the opposite. Web publications struggle to muster the authority of a printed book, but they scale instantly and allow for a range of funding models... Books as websites can be public goods in a way that printed books cannot, especially for the poor.
So, when a book needs to make an impact, it simply must be in print and digital formats. It cannot have impact without the authority of print. And it cannot have impact without the scale of the web...

For most book-makers like me, who make print and digital publications, this has meant creating two versions: the print edition and the digital edition. The print edition is usually the master, and the digital version a laborious, post-production conversion.
This is an expensive process, often done by teams of glorified copy-pasters. And since most books need to be corrected and updated after a short time, everything must be done twice, and version control between the formats is error-prone.
Clearly the holy grail for book-production workflows is to produce all formats from one source simultaneously. Many teams have tackled this challenge. Big incumbents like Adobe have tried valiantly to extend their print-production tools to produce ready-to-use digital formats, but their roots in page design are too deep to make this simple or scalable. And, given the nature of the web and the high costs of developing software, digital workflows based on proprietary software don’t spread or become standards.
For print-and-digital book production to grow we need open-source tools that produce high-end, print-ready files and sensible websites. With the CORE project, we are right at the frontier.
And the production quality has to be seen to believed. The book loads almost instantaneously in a browser, and renders beautifully on a mobile device. And it contains features that make the use of supplementary slides unnecessary. Take a look, for instance, at Figure 1.2. You'll notice six slides in the sidebar; click through each of these in turn. You'll see global inequality along three dimensions: within and between countries, and across time. Watch the movement of the entire income distribution in China from 1980 to the present day, as it leapfrogs one set of countries after another. There's no need for ancillary resources, just project the book itself on a screen and talk through it. As Arthur says, we are at the frontier.

Finally, there's the innovation in outreach, in building a community of adopters, and getting graduate students excited about teaching again. Last month we launched CORE-USA, with a workshop involving about twenty graduate students and thirty faculty, funded by a generous grant from the Teagle Foundation. This is the first of several such workshops, one of the primary goals of which is to identify graduate students with strong potential in both teaching and scholarship, and provide them with exposure to the our materials and community. 

These students will be designated CORE-Teagle Fellows, which we hope will provide a strong, positive signal as they enter the academic job market in a year or two. If you're hiring, look out for these pioneers, and if you're a graduate student, consider applying for next year's workshop. And if you'd like to support this initiative, just buy the print version of The Economy. You'll enjoy it, and a small portion of the proceeds will flow to the non-profit that produced it.

There's some serious disruption going on in economics pedagogy and textbook publishing right now, and it's exciting to be in the thick of things.


  1. I took a look at the electronic version, and it is beautiful.

    I was looking for price gouging, a relevant topic today. Because there isn't an index, I was unable to find it, if it is there.

    I looked at the section on repugnant markets, but was surprised at how mild the examples were. Where are the obvious examples, such as murder for hire? The section says "One reason we might object is that the sale may not be truly voluntary, because poverty might force people to enter into a transaction they might later regret." Unfortunately, "voluntary" is not defined, and many people will argue that poverty is not an argument against "voluntary". Nor does that section bring up the basic issue of externalities from market transactions, such as murder for hire. Or undermining democratic values with vote selling. Or other incentives disruptive of social norms.

    Maybe that level of detail is inappropriate for this book. Overall, it is an extraordinary revisioning of economics textbooks, both in style and production. I would like to refer to it often.

  2. There's a search function that I think is a close substitute for an index. Click on "Contents" and you will find it. The word "gouging" does not appear in the text.

  3. Yes, the search function is all we have in the digital version, but I understand that there will be an index in the print version.