by Neven Valev, Associate Professor of Economics at Georgia State University
As the world becomes ever more connected, many universities and high schools have made efforts to “globalize” their curriculum.
That is a worthy goal but achieving it is not easy. Developing global content is time consuming for the instructors and there are few guidelines that apply across disciplines.
I often start my lectures with a simple chart comparing countries. For example, if we are going to talk about health issues, I display country rankings for life expectancy, HIV prevalence, or healthcare spending. If the subject is the environment, I show a chart with the biggest polluters. If we discuss education, we look at literacy rates or dropout rates around the world. Looking at the charts, I ask the students if they notice anything interesting. Is there something counterintuitive or surprising?
Why do they think countries rank that way? The exercise takes about 10 minutes of the class time. Even if the topic is strictly domestic, putting an issue into global context is useful as it gives perspective. By looking at several country characteristics during the semester the students gradually gain some “global competency.” Moreover, they learn to interpret international data which is important as the world is becoming not only globalized but also digitized.
I have used that method across classes but most frequently in The Global Economy class I developed at Georgia State University several years ago. The class is an introduction to global issues for non-economics majors and has an enrollment of several hundred students each semester. They major in film, biology, nursing, criminal justices, business, history, political science, sociology, and many other fields and share an interest in the wider world.
There are two important things to consider when using international charts: 1) the charts should be simple; a simple ranking of countries by one characteristic is sufficient and 2) the characteristic should be of general interest and non-technical.
Thankfully, governments and international organizations have made a strong push to measure everything that can (and sometimes cannot) be measured. There are international data on demographics, gender differences, education outcomes, economic and human development, crime, health, environmental quality, urbanization, and many other subjects. There are data for virtually every topic across fields.
Available Global Learning Tools
As a practical matter, instructors can use several free and reliable online platforms that aggregate international data from various sources and offer interactive tools to display the data. I will first mention TheGlobalEconomy.com website as I have participated in its development and I am well familiar with it.
Various country characteristics can be displayed interactively across countries and over time. The charts are simple and can be downloaded for presentations and research projects and the data are supplemented with a discussion of key international concepts and organizations.
Another option is the Gapminder, one of the first websites designed to display official data in a user-friendly format. The site has some very useful features. One can observe how country characteristics change over time in a dynamic format and can plot two indicators against each other, for example, income per capita and health outcomes. The Global Edge platform from Michigan State University also has a comparator tool (in the knowledge tools section) where one can select indicators and countries.
The entire platform has an international business orientation and offers a lot of interesting information in addition to the comparative statistics. Statsilk is the most technically elaborate of the country comparison tools with many options on the screen. It features a visually appealing display of the data and it is perhaps more useful for advanced studies. The Google Public Data tool is a collection of official data from various sources. All variables can be visualized with a simple navigation tool and using the Google charts functionality.
Each of these websites shows explicitly the sources of the data and one can trust the information for use in the classroom. My suggestion is to select a few indicators on these websites and to show them to the students. See how the class discussion unfolds. Ask the students if they want to see something else the next class.
One of the most helpful aspects of this method is that the websites described above update the data regularly. During the next semester or academic year one can look up the same indicators as before and display the most current numbers. No extra work is needed.
In that way, selecting several interesting indicators is a one-time investment of effort that pays off for many semesters into the future.