MobLab App: Learn the Social Sciences through Interactive Experiments


What’s the best way to teach students concepts in the social sciences, like backwards induction and strategic compromising?

As any instructor of psychology or economics will tell you, the best way for students to learn principles and strategies is by experiencing them firsthand, or watching them played out in real scenarios.

MobLab is a web-based app that allows instructors to run virtual experiments with their students, such as English Auctions, Sealed Bid auctions, or Bargaining games.

With MobLab, instructors can set up experiments and configure a playlist of games. Students can participate in games using any Android or iOS mobile device (smartphone and tablet) or a laptop. Any number of students can play, so both small classes and large classes can make use of the app.

MobLab was tested in an Economics Class earlier this year, as Walter Yuan reports:

The twenty-plus students of the AP Economics class first participated in a 1st price English Auction, followed by a 2nd price Sealed Bid auction. A number of students bid up the price slowly in the English Auction and some had the intuition to wait until the last minute to come in and ‘steal’ the auction. This gave the instructor the perfect opportunity to discuss and dissect the ‘sniping’ phenomenon on e-Bay. Next up, the winner of 2nd price auction mentioned she bid her whole $200 cash endowment because she knew she only had to pay the 2nd price and was hoping that 2nd price would be low. When she realized that she had to pay $199 (she wasn’t the only one with that strategy!), she and other students suddenly had no trouble understanding the Winner’s Curse or why it is optimal to bid their values in a 2nd price auction. As one student noted, “[MobLab] was fun and engaging, but at the same time we got to learn. It is rare to find fun games that can teach you something as well.”

What are the benefits of running interactive experiments in the social sciences?

Dr. Thomas Palfrey, Flintridge Professor of Economics and Political Science and Senior Scientific Advisor of MobLab explains the benefits of interactive experiments:

First, it gets students engaged. They are busy trying to figure out how to buy and sell. “The Market” is not an imaginary thing in a dry textbook. They are the market.

Second, it’s not boring. It’s exciting. The students are teaching themselves rather than passively listening to a monotone voice in front of the room trying to explain imaginary supply and demand curves that intersect to somehow determine a price and a quantity.

Third, the student sees that the theory is actually something to take seriously, that it has an empirical basis. It isn’t based on just pie in the sky theorizing.

Fourth, the student gets a sense of how an equilibrium price can emerge from the dynamics of a trading process as a result of competitive forces.

Fifth, and most important, it piques their interest in economics as a scientific discipline. The dismal science comes to life!

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