Flexibility of technical content
Because spreadsheet programs are so flexible, they may be used in a variety of ways. Instructors may construct exercises in such a way that students are required to understand and apply mathematical concepts, or the mathematics can be hidden from them. They may be required to learn and use sophisticated spreadsheet programming skills or the work may be done for them.
Two dimensions of transparency
Transparency of spreadsheet programming
While spreadsheets are easier to code than many standard programming languages, setting up a spreadsheet still takes a certain level of know-how, careful scrutiny, and patience. While these may be valuable skills for students to acquire, instructors may not always be able to devote the class time to teach critical skills or debug student work. To make exercises easier to implement, as noted above the instructor may decide to distribute detailed instructions and partially or fully completed files. Another option is to embed the worksheet with pre-programmed macros or Visual BASIC (or other embedded programming language) routines. The set of spreadsheet teaching examples in this module includes applications that require a variety of spreadsheet skills, including spreadsheets that are fully automated. If students will be constructing spreadsheets on their own, Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum provides a number of ready-to-use tutorials with embedded gradable exercises to help students master critical spreadsheet skills.
Spreadsheets allow students to complete a variety of sophisticated mathematical problems, and instructors can vary the required level of student understanding of the mathematics behind the computations. By varying the level of transparency, not only can an instructor allow students interact with models that may be too mathematically rigorous for them, she may creatively employ a discovery approach to learning as students explore the properties of the model or data under consideration.
To make the mathematics transparent, students can be required to carefully set up an algebraic model in a spreadsheet, and then the spreadsheet is used to make otherwise labor-intensive calculations as numerical examples are applied. On the other hand, to turn the exercise into a black box, commands native to the spreadsheet program may produce results automatically. For more elaborate exercises, the instructor may distribute completed or even automated spreadsheets in which students change particular values to observe the impact on a model. Excel contains a number of built-in functions that occupy the middle ground of transparency. For example, Solver can complete optimization problems without requiring students to compute or even recognize first-order conditions, but require students to correctly identify objective functions and constraints.