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March 17, 2008 12:23 pm

Better interactivity benefits students and faculty

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Business schools are introducing or considering a range of innovations to increase the interactivity and reach of their distance learning programmes or the e-learning elements of their on-campus courses. A richer experience for students and more convenience for both students and faculty are the key priorities.

The innovations cover a range of categories:
New methods of learning: At the end of 2006 Judge Business School at Cambridge University became the first business school to use LiveEcon, new interactive electronic textbooks for economics. After extensive trials, it has started using the books, published by Scotland-based Interactyx, with this year’s MBA intake.

Jochen Runde, reader in economics at Judge, says LiveEcon is a “rigorous, comprehensive and yet highly engaging and learner-friendly interactive learning tool for both macro and microeconomics”.

Interactive e-learning tools such as LiveEcon can be a cost-effective substitute for some small-group teaching, says Dr Runde. They are also ideal for delivery via online course management systems, and can free up time for faculty to give students face-to-face attention and personal feedback.

New methods of delivery: Two recent developments illustrate how mobile devices can be used to deliver content to course participants when they are on the move, between meetings, or even waiting at a bus-stop.

Irish-based Skill-Pill M-Learning has developed Skill-Pills, concise video briefings that can be delivered to mobile phones, Blackberrys, video iPods or smart phones. The leadership content created by Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, has been turned into a series of “pills” that support his executive education teaching.

One advantage of this method of delivery, compared with the fixed internet, is that the content can be “with” the user when he or she needs it and can be used to refresh their knowledge just before using it.

“There is no doubt that technology is part of the problem of information overload on today’s executives. Perhaps it can also be part of the solution,” says Prof Nicholson. “If we can encode and decode the messages properly – and use new channels such as Skill-Pill – there is a considerable chance of success.”

Elsewhere, in a pilot programme that began last September, Tecnológico de Monterrey, the Mexican business school, is delivering content to students’ 3G mobile phones – typically, a 10-15 minute presentation by faculty or a guest speaker. Patricio López Del Puerto, dean of the school’s virtual university, says it is working to incorporate this concept at least partially across its courses. “On average in the city of Monterrey, people have 23 hours a week of lost time, queuing or waiting,” he says. “They cannot get their laptops out, but they can use their mobile phones.”

New forms of communication: Schools are making good use of different forms of communication to suit the different needs of students and faculty and recognise the problem of working in different time zones.

Manchester Business School Worldwide is typical in making heavy use of asynchronous communication such as discussion boards for socialising and for building communities within the course. These are supplemented by synchronous communication – in some courses, for example, students have weekly tutorials using a web-based conferencing system and some academics offer drop-in synchronous chat sessions.

Tecnológico de Monterrey, meanwhile, has addressed the confusion that can be caused if everyone talks at once in synchronous sessions by developing its Radio Chat system. The faculty member gives an online audio talk, akin to an internet radio station, and students send their questions via a chat session initiated by the school.

Improved access to content: Adobe, whose content creation and online delivery products are widely used by business schools, has developed an application called Air (Adobe Integrated Runtime) that could be used to create a branded “school” on the student’s desktop.

Students can click on a desktop icon to gain access to all their course materials when on or offline. They can also set notifications so they do not have to go to the browser, log in and check for new materials.

“Air will give business schools a very good opportunity both to look at personalised learning and for distributing learning experiences in a different way from what has been available in the past,” says Ellen Wagner, Adobe’s director of e-learning.

Getting closer to the face-to-face experience: The concept of telepresence – using technology to present a distant person in all but lifelike guise – is attracting interest from business schools because it comes as close as is possible to the immediacy of a face-to-face meeting.

In the US, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business has developed a Global Conference and Teaching System for its Cross Continent MBA programme. The system, based on technology from Polycom, is an immersive telepresence videoconferencing solution that provides a “same room” meeting experience. Remote participants are lifelike in size and in audio and visual clarity.

Cisco’s product in this field, TelePresence, was launched in late 2006 and “adds some new dimensions to the mix”, according to Kevin Johnson, who heads the education sector in Europe for the US company’s Internet Business Solutions Group. “With ultra-high definition, the spatial sound and the lighting, it makes it feel as if physically you are in the same room,” he says.

Cisco has several discussions under way with business schools about the technology. Mr Johnson says the TelePresence room could be sited on campus or in a third-party location. A professor could have a personal unit in his or her home, and access individuals or groups, or a small study group could join another on a several-to-several basis.

These technologies are not cheap – a three-screen TelePresence system for large group meetings costs $300,000. But, according to Dr López at Tecnológico de Monterrey, “big conference rooms with real-size people at the other end” could be an important development for business schools over the next few years. He says: “This type of system is coming because we want to establish contact with people without any kind of interference from the technology.”

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