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March 17, 2008 12:23 pm

Schools borrow consumer trends

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Technology is a vital ingredient in the delivery of distance learning but the vast majority of business schools would rather not be early adopters of some revolutionary new software package or web-based application. They prefer, in general, to introduce innovations that their customers – the course participants – are familiar with already and that faculty will not find too difficult to use.

In the 21st century information technology environment, the consumer is in the driving seat: individuals are adopting new technologies and practices in their daily lives that business schools can incorporate subsequently in their distance-learning programmes – and often in other courses too.

“People are familiar with using a diverse set of media that they weren’t used to five years ago,” says Adam Honea, dean of the Arizona-based University of Phoenix. “The idea of delivering lectures to MP3 players is not strange to people because they are downloading music videos to their mobile phones.”

For business schools, the biggest current opportunity for this form of technology transfer derives from the assorted online communities and services known as Web 2.0, covering wikis, blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and video sharing sites such as YouTube. The concept of social networking, if not the main public sites themselves, has huge potential for enhancing collaboration and interaction in distance learning programmes.

“I think this is going to be the next big trend in education,” says Dr Honea. Phoenix had already included a strong element of collaboration and interaction online, he says, but would be focusing more on that in the future – creating, for example, subject-based online communities in its doctorate programmes.

In the UK, Stefano Gazhali, e-learning strategist at Manchester Business School Worldwide, stresses the need to recognise the changes in its audience’s technology usage. The school’s new student support portal adopts Web 2.0 principles and incorporates many features of sites such as Facebook. The aim is to deliver an interface that is more personal and easier to tailor, he says.

At Henley Management College, Chris Dalton, programme leader for the school’s distance learning MBA, says technology is being used to talk to people more and to build “a community of praxis”. Participants on the MBA are being asked to share their reflections with the rest of the intake on an online journal that resembles a blog, or to communicate privately with their tutor if they prefer.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, Henley is using existing systems and networks, says Mr Dalton. It is encouraging course participants to use LinkedIn, the business and careers-oriented social networking site, rather than Facebook, which is “just too open”.

A few business schools, keen to assess the pedagogical potential of a phenomenon in which many younger course participants are happy immersing themselves, are also exploring three-dimensional virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Insead, for example, has set up a virtual campus on Second Life, to complement its physical campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and in Singapore. Classes attended entirely by Second Life avatars have been held on the virtual campus.

Stockholm School of Economics and Duke Corporate Education each have a presence on Second Life, and the virtual world seems destined to play a larger role in schools’ programmes, complementing face-to-face teaching and “traditional” internet-based e-learning.

Business schools are also exploiting video sharing à la YouTube. On a customised course for a technology client at Cranfield School of Management, participants are interviewed during the face-to-face part of the course to give instant feedback, and the videos are uploaded to an open source platform. Participants can edit the video and add commentary before publishing it and, if they wish, sharing it with colleagues.

Toby Thompson, the school’s networked learning executive, is also shortly launching webTV, putting “professors on desktops” to talk about their latest book or research. “They are in their element because talking is something they do very well,” says Mr Thompson.

Introducing technologies that are already in use in the workplace or society into a learning environment has obvious benefits for business schools.

Overloading an e-learning platform with technology could result in participants being unable or unwilling to use it, says Mr Dalton. Schools such as Henley, with a worldwide reach, need a technology base that can be used anywhere, he says.

“Stick to what you know works and gets good feedback,” says Guy Brown, programme director for organisation and human resource management at Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School.

The school’s technology investments focus on tools that help give students information-rich learning materials but also encourage interaction among learners and between them and faculty and university – without adding to students’ workloads, he says. “If you can get good interaction by using discussions boards or e-journals – e-mail, even – and that’s what the learner is comfortable with, then let’s keep it simple,” says Mr Brown.

For students choosing a distance learning course, the features of a school’s e-learning technology may rank lower in the decision-making process than course content and quality of the faculty. Even so, in a crowded market where schools need to distinguish themselves, one way to do this is to put heavy emphasis on technology.

This is the approach at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. Huw Morris, dean of the business school and pro-vice chancellor for e-learning, says the school has been keen to use technologies such as podcasting and audiocasting that would make the learning experience exciting for students.

“We have found with podcasting that novel technologies massively increase the engagement that students have with what they are learning,” says Prof Morris. “With podcasting, we have seen marks go up by 10 per cent on average.”

The school is aware that students are constantly comparing the technology deployed in the education world with what they are using elsewhere.

It is among the first to be considering deploying Tele-Presence, Cisco’s innovative room-based teleconferencing solution, as a better way to teach managers about situations such as negotiating, where body language may be as important as what is said.

“With traditional TV or video, you tend to get a much flatter view,” says Prof Morris.

One consequence of the proliferation of Web 2.0 applications and other technology developments is that business schools will have to think harder than ever about their IT investments, and avoid introducing features willy-nilly.

A package of articles on business schools’ involvement with Second Life is available at www.ft.com/businesseducation

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