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When Ginny Dybenko left the telecommunications sector three years ago to become dean of Wilfred Laurier University’s School of Business and Economics in Canada, she hoped to build stronger links between the technology sector and business education. But in her search for ideas, it took a school from Mexico to show Dybenko that the answer may well have been on her doorstep the whole time.
Last year, Dybenko met professors from a university in Mexico who were visiting Waterloo, Ontario, home to Laurier. The professors were in Waterloo for discussions with Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone, about a programme to equip several thousand students in Mexico with BlackBerrys to augment classroom learning.
“I can literally see RIM’s head office right outside my office here,” Dybenko says, adding she had to laugh that a school thousands of kilometres away got the idea first. “As I regained my composure, I began thinking, ‘Oh my God, how did I miss that one?’”
Dybenko set out to create a similar programme at Laurier. About 100 Laurier MBA students received BlackBerrys in August, making it the first school in Canada to supply students with the BlackBerry Curve 8900 free of charge.
The devices come pre-loaded with software and documents designed for the students. They are used in a variety of ways, from supplemental reading and videos from professors, to networking applications.
The idea seemed a perfect fit for Dybenko’s goal of getting more technology into the classroom. “The technology shift really left the education sector behind,” she says. “When I arrived in the education world, I found people were quite paper-bound. Coming from 30 years in the telecoms sector, I just found it astounding that people would still be using paper and overhead projectors when those issues were dealt with at least 15 years ago in the business world.”
The thinking is that a BlackBerry can extend a student’s education beyond the classroom, while removing geography from the factors that determine the prospects of success or failure. Doing so may also better prepare students for their careers, where top performers are sometimes defined by the people who can make the most of the technology at their disposal.
“Technology is rewriting the rules of how business is done,” says Deborah Carter, a Laurier MBA student who was among the students to receive a BlackBerry. “We make decisions very, very quickly. Before, we would meet and chat about things, drawing out the decision-making process. Now, we speed up that process so much.”
Besides boosting efficiency, Carter says the devices allow for greater flexibility, especially on teamwork projects that balance several busy schedules. “I’m a single mother who is probably the least flexible of the group,” she says. “The Messenger software allows me to keep in touch, get fast feedback and have impromptu meetings, no matter where everybody is.”
Carter mentions improved student-to-student contact as one of the main benefits of the devices. But the school hopes to introduce software and other tools that change the course of an MBA more fundamentally. The first steps have been taken through an application designed by Design2Learn, a Waterloo e-learning company, which helps blend coursework, documents and messaging.
RIM and Rogers Wireless, which provides a data plan for the smartphones (voice plans cost extra for students who want them), were interested in the project as a way to help build their footprint in the education sector.
While the idea of equipping MBA students with BlackBerrys holds a great deal of potential, there are challenges. Though the school has found a wide range of comfort and familiarity with the devices, some professors are wary of allowing too many distractions to their lectures.
Perhaps the most pressing challenge is that funding does not extend beyond the current school year – something Dybenko is hoping to resolve. But given that tuition fee increases to pay for the BlackBerrys are unlikely, and that government donors may not support the use of their funds for buying phones, the only solution may lie with private donors.
Maryland ends BlackBerry experiment
Just as Wilfred Laurier University is introducing a BlackBerry programme, another university is phasing out its experiment with the device, writes Christopher Mason.
In 2004, the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business began equipping some 250 full-time MBA students, as well as faculty and staff, with BlackBerrys as part of an experiment in ways of introducing students to modern technology. “We had a goal to basically undertake a bit of a living laboratory,” says Bob Krapfel, associate dean of the Smith school’s MBA and MS programmes.
Because there was an understanding that everyone had ready access to email, the school found that one benefit of the programme was increased responsiveness among students and faculty.
But this summer the school stopped the programme, partly for cost reasons but partly because the school felt it was time to look at new ways of bringing technology into the classroom, especially since most students were already joining the course with smartphones of their own.
“At this point in time, mobile data access is just a given,” Prof Krapfel says. “You assume everybody already has that capability.”
Among the challenges the programme faced was providing faculty with the support they needed to keep up with the technical knowledge of the students, so that the BlackBerry phones could be used to their full potential.
“I’m a 61-year old guy and I have to work at acquiring technology skills that come as second nature to these students,” Prof Krapfel says. “With faculty you need programmes that motivate and incentivise [people to use the] technology.”
By way of advice to anyone starting a BlackBerry programme, Prof Krapfel says the phones should be more closely synchronized with the curriculum so they are not just used to communicate.
“If we were starting this right now, we’d be trying to link the tool much more closely with actual curriculum content,” Prof Krapfel says.
Although Maryland felt that the programme had run its course, the fact that Laurier is seeking to link its BlackBerrys with the curriculum suggests there could be a use for a device that keeps up with the times – and the students.