Forget the college scarf or the new bicycle: what students arriving on masters in management courses this autumn really need is a mobile communications device. Whether it’s an iPhone, BlackBerry, netbook or laptop computer, today’s student should never be out of touch.

The opportunity is not lost on business schools, as they seek ways to foster closer relationships with students, improve productivity and create a more personalised learning environment. Among the technologies they are adopting are tutorial web cafés, lecture podcasts, business simulations and social networks for alumni.

Carsten Sørensen, a senior lecturer in information systems at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), says mobile and internet technology allows staff to speak to students “when and where it matters”.

LSE’s 9,000 students are effectively nomadic, with one thing in common: they all have mobile phones, he says. As warden of a hall of residence, he can notify everyone instantaneously if the hot water is about to be switched off or a lift is out of action.

In the 1980s and 1990s, people thought technology was about cramming large numbers of students in front of big screens in basements, using automated marking and getting pupils to consult knowledge management systems on the internet rather than attend lectures, says Sørensen. “But what students most want is access to tutors to gain insights and inspiration,” he says.

Providing this access is precisely how technology can be most helpful, according to Eloïc Peyrache, associate dean of the MSc in management programme at HEC, Paris. Far from replacing professors, computers can allow more time for discussion with the tutor, he says.

Prior to the class, students can be asked to read a case study online, and even take a computer-based test. “This ensures they’ve done the preparation and avoids the professor taking a long time to explain details,” says Prof Peyrache. “It allows more time to focus on the decisions involved in the case study, and provides more valuable interaction with the professor.”

Computers are also useful for making podcasts that deal with frequently asked questions, for co-operative group work, and for making video recordings of lectures, says Prof Peyrache. And business simulations, in the form of serious games, enable students to compete in teams. Using these models, pupils can understand the impact of their actions and how they are affected by the decisions of others.

Some aspects of these games can be controlled by the students – for example, designing a product, setting a price, building a factory or entering a new market. Other factors, such as a rise in interest rates or regulatory changes, can’t.

The best games offer a high level of interactivity and allow students to compete in multiple rounds, with additional information revealed as the simulation progresses. Such games are used at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “They give students the benefit of feeling that they’ve experienced situations, once they go out into the real business world,” says Deirdre Woods, associate dean and chief information officer at Wharton.

One popular Wharton game, The Tragedy of the Tuna, involves students operating fishing fleets from different countries, balancing issues such as short-term financial gain with long-term sustainability and making contracts with each other.

As the game becomes more complex, it shows students the additional skills they need, motivating pupils who would otherwise think they have mastered the subject.

“We want people to be critical thinkers. Games let us show them where they’ve failed,” says Prof Peyrache. “They realise they’re not omniscient, so they are more likely to listen to what the professor says. It gives them more insight about what they need to learn.”

In spite of the advantages, business schools have some misgivings about technology. An increasing number of professors are asking students to close their laptops during lectures because they feel they are not concentrating, says Prof Peyrache. “They are also concerned they might skip lectures, knowing they can always catch up online.”

Some staff have expressed concerns about copyright, and about the prospect of being replaced by impersonal videocasts.

LSE’s Sørensen acknowledges that technology brings some uncomfortable realities for teaching staff, such as being rated during their lectures. But they may just have to accept this, he says. “Why shouldn’t students be able to rate my lectures?”

Keeping up with social network technology is also a necessity, according to Woods. “It gives you more control,” she says. “They’re talking about you anyway and they’ll put [your institution] on [social networking site] Facebook. If you can engage with the technology, you have the opportunity to get involved.”

The Wharton page on Facebook was created by a student and attracted 3,000 visitors within two days. Wharton took it over, despite concerns about protecting the brand. “The downside is that even with 95 per cent fans, you will occasionally get a negative comment,” says Woods. “But it only hurts the institution if it’s not into social networks. It’s much better to be aware of them.”

Students are divided about whether they would like to see more technology on their courses. Gabe Chomic, a student at LSE, still finds the emphasis geared too much on conventional learning methods. “I wish there was more acceptance of the value of the ‘quicker’ forms of information that technology can bring,” he says.

Fellow student Anup Narkhede is rarely without his laptop, but feels that too much technology can be a hindrance. “It’s still best to go to the lecture in person, because you tend to pick up on things that aren’t captured by the recordings, such as the Q&A sessions or discussion among students after the lecture,” he says.

“And people learn more in classes where there is no technology, just the interpersonal reaction between professor and class members,” he adds.

“We pay more attention to what is being said. If you know that you can always look over the slides after the class, then sometimes your attention level isn’t so high.”

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