These days, professors presenting case studies to MBA students need to keep on their toes.
While they tell the class about the successes and failures of any particular company, their audience may be ready to contradict them using real-time corporate and news information downloaded from the internet via a handheld communications device.
Among the devices being used are BlackBerries. Since last autumn, the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland has been handing out Nextel BlackBerry 7510s to students and staff.
The school believes the initiative will help students grasp the potential of technology and communications to enhance productivity and creativity.
And, with the Centre for Human Capital, Innovation and Technology, it is conducting research into the behaviour of virtual groups that have access to the same technology tools.
Some of the benefits of using the devices are more mundane, however. “There’s a tremendous amount of group work [on the MBA programme] and often it’s difficult to co-ordinate group members,” explains Cherie Scricca, associate dean for masters programmes and career services at the school.
“While everyone had access to various communications technologies, not everyone was on the same communications platform. What the BlackBerry has done [at the Smith School] is to put everyone on the same platform,” she says.
At the same time, the initiative is teaching students to handle the constant deluge of information to which they may be exposed in a business environment.
“It’s very much trying to force them into a world that they’re already engaged in - a world where information is constantly being fired at them,” she says.
Prof Scricca believes students need to learn how to prioritise this information and, with no barrier to communication, to know when it is not appropriate to use machines that, because of their addictive nature, are often referred to as “CrackBerries”.
She says: “Just because you have access to someone all the time doesn’t mean you have a right to access all the time.”
The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, is not providing a single mobile communications device, but has been making more and more information available to its students in wireless form.
It has been using Exchange - group software from Microsoft that handles such services as e-mail, appointments and electronic address books - as the main communication system for faculty and students. The information can be received through a smart phone or a BlackBerry or similar device.
“We’ve also had our student intranet available in a wireless version for about four years,” says Deirdre Woods, chief information officer at Wharton. “And we’ve expanded it to more mobile platforms. So you can get the information on your BlackBerry. And any device with a web browser can connect to the student intranet.”
However, she points out that for much of the MBA programme, face-to-face communication - free of technological interruptions - re-mains crucial. When the school was designing its high-tech building, the Jon M Huntsman Hall, which opened in 2002, wireless technology was not installed in the classrooms, she says.
“If a professor wants to bring the real world in, we have labs. But if they believe in the ability to have student interactions without distractions, that’s possible too.”
For Al Essa, chief information officer at MIT Sloan School of Management, handheld devices are important, but just as crucial is the type of information that is being fed into them. MIT, he says, is experimenting with i-Pods and what is known as pod-casting, the equivalent of TiVo for handheld digital devices.
Like TiVo devices - the digital video recorders that allow viewers to skip commercials and record only what is of interest to them - pod-casting automatically delivers audio material to an i-Pod, selecting only the content to which users have subscribed.
This month, MIT is launching several pilot projects using the technology. First, with the university’s German department, it will provide material through the i-Pod that was previously only accessible in a language lab.
It also plans to deliver a service offering audio recordings of faculty talks and visiting speakers’ lectures to alumni.
For MBA students, similar services will focus on the talks given by speakers that come to events at MBA clubs. “This is low-cost technology and makes it easy to receive content when you can’t be there,” says Mr Essa.
The beauty of the technology, he says, is that users can subscribe to the content they want and have it automatically sent to them, instead of having to go to a website to find it.
He believes this means of accessing information will prove a powerful tool in learning environments. “These portable digital devices are all pervasive,” says Mr Essa.
“And the i-Pod is standard for a portable digital entertainment hub. But it also has the potential to become an educational hub.”