B-Schools Promote Better Learning Through Technology

High-tech accoutrements such as podcasts, clickers, and digital cameras are changing the traditional MBA experience

By Meredith Bodgas

Arv Malhotra, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, is a self-proclaimed gadget geek. He owns seven iPods and subscribes to several podcasts, audio files which are automatically transferred to his computer for listening on his digital music players. That's why Malhotra began thinking about how he could use podcasts in his teaching.

He toyed with the idea of transmitting his lectures via podcasts, but decided against it, because they only provide one-way communication. Dialogue is essential for learning in full-time MBA programs, Malhotra says. Yet the technology has an important place in B-schools.

Malhotra plans to use podcasts to bring in guest speakers from around the world, including Last Mile Communications, the people behind a British wireless technology startup, as well as executives from Apple Computer (AAPL ) and a major sports network. He also says he would like to use podcasts after class to notify his students about events that relate to what they just learned and to stay in touch with the school's alumni.


  Podcasts are just one of the many types of technology being used to enrich the MBA experience. Although B-school faculty still view the classroom as the ideal arena for exchanging ideas, they also see the benefit of sharing knowledge and experiences through technology. Professors are taking advantage of everything from spreadsheets that include talking explanations of the data to remote controls that students use to respond to instructors' questions.

In fact, nine out of the 10 schools contacted for this story have either introduced new technologies or made plans to implement them. The top 30 B-schools from BusinessWeek's 2004-05 rankings, with the exception of three schools that did not provide this information, have spent an average of $7 million over the last three years on improving technology, according to BW Online's 2005 full-time MBA program surveys.

Another example of such academic innovation is Babson College's use of voice-annotated spreadsheets that allow accounting and statistics students to make sense of complicated course work. Professors add audio files to the spreadsheets using templates created by Stephen Laster, Babson's director of Curriculum Innovation and Technology, and his team. When a student views a formula or set of data, he can click on audio explanations of the material that come straight from his professor's mouth.


  Technology is also changing the classroom experience. "Smart classrooms" at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business feature all sorts of conveniences for students and teachers. For instance, the room is wired with cameras for photographing whiteboards, so students can receive the images as digital files. In addition, tablet PCs, compact computers that allow you to write notes directly onto the screen with a special pen, replace the archaic projector. With the tablet technology, professors can make notes on charts and spreadsheets and send them directly to their students' PCs. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and UCLA's Anderson School of Management are looking into similar technology.

A new, wireless version of the classic 1980s audience response system has professors better able to keep tabs on their students' progress. Students at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management respond to multiple-choice questions using their personal "clickers" -- remote controls that send out infrared signals. A central receiver catches their answers and quickly calculates how many students responded correctly. The professors get immediate feedback and can tailor their lesson plans accordingly.

Faculty are also using wikis, Web sites to which students can add and edit content and maintain blogs, to extend the classroom experience. Beginning next semester, Julie Smith David, an associate professor of information systems at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, will have her students contribute to a wiki before each seminar to show what they've learned and collaborate with classmates. She is considering having her students maintain blogs about their internships to help others determine which jobs are appealing (see BW Online MBA Blogs).


  Future technology will cater to individual needs. Louis Barkan, a first-year MBA student at W.P. Carey, says that since students are frequently thinking of ways to contribute during class, they can't capture everything their professor says. Having podcasts of the lectures would make it possible for them to fill in the gaps on their own time. But users currently are unable to search for key words in the digital audio files, making it frustrating to find selections they'd like to replay. Barkan is working on syncing equipment that turns voice from the recorded lectures into text, so that students can search by topic, which will save them time and effort while studying.

Better studying is a priority for Babson's Laster, too. He's working on developing an Internet program that alters content in readings, based on how well a reader understands ideas in the material. Though there are programs that allow people to find out how well they understand what they're reading, there aren't any that adapt the material as students move through the work. Laster's program would shift the content's focus to topics with which the student needs more help. He plans to have a prototype ready for next fall.

Will these technologies eventually make face-to-face classroom meetings obsolete? Not a chance, say B-school faculty members. Instead, implementing these new technologies is a way for them to free up time in the classroom for activities like business games, simulations, debates, and discussions. Improved technology is making life easier for students and faculty. The only hard part will be keeping up with the latest innovations.

Bodgas is a project assistant for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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