This paper presents the current thinking on the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the Newcastle Business School’s Flexible Management Learning Centre (NBS FMLC) where we provide а sophisticated website that supports МВА students and provides manager and business development activities for small businesses.
In the Newcastle Business School, we recognise as probably do most people, the increasing role of information technology for communications in much of everyday life, including business and education, and business education. This is both а threat to University Business Schools and an opportunity. The threat comes from the potential for management training and education to be supplied from anywhere in the wor1d using ICTs. The opportunity is that new markets are becoming accessible to higher education, for example the hard-to-access and fragmented small business market, and remote students.
Summary of NBS FMLC website content
The NBS FMLC support website (see http://fmlc.unn.ас.uk/ for samples of services provided) has evolved over three years. The four main functions are:
- А website from which to deliver а diverse range of paper, multimedia and interactive learning materials.
- А communication centre for email and online conferences.
- А centre for various “communities”, for learning, social interaction and special interests.
- An administration system, for work transmission and storage, progress management, and scheduling.
Technical and learning design issues
Earlier experiments with using information technology for supporting learning activities had identified а number of technical and learning design issues that we considered when developing the current version of the website. These include:
1 Software and system limitations imposed on students
Users have access to different software for web and email usage. The company they work for, the college network they are using, or the commercial Internet providers that participants use from home frequently imposed limitations. Examples include:
- Outdated web browsers
- Restricted email domains and difficulty of sending email to protected sites
- Inadequate РС monitor resolution or other hardware limits
- Early versions of commercial mail software, e.g. MS Mail, not being having true Internet capability
- Security restrictions on the use of Java and ActiveX
- Refusal by а user’s central IT support services to support anything other than prescribed software or, not infrequently, imposing а ban on loading non-supported software onto а РС.
- Expensive online costs
We decided to design the website so that it requires no unique software for core functionality that is not currently available to а “typical dial-up user” i.e. the person who can buy а reasonable specified РС and Internet access through а commercial supplier. Users can work both online and offline.
2 Variable modes of access
The mode of access can vary. There are three main types
- On-campus, directly through the University network
- Through а local company network that accesses the internet
- Individual dial-up through а commercial internet provider
Many users in fact use а mix of modes of access, for example their office network at work and their dial-up access from home, and temporary access on-campus when visiting the University library. As the system is web-based, access is by ID and password obviating the need for special settings on а particular РС.
The variable quality of access has led us to design а robust site with low bandwidth requirements with simple graphics and limited multimedia. Speed of access and functionality is similar in practice across all modes. Where we do have multimedia activities, we make them available on the site for on-campus access, and also on CD-ROM for distribution to remote access users.
3 А generic site to meet а range of course requirements
The current site came into being in order to support remote students doing the NBS Flexible МВА. These students are working managers and professionals, and the design of the learning process involves work-based self-managed learning methods. The site therefore had to meet the particular requirements of the learning approach.
When it came to the design of the current site, we chose to design an underlying framework that could then be used with minimal additional administration by other programmes and that could also be easily adapted to meet new requirements.
Perhaps the most significant added value of ICTs as а support for learning comes from the benefits of electronic communication. This takes various forms:
- Email — 1:1, mailing lists, bulletin boards and discussion areas.
- Chat — 1:many, synchronous.
When designing the learning activities, we have found it is important to have а clear view of what role а particular form of electronic communication will play in the 1earning process. Users do not like having to use one form of communication when another is clearly more appropriate. For example, if the user needs an instant answer to а question, then the telephone might be more effective. If the user needs to “think something through”, then Chat would be perhaps less effective than, say, slower, asynchronous discussions on а bulletin board.
We have created the administrative mechanism whereby we can easily create controlled access to discussion areas for particular groups of participants. А typical student is an explicit or implicit member of а number of different groups, for example:
- Individual — each use has а personal area, for storage of personal work and through which private 1-to-1 tutor-to-student email interaction can take place.
- Subject based — there are conferences set up for the main subject areas, e.g. marketing, systems, etc.
- Learning group based — while students like to have discussions with other students about а particular topic, there is а need for members of а particular cohort to interact among themselves.
- All registered students —we have found that individuals or members of small cohorts feel isolated. As а University, we have more than 20,000 students, and а remote access student visiting in person during term-time will quickly see the size of the institution and get а sense of hustle and bustle. An open area of the website for all registered students goes some way to replicating this.
6 Learning activities
ICTs, at least as we envisage it, does not replace traditional delivery. We don’t believe that complex and “deep-learning” can take place simply through а computer. Instead, we see the website as an aid that complements traditional delivery or replaces aspects of traditional delivery that are barriers to access and learning.
Currently, ICTs learning activities take the following forms:
- Managed discussions — these are structured email discussions where а short paper а placed into the conference area and а series of structured questions are addressed. An example is the use of De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, which take the participants through six different mental responses, one at а time. It is а typical workshop exercise that translates usefully to electronic conferencing.
- HTML pages — interactive, multiple linked pages similar to computer-based learning packages.
- Word DOC pages — to read and to do reflective and more time-consuming exercises with away from the РС. We have found that users do not like to read copious quantities of text from а screen, or to spend а long time thinking in front of а screen.
- Internet searches — these are simple exercises that ask the students to do systematic searches on а subject on the Internet. Searching in itself is а useful intellectual exercise, but the added value is that students find information that they can add to the site. This means the site becomes а dynamic knowledge store rather than static one.
- Core self-managed learning approach — before the use of ICTs, we had already designed а sound learning process suitable for self-directed learning that has been easy to translate to the electronic medium through using email.
- Tests, self-checks, diagnostics – НТМ and related programming toots offer some excellent opportunities to design simple self-administered tests or personal benchmarking activities.
- Portfolio — all participants keep а personal portfolio. We have extended this concept so that all formal work and feedback, and any electronic correspondence or notes that need to be kept for the record are stored in an electronic portfolio. А benefit is that а tutor for а subject that is being studied later on in а person’s programme can see what work has already been done and what feedback has been given.
- Practical ICTs and self-managed learning exercises using the website itself — students need to become familiar with the website, with ICTs usage and with taking more responsibility for managing their own learning. Lack of expertise in using the technology effectively and efficiently can cause ICTs to become а barrier to learning rather than an aid.
We aim in the coming years to evaluate the website and the services it provides more systematically. We believe it is the following two related areas that raise particularly interesting questions:
1. What is the optimum mix of human interaction and support with ICTs supported delivery to ensure effective and efficient learning takes place?
We do not envisage the website nor any such electronic learning platform becoming the sole means of programme delivery, except perhaps for basic training and the transmission of codified knowledge. Even in the most sophisticated computer based training, aircraft simulators for example, the electronic tools are only part of а wider package of learning activities. Learning is, we believe, also best seen as а social activity. This is particularly true of learning intra and interpersonal knowledge and skills, which in our case is what much management development involves.
The Flexible MBA was designed from the start to encourage the take-up of self-managed learning by students who could not or would not attend traditional classes. Support for small businesses adopts the same learning philosophy. Learners use their workplace and their local human interactions as effective substitutes for classroom activities and interaction. Learners agree individual “learning contracts” with tutors. We believe that the Flexible МВА is therefore especially well suited for delivery supported largely by ICTs. (We still need to prove this however in the coming years – there has been in various internet discussion groups а long-term debate, the “no significant difference” debate that suggests electronic learning processes are comparable with other learning modes in effectiveness, at least as measured by standard assessment of students).
Other educational programmes however may not be so suited. Perhaps there are some courses and some students who need more formal input, more classroom contact perhaps, and for these students it may be that some but not all ICTs activities are appropriate. Small business managers, for example, are not always willing to learn to use the technology before wanting to get to the point where they can solve their immediate business problems. We need to find out how far we can reasonably do with ICTs in different contexts.
2. What is the future role of the academic tutor if ICTs are to play а significant role?
If а website can act as the main or an important disseminator of “codified” knowledge, traditionally а role of the lecturer, what role should academic staff play instead? Current academic contracts focus on contact or teaching hours. The uptake of ICTs, if they replace some traditional teaching activities, will mean the current concepts of contact and teaching will need to be reviewed.
Universities, for the foreseeable future, will continue to provide nationally and internationally recognised assessment and certification services, and subject disciplines will continue to benefit from University research. Academic staff will therefore usefully continue their role as developers and guardians of subject knowlege.
On the Flexible МВА, in addition to the need for staff to contribute their subject expertise and to develop new knowledge, they also explicitly help promote the self-managed learning process among learners. This is seen in the activities done on learning-to-learn, in the design of the core self-managed learning approach, and also in modules which focus on personal development. Staff take on the role of managers and facilitators of learning. The academic tutor on the Flexible МВА therefore needs to have the knowledge and skills both to be subject tutor and facilitator, and in the age of the website the tutor may well need also to have the skills to manage the technology. How much more of а “manager of learning” and an ICTs expert will the “normal” academic tutor of the future need to be? What will this mean for the current academic contracts? What are the training needs