France does the business with IT

Francis Beckett visits a very high-tech ecole
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The Independent Online
The 15 candidates for France's first masters degree in e-business start their studies in September at the cole Superieure de Commerce de Grenoble.

Founded in 1985 specifically to produce high-tech managers, and one of France's 26 grande ecoles for business, ESC Grenoble has always focused on the management issues thrown up by information and communication technologies, and has staked its reputation on being at the cutting edge of the information technology revolution. A third of its masters degree in management is about technical knowledge, and its niche market, according to its information systems director, Claude Albin, is TIM - Technical and Intercultural Management.

"What's different about ESC Grenoble," says the professor of e-business, Dr Lee Schlenker, "is the way it makes technology central to what it does. Our core business is to train our students in the kind of products to be used by companies." The technology revolution will only be complete, he says, "when computers become so integrated that you do not know they are there".

Dr Schlenker will lead the one year MSc in e-business, which will be taught in French and is designed to meet the special needs of business created by the intranet, extranet and electronic commerce.

Computers are central, not only to what ESC Grenoble teaches, but to how it teaches. It has almost reached its goal of having a personal computer for every student and faculty member, and claims to be leading the way among business schools in the field of video-conferencing and computer networks.

This enables it to provide distance learning. Computers are supplied by IBM, with which ESC Grenoble has a special relationship. The business school hosted the recent European IBM Forum for Education and Learning (Eiffel) at Grenoble, and IBM sponsors Dr Schlenker's chair.

So it is significant that some of the loudest warnings against overestimating the power of the new technology should come from this school.

Technology makes distance learning both possible and cost-effective, and that contributes powerfully to the idea of lifelong learning. But ESC Grenoble's director, Professor Jean-Paul Leonardi, told the Eiffel forum: "Distance learning often provides no more than the illusion of accessibility. As any frequent user of e-mail well knows, there may be a world of difference between sending a professional e-mail, or posting a question to a forum, and receiving a thought-out response. Distance learning doesn't form communities, let alone help students access them.

Internet technologies have rarely proved efficient in building virtual communities. And distance learning may even restrict access to, and of, local communities.

"Learning technologies alone do not add significant value to higher education. The real value is not just in either hardware or software, but in faculty and administration capable of applying these technologies to add value to higher education."

Nonetheless, IBM believes that distance learning is changing fundamentally the way we think about higher education, and that belief dictates what the company is doing. Education has ceased to be something that happens to young people, and is now something that is both necessary and desirable throughout life. Technology is progressing at such a rate that our technological understanding needs to be refreshed every six years.

"In a networked world, rules no longer apply," IBM's academic programs and strategy executive, Dr Diana Oblinger, told the Eiffel forum. "You hear people saying quietly, can I retire before I have to deal with the new technology? What used to be separate compartments of our lives - work, learning, social, consumption - are now being merged into each other. We are raising a generation of children who have never known life without the internet." She quoted Charles Darwin: "It is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptive to change."