Eduction: Switch on - and you're in business

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The Independent Online
Whether for lectures, private study, video-conferencing or simply keeping in touch with colleagues, the personal computer is a vital tool for the MBA student. Philip Schofield reports.

Personal computers freed managers in large organisations from dependence on mainframe computers and their operators. They also put information technology within the reach of even the smallest companies. The PC is now a basic tool of management.

The business schools were initially slow to exploit IT in MBA programmes, but this has changed - though schools vary in the sophistication with which they exploit the potential of IT.

Most programmes offer computer training. For example, City University offers a computing module to introduce the theory and practice needed to understand computers' functioning, and offers an opportunity to use various packages.

Cranfield has always kept abreast of new technology; it was, one of the first to use Lotus Notes to maintain two-way communication between students on the part-time executive programme and the faculty during their time away from Cranfield.

The most recent intake of MBA students to Cranfield can access intranet technology from their own PCs, and computers located in social areas. As well as administrative information, it provides course materials such as lecture notes. Cranfield is also developing "streaming multi-media", building up libraries of information, for example key lectures and revision notes, which students can access. One of the most imaginative applications here is an on-going online case study running throughout the core programme. A real company is used; this year it is Marks & Spencer.

As Marks & Spencer releases figures and makes strategic decisions, students analyse them and apply theories and models to the live example. Tutors are involved in this constant dialogue, and give feedback on students' analyses.

When Cranfield MBA students seek a new employer, most now seek information on companies through their web sites. Employers, in their turn, can access the CVs of students. Last year more than half a dozen were interviewed by means of video-conferencing.

London Business School has steadily increased the technological content of its programmes. Its MBA courses now have core modules on information management that explore the IT revolution from the perspective of the general manager. It is also investing pounds 2m a year on technology.

Fergus Lynch, head of IT at LBS, says they have completely networked the school internally "Every single room, including the sandwich and wine bars, have network points". All students can plug in their own portables or use a school terminal to get into its intranet and, for example, search online information sources.

LBS is also connected to Europe's fastest Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network for a rapid link to the Internet.

Mr Lynch says, "We've also developed the London Business School Forum, a web page which our students can log into." Students can hold private online discussions with colleagues. "Because the system is a fairly sophisticated database system, we can also have personalised forums for study groups ... Our alumni also have access to the system."

LBS, too, uses IT to help job seekers. It has created what it terms a "unique, Internet-based recruitment service", called the Workplace, available only to the school's alumni and a group of top recruiters.

So far more than 500 alumni have registered, and 35 companies have placed jobs online. The school also has an online CV service for employers, LondonGold, which allows them to specify selection criteria. The school guarantees to respond to employers within 48 hours. It also uses video-conferencing to enable employers to carry out initial interviews "face to face", regardless of distance.

The Open University Business School, with students throughout Europe, is a pioneer in the use of IT and currently has seven multi-media CD-Roms in production for MBA courses. The first will go out in the learning packs for courses starting in November 1998.

The OUBS fosters online collaboration and group work using a closed computer-mediated conferencing system to link 4,500 NBA students and tutors throughout Europe. It is used to provide online tutorials to small groups, or lectures to 1,000 people. For instance, it was used last year on a strategy module with 1,500 students who were grouped in 25 industrial sectors. Everyone was presented with the same models and concepts, but over the following six weeks students could talk to a tutor specialising in their own sector.

Gilly Salmon, director of presentation, says that it is now impossible to do an OUBS MBA without a computer, but "we don't ask for a high-spec machine". She points out the challenge of allowing a wide choice of equipment. "Every one of the 1,000 or so we have working online has a different configuration of hardware, software and modem - so everything we provide has to work on just anything."

She adds. "I want to move towards providing everything we can through web browsers, because that provides the most generic access of all." She also notes that learning and teaching online have unique aspects. Consequently the OUBS has online induction programmes for its students and tutors.

Prospective MBA students should develop some computer skills before they start. Most business schools offer computer training, but this will needlessly add to a heavy workload while you come up to speed. As most managers spend a lot of time on the PC, a short, intensive touch-typing course is also a good investment.