Log on to a brave new world of education

What is better: e-learning or books? Peter Brown looks at the varied ways of absorbing information

The way business school students learn is changing, and creating new dilemmas. What is more important – a textbook or a database? How up-to-date does information need to be, and how can it best be accessed and absorbed? These issues have been at the forefront of Helen Edwards' mind for the past year. Formerly head of information services at London Business School, she has been creating a library from scratch at a newly opened prize-winning campus.

The offer came last year from Skolkovo Moscow School of Management, founded in 2005 but already running full-time and executive MBA courses, with plenty of students thirsty for information. "I started by identifying between 150 and 200 key texts – classics like Peter Drucker, Geert Hofstede on cross-culture, Michael Porter. You have to have them. But I wanted to concentrate on new material, published from 2006 onwards – about 2,500 books."

That alone must make Skolkovo one of the most modern libraries of its type. But books, she says, are the least important part. What matters are internet sources and databases of journals – the Harvard Business Review, California Management Review, and so on – as well as business magazines such as Forbes and Fortune.

"The first thing you do is get in touch with the database vendors and set up subscriptions," Edwards says. But most good schools will have these. What's also important, she believes, is to match the library to the school.

"At Skolkovo, we're focusing on emerging markets – Russia, India and China. Market research is particularly important, so we need company and economic information on industry sizes or channels to market. We also have an interest in leadership and innovation."

For the student, the core MBA program is vital. At Skolkovo, the course comprises five projects, some of them abroad. "So they have to get quick information on industries and geography with which they may not be familiar," Edwards says. And for students on the move, she says, the Kindle is also useful.

That view seems to challenge a recent American experiment at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, in which the Kindle DX e-reader was tested as a means of delivering first-year courses. Students complained that highlighting texts was difficult and it took too long to move between pages, documents, charts and graphs.

Edwards says: "I can see why some students might find them clunky. But in Russia, getting information in Kindle format has advantages beyond the US. Buying ordinary books here is difficult. With a Kindle, you can get things instantly."

Kane Cuenant, a Canadian MBA student at Skolkovo, uses the library about once a week and pays tribute to the resourcefulness of the library managers. "They're quite masterful at deriving references to even the most obscure requests. Even if a book seems unavailable, they'll find it – and courier it to you," he says.

Edwards' next task is to set up a discovery layer, whereby all the databases can be searched at once. Then Skolkovo's own research will need to be incorporated into the library.

She is also busy socially networking. "Skolkovo has a Facebook site, and I contribute to it," says Edwards. "I do a round-up of new books and articles on the blog."

While Edwards blogs in Moscow, Clive Holtham, professor of information management at Cass Business School, City University London, likes to sit in a cafe in Watford, Hertfordshire, and check coursework on his phone.

"I've got a Nokia smartphone and I can download and read PDF documents on it perfectly," he says. "I can connect to Cass's virtual private network and answer queries at the same time."

Technology has changed dramatically since Holtham arrived at what was then the City University Business School, London, in 1988 and discovered the internet. Now the web is indispensable and every student downloads coursework onto a laptop.

Inside business schools other technology is also changing the way people learn. Among the items used are pods – electronic, digital lecterns, feeding two or three screens, with visualisers which project paper or three-dimensional objects (overhead projectors with their acetate sheets have long gone).

"It's all about moving away from the 'sage-on-a-stage' model," Holtham says. "The classroom is no longer a place where a lecture takes place, it's a place where a lecturer is engaging with people learning. I can give small groups of students an index card, ask for ideas, collect them up and put them on the visualiser for all to see and discuss." He agrees that matching technology to the school is important. "At Cass, we're very strong on finance, and there's a massive demand across most programmes to show formulae. We're constantly experimenting with new devices that will allow a lecturer to walk around the classroom writing on a tablet which connects to the pod."

Cass also uses wireless clickers. "I've got a group of 160 students. I want to get their feedback on a number of topics. I set up the questions, give them a clicker each and we can get the collective view instantly." Clickers can also be used less anonymously to set individual students multiple-choice tests.

Surprisingly, Holtham describes himself as a "massive enthusiast" for paper – but he's not necessarily talking about A4. He likes flip charts and dialogue sheets, more than a metre deep. "No computer screen can match that," he says.

Textbooks, he acknowledges, are still not generally available electronically, and so are much used. "But the dreams of e-learning have always been higher than people have achieved." How about Kindles and iPads? "The price will have to come down considerably before they're of much use," he believes.

The technology that has made the greatest difference, Holtham says, is web conferencing, which allows groups of people to share audio, video, whiteboards, PowerPoint, word-processing documents and a chat function.

"Our part-time MBAs have to work in virtual teams outside the classroom. In the past, we allocated them by geographical area and they had to meet each other. Now a lot of them meet using Adobe Connect. All you need is a Web browser."