Podcasts, blogs and websites are featuring as teaching tools as students expect more from their courses. Nic Paton reports

Neil Winstanley is taking a distance-learning MBA course. Once, he might have been forced to wait until he got home before cracking on with his studies. Now, thanks to the march of technology, he can study on the move.

"I can download information on to my PDA and then, if I have a few minutes on the train or wherever, I can listen to it. Or, if I have 30 minutes free, I can log on and do some research. By living it, it lives with you," says Winstanley, 37, a Smith & Nephew product manager from Hull, who started his MBA at Warwick Business School in June.

Just as modern, global business managers expect to be connected 24 hours a day, so business schools have had to respond to the changing technological needs and expectations of their MBA students. In the process, they have embraced podcasts, vodcasts (online video clips), blogs, web boards, micro-sites, audio streaming - the list goes on.

Check out most business schools and you will probably find that they now offer wireless access (or at least widespread access to network ports), digital video and conferencing facilities, online libraries, "lifelong" email addresses and remote access to faculty sites. In some cases, students even get a "business school-ready" laptop (Cranfield School of Management), or a top-of-the-range video iPod (HEC in Paris).

On top of this, podcasts featuring content by lecturers and advice by admissions tutors are becoming more common, as are student or faculty blogs, "e-portfolios" (electronic collections of documents) and "wikis" (communally constructed knowledge bases).

In the US, Stanford has a long-standing collaboration with Apple's iTunes and offers downloads of faculty lectures, coursework and star speakers. Harvard podcasts many of its speakers and streams lectures. Websites such as mbapodcaster.com and mbaleague.blogspot.com have also sprung up to offer advice, chat and support .

At London Business School (LBS), the number of MBA applicants with their own personal blog has really taken off this year, according to Graeme Harper, MBA programme marketing manager. Many students now look at such blogs to help them to decide which school to go for.

LBS, which has wireless access across the campus, is launching a series of podcasts later this year. "The expectation is that everything should be available online," explains Parker.

There are challenges, however. First, how to keep up with ever greater expectations? Second, the spark and debate generated between a roomful of students is often what marks out a good MBA from an also-ran, but how do you achieve this if everyone is heads down on a laptop or PDA?

Expectations have definitely grown, agrees Valérie Gauthier, associate dean for the MBA programme at HEC. "Some of our professors have found their courses more adaptable to podcasts than others," she says.

Rather than simply offering laptops or podcasts because everyone else is, what business schools need to do is step back and ask: "What do we and our students,want our IT to do?" suggests Steve Coppin, director of IT at Saïd Business School.

The rise of mass collaboration software such as OpenOffice and Wikipedia, and developments such as "networked functionality", where you can have multiple authors on the same online document, are changing how MBAs operate, he argues.

Saïd currently offers blogging technology, streaming of big conferences, a subscription-only podcast server, an online library and the ability to hand in work online. "Students can fly off and post and upload their assignments online. We have taken 10,000 submissions that way in the past two years," says Coppin.

On top of this, the school is developing a facility at which students can create their own micro-sites and download images and documents. The next stage will be the development of a "portal server" to allow people to create their own home pages. Alumni will also be able to develop their own micro-sites, podcasts and blogs.

In an effort to address the interactivity issue, Henley Management College is investing £1m to create a system early next year where students will be able to post and share text, conference online, complete and submit assignments online, build their own portals and create "learning journals". Pilots are running at the moment.

"It is a big step away from the old e-blackboard type systems. It will change some assessment and the way the programme is delivered," predicts the principal, Chris Bones.

The school already uses podcasts extensively, as well as making lessons available on DVD or video. "You cannot replace human interactivity," Bones concedes. "But what you can do is improve interaction when people are away from the place of study."

'You still need interactivity'

Michael McFadden, 28, graduated this year from Saïd Business School's MBA course.

What I like about new technology is that it allows you to compact your learning. You can go to a lecture and listen about the subject again on a podcast, walking to and from class, as well as read about it on a blog later on.

I'd say business schools are a little way behind the technology at the moment, but then, I don't know any organisations that are ahead, apart from the technology companies themselves.

One potential problem is that you can compromise the class dynamic. At Saïd, you are not allowed to use laptops in classes, which has led to more class participation. And outside class, if everyone is on their laptop, MP3 player or mobile, then people can be a bit distant from each other.

You still need lectures and that interactivity. Even on the executive MBA programmes at Saïd, students come in four times a year. It would be very distant without that.

Podcasts, blogs and websites allow everyone to take a much broader view, whatever the subject.

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