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MBAs Guide

Technology adds a new dimension to learning

Modern tools can facilitate future corporate leaders.

The use and misuse of new technology is a common basis of case studies at business schools around the globe. But how are the schools themselves using technological innovations to educate the next generation of corporate leaders?

With five campuses in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai, Hult International Business School faces a constant battle to sustain a worldwide MBA community. It is aiming to tackle the challenge by creating its own TV network, HultTV, which will allow students and alumni to watch professors and students debate live or catch speakers presenting on new trends and developments on a dedicated channel. Once up and running, the channel will provide a centralised knowledge management system which will remain open to graduates throughout their working lives.

Warwick Business School has addressed a similar problem by introducing wbsLive, a virtual learning environment which allows distance-learning MBAs to interact with other students and academics as if they were in the same classroom instead of on different continents. The system has been so well received it is now also being used as the basis of an interactive mentoring project involving alumni and current students. "Many of our current mentors are based in the UK, whereas our mentees range from Canada to India, France to Malaysia," says Tracy Lynch of Warwick's alumni relations department. "WbsLive helps to sustain the personal aspect of the mentor/mentee relationship."

Other major schools have used the communications revolution to make lectures, seminars and case studies accessible through such platforms as the education-specific area of iTunes, iTunes U, and YouTube. This summer, Apple announced it had exceeded 300 million downloads in just over three years from iTunes U, with more than 800 universities contributing to a range of audio and video files. Eddy Cue, Apple's vice president of internet services, said: "iTunes U makes it easy for people to discover and learn with content from many of the world's top institutions." Harvard, MIT and Cambridge are among those taking part, with business schools such as Saïd Business School, University of Oxford encouraging users to don headphones to access lectures.

A pioneer in the field is HEC Paris, which began experimenting with podcasting as early as 2005 and is now an enthusiastic contributor to iTunes U. From April to June this year, the school reported more than 300,000 downloads of its materials. "Video podcasts are particularly useful in preparing students for a new course," says Valérie Gauthier, associate dean at HEC. "If a whole class has viewed a recording of frequently asked questions before the session starts, for example, the professor will not have to answer the same questions over and over again and the quality of course interaction increases."

HEC has also been at the forefront of providing technological tools to students to enable them to make the most of online libraries and networking platforms. The school was one of the first in Europe to build a relationship with Apple which allowed it to equip its MBA students with an iPod touch.

As Gauthier explains: "Millennials are accustomed to getting information when and where they want it, and this enables them to do just that."

As yet, the take-up of the next generation of communication devices such as the Kindle and the iPad has been patchy. IMD in Switzerland was one of the first to supply programme participants with an iPad, allowing them to carry around course content which previously occupied more than 1,000 pages of print. Hult is also equipping MBA students with Apple's latest gadget, preloaded with all course materials. It has also set up a team of "virtual tutors" who offer optional online coaching sessions for groups of up to 15 students at a time focusing on all aspects of the MBA programme.

However, one of the most innovative uses of the iPad can be found in the Apps in Business project on the newly relaunched MBA programme at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. Partnering with ICT company, Sogeti, the school gives each student an iPad and encourages them to develop their own apps which can then be road-tested in the classroom and the workplace. "The project gives students the opportunity to work with Sogeti to undertake practical research into the wider use of apps in business strategy and education," says Nyenrode's Professor Désirée van Gorp. "It will be invaluable experience, putting them way ahead of their peers in an area of huge commercial potential."

Sometimes, however, technology doesn't live up to its initial promise. When two US schools, University of Virginia – Darden and the University of Washington – Foster, ran a pilot programme equipping students with Kindle e-readers last autumn, the initial response was enthusiastic. But by the middle of the trial period, nearly a third of the Foster group and more than 80 per cent of the Darden guinea pigs had dropped out with many complaining the file management system made the storing and searching of information too difficult.

The most successful use of gadgets and new media seems to be based on a cautious approach which may be the reason why there are still more schools assessing their use than actually implementing them.

Above all, thought leaders in the sector are highly conscious that new technology can never be a substitute for good teaching and good communication. As Jennifer George, dean of the Melbourne Business School in Australia, puts it: "The teaching model devised by Plato in ancient Greece has been serving us pretty well for over 2,000 years. And while we must always move with the times, we should also remember the old adage that if something isn't broken you may not need to fix it."