By Peter Walker for CNN
The traditional image of a business school class is a group of students scribbling furiously with pens in a windowless lecture room.
But these days, they are just as likely to be sitting in a comfortable armchair with a notebook computer and a cappuccino.
Electronic learning, where students study, submit work and receive feedback via computers and the Internet, is an increasing fact of university life, all the more so on MBA courses where students tend to be especially pressed for time, sometimes even holding down a full-time job as well.
A sign of the ever-increasing importance of e-learning came with the recent news that students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business can now use Apple’s iTunes Web sites to download speeches, interviews and conference presentations as well as the usual rock and pop albums.
Early material available includes a speech by Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co and an interview with Duke professor John Graham.
“New learning technologies allow us to think differently about the ways we design and deliver learning programs to busy executives around the world and allow us to enter new markets in new ways,” said Raymond Smith, Fuqua’s associate dean for executive education.
One institution which takes new learning particularly seriously is Alberta School of Business, part of Canada’s University of Alberta.
The entire school is a wireless network, meaning students with wireless-enabled notebook computers can use the Internet, email and the university’s own intranet network from anywhere.
Have laptop, will travel
The university was the subject of a study in 2004 by computer chip maker Intel which showed how the use of notebook computers had increased from 1.2% of students in 1999 to 35% just four years later.
This figure is now around 60%, said Mike Getz, Director of Learning and Communication Technologies for the school.
“There is a serious advantage to having the wireless network — every space becomes a learning space. It doesn’t matter where they are, they can be sitting in the library or anywhere,” he said.
Once connected to the system, whether inside the school or hundreds of miles away at home or work, students can log into an innovative system called Blackboard, in use now for almost three years.
“It’s a portal system where students and instructors log in and have all their course content, access to various resources,” Getz said.
“If you can imagine, a student logs in, and as soon as they log in they see all of the courses in which they are enrolled, they can click on any one of those courses and then they get all of the supplemental or course-related materials for their class — anywhere in the world.
“If they have an assignment due they can submit that electronically, and say if it’s a Microsoft Word documents the instructor can write on it using the comments feature and then send it back to them electronically. It eliminates a lot of paper, certainly.
“There are other features, so that if there’s a group project within the class, they can have a chat with one another and then work on a document collectively, each building on it.”
This is particularly important given that some students combine their learning with a full-time job, only coming into the school occasionally, explains Getz.
“It’s becoming more and more important to be accessible 24/7 and from anywhere.”
Another element of such systems can be the assistance of high-tech companies, keen for the likely high earners of the future to get acquainted with their products.
At Alberta, an agreement with software giant Microsoft gives students free access to what Getz calls “pretty close to everything Microsoft makes” while they are enrolled.
“It’s like giving every student that comes here about $100,000 in Microsoft software,” he said.