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Postgraduate business education and flexible learning strategies: An analysis of customer perspectives

Richard K. Ladyshewsky and Margaret Nowak
Graduate School of Business
Curtin University of Technology


The general increase in information technology in our daily lives and the globalisation of business has also meant that Australian Universities have had to become responsive to the use of technology in its planning of educational delivery (Volery and Lord 1999). In a study of Australian Universities it was reported that most are developing infrastructure to support the use of information technology as part of its educational delivery system (McNaught, Phillips et al. 2000).

Software development has reached a level of sophistication where it is now possible to deliver educational material all over the world with the capacity for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration between students and educational facilitators. It would be safe to say, therefore, that the new educational information technology does provide compelling advantages for the higher education sector. This is evidenced by the explosion of online educational delivery all over the world (Meyers 1998; Bacani and Rohlfs 2000). Many well resourced for profit corporations are also moving into the online educational marketplace (Marchese 1998). For example, Microsoft, Lotus and IBM offer management development courses which have enough prestige to make participants consider whether they should pursue similar education within a University context (Marchese 1998).

All of these pressures, therefore, are forcing universities to re-examine how knowledge and information are delivered. Information technology now must be seen as central to the educational process as it can be used to address equity and access issues as well as increase flexibility in learning (Gilbert 1996; Neumann 1998; Rudich 1998; Allen 1999). Knowledge and information have become commodities that can be bought and sold and can now be separated from the traditional pedagogical relationship that existed between teacher and student (Allen 1999). How information technology is going to be integrated into the socio-cultural dimensions of higher education, therefore, is now a larger question facing educators (Allen 1999).

First and foremost, a move to computer mediated learning in a graduate business school must be well planned as it is quite different from the traditional face to face classroom experience (Cyr 1997). Verbal and nonverbal cueing that normally takes place in a classroom is lost in WEB based discussion groups (Hurley-Lawrence 1996; Cyr 1997). This can have an impact on the depth of learning, particularly when the learning content has a socio-emotional component. Dewar (1999), however, states that the loss of verbal and nonverbal cues using text based medium can be replaced by other methods to express this component of human interaction. These arguments illustrate the importance of the social learning context that is central to the learning experience.

In addition to pressures to maintain the quality of CML experiences, graduate business students are also demanding more flexibility in their study plans. The challenge facing business schools then becomes one of mixing modes of delivery that encompass both face to face interaction, which preserves the integrity of the social learning context, and distance learning using the World Wide Web and the Internet, which provides for greater flexibility (Smith 1998; Berger 1999; Bacani and Rohlfs 2000; Gilbert 1996; Volery and Lord 1999). Mixing modes of delivery are particularly important in business education as some subject matter does not lend itself to online delivery, especially courses that are emotionally charged (Meyers 1998).

Awareness of customer needs is important in the move towards more mixed modes of educational delivery. The most common concern expressed by learners is the loss of face to face interaction in the classroom and the perceived implications for educational outcomes (Neumann 1998). This is supported in a review of the literature which reports that computer mediated communication is less rich than face to face teaching (Meisel and Marx 1999).

In contrast, however, Berger (1999) states that the intimacy of dialogue in a WEB environment is much greater because of the anonymity factor which causes learners to be more revealing and participatory. Levinson, 1988 cited in Dewar (1999) also notes that asynchronous communication may produce exchanges of richer intellectual quality than those resulting from immediate face to face dialogue. Rudich (1998) notes that the use of the WEB may also draw out individuals who would not normally participate in a face to face situation.

In terms of educational outcomes, Volery and Lord (1999) note that several studies have not found significant differences in learning when face to face teaching and instruction using electronic media are compared. What appears to be important in ensuring good educational outcome using computer mediated learning is student involvement and self efficacy with the technology.

Other problems associated with the use of WEB based learning include poor access to equipment, inadequate or ambiguous software, inadequate technical support; fragmented planning and poorly structured support services (Gilbert 1996; Rudich 1998; Hara and Kling 1999). All of these influence educational opportunities, especially if they lead to frustration and anxiety in learners.

In light of the issues that have been discussed in relation to CML, the Graduate School of Business (GSB) at Curtin University of Technology carried out some 'market' research. Given moves towards more flexible educational delivery options by the GSB, a survey was administered to all internal (n = 312) and external (n = 98) students enrolled in units during one of the School's trimesters. The survey was also administered to a sample of individuals who had inquired about the School's courses but had not followed up with an enrolment (n = 200). Flexible educational delivery means offering students access to units in a face to face mode, a pure Internet mode, or a combination of face to face and Internet (mixed mode).

The survey sought information about the student's technical literacy, demographics, mixed mode delivery preferences, and concerns about computer mediated learning. The purpose of the survey was to provide the GSB with further information to plan its flexible educational delivery system and to understand the customer base that would be using the system.

Results

A total of 262 responses were received. A breakdown of these responses is illustrated in Table 1. Fifty two per cent of respondents were aged 26-35 and 39 per cent were aged 36 or older. Sixty per cent of respondents were male and 40 per cent female. Seventy three per cent of respondents were studying part time and 84 per cent resided within the Perth Metropolitan Region.

Table 1: Response rates

Student category Total surveyedTotal receivedResponse rate
Internal 31220365.0%
External 983435.0%
Inquiry only 2002512.5%
Total 61026243.0%

The first part of the survey attempted to derive information about the technical literacy of the students. Further, access to equipment and the equipment itself were also of interest. Table 2 provides a summary of the key findings from the survey.

Table 2: Technical equipment, access and computer literacy

CategoryPercent of total
respondents
Valid email account98
Access to the Internet96
Appropriate modem for CML (56K)47
Inappropriate modem for CML (less than 56K)16
Unsure of modem type30
Internet Explorer (preferred browser for CML)70
Internet access from home69
Internet access from work21
Use of the Internet is not difficult75
Use of the Internet somewhat difficult20
Use of the Internet daily for study13
Use of the Internet every second day for study14
Use of the Internet once a week for study30
Use of the Internet once every two weeks for study16
Use of the Internet from 30-120 minutes at a time for study52
Use of the Internet for purposes other than study78

The second part of the survey attempted to derive information on the students preferred strategies for learning, in particular, their preferences for face to face teaching versus computer mediated learning. Table 3 provides a summary of these findings from all respondents.

Table 3: Preferred learning strategies

CategoryPercent of total
respondents
Use of the Internet to support study very helpful to essential91
Face to face teaching most preferred study plan36
Face to face and Internet (mixed mode) most preferred study plan64

The next part of the study asked students to comment on issues related to face to face teaching and their own future study. Table 4 summarises these comments.

Table 4: Face to face teaching and learning

CategoryPercent of total
respondents
Learning through interaction is important77
Networking with peers is important74
Presence of lecturer an integral part of learning experience70
Instant feedback from lecturer important for learning63
Difficulty with regular weekly attendance at face to face lecture40
Concerns about wasted time travelling to and from University19

The next part of the study asked students to comment on issues related to Internet based teaching and learning and their own future study. Table 5 summarises these comments.

Table 5: Teaching and learning using the Internet

CategoryPercent of total
respondents
Ability to study at own pace very advantageous58
Ability to study at a convenient time very advantageous75
Anonymity in the learning process advantageous17
Learning in this mode too impersonal30
Potential for slow response time to questions35
Learning in this mode too isolating35

The final part of the study asked students to comment on issues related to teaching and learning in a mixed mode environment and their own future study. Table 6 summarises these comments.

Table 6: Teaching and learning in a mixed mode environment

CategoryPercent of total
respondents
Mixture of face to face and computer based learning best suits lifestyle70
Able to manage a 2-4 day intensive face to face session in
combination with computer based learning requirements
54
Inability to manage a 2-4 day intensive face to face session in
combination with computer based learning requirements
30

Discussion

A good overall response rate was obtained, particularly from internal students as the survey took place in classrooms where there was a captive audience. A fair return rate was obtained through mail survey from the external students given that it was only a single mail out, with no follow up. The inquiry only students replied in the order of 12.5 percent. While weak, it is understandable given that they have no affiliation with the Graduate School of Business.

The student body at GSB tends to be older, ranging in age from 25-40. These students are likely to be studying part time indicating other commitments in their lives. Hence, flexibility would be important to this student market.

The majority of students have access to email and the Internet. However, only 50 per cent are definite about having the correct modem in place (56K) to maximise the CML learning experience. Clearly, students who enrol in programs will need to ensure they have the appropriate systems in place. Identification of this issue prompted specifying the hardware and software requirements on the GSB flexible learning website.

Most students appear to access the Internet from home although 20 per cent do so from their offices. From a systems perspective it suggests that early morning, evenings and weekends will be the busiest times for the system server. Having the capacity to manage this volume is an important technical and support service requirement.

As far as computer literacy is concerned, 75 per cent of students do not find using the Internet difficult. This is reflected in the findings that 78 percent of respondents use the Internet for purposes other than study. This suggests relatively high literacy among students and reduces the need to put programs into place to educate students on how to use the Internet. There is a small percentage of students who experience some difficulty using the Internet and they may need to be directed to resources at the University.

Overall, there is strong support for more CML in the Business School. Ninety per cent of students feel that the Internet is a very helpful/essential tool for their studies. Two thirds of respondents feel that a combination of face to face teaching integrated with the Internet is the most ideal solution to their future study plans. There is mixed consensus about the ability to participate in face to face sessions of 2-4 days duration.

The respondents also echoed many of the concerns that have been raised in the literature. For example, they continued to emphasise the importance of learning within a socio-emotional context with their peers and lecturers, an important issue raised in the literature (Allen 1999; Cyr 1997; Hurley-Lawrence 1996; Neumann 1998). The respondents are also clear in their desire for more flexibility in their study plans because of competing work and lifestyle commitments. This is consistent with trends reported in the literature (Gilbert 1996; Neumann 1998; Rudich 1998; Allen 1999). The respondents saw great value in being able to study at times and places that were more convenient. This is interesting in that over 90 per cent of respondents live within the Perth metropolitan area and are not geographically disadvantaged with respect to being able to attend traditional face to face lectures.

Of particular interest was a tendency for distance education students to prefer the traditional paper based educational delivery mode. If they did support the Internet as a mode of study, they generally were not supportive of any face to face component.

Of the students who inquired about GSB programs but did not enrol, an interesting trend is noted. While there was only a small response rate (12.5 percent of students in this category), 85 per cent of these respondents were specifically interested in modes of study that relied heavily on the Internet for delivery. This suggests that there is an untapped market in the community of individuals who are interested in further study but need more flexible delivery options.

Conclusions

The survey conducted as part of this research provided rich data about the direction in which the Graduate School of Business is moving with respect to CML. One of the major errors that academic programs make when introducing CML is that it is used as a replacement for face to face teaching. In other words, it becomes a tool to deliver content. Clearly, the whole process of moving towards a more integrative educational delivery system, using information technology as a delivery tool is complex. It requires an understanding of the needs of the customer, the fundamentals of adult learning in management science, and the technical side of information technology. This paper has highlighted a strategy for gaining an understanding of these issues and aligning them to customer needs.

References

Allen, M. (1999). Don't be a troll! Using the Internet for successful higher education. Higher Education, Sydney.

Bacani, C. and O. Rohlfs (2000). Click here for a diploma. Asia Week.Com. 2000. http://www.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/features/universities2000/artic_online.html

Berger, N. (1999). Pioneering experiences in distance learning: Lessons learned. Journal of Management Education, 23(6), 684-690.

Cyr, T. (1997). Competence in teaching at a distance. In T. Cyr (Ed), Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Jossey Bass.

Dewar, T. (1999). Adult Learning Online. http://www.telusplanet.net/public/tddewar/low98/mod2.htm

Gilbert, S. (1996). Making the most of a slow revolution. Change, March/April, 10-23.

Hara, N. and R. Kling (1999). Students' frustrations with a web-based distance education course: A taboo topic in the discourse. http://www.slis.indiana.edu/CSI/wp99_01.html

Hurley-Lawrence, B. (1996). Online course delivery: Issues of faculty development. Educational Technology, 25(2), 127-135.

Marchese, T. (1998). Not so distant competitors: How new providers are remaking the postsecondary marketplace. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, May. http://www.aahe.org/Bulletin/Not-So-Distant%20Competitors.htm

McNaught, C., R. Phillips, et al. (2000). Developing a framework for a useable and useful inventory of computer-facilitated learning and support materials in Australian universities. Canberra, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Evaluations and Investigations Programme, Higher Education Division: 253.

Meisel, S. and B. Marx (1999). Screen to screen versus face to face: experiencing the differences in management education. Journal of Management Education, 23(6), 719-731.

Meyers, C. (1998). Catch the e-train. Successful Meetings, 47(9), 11.

Neumann, P. (1998). Risks of e-education. Communications of the ACM, 4(10), 136.

Rudich, J. (1998). Internet Learning. Link-Up, 15(5), 23.

Smith, M. (1998). Education poised to go the distance. National Underwriter, 102(43), 3, 30-31.

Volery, T. and D. Lord (1999). Reforming universities' teaching practices: Critical success factors for the use of the internet. Reforming Universities for the 21st Century, Beijing.

Authors: Dr Richard K. Ladyshewsky (Presenter), Lecturer
Dr Margaret Nowak, Professor and Head of School
Graduate School of Business
Curtin University of Technology

Please cite as: Ladyshewsky, R. K. and Nowak, M. (2001). Post graduate business education and flexible learning strategies: An analysis of customer perspectives. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/ladyshewsky.html


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