Online learning arrives at the business school

Published as "Online learning"

November 11, 1999

The View from Taft


When I last wrote on this space in November 1994, it was to describe the amazing things that were becoming possible with the Internet. The Web was very new and access was mainly through the Mosaic browser - a wonderful piece of free software from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The first versions of the Netscape access speed was a joy.

A lot has happened since then. Navigator became the "killer app" and Netscape IPOed to a record market capitalization for a start-up. Netscape eventually succumbed to Microsoft but paved the way for the phenomenal Internet IPOs we see today. Business transactions over the Web have become a daily reality in much of the connected world - from buying books or flowers to stock trading and participating in auctions. Even looking for jobs has been facilitated by sites devoted to this purpose. Information at one's fingertips has become a literal reality, although the increase in Web traffic has made www mean the "World-Wide-Wait" for a lot of people

The Internet had its roots in the academe. In particular, the Web was developed because of the need to efficiently share knowledge among researchers. Some academicians are understandably dismayed by how business has changed the Web. Nowadays, it's difficult to see Web sites without some form of advertising and the most common domain has become .com.

The academe is back to reclaim its share of the Web with something called online learning. Simply, online learning is the delivery of instruction through the Web. The possibilities are evolving but the basics are fairly simple. The student logs on to the course using an assigned password. He accesses PowerPoint slides for a lecture he missed to attend because of demands at work. As he views the lecture slides his interest in one concept is triggered and he searches the course for all mention of the concept -throught both lecture materials and student discussions.

After reviewing the search results, he shares his own questions and insights in the online conference. The next day, he pursues his interest in the concept by chatting real-time with his professor during the latter's "virtual office hours." The chat session is saved by the system and is made accessible to other students by the teacher.

To check his understanding of the concepts he takes an online quiz which gives him feedback on his mastery level and directs him to review relevant textbook material.

The most aggressive practitioners in the US - with full MBA programs delivered completely online - include the University of Texas-Dallas, Colorado State University and the University of California-Hayward.

DLSU's Graduate School of Business is launching its online learning program by January 2000. is timed for the opening of the new millennium and will offer pilot courses combining face-to-face classes with online components. Research has shown that a combined approach achieves better learning and satisfaction results than either a pure classroom or pure online arrangement.

The benefits for students are numerous. Since they will need to come to campus only every other week, they will cut their commuting frequency by half - a relief given today's horrendous traffic situation. They will gain 24 hours-a-day access to learning resources and a collaboration forum for their insights and questions.

Most importantly, they will master the online medium as a source of just-in-time knowledge - a trend that is transforming organizations and the competitive landscape as we know it. The student will fully trained to thrive in a technology-enabled and knowledge-driven learning organization.

How does it benefit the faculty? Online learning multiplies the effective teacher's efficiency and reach. Administratively, the system logs most of what each student does online such as what pages he reads, how often he posts or answers discussion questions and his scores on online quizzes.

The real payback, however, is educational. Using well-designed materials and online activities plus judicious comments in the online discussions, the faculty can become a genuine facilitator of learning. After a while, she can stand back and marvel at the collaborative learning unfolding before her eyes - as students infect each other with their enthusiasm for the subject matter and share their real-life experiences.

Moreover, all the discussions are preserved for access by students in the subsequent terms! This continually evolving virtual learning community becomes a tremendous resource in the hands of a good teacher.

The commercial potential of the Web hasn't been lost on the promoters of online education. E-college, a company that hosts virtual campuses for brick-and-mortar schools, is listed by Fortune magazine as a company to watch.

More than a dozen online learning software systems exists. IBM's Lotus calls its online learning software Learning Space and it has been adopted by the Harvard Business School as a delivery medium for its case materials.

Microsoft, for its part, is pushing for "connected learning communities," a concept which is achieved by enabling teachers and students to use the ubiquitous Office software to distribute and access learning materials through the Web.

Naturally, online learning raises a number of issues.

Setting aside for now the myriad technical concerns such as bandwidth and security, it seems clear that it it not for everyone. The experienced online business schools recommend the mode for students who are technology-savvy, self- propelled and naturally curious, effective writers and good time managers.

On the faculty side, it is not a cure for bad teaching. The old computer adage of "garbage-in, garbage-out" holds. Still, the penetration of the Web into the fabric of instructional delivery clearly signals that graduate business education has entered an exciting phase and may never be the same again.