1 An Assessment of Virtual Learning at Ashridge MBA Program and its Application to Management Education Introduction and Executive Summary Phil Whittaker Daniel Ziguilinsky - Ashridge Business School, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK. The purpose of the current paper is to assess the degree of appropriateness of different information technologies and methodologies available to deliver distributed learning in management sciences. This first stage comprised a review of articles and books in the literature covering the delivery of distance education in management, followed by an analysis of the available feedback obtained from students after distributed learning modules were completed. Methodologically, guiding principles, best practices and design features were distilled from the literature and matched against the evidence collected from the student feedback forms. The findings are inconclusive due to suboptimal methods of feedback collection and measure of accomplishments. However, they do shed some light however on the large array of variables that are not being measured although there is not enough evidence to state that they are not being considered in the course design. Before attempting to recommend actions for enhancement, this paper suggests taking a structured survey across students, tutors and technical personnel to validate the preliminary findings and to obtain evidence of compliance with the best practices identified. Based on this, further courses of action can be recommended to enhance distance education in a blended learning approach at Ashridge. Literature Review The US Distance Learning Association defines distance learning as the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated a information and instruction encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance 1. For the purpose of this paper, the definition of e-learning we have adopted is that form of distance education which comprises anything delivered, enabled, or mediated by electronic technology for the explicit purpose of learning 2. The way distance education, and with it e-learning, has grown in recent years is impressive. According to one study 3, distance education enrollments in the US are increasing at a rate of 30% yearly, while total college enrollments are rising only 1% to 2% annually. It was estimated that on 2002, 2.2 million students were registered in distance education in the US 4, while in Europe 900,000 students were enrolled in the 18 institutions of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities 1. Reasons for such a significant growth can be found in the fact e- Learning b is a relatively new phenomenon c appealing to employers, students and educational institutions due to its ability to reduce some operational costs associated to the delivery of education 5 ; particularly travel costs 6 which may eat up to 40% of training related expenses 7. E-Learning is also capable of delivering byte size chunks of knowledge where and when they are required 5, allowing students to digest and apply information progressively 6, giving new meaning to the concept of learning on demand 7. It increases control over how information is delivered 5 also allowing to tailor material to match the needs of trainees 5. Flexibility for trainees is increased over when and where to learn 5 as learning virtually comes to the student, is available 24 hours per day 6 eliminating then the barriers of time and distance 7. In this way learners can a Mediated information is the information processed between the instructor and the student b Which is considered the driving force behind the growth experienced by distance learning c Being driven in turn by the explosive worldwide expansion in Internet availability since the mid 90 s.
2 keep up with their regular jobs during training period 6. On-line education has allowed organizations to cut some HR overheads by using Learning Management Systems (LMS) 5. Additional advantages are enabling a customized experience as trainees can decide when and how to interact with the instructor and other fellow students as well as to decide what additional material and sources to investigate 6, facilitate collaboration by reducing student inhibition 7 and improve written communication skills d while providing a rich technological experience 4. Reality, as almost in any case where technology is brought in to support new functionalities, has proved to be much more complex than expected and e-learning has faced severe criticism due to its inherent shortcomings and the bad experiences some institutions had while sometimes hastily they implemented their own e-learning solutions. The most significant of these drawbacks, as quoted in the academic literature, can be categorized as related to the following groups: 1. Technological issues Big Brother effect 5 ; a LMS can be perceived as being too invasive as it tracks the progress of the trainee and provides statistics of his log-ins, what was seen, for how long, what links were clicked, etc. It has been noticed that some organizations developed an excessive focus on technology 5, forgetting that it is only a tool for achieving the final objective of knowledge and skill transfers. It can also be said that technology problems have haunted e- Learning since its inception 11. There are infrastructure issues such as the availability of Internet particularly broadband and the massive storage needs imposed by multimedia 7. It is necessary to know how to use technology to teach, research and communicate as technologically competent people don t necessarily know how to best employ technology in teaching Trainee attitudes and expectations Students need good time management skills and self-motivation as a good deal of self discipline is required to attend the lectures on their own 8. In this sense those with an internal locus of control will do better in distance learning 9. Students with other styles may consider the experience unsatisfactory. In some cases, there is a feeling that Internet based instruction is inferior to traditional campus education 9. Anxiety, frustration and confusion due to communications breakdown and technical difficulties, lack of interaction with the instructor plus the feeling of isolation that e-learning generates in the student create drop out rates of up to 30% 9. Regarding learning styles, it is believed that distance learning is superbly suited for reflective students with abstract conceptualization 9. Even though trainees are normally familiar with the technology employed, the fact that there is a heterogeneous level of computer skills need to be recognized Faculty There is a higher time requirement from the faculty to develop course design, learn new technologies and solve technological problems 4. In an e-learning environment the instructor needs to play the role of a facilitator rather than information broadcaster 8 as it is difficult to guide, direct and stimulate discussion and learning. It is known that interaction is a key factor for success as passive lectures are deadly for the process. Dissatisfaction with e-learning invites poor students evaluation which has impact on faculty s promotion and tenure. It is believed that everything being equal, the evaluation of an instructor in e-learning will be lower than in a traditional classroom setting 9. The instructor teaching technique plays a significant role in the success of the e-learning experience. An order and obey teacher who doesn t tolerate flexibility will not fare well, whereas a democratic instructor who tolerates too much will not fare well either. A proper balance between these two extremes needs to be achieved Dynamics of learning There are learning topics that are better suited for a classroom 6 in a traditional environment e. Qualitative material is difficult to impart via e-learning, which holds back the use of distance education in business sciences 9 and for teaching soft skills 11. E-Learning shows a lower ability to develop certain skills such as oral presentations 4 and limits the opportunities for interaction with the instructor and among students hindering the opportunities for team building 3. The main barrier for online education is the feeling of alienation and isolation of the whole experience. Developing a sense of community among the participants is considered another critical success factor of e-learning 8. Students miss talking to the teacher after class and complain about not having the peer learning experience 9. d It is felt that students tend to be more thoughtful writing their comments than speaking their minds in a traditional class environment (La Bay and Comm, 2003) e There will always be someone who will try to convert them to an e-learning format with poor results.
3 5. Organization beliefs and expectations Implementing e-learning is complex and can easily demand more resources than setting up a course in a traditional environment 10. E-Learning is only one way of delivering content 10. It is not a tool that can be used for every purpose and in isolation, believing that it is adequate in any circumstance. Even though travel costs are reduced, there are many other items of costs that e-learning not only doesn t reduce but creates Organizational culture and structure The culture of the organization needs to be compatible with the openness that the learning support tools bring with them. Otherwise, people will be turned off and will avoid participating in e-learning initiatives 5. Literature recognizes as a major source of failure the lack of an appropriate policy or practice for distance education in the institution as well as a poor due diligence process that leads to a wrong choice of platform 8. In other cases, overconfidence since technology appears to be simple has created major issues in institutions where training and experience were lacking 9. Issues of cooperation and coordination problems with using technological resources between competing departments in educational institutions have also been documented 9. A successful e-learning implementation requires a cultural change of which few organizations are aware, it creates resistance and is unlikely to be successful without top level support and an adequate program of communications, promotion and marketing 11. Having a list of advantages and disadvantages is a good starting point but if one is to recommend scenarios under which e-learning is more appropriate than traditional education and how to make on-line education more effective in a world already implementing it under a trial and error approach f ; comparative studies are required. Unfortunately, there are several reasons while literature is non-conclusive g on this matter: Among them, the lack of empirically validated best practices for distance education 4 ; methodological problems in comparative studies, such as small sample sizes, brief and infrequent treatment and unintentional technicist bias 12. Other shortcomings include an emphasis on students outcome instead on the academic process, lack of research on the influence of the individual learning styles, lack of research on the impact of the use of multiple technologies and lack of longitudinal studies and control groups 12. Facing this reality, some authors have proposed to concentrate on determining the conditions that promote learning and examine if they can be provided in an online environment 12. If this is the case, then some basic considerations about learning should be explained before exploring ways to meet the conditions that facilitate the process. One of the approaches researchers have adopted to understand the process of learning is to follow a particular school of thought in psychology that characterize learning under four styles h : The behavioral approach, stating that training should generate observable changes in behavior based on a specific stimulus (e.g. rewards). It hinges on the use of observable, measurable and controllable objectives. The cognitive approach, which states that information is more likely to be acquired, retained and used if it is learner constructed, relevant for him and built upon prior knowledge. Its method introduces conceptual frameworks and relies on the learner to build connections. The constructivist approach expands the cognitive approach by introducing the concept that learners seek to make sense of the content by becoming actively involved in the learning experience. They would make tentative interpretations, elaborate and test what they determine. The humanist approach focuses on individual growth and development. Learning occurs through reflection on personal experience and as a result of intrinsic motivation. Learners are involved since the early stages of the process, including planning, so that they understand the importance of topics. But, in order to be effective, it is also necessary to take into consideration the particular style of learning of the trainee. Authors 6 have chosen the following characterization of styles of learning: Active doing something with the information and discussing it, applying it or explaining to others vs. Reflective thinking quietly about it. Sensing f The market for web-based corporate learning in the US was estimated to be $ 11.4 billion on 2003; having grown from $ 550 million on 1998 (Zhang and Nunamaker, 2003) g Ranging from the very positive to the very negative depending on the particular study (La Bay and Comm, 2003) or finding that there are no difference in results (Crow et al, 2003) h Based on Munro and Munro (2004)
4 liking learning facts vs. Intuitive preferring discovering possibilities and relationships. Visual vs. Verbal and Sequential gaining understanding in linear sequential steps vs. Global learning in large jumps absorbing material almost randomly until the connections are suddenly seen. Finally, and in regards to the purpose of learning, literature 12 identifies three major approaches. Learning as knowing, which is the most limited view of the three and reduces learning to an information transmission process. Learning as applying knowledge, which recognizes that, as well as content, trainees require strategies to process content or to find new information. This approach reflects the way the knowledge will be useful in real life. Finally, learning as a path to wisdom. This view recognizes that the value of knowledge is dependent of context and perspective and that knowledge alone is unlikely to establish caring relations. What follows is an attempt to summarize and characterize the conditions under which e-learning is at its highest effectiveness, as reviewed by the academic literature available. The latter notwithstanding, one should treat the principles to be enunciated as a primary attempt for determination in line with the shortcomings of the studies available that were previously reviewed. Guiding Principles The institution should have a vision on what it wants to achieve with e-learning E-Learning should not focus on technology forgetting the basic concepts of learning Learning is a social process occurring through interpersonal relations Learning should be a path to wisdom But technology should not get in the way to successful delivery of learning Culture of the organization should be compatible with the characteristics of e-learning Let s examine now how these guiding principles can be translated into best practices. The institution should have a vision on what it wants to achieve with e-learning This guiding principle translates in to the following: E-Learning has institutional support at the highest level in the organization. There are clear objectives for the e-learning initiative. There are measures of effectiveness for the process and for the achievement of goals. E-Learning is adopted after careful consideration of its risks and benefits and finally, it is considered a way of delivering education more effectively, not a cost saver E-Learning should not focus on technology forgetting the basic concepts of learning E-Learning is one more teaching tool in the training arsenal, not the only one available or a substitute for traditional delivery of education. The presentation of material caters to different styles of learning. The design of the courses considers the students' locus of control and the faculty s teaching styles. A proper mechanism to assess content comprehension is put in place and it is recognized that certain topics are better dealt with in the classroom. Learning is a social process occurring through interpersonal relations The process is designed to prevent feelings of alienation and isolation among the students. Interaction between trainees and teacher, and among students, is encouraged and facilitated by the system and faculty. Finally, the program develops a sense of belonging to a learning community. Learning should be a path to wisdom Meta cognitive strategies are applied in the learning process. In other words, it is not the computer who is in control of the learning process, but the student; who has been given the tools and skills to explore in reservoirs of content in
5 order to find the pieces of information he requires. In this context wisdom is understood as having the right information, to be applied in the right situation, to give the right result. But technology should not get in the way to successful delivery of learning The meaning of this statement can be explained as: whatever the combination of technologies employed they are underpinned by the belief that interactivity is a critical characteristic of the process. The system is eminently user centric. Its tools are selected carefully in order to be trainee and professor friendly. It has the capacity to control information overload. In addition to this, there are adequate mechanisms in place for the participants to experience a secure learning experience. Culture of the organization should be compatible with the characteristics of e-learning The basic pre-requisites for a successful e-learning experience in the organization are present in its culture; among them e-learning is not perceived as a cheaper way of delivering education, there is an Executive Committee in place guiding and supporting the initiative and the students' expectations can be set at an appropriate level. Ashridge Virtual Modules Preliminary Findings Feedback obtained from students who took the virtual modules administered to the MBA Consortium i was used to prepare this section. Initially, the information reviewed included the standard questionnaire students are asked to fill after completing any MBA module. Design of these instruments does not allow for a proper statistical analysis and as such information was fragmentary and inconclusive. Nevertheless, it provided a first attempt to establish to what extent Ashridge successfully applied the design features proposed in the literature. According to these results, there seemed to be evidence that the teaching material was well structured and delivered in a way that engaged some participants. Trainees were happy about the simulation exercises conducted virtually and about their similarities with real life. Interaction with tutors and peers seemed to have been encouraged. Synchronous lectures were conducted by tutors and were warmly received by the students. Finally, computer literacy was not a problem among the groups exposed to the virtual module. On the not so positive side, the measure of effectiveness used appears not to consider all the variables that needed to be tracked in order to judge if the experience was successful. At least in some students mind, Ashridge would be pursuing cost reductions instead of promoting learning with its virtual modules initiative. The fact that some modules are taught in campus while others are taught fully online seemed to indicate that Ashridge considered e- Learning as an alternative to traditional learning, not as a way to enrich it. Contradictory comments on the effectiveness of the content displayed seem to be caused by it being oriented towards a limited number of learning styles. There was no evidence of the use of ad-hoc tools to create content specially tailored for e-learning. There were feelings of isolation reported by students. Support appeared to be a big issue, particularly since technology didn t seem to be working satisfactory. Finally, and according to the people responsible for the module, the material for the virtual module was not ready enough in advance. What was considered more concerning however is that over 60% of the dimensions (best practices or design features) that literature recommends, were not considered in the feedback forms employed or in the administrators report. Among them, clarity of objectives, existence of mechanisms to check content comprehension, characteristics of the content and ways to deliver it, effective use of multimedia and audio visual tools, tutor s role and accessibility, use of meta-cognitive strategies, appropriateness of the content creation tool, characteristics of the Learning Management System and ways in which the institution is facilitating the adoption of e-learning. It is important to mention that tutors and technical personnel involved in the virtual modules did not appear to have been surveyed about their perceptions and experiences. i One of the three MBA programs offered each year, with students belonging to four major corporations in Europe.
6 Ashridge Virtual Modules Extended Research As a second stage of this study an ad-hoc questionnaire was designed and administered to a total sample of 35 students engaged in the virtual modules of their two-year MBA program j. The purpose again was to review the level of acceptance achieved among the students. Samples were not randomly selected but comprised the whole population of participating students. The methodology consisted of a direct, structured survey, which tested if; in the mind of the students, certain guiding principles, best practices and design features identified previously in the academic literature available were present in the Ashridge design and if those mattered in their degree of satisfaction with the e-learning experience. The survey was constructed to allow the respondent express his/her level of agreement with statements representing each of these best practices, using an interval scale between 1 and 5. There were open questions where students could express their views with more detail and in a freer format. Answers were initially collected in Excel and processed using SPSS version In line with the preliminary findings, the hypotheses formulated were: Students at an MBA program would rather have traditional classes than virtual modules if they can choose and Reasons for this are based on the following limitations of e-learning: A reduction in the sense of belonging to a learning community, a reduction in the opportunities to interact among themselves and with their tutors, and a feeling that VM represent a lower quality mechanism for education delivery. Results show that students strongly agree that VM s were rich in resources and their objectives were clearly stated. VM s were felt to be user friendly and in general met students expectations. On the other hand, there was also strong agreement with the opinion that some topics are better delivered in a classroom environment. The latter is reinforced by the strong disagreement with the willingness to take more virtual modules and with the statement that VM s are more fun and engaging than classes, both of which generated the highest level of rejection of all the statements proposed. Contrary to what was expected, results permit to infer that students didn t consider missing interaction with peers and fellow students a major concern. However, the agreement with the feeling of belonging to a learning community was also moderate, and for some students having fewer opportunities to interact with their tutors was a matter of concern. When statistically significant differences are sought, there were only three statements that were markedly distinctive for the two groups. Students of one of the module found it the richest in resources but also have the strongest opinion against how fun and engaging their VM was. For this group, missing the interaction with tutors was much more strongly expressed than for the other group. Numerical results notwithstanding, it is felt that the part of the survey that shed most light on students perceptions and attitudes towards their e-learning experience was their answers to open questions. Major issues of interest k are summarized below: Simulation exercises included in one of the modules analyzed were particularly well received being qualified as very good and very useful. They were probably the best part of the module as their only live session was considered a repetition of previous presentations that didn t add value to the exercise. Students also asked for opportunities where group participation can be attempted in these exercises. In terms of improvements, participants requested more tutor feedback ideally on line and a higher level of interaction from them, also in a live format. Learners also identified the value of this kind of exercise as a tool for preparation for exams and revision of topics learnt. Even though simulations were found the most valuable component of the module, some respondents indicated that the experience of being together is more valuable than whatever can be drawn from simulations. Students suggested their use for when groups cannot meet and that they be made available for when students are outside campus. In this sense, students offered the suggestion to consider simulations a supplement to more than a replacement of normal sessions. The experience with live sessions in the second modules analyzed was particularly happier. Students requested longer ones and more of them. They were favorably impressed with live feedback and suggested that every subject j Module 10 and Module 5 of the Consortium MBA each taken by different groups of students k Comments regarding specific content of the sessions are beyond the scope of this study and are not be covered here.
7 have a live session. Participants also appreciated videos when they were available and being able to listen to tutors voice when Power Point presentations were offered. Always regarding material and in terms of improvement ideas, participants complained about some text only sessions in their VM, suggesting this material be delivered beforehand and not considered as part of it. As students who had experienced earlier versions of VM s praised the progress made in terms of coordination and content, the same happened with the technology employed and its stability. Some participants experienced difficulties though with the tools used and the bandwidth available; especially when live sessions were involved. One tool that was criticized almost unanimously was the chatting facility due to its limitations, which, in turn, lead students to organize teleconferences and communicate through in order to collaborate during the module. As in the first VM analyzed, students insisted in the importance of considering VM s as a supplement and not as a replacement for attending classes; indicating that certain topics should have been better treated in a classroom environment and that in spite of the richness of resources the experience is far from being a substitution of the traditional style. Students seem to overwhelmingly prefer a classroom setting instead of a VM, acknowledging its potential benefits as ancillary class material either as a means of revising after an on campus module or as a way of leveling knowledge in the group before it. In their view, having two virtual modules in the whole program is more than enough. Participants recognize the logistic convenience of having a virtual module, however some of them expressed strong views about its limitations in terms of human interaction and the fact that not all the activities were in a live form. Finally, students from both modules seem to support the view that some kind of VM s should always be available to support classroom activities, provide a more effective way to prepare for examinations and ultimately, to enrich the whole learning environment. Conclusions and Recommendations Ashridge MBA virtual modules appear to be heavily based on their classroom siblings in terms of content and way of delivery, which is a practice not recommended in the literature. It is not clear who the final responsible for distance education delivery is, the e-learning stated objectives and the level of support and commitment it has at the top executive layer at Ashridge. It is important to stress however that there is a risk of damaging the quality of Ashridge reputation if distance education is not treated at the same level than on-campus education, and if it were perceived as a cheap way of delivering instruction or as mimicking whatever everybody else is doing. The fact that standardized managerial courses delivered remotely are proliferating creates the opportunity for Ashridge to differentiate by quality. This will only happen if e-learning is given at least the same level of attention than traditional education receives. Research shows there is an obvious progress in the level of participants satisfaction regarding Ashridge Virtual Modules (VM) as time passes. This progress is based on richer content, more interactive activities and better stability of the technologies employed. It is clear from the students responses that the higher the possibility of interaction either with a simulation engine or with other people on-line, the higher the level of satisfaction obtained. Preferred means of interaction are those that create a higher level of engagement of the participant. Live sessions group simulations and videos generate the highest preference as opposed to solitary exercises and worst of all reading activities. Interaction with peers doesn t appear to be as critical as is interaction with tutors. Other factors however, seem to weigh more in the overall level of satisfaction. In spite of the preference for live sessions, they should be done only when there is a clear value added. Repetition of material previously covered in a traditional class setting creates a strong feeling of annoyance among the participants. For MBA participants, classroom activities continue to be the preferred method of delivery of education. The latter, even acknowledging VM s logistic convenience. VM s should be justified as a mechanism to enrich the learning experience. Cost reduction and logistic convenience are not strong enough to earn participants adherence. Suggestions about the use of VM s as a means of enriching the overall learning experience l seem to indicate the path to make this way of conveying education successful. In this context, an extensive program to make VM s permanently available for students appears to be the best use of this set of technologies. Furthermore, there seems to be many reasons to include other MBA groups in this experience. l As class reinforcement, exam preparation and knowledge leveling.
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