The Online Classroom

Graduate business students learning online

Technological innovations have revolutionized the way we do business, the exchange of business information, and the delivery of business communications. Online channels non-existent less than a decade ago have exploded to attract billons of engaged users throughout the world. These innovations have opened up opportunities for business in new markets, but to take full advantage of these new avenues, business leaders and educators must remain aware of their influence on the business environment, and be willing to address the changes through new academic programs and professional practices.

One of the main challenges that educational institutions are facing is how to best integrate the new technology now used ubiquitously in daily life into online learning programs. At the Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola University Maryland, online learning initiatives embrace the spirit of innovation to better serve the ever-changing demands of students, their employers, and the greater business community. Faculty members monitor recent trends and enhance program offerings to better prepare students. Here, two Sellinger School faculty members share their insights on the significance of online learning methods and provide examples of the successful use of online learning at Loyola.

Gloria Phillips-Wren, Ph.D.

Professor of Information Systems and Operations Management

What forms can online courses take, and what purposes can they serve in business education?

First, the term “online learning” has a variety of potential meanings. Technology has opened the door to collaborative ways of interacting using electronic media. For example, it is possible to hold an online course synchronously (everyone is online at the same time) or asynchronously (not all at the same time). Some technologies allow us to see and hear each other using a webcam, and at the same time project from one person’s computer to everyone else in the group. For example, a group could explore the solution to a problem by taking turns showing their solution to everyone else online in the group. In addition, it is possible to stream a course as it occurs from an instructor, or to record an instructor for later viewing. Some instructors mix face-to-face classes with online sessions (sometimes called hybrid or mixed instruction). The possibilities are endless.

Online courses remove the constraint of time and place to increase flexibility and accessibility for students. Today’s business students are often traveling or working long hours, desire a better work-life-school balance, and yet require higher proficiency to advance in their careers. The variety of online courses—and online course components—permits education to be delivered and received in a manner that works best for each individual student.

How can a school or organization teach management, leadership, and collaboration skills without the personal experience made possible through traditional in-person learning?

There are many examples to demonstrate that these skills can be taught outside of the traditional in-person setting. A needed component is the willingness and desire of the student to interact via an online environment. Online courses often require students to be more disciplined, more organized, and more goal-directed than in-person classes. Many online courses allow for interaction primarily through the medium of typing on the computer keyboard. Not all students find the experience appealing or motivating. Loyola has focused on self-selection so that students choose the learning environment that best fits their learning style and particular needs at a point in time. I prefer a mixed approach within a business program that permits student selection of in-person, online, or hybrid courses for some content areas, while maintaining face-to-face instruction for so-called “soft,” or as we call them, “vital” skills.

Business education must develop skills such as leadership, team building, communication, strategic thinking, and networking that are human-centric. In addition, Loyola focuses on personal leadership development such as reflection, ethical behavior, and commitment to the larger community. These skills are essential to successful business career development and, in my opinion, cannot be taught sufficiently in a completely asynchronous online environment.

How are online or hybrid classes structured at Loyola?

Loyola has been working with online or hybrid (partly in-class and partly online) classes for the past five years. At the undergraduate level we are offering mostly online synchronous courses in operations management and information technology. These courses are taught in the summer when students are often at home and not able to come to campus. We meet several days in a row in person just as summer is beginning to establish frameworks for the course, and then students meet with their classmates and instructor in a regular schedule, at the same time, throughout the duration of the course. They have video/audio so they can see and talk to each other, can share their computer screens so they can discuss the problem or case, and interact with one another and the instructor in real-time.

Students at the graduate level need more flexibility, and we are offering online courses in various formats. We are expanding the selection of online formats as we determine the optimal mix of subject matter, student preferences, and program outcomes. Currently we have hybrid (partly in-person and partly online), asynchronous courses in graduate-level information technology strategy and operations management. We have just recently experimented with totally online courses for selected subjects such as operations management, and even those are augmented with synchronous sessions for discussion.

What are some of the challenges of creating online classes? Why might some students, educators, or business leaders oppose them?

Effective business management requires leaders to experience a business education that involves human interaction such as the development of teams and leading others. I do not think an entirely online, asynchronous business management program can fully provide this type of education since interaction with others is limited with current technology. Our Jesuit commitment to cura personalis (i.e. concern for the whole person, including attention to the needs of others), the development of business leadership skills in a global world, and service to the broader community has led us to conclude that totally asynchronous online business management education may not be consistent with our mission.

Where do you see online learning heading in another five years?

I think that we will continue to see an explosion in the use of technology to deliver education when and where the student wants to receive it. The challenge is to design comprehensive business programs, as opposed to individual courses, that incorporate these technologies in a way that allows them to produce leaders with the vision and skillsets that we will need in an increasingly competitive global world.

How might online learning be applied by business leaders for use in their organizations?

We already see content-driven courses offered successfully in business environments. For example, companies report that training in areas such as legal compliance, computer skills (as opposed to strategic thinking in the use of technology), health and safety, and new supervisor training can be delivered totally online asynchronously. These courses usually involve an assessment component to measure learning of the material and are beneficial to both the employee (e.g. location-independent) and the company (e.g. reduces the cost to deliver the training). 

Technology is available to deliver large amounts of data in many forms (e.g. static, video, audio, structured, unstructured, etc.) and to connect people in real-time and non-real-time across time and space. The challenge is how to do so effectively in a way that seeks to develop our next-generation business leaders and managers.

Paul DiGangi, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Information Systems and Operations Management

How have you used popular social networks and web applications and other new online tools in your classes?

I used Facebook in my introductory information systems course as the central point for class material. I created a group page and posted lecture notes as photo albums, wiki pages for assignment metrics, and had students post article critiques as a part of the course. Students collaboratively took notes, answered practice test questions using polls written as test questions, and commented on current events. My intention for adopting Facebook as an instructional tool was to target “short-term” attention spans of users perusing Facebook into activity that could be measured for use. As organizations move more toward collaborative work and blending social activities with work processes, Facebook was a great environment to demonstrate how these two concepts can be blended together.

YEL, or Your Emotions Live, is a new event rating app for smartphones for users to live-rate television shows or evaluate events they participate in. I used this in two of my undergraduate information systems courses, and Loyola is currently the only academic institution using the YEL software. YEL allows you to vote and comment on live events and have the results presented via graph form in real time—in this case, I had students rate their classmates’ presentations. I adopted this program for several reasons. First, students could receive a time graph of their performance throughout their presentations. Second, they were directed to focus comments on improving student presentation skills so that their classmates could become better prepared for the increasingly important need to convey information via presentation format. Third, the software application is an ongoing project where the developer and I have been fortunate enough to serve as beta testers for its use within an educational setting. In addition to its use as a feedback tool, I was able to incorporate the program used in class back into the systems analysis and development discussion topic for my class. This provided students with a real-life example of how to develop software, test software, and provide feedback to ensure its value to a target user group.

My intention in using Microsations, which are short conversations between two or more people that discuss key concepts underpinning current events and news articles, was to create a multifaceted educational opportunity with the following objectives. First, I wanted students to gain experience utilizing a new social media technology, compelling them to critically analyze its functions and potential. The second objective was to have them practice short-burst communication—a recent trend within social media—as a communication form. Third, I wanted to encourage interaction with both Loyola students and the global information economy. The final objective was to add awareness of current IT events to connect real-world events with conceptual topics as well as demonstrate a grasp of current events to prospective employers. Students were limited to 255 characters in both story contribution and response. They were able to vote on stories each week which were then brought into the classroom so that the conceptual link to the current event was clear and the topic of most interest to the students was discussed each week.

Additionally, I used Twitter and LinkedIn to reach out to cybersecurity experts to ensure the course material for classes was current. Based on those responses, I created a wiki group assignment where each group focused on a specific cybersecurity issue and was required to engage cybersecurity experts in creating a Wikipedia-style knowledge page and class activity. Students made 300 edits to the wiki page over the course of the semester. Understanding how wikis function in terms of the technical platform and the managerial implications of wikis for knowledge management are important issues as organizations seek to retain as much expertise as possible from employees.