Interview with Ray Irving, Head of Learning Resources Development for WBS
Published October 2010
It is hard to deny that there is enormous value in meeting up face-to-face with tutors when studying for a post-graduate qualification. The problem for most is the cost involved in securing this opportunity. To guarantee regular meetings of this kind would involve at least one of the following: relocating, expensive transport, or taking time away from work. And that is before paying the actual tuition fees.
These obstacles have meant that for many years now some people have chosen to opt for distance learning. The Open University has successfully run a great range of courses, enabling individuals to study remotely for almost forty years now. Similarly, Warwick Business School began offering its Distance Learning MBA twenty-five years ago, well before the advent of the internet. Ray Irving, Head of Learning Resources Development for Warwick Business School, explains: “It was correspondence based. Students would send in their assignment, we would then post it out to a tutor to mark. The main problem was the six-week turnaround for getting students their feedback.”
Nowadays the internet has streamlined this process significantly: “Students upload their assignments to our internally developed learning management system, my.wbs. If their tutor is online they could get a response within a couple of hours. The longest they have to wait is two weeks.” Essentially this is an advance in administration but Ray insists the benefits of this should not be underestimated; business men and women, short on time, are looking for efficient and effective systems by which they can manage the workload involved in an MBA and receiving feedback on their assessment before they begin the next module enhances their learning experience.
In some ways it is better than a traditional seminar because the tutor can find out exactly who understands and who doesn’t.
Access to a well-stocked online library as well as the growing archive of learning resources produced by WBS itself, again proves incredibly useful: “I do wonder how our distance learners wrote their dissertations when this was not available.” Ray heads a team of nine who are responsible for increasing the bank of teaching material available. They work with academics, who are well accustomed to using diagrams and demonstrations in the lecture theatre, in order to create animated podcasts and detailed lecture presentations to add to the archive.
Understandably some academics are wary about the advances that are taking students away from the lecture theatre; part of Ray’s job is to manage this transition. “There has been a sea change in the last three years. There is no stopping things now - I was on QIK the other day and noticed that someone was using their mobile phone to stream their graduation ceremony live here at Warwick because their parents could not travel to the UK.”
Often the lecturers are not necessarily technophobes but feel slightly uncomfortable that they are being removed from the traditional lecture theatre environment with its close physical proximity to students, which may be a fulfilling and rewarding part of their job. Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. There are sophisticated platforms that are being developed to facilitate webinars, which basically enable exactly the same types of interaction as if the group were physically in a room together. The academic can deliver a lecture live, using a webcam with presentation slides appearing alongside in the browser window. Students join a chat room so that they can ask questions as well as submit answers to problems set for the class: “In some ways it is better than a traditional seminar because the tutor can find out exactly who understands and who doesn’t. Furthermore the group can be split into smaller groups to work through problems as a team.” Suddenly distance learners find themselves learning with the rest of their cohort, getting to know their fellow students and benefitting from the networking opportunities intrinsic to studying for an MBA.
Academic tutors monitor the forums and ensure that all queries are answered but they are trained to assess when their personal response is required...
In order to foster these relationships there has been one more innovation to the teaching practices. Students are encouraged to post questions or issues on group forums. Academic tutors monitor the forums and ensure that all queries are answered but they are trained to assess when their personal response is required: “Sometimes it is better if the tutor holds off and lets the student respond instead. We want to encourage peer-to-peer interaction as much as possible.” They do get the opportunity to meet in person; every September there is an intensive eight day residential course in Warwick but the hope is that these relationships are then sustained using my.wbs' collaborative technologies.
For the Facebook generation the necessity of the various online platforms that have been developed for the MBA is clear. Social media sites have trained them in the etiquette of online communication. Furthermore nothing new or unfamiliar has actually been invented; all the ways of learning are exactly the same but have just been transferred to a digital location. Developing the platforms over the last ten years has not been this simple for Ray, however: “I used to have to spend a lot of time supporting individuals and teaching them how to do things like download Flash to watch an online video interview of a guest speaker for example. There are far fewer individuals requiring that kind of tuition now as the technology is, on the whole, seamless.”
Submitting assignments online, participating in monitored forums and attending webinars would probably benefit students on all courses, not just those on an MBA. The real barrier to other course providers following suit is expense. As already mentioned, nine full-time workers produce the learning resources and advanced technology does not come for free. “For us it is an absolute necessity,” explained Ray.” It is expected by the applicants to our MBA and, at the moment, my.wbs and the fact that it has been built by WBS' software developers to meet the specific needs of WBS students differentiates us from the competition.” One would assume that it is only a matter of time before the same factors motivate other university departments to move in this direction, regardless of resistance to change.
Ray Irving is Head of the Learning Resources Development team at Warwick Business School (WBS) which develops learning resources for all of WBS' 2,500 MBA students located in 100 different countries across the globe.