Cell phone in one hand, class worksheet in the other, Chance Heath carefully completes a uniform residential appraisal report for his real estate investment class. Through swipes and clicks, he uses his smartphone to quickly access chapter notes, project due dates, and other course materials in Canvas, a cloud-based learning management system.
Welcome to business education, 2017 style. Three-ring binders, Xerox copies, and backpacks bursting at the seams with heavy textbooks have been replaced by miniature, everywhere companions – tablets and smartphones that can quickly access, store, and share information and facilitate learning from any conceivable setting (even on a highway at 65 mph).
“This makes class work much more mobile,” says Heath, a senior in entrepreneurship. “Now I can let my fiancée, Allie, drive and I can be in the passenger seat doing homework.”
The learning experience for Harbert College students of today is the product of many minds and advances, the result of continuous and purposeful refinement. “Technology has changed us, and we have changed the technology,” says Danny Butler, professor of marketing. “At the end of the day, we’re still talking about those same foundation theories of moving a product, making a product, financing something, customer service, doing the right thing.”
Want to rent a Cadillac?
Commerce education existed at Auburn University long before the formation of its School of Business in 1967. Auburn took its first tentative steps in 1869, when it listed a short course in business in its academic catalog. The course offered no credit toward a degree, but completion of its content in arithmetic, penmanship, bookkeeping, contracts, and political and commercial economy yielded a certificate of proficiency. A robust, modern business program didn’t begin to take shape until the end of World War II, when companies faced the challenge of satisfying pent-up demand for goods and services created by wartime shortages. As Butler explains, “a couple of million men [needed] something to do and we don’t have jobs for them in factories. We opened up higher education for them.”
In turn, the war effort brought changes to industry as companies began borrowing decision-making and procedural approaches that worked for the military. Fueled by industry demand and an influx of GIs in search of marketable skills, Auburn’s business education offerings in the late 1940s grew to include a variety of offerings in economics, accounting, insurance, real estate, marketing, statistics, finance, trade, transportation, traffic management, and labor and personnel management.
The small screen devices business students and faculty rely on today trace their roots back to that post-war period, as government agencies, corporations, and universities sought to improve on early vacuum tube-based computers. Univac 1, introduced in 1951 by Remington Rand, proved to be a behemoth in terms of poundage and price tag. Equipped with 5,200 vacuum tubes and tipping the scales at 29,000 pounds, Univac 1s sold for more than $1 million each. Not to be outdone, IBM countered in 1954 with the 650, the first mass-produced business computer, which sold for a more modest sum of $500,000. By 1956, the IBM 650’s CPU and power supply could be rented for a monthly fee of $3,200—the approximate purchase price of a fully loaded Cadillac.
Even after Apple introduced its first personal computer in 1977 and PCs began to pop up at K-12 schools and universities, they were more novelty than indispensable resource. “If you were doing a term paper, you wrote a draft and took it to a typist—and paid them to type it up in the correct format,” says 1981 graduate Mark Forchette, President and CEO of Delphinus Medical Technologies. “It was really cool if they had an IBM Selectric typewriter, because they had two or three fonts you could use.”
From VHS to live streaming
Those gradual technological progressions, from chalkboards to PowerPoint and Prezi, from stacks of hardbound textbooks to e-books, from card catalogs to Google searches, from the laptop to the tablet, haven’t always been warmly embraced at first. Associate Dean Norman Godwin remembers the first time students brought their laptops into his accounting classes. “I would notice other students looking over to see what was going on,” he says. “I often wondered if they were paying attention to me, or if they were surfing the web, or playing a game. It was a distraction for a while. Now, it’s second nature. That’s how they take notes now.”
Even the seemingly immutable components of the educational experience have been refined and reinvented. Consider the textbook. Do you remember building muscles carrying a stack of them from class to class? Now, interactive digital textbooks lighten the load and enliven the learning experience by delivering what 400 pages of static text cannot—animations, videos, and explanations via audio. Auditory and visual learners experience the best of both worlds, and the repetition doesn’t hurt either. “Suppose you have someone working out problems in a video format,” Godwin suggests. “You can watch it again and again as opposed to the classroom just once—and once you’re done, you’re done.”
The sheer ubiquity of computing connectivity has been the biggest game-changer for students and educators alike. Today, just about everyone is connected via some sort of portable device. According to Nielsen, 98 percent of Millennials ages 18 to 24 in the US own a smartphone. Miniaturized and movable tech isn’t just for kids, though. Nielsen also reports that nearly 90 percent of Americans ages 45 to 54 are using smartphones. Chances are your grandmother is using one, too, and not just to play Candy Crush.
Knowledge acquisition is no longer confined to brick-and-mortar classrooms at prescribed times. The universal nature of computing and the ease of connectivity overcome potential obstacles of time and distance. Says Godwin: “Education once consisted of us going to class.”
We certainly don’t endorse playing hooky, but digitization has ushered in flexibility with regard to course structure and content delivery. Take the evolution of what we now know as online business education at Auburn. In 1990, the College of Business entered into an agreement with the College of Engineering to offer distance learning courses for MBA students. Students would receive VHS tapes of lectures in the mail. If you didn’t understand something, it meant making a phone call to the professor.
And now? Harbert College’s online programs offer opportunities for real-time interaction between professors and students. If the on-the-go doctors and aspiring C-suite executives have work obligations that prevent them from joining live, they can return to the material at their convenience.
In 1997, 78 percent of public, four-year universities reported offering distance learning. Ten years later, studies showed that nearly 20 percent of all college students were taking at least one class online. “Technology is too effective now to require everybody to come to class all of the time,” Godwin says. “But there is something about class and the interaction you have with your classmates and faculty that cannot be replicated. Does online, for the ability to have repetition and logic, become very effective? Absolutely. Is it a complete substitute for the classroom? No. Online classrooms are here to stay, but whoever uses them most effectively will be the best.”
Hitting the learning trail
Business education technology stretches far beyond the e-books, podcasts, YouTube clips, and streaming video. Gamification—applying elements commonly associated with video games or board games like point scoring and competition with others—reinforces lessons too, but even that has evolved through a constant cycle of test, learn, and refine. More than 40 years ago, public school students in Minneapolis became acquainted with “Oregon Trail,” a video game that loaded them into virtual covered wagons and sent them on a simulated 19th Century journey from Missouri to Oregon. Students had to make decisions based on a variety of scenarios filled with perilous consequences, including attacks by strangers, treacherous mountains, and blizzards. A wrong choice might lead to the pixelated news that “You have died of dysentery.”
In business classrooms, the wagon trains have been replaced by other scenario-based games. O.C. Farrell, Harbert College’s James T. Pursell Sr. Eminent Scholar in Ethics, utilizes an approach that resembles “The Game of Life,” a board game that has made the leap to small screen devices. In his class, a student may enter life statistics and various choices—marriage or job—into a program. “Then you start making decisions in your job,” Farrell says. “If you make decisions that are highly unethical, you can get fired. At the end, you are graded not necessarily because you kept your job, but you have to write a paper about what you learned from going through your career.”
Better, or just different?
You don’t always know the next technological breakthrough when you see it. Fifteen years ago, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find an executive talking about the importance of Excel to business processes. And yet “it has become a substitute for Word and a calculator,” says Rafay Ishfaq, associate professor of supply chain management.
Digitization has changed the way companies do business. And it’s changed the way Harbert College teaches it. Look no further than the roll-out of its Business Analytics program in 2013 and the move to ensure all undergraduates develop proficiency in managing and analyzing data before graduation.
“When you are walking into a warehouse, or walk by a production line, it’s convenient to have a device where you don’t have to turn the page to record the information,” Ishfaq says. “You are drawing a representation of the reality around you. When we didn’t have enough information, the challenge was to gather information. Now, we are gathering information left, right, and center—and there is so much of it that a new discipline has evolved.”
Students are using the most up-to-date platforms utilized by industry—including Tableau, Python, Watson, Crystal Reports, and SAS (Statistical Analysis System). “There are technology vendors who are developing these applications, there are businesses who need these applications, and our students will be the leaders of the future who know how to use these applications,” Ishfaq says.
While digitization has made it easier for us to access, share, and store information, technology can only do so much for us. The “secret sauce,” as Forchette describes it, is to strategically apply the information technology enables us to obtain. “Technology allows us to make better informed data-driven decisions, but unfortunately, sometimes data presents a big, grey picture—not black and white. . . . It is important to study and understand strategic thinking and decision-making processes to be able to make the calls when technology doesn’t make the answer crystal clear.”
The goals associated with the use of technology have largely remained the same. We’re still making and moving products, investing money, and serving customers. The technological tools used to achieve those outcomes have changed, but what of the students who are learning how to use them?
“At the end of the day, it’s about having the ability to change your brain and to have something that wasn’t there before that you can understand, access, and then act on,” Butler says. “So are we turning out a better graduate? We’re turning out a different graduate. Before, they used the library. Now, they