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Revenge of the Nerds V: Business School Edition

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I'm a student again. And this time things are different.

Aptly described as an "MBA for Nerds," the Management of Technology program brings together faculty from the College of Science and Engineering, Carlson School of Management, and a few from other colleges. I'm in class one full day a week and the experience is revealing a few a-ha moments for me. I am humbled to be among very smart people--both students and faculty--and I'm excited about my personal growth. But being a student gives me an opportunity to observe some issues that can either promote or interfere with learning.

Good Enough

The first realization is that doing schoolwork at the last minute is not procrastination like it was in undergrad; today, it is simply a matter of efficient scheduling. There is not enough time to fit in school, work, family, sleep, and ... well, there isn't anything else. In fact, on the day this column will be published I will take a day of vacation to finish a paper for class. I struggle, as many students do, with two concepts: "balance" and "good enough." I define balance as doing as much of the things that are important to me whenever I get the opportunity to do so. The circumstances change every day and I have to get used to settling for "good enough." I am fortunate to have a great leadership team here in CLA-OIT and an understanding and amazing wife and kids that help me survive.

The Basics

My second realization is managing basic things can be difficult: intermingling four faculty, four syllabi, and four sets of expectations is not an easy task. I've witnessed students wasting a lot of time trying to figure out basic details like assignment deadlines and expectations. I feel a need to rewrite the syllabi into something much more streamlined and useful. In fact, for our study group I mapped out all the various assignments, due dates, class times, etc. into a single spreadsheet (remember, this is an "MBA for Nerds"). I know few people are wired to do things like this, so my message to instructors is please remember that how well you share logistical information with students can have a big impact on their ability to focus on what matters most--the learning.

But I also know faculty are as busy as the students, so I also ask how staff and IT people can provide better services in this area. Seemingly little things can improve students' ability to perform and succeed. Could a syllabus be turned into a shared Google Calendar with each assignment as an event with included description? Just thinking...

Course Management Tools

Moodle

Each of my courses has a Moodle site. (Even my third-grade daughter's class has a Moodle site.) But so far, they are just web pages with links wrapped in a convenient tool that manages access rights for instructors and students. It is important to have one place to go to get materials, but I am hoping for uses that are more effective for teaching and learning. CLA-OIT put an enormous amount of time into the Course Management System conversion project over the last two years (i.e., moving all courses from WebVista into Moodle); I am sure that we have many courses providing more than just online syllabi and powerpoint slides--maybe a future Reboot column can highlight some of the exciting uses of Moodle we have in CLA.

Google Apps

As much as we have not made significant use of Moodle, our study group is making great use of Google Apps. It wasn't suggested by faculty, but it is has been indispensable. Here are a few examples of how Google Apps have improved our ability to learn together as a team:

* Writing: Of course, we write papers together in Google Docs. Comments and synchronous editing are great for collaboration.

* Meeting: We all live and work pretty far apart so we use Google+ Hangouts for video conferencing a couple times a week. Not only can we see and hear each other, but we can share screens or work on papers as we talk. Instant setup, too.

* Materials: All of our class materials (readings, case studies, syllabi, and slide decks from class) are stored in a folder on Google Drive (yes, I downloaded them from Moodle and put them in Google Drive; efficient, no, but useful). This cut down on the need for attachments and USB flash drives.

* Schedule: We schedule all of our group meetings in Google Calendar. How did anyone survive without it?

* Notes: During class we open a Google Doc for joint note taking and use the built-in chat tool for asking questions amongst our group or sometimes the entire class. If it is available ahead of time, we can open the instructor's PowerPoint as a Google Presentation and use it for shared note taking, commenting directly to the slides, and discussion. This may seem distracting, but you can't expect everyone to pay constant attention during an 8-hour day of class.

Some drawbacks of using Google Apps:

* Those unfamiliar with Google Apps may have trouble changing habits like using Microsoft Word and emailing attachments. I'm working on them.

* Technical problems can be a major disruption to our flow if one of the members can't get into the document. There is little time to assist them during class or even outside of class. Few students will take the time to seek IT assistance from the U. It is getting better the more we use it.

* As above, wireless issues can be a huge problem for getting the whole group to work together. I've seen many students give up on connecting to our best wireless network U of M Secure. No instructor has time to help and students often just go without. Maybe there is a new service here that IT people can provide to a class early in the semester.

* Although our group has taken advantage of Google, students in other groups have not. Unless they are guided to it, many will miss out.

Still Paperless?

If you have read some of my earlier Reboot columns, you'll know that I am an evangelist for the iPad and trying to be paperless. I have been using my iPad, but I've realized that when I'm stressed I revert back to pencil and paper--especially for my accounting homework. Switching between a note taking app and an online textbook is possible but not convenient. Maybe I need two iPads?

Overall Conclusions

Since the last time I was a student, technology has made things different but not necessarily better. As I already knew, no technology alone can improve learning. What I continue to get excited about is the opportunity technology provides to improve or reexamine teaching methods--even the little things like syllabi.

I have more thoughts, but I'm out of space and, of course, I'm out of time.

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