Rethinking IT

When it comes to computers and business schools, is it possible that more isn’t always best? Jason Frand of the Anderson School at UCLA considers the effects—good and bad—of technology’s ever-increasing ubiquity.
Rethinking IT

For more than two decades, Jason Frand has been monitoring the use of computers on business school campuses. With a doctorate in mathematics and more than 20 years’ experience teaching statistics in the MBA program at the Anderson School at the University of California in Los Angeles, Frand has conducted 16 surveys on the use of computers in business schools. In addition to serving as Anderson’s assistant dean and director of computing services, he conducts research, writes articles, and gives presentations on the effects of technology on the way people live and learn.

The news on the IT front is not all positive, Frand says. With so much information at their fingertips online, and so many demands on their attention via e-mail, pagers, and cell phones, people have developed a sense of immediacy that often overrides their sense of what’s important in their lives. Frand has long contemplated the role technology will play in the ways business schools present themselves to the student consumer. In his theory of the “Information Age mindset,” he points out that the effects of technology, present and future, could have unforeseen consequences if it is not managed with care.

What prompted you to start surveying deans about technology?
In 1980, my dean suggested I find out what some other business schools were doing with technology. Two weeks later, I got a call from someone at Washington University in St. Louis, saying, “We’re surveying a dozen schools to see what’s going on.” Then, I got a call from someone at Berkeley, saying, “We’re surveying a dozen schools.” So I said, “Why don’t you give me your lists?” I ended up with a list of about 30 schools, and we published a little report in 1981 or 1982.

In 1984, I got a call from some people at IBM, who explained that the company would be doing some activity with business schools and would like a copy of our survey. When I told them it was four years old, they asked me to give them a proposal to update it. So I did the “first annual” survey in 1984. After that, someone whose school was not included approached IBM and asked why we didn’t do a survey of all the schools. So our next survey included all the AACSB-accredited schools, about 250 at the time. In 1993, for our tenth survey, I expanded it to all member schools, using a worldwide list.

Since then, you’ve expanded the survey to include hundreds of schools worldwide. What have you found most interesting about the evolution of computers in business schools?
In the early years of the surveys, we were tracking the number of faculty members per computer. At that time, the most well-endowed schools might have two faculty members per computer, whereas the less well-endowed schools would have ten faculty members sharing a computer. When we looked at the graphs over time, the more well-endowed schools went to one faculty member per computer more quickly.

However, even more important was that the schools that got them earlier and the schools that got them later did not tend to do different things. The well-endowed schools were all doing e-mail, spreadsheets, simulations, word processing. It’s not that some schools got a five-year head start, and so, were doing something phenomenally different from schools that got computers five years later.

The surveys have not shown any educational breakthrough that enables schools to differentiate themselves based on the use of technology. Rather, there has been a sea change in which everybody has benefited from the introduction of technology.

For example, when I first taught statistics in 1969, it was unheard of to give students a large amount of data to work with. In fact, there was a debate about whether or not to allow students to use calculators because one side felt it discriminated against those who could not afford them. A simple four-function calculator, which could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, cost $75. So you gave students unrealistically simple problems with four or five numbers to practice calculating statistics. If you gave them dozens of numbers, you had to send them to a lab that had a calculator.

Today, everybody can use Excel and do basic descriptive statistics with huge realistic data sets. So all students— whether they’re attending the richest or the poorest school—have benefited from the ability to gain insights into a very fundamental, computationally oriented process.

Word processing and PowerPoint enable people to manipulate ideas in ways that are very different from what they could do in the past, and that’s something that is available everywhere. That’s not to say that every school has access to things like Dow Jones—that’s very expensive. But the basic technology is available to everyone.

Many business schools are emphasizing the role of wireless technologies in their course delivery. Is this necessarily a positive trend?
I identify a series of attributes of what I call the “Information Age mindset,” which is very, very different from the mindset of students a few years ago.

For example, students look at computers as if they aren’t even technology; they’re just a normal part of the environment, like the telephone or the automobile. They look at the concept of connectivity—of wanting to be connected all the time—as part of the normal set of expectations as a user. Constantly carrying your cell phone, your beeper, your Palm Pilot is just a normal part of the behavioral environment.

It’s the whole idea of staying connected, of doing rather than knowing. It’s all about what you can produce, not what you know. Bill Gates, for example, represents a whole generation of professional managers who say, “I’m going to go out and make my money, not necessarily going through the normal processes of school.” That adds tremendous pressure to the faculty to deliver only immediate stuff, cutting out much of the theoretical stuff.

There is now also a consumer-creator blurring, the dimension between what I created and what someone else has created that I just used. Students go out to the Web and just copy information as if it is their own intellectual idea. And when they try to assemble it they may or may not do a good job of pulling it together into a thoughtful piece.

At a conference I recently attended, I interviewed a group of librarians. They noted that a major, growing concern is that students are failing at critical thinking, at the task of working ideas through from point zero to end. There’s zero tolerance for delays. They would like everything to happen instantaneously. They don’t want to go through large amounts of ambiguous data; they want the regurgitated “journalistic” form of the news. They want to make their decision and draw their conclusion from the abstract, not the whole article.

The wireless technology plays into this mindset. It puts a whole different set of pressures on business schools to put material in a different format for a different mental mindset than previous generations had.

Must business schools cater to this mindset to survive in a competitive marketplace? Or should they still emphasize theory, for students’ own good?
The challenging question you’re asking is that, as students come in with the different orientation toward education, viewing education as a consumer rather than as a learning partner, what is the responsibility of schools to respond? How do we say to students that it’s “for your own good” that we take you through this theoretical journey, rather than the practical journey, when there are all these models for acquiring information outside the traditional formats?

In the long run, that kind of short-term orientation is dangerous. I remember being asked, “If everybody is learning in a Nintendo environment, will there be people able to run computers in the next generation?” Will we be able to prepare a generation of technologists, when the systems, which seem simpler for users, are becoming more complex and difficult to work with under the covers? Will we have the skill set to manage that level of complexity? Those are challenging questions.

What current developments in computer use for education do you find most intriguing?
The technology of PDAs and laptops is well established. Now the questions are, How do we evolve student and faculty behavior to get the maximum benefit from them? How do we identify the most appropriate uses of technology in and out of the classroom?

The letter that Anderson sent to our entering students this year was quite different from those in the past. In last year’s letter, it told students, “You’re required to have a laptop to be used extensively throughout the program.” This year, we say, “You’re required to have a laptop. In some classes you’re not going to use it at all; in some classes we’re going to use it minimally, and in others more extensively.” So, emphasis on using the laptop in the classroom has substantially diminished. It’s appropriate in some settings and inappropriate in others.

We have some faculty who have been extremely successful with laptops. They bring it in at different points of their lectures and make it a dynamic and powerful tool. It adds insight into the concept that they’re discussing.

For example, we have a marketing professor who uses what he calls “the hourglass method.” When he introduces cases, he tells students, “Let’s start very broadly.” He talks about the broad issues in a particular case. Then, he works them down to the question, “What is the decision that has to be made?” At that point, he invites them to bring out their laptops and use the data made available for the case to gain insights into the decision that needs to be made. He then gives the students a few minutes in class to do their analyses, find the best situation, pull that information up, display it in class, and discuss it. He calls it the “hourglass method” because he starts out broad, then narrows their focus to the data, and finally returns to a broad discussion.

We have another professor who uses Web technology to help students understand the company in the clearest context. Students look not only at a company’s Web site, but also at its competitors’ and suppliers’ Web sites. This exercise helps students understand that these companies don’t work in an isolated world. They look at these models to understand how organizations work.

The wireless world is setting up an expectation that you can get to any information anytime. However, in an educational setting, we must decide where the technology fits best and where it doesn’t belong. In many cases, our job is to teach the students how to decide which information they should be getting, not just providing it to them. We’re trying to get closer, not just to understanding, but to enforcing a culture that says that there are some places where we just don’t use the technology.

Three years ago, the default was to plug in your computer. If the faculty didn’t want you to use it, they would ask you to not use it. We’ve changed that. Now the default is, don’t plug in your computer. The faculty will ask you to plug it in if they want you to do so.

How can schools best keep up with technological advancement without being overwhelmed?
We once did a graph that showed that mainframes came into schools over a 30-year period. Microcomputers came in between 1979 and 1989, moving from a point where they were not in any schools to being in 100 percent of them, essentially. Then we started looking at laptops and how quickly those have spread, almost overnight. And Palm Pilots have gone from nonexistent to essentially everywhere. So, these technologies are being introduced and worked into the system at an ever-accelerating pace.

As I said earlier, students don’t necessarily think of computers as “technology.” They are just some of the tools available for them to use on an ongoing basis. What we think of as very new and exciting technologies are just part and parcel to the tool kit that every student now expects to use. Can you imagine not having a telephone? For students it’s no different. They can’t imagine functioning without access to these tools.

But the new technologies are spreading very quickly. Managing them and figuring out how they fit into other technologies represent major managerial and financial challenges for universities. One simple strategy schools can use when introducing a new technology: Don’t be the first one to do it. There isn’t necessarily a first-user advantage with these technologies. The learning experience that comes with waiting may far outweigh the advantage of being first.