Biz schools tune into technology

Chris Cobbs
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Ask a Rollins College business student, "What's on your iPod?" and the answer is just as likely to be "Clay Singleton" as "Fergie" or "Fall Out Boy."

But instead of pop music, what they'll be hearing from Singleton will be a lecture on financial-statement analysis.

"Technology is the language of this generation," said Singleton, 60, a professor in the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins whose classes, along with those of other professors, are recorded by cameras and can be accessed by students with iPods.

"They have grown up with video games, DVDs, cell phones and iPods. It's how they communicate," he said. "These things don't substitute for teaching, but they do enhance learning."

Like Crummer at Rollins, which is located in Winter Park, Fla., the business schools at both the University of Central Florida in Orlando and Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., are aggressively adopting new tools to prepare students for today's technology-drenched corporate environment.

From the podcast lectures at Rollins to online classes at UCF to a student-run investment fund using a Wall Street-style ticker at Stetson, the latest tools are carefully integrated into the education process.

"Being able to analyze data quickly and accurately is impossible without technology," said Bradley Braun, associate dean for academics and technology in UCF's School of Business Administration, which has 7,500 undergraduate students and 1,000 graduate students.

At Stetson, where the business program has 600 undergrads and 200 grad students, the latest business software is used in class. There are programs to study customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning (which encompasses accounts receivable and payable), along with general ledger and other functions.

"In the classroom, we try to reflect what they use in the real world," said Theodore Surynt, associate dean and professor of information systems. "As new software comes out, we adopt it."

Stetson is also aggressive in updating the hardware used by students. Many of the computers in its labs are replaced yearly, Surynt said.

At Rollins, where the business school is observing its 50th anniversary, classroom technology is also updated regularly, said Crummer dean Craig McAllaster.

Each student works on a laptop connected wirelessly to the campus network, while teachers at a podium can project charts and financial data on flat-panel screens at the front of the classroom.

Even the configuration of classroom seating is taken into account. Some rooms now have a crescent-shaped arrangement, updating the horseshoe configuration in others. The goal: keeping students in proximity to each other and the teacher to increase the intimacy of discussions.

"I think about technology on a weekly basis," he said. "I'll put the technology in our classrooms against anybody's for improving the process of learning."

In a break room with soft drink and snack machines, students can't escape technology -- or the urge to crunch the latest numbers. The room is equipped with three wide-screen monitors that allow students to whip out their laptops and, as a group, review presentations and spreadsheets.

Technology has come a long way from the 1960s, when McAllaster and peers of a similar age at UCF and Stetson had to access computers with stacks of punch cards to solve financial problems.

"Today's world is exploding exponentially with information, so you'd better know how to mine it and use it," he said. "Technical competence helps you to be a better manager and leader."

Teachers at Rollins and UCF rely on computers to test students' mastery of course material and technical competence, though some professors at Stetson stick with hand-written exams.

Technology can play an interesting role in the process of grading exams. At Rollins, for example, Singleton dictates notes into a computer and attaches them to each student's exam when he's finished with it, so the student can download it from the network and hear his comments after seeing the grade.

"I can be sympathetic, encouraging or use an admonishing tone of voice," he said. "I can talk faster than I type, and can save about 10 minutes on grading each exam."

There's no talking needed at UCF's computerized testing lab. Teachers post an exam on the system, giving students the flexibility of choosing when to take the quiz during a specified period of days, Braun said. The computer keeps up with a student's responses during the quiz and provides a grade as soon as the test is completed, he said. To thwart cheating, the system can assemble different tests for different students by drawing on a database of hundreds or thousands of questions.

"It also helps a teacher assess a student's understanding of a subject," said Braun. For example, a student's responses to a series of increasingly challenging questions on a topic like the time value of money provide insights into the student's mastery of the topic.

At Stetson, the testing process is decidedly more conventional. "As a rule, faculty use paper tests," Surynt said. "Most prefer essay exams, because they feel it gives a truer picture of what students have learned."

Still, the Stetson business school bristles with high-tech classrooms, none more impressive than the George Trading room.

It's part of the Roland and Sarah George Investments Institute, which allows students to manage a real-world portfolio. Founded in 1980 with a $500,000 donation from Sarah George, the value of the fund has increased to more than $3 million.

The lab features a Bloomberg financial terminal, identical to those found in many financial institutions, said Lawrence Belcher, chair of the finance department and director of the George Investments Institute.

"Students can pull up financials, analysts' recommendations and other data," he said. "They need this when preparing a presentation on whether to buy or sell a stock or bond."

Current events serve as grist for students analyzing investment opportunities. For example, students invested in a fitness company's stock after examining data on demographics, consumer psychology and Federal Reserve policy, along with the company's numbers.

Students exposed to the tech emphasis during the past decade seem to value it.

There's John Metzger, 52, a 1998 Crummer grad who's now executive vice president of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company Inc. -- A&P -- and who oversaw a $300 million replacement of the company's array of financial, payroll and other computerized systems.

"It's not just about information technology," he said. "You're also getting organizational and leadership skills. You learn to get in front of people and give a PowerPoint with sales analysis and recommendations on companies."

Then there's Colin Moffatt, 21, a Stetson senior from Toronto who said he spends as much as 40 hours a week in the George lab.

"I've been studying finance since I was 12 and this is my niche," said Moffatt, who chose Stetson in part because he wanted to be part of the group that manages the multi-million-dollar investment portfolio.

Students are "radically more prepared" than they would be if they didn't have access to technology, said Stetson's Belcher.

"If business people are using these tools, we need to teach our students to use them, too," he said. "Business education should mirror business as a profession."

And, sometimes, students can even enjoy Fergie and Fall Out Boy on their iPods as a little bonus.

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