Educational partnership is a class act

31 May 2004

The world of business has been profoundly affected by developments in information and communications technology. It should therefore come as no surprise that the methods of teaching business have adapted to take this into account. The commerce department of University College Dublin, for instance, integrates computing into its business studies course to such a degree that students are required to have a laptop computer if they wish to pursue their studies.

“Four years ago we looked at the academic model in place in the commerce faculty here in UCD and we identified two issues that were key to the learning environment,” recalls Martin Butler, Dean of the Quinn School of Business. “The aspects we identified were small group teaching and the role of technology. We believed that to resolve those issues we needed a brand new building.”

As is traditional when a university needs a new building, the department approached its alumni and the response was very encouraging. One of the first to contribute was Lochlann Quinn, Chairman of AIB, and his contribution is recognised in the name of the school.

The new building, which opened in 2002, was designed with ICT in mind. There are over 2,200 network points in the building and, according to Butler, every desk, seat and breakout space is wired for internet access. Furthermore, the entire building has wireless hotspots. This is a departure from the traditional model where computer access, irrespective of faculty, was through a computer lab.

“We adopted the laptop policy and began phasing it in from September 2002,” says Butler. “Every first year coming in must have a laptop. In the 2002/2003 academic year, 500 students had one. In the coming academic year, 1,500 out of a total student body of 2,000 will be so equipped.”

Because the University had no experience in supplying and supporting so many students with their IT requirements, it turned to Dell for help.

“The Quinn School of Business approached us in 2002 looking for a preferred vendor of notebook PCs to the student body,” says Greg Tierney, Product Manager at Dell. “We could see from the beginning that this was going to be different than the average project. It didn’t fit into either business or consumer categories; rather, it was a cross between them both.” Tierney also recognised that there would be other differences. Software would have to be standardised and, while there would be one delivery address, the company would be looking at 500 individual orders and payments over a very short period of time.

“We knew we would have to have a robust notebook, with a system where we could do bespoke software installations and we would have to deliver a training programme,” he recalls. “It was clear we had to adopt a long term partnership approach.”

According to Tierney, Dell recommended the Latitude range of notebooks. “This was the model we would usually offer business customers,” he says. “We chose a business product because consumer products tend to have a quicker refresh cycle than business products and it is important when planning something six to eight months out that you have consistency of product. Another reason we chose the Latitude range is that the wireless network circuitry is internal to the notebook so there are no antennae to break off in the student’s bag.”

Upon acceptance to the Quinn School of Business, students are informed of the laptop requirement and are given a special phone number and the URL to a special section on Dell’s website where they receive an exclusive discount. Students are under no obligation to buy from Dell, but, according to Butler, approximately 90pc of students buying their laptops do so. Dell configures the notebooks to the School’s specifications and delivers the notebooks en bloc to the school where they are tested and handed out to the students.

According to Butler, the partnership has worked well both technically and for the students. According to Butler, the students are happy with their laptops and there have been very few technological problems. The laptops are preloaded with Microsoft Word, Excel and Frontpage as well as with anti-virus software. Also pre-loaded is Blackboard, which allows educators to deliver content such as class notes to the students.

As a result, the entire classroom experience has now changed. “All that is left is for a student to do is to sit down, listen and participate. The whole classroom experience is now based around discussion. This brings flexibility to the learning process. For instance, in a class on companies, the lecturer can tell the students to access information in real time.”

Class dynamics have also changed. Breakout spaces in the new building have taken on greater importance, discussion forums allow students who might be shy about contributing in class to participate and students are expected to email in their projects. According to Butler, student feedback is very positive. “”The best measure of student interest is class attendance which is at an all time high.”

By David Stewart

Pictured are Martin Butler, Dean of the Quinn School of Business, UCD and Greg Tierney, Product Manager at Dell