This past year when SDM students found themselves locked out of an elective course that they wanted because of over-enrollment, administrators devised a course format using distance education technology and techniques that allowed SDM students access to the course without putting extra burden onto the course facultyıs already stressed workload. Although issues of faculty workload and compensation at the Institute still need to be resolved before any generalizations can be made about the course as a model at MIT, SDM administrators learned important lessons about alternative methods of bringing value-added to a course that featured limited senior faculty involvement.
To paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton ad, when Rebecca HendersonEastman Kodak LFM Professor of Management at the Sloan School of Managementtalks, students listen. The problem is that more students than can be accommodated are signing up for Hendersonıs courses, particularly for her Technology Strategy (15.984) course taught to graduate students in the various core and affiliated degree programs offered in the Sloan School of Management at MIT.
With a waiting list of more than 60 students and subject matter relevant to graduate students at MIT who are likely to manage businesses with significant technical content, itıs clear that there is not enough of Hendersonor Technology Strategyto go around. Itıs no wonder given the kind of teacher Henderson is. Henderson, whose research interests include corporate strategy and policy, management of technology, and organizational change, is known for her dynamic classes in which she challenges students to articulate their ideas.
MITıs System Design and Management (SDM) Program, in cooperation with Henderson and the Sloan School of Management, is experimenting with a novel approach to address the problem of limited faculty resources that has ramifications for the way institutions teach courses aimed at industry, particularly using distance education technology. Faculty at top-ranked research universities whose research areas strike a chord with students and outside constituencies are finding that they are stretched thin with increasing requests for assistance and information. Research universities are also discovering that their industry partners are looking to them to provide more educational resources, which often translates into taxing faculty time further.
SDM program administrators created a course format in which SDM distance students receive the core of Hendersonıs teaching while not necessarily having direct access to her time throughout the semester. The alternative, which relies heavily on traditional distance education technology, includes using taped classes from Hendersonıs previous semester on-campus class and live, videoconference recitations with high-level graduate students serving as teaching assistants. The format also featured a two-day workshop on campus during which Henderson devoted herself entirely to SDM students who traveled to MIT.
For SDM students who had little chance of getting into Technology Strategy, itıs not only an attractive alternative, but as students in MITıs first degree program offered primarily at a distance, itıs also a format that they are used to and fits seamlessly into their academic experience.
"When the SDM office first approached me with this idea, I was excited," Henderson said of the new venture. "The SDM students are great students exactly the kind of students who should be taking tech strat and I was very concerned that they were not able to take the course liveı on campus."
With Hendersonıs approval, her regular on-campus Technology Strategy was videotaped in the Fall 1999 semester. Henderson, who actively moves around the room during her teaching and uses the blackboard frequently to map out ideas, had to be aware that she could only go where the camera could follow her and that all of her work on the blackboard had to translate well to videotape. Overheads used during the classes were archived for reproduction in course readers and for posting on the web for distance students in the following semester. Tapes were then produced and distributed before the Spring 2000 semester began. As part of the experiment, SDM plans to offer the course for three years, but will work with Henderson to retape specific sessions when content needs to be updated.
To give students contact time, Henderson selected two teaching assistants, Mark Wohlfarth and Rob Daniels, to discuss each class with SDM students in two one-hour recitation sessions each week. Wohlfarth and Daniels are logical choices for serving as teaching assistants, since both had taken the course and done superbly, according to Henderson. Daniels, a second-year MBA student, has worked with significant issues in technology and globalization for much of his career. At Andersen Consulting, he conducted extensive research into the telecommunications industry. He was exposed to the challenges of commercializing technology at Mercer Management Consulting and will be joining Lucent Technologies Global Leadership Development Program upon graduation. Wohlfarth is a second-year student at Sloan in the New Product and Venture Development track where he has focused on technology strategy and product development issues. Before attending Sloan, Wohlfarth worked for Lucent Technologies in a range of sales, marketing and business development positions for the European operations of Lucentıs Business Communications Systems division. There his work included developing and executing technology and product strategies.
Technology Strategy, which provides a strategy framework for managing high-technology businesses, is a popular one with SDM students. While it isnıt a product development course, it does focus on powerful analytical tools that are critical for the development of a companyıs technology strategy. For SDM students who come from nearly twenty companies including SDM partner companies, Xerox, Ford, UTC, Kodak, and NASA, the whole issue of technology strategy is crucial and has immediate applicability to their work.
Itıs Thursday afternoon, and before the recitation begins, Rob Daniels talks informally to on-campus students, checking the monitor as distance classrooms are bridged in. The largest group sits in Dearborn at Fordıs University Program Group. Because of the groupıs size, the Ford site comes the closest to mirroring a traditional class, except that their "teachers" are in Cambridge and the rest of the class is spread all around North America. The class is also enhanced by a web course management system that allows for electronic submission of the weekly papers, virtual teaming on the Web, and homework grading by TAıs on-line. Overheads are also posted on the course web site in advance of the class and printed out by the students before the class begins.
Danielsıs recitation is concerned with two key Technology Strategy conceptsappropriability and complementary assets. Appropriability is concerned with how easily knowledge of an innovation or a process can leave a companybecome appropriated. Daniels points out that traditionally patents have been the way that companies protected these assets; however, with globalization, patents may be the weakest defense. (Some countries allow companies within their borders to routinely violate patent and licensing agreements.)
Complementary assets are those assets necessary to translate an innovation into commercial returns and are said to be either loose or tight. In these definitions, a company like Hallmark Cards would have loose appropriability (anyone can make a greeting card) but tight complementary assets in its brand name (the Hallmark crown has withstood its competitors) and its ability to distribute cards through Hallmark shops, department stores, and supermarkets.
"Being a TA for 15.984 has been a wonderful experience. The students challenge me with their insights and ability to apply the basic Tech Strategy tools to their own industries."
SDM believes that this experiment has applicability in other educational formats including short courses offered at a distance to industry. However, although the experiment did achieve some modest economies, the primary problem addressed was how to extend scarce faculty resources, not how to produce a low-cost alternative to videoconferencing or to demonstrate new distance education technologies. The real gain was SDMıs ability to offer the course at all.
One student, second-year SDM student and employee at Honeywell in Minneapolis, has found that this approach worked for him.
"I am so happy that I am taking the class of Rebecca Henderson. She is a great teacher. The tapes do not diminish anything. Actually, what I do is the following: I watch the tapes, and take notes. Then, I read the articles and assignments, and watch the tapes again. When the session with the TA comes, actually I do not have any questions. Everything is so clear. Remember: the Sloan students in the taped classes in general do not have so much experience in industry as SDM students, but they are seasonedı second-year students and some of their questions are very, very good."
The format could be applied to other situationsfor example, faculty members in local community colleges serving as professional teachers for classes in industry but with a strong collaborative partnership with research faculty at institutions such as MIT. SDM is also looking at the possibility of its growing alumni base in industry serving as teaching assistants for courses directed at industry.
Student comments have been generally positive, but with some qualifications. One student felt that the course was unique and that there may be dangers in over-generalizing from its success. "Henderson is probably the best professor for this type of thing. She is dynamic and always interesting to listen to. My feeling is that most other professors may not be able to pull this off."
Another student cautions about the format and what may be one of the core competencies that a Technology Strategy should developthe ability to articulate a position. "You donıt get this in the tape medium. In my current work assignment, I have to be able to quickly debate strategies and implications. Being able to articulate is key to achieving the success. However, Iım also very happy to be in the course."
Itıs clear that as universities such as MIT move toward more industry partnerships, there will be pressure for top-rank research institutions to provide alternative forms of education, including lifelong and distance education models. This pressure could come in direct conflict with the limited time available to research faculty, particularly for "star" faculty for whom even more demands are made.
However, while SDM course format has been a success, the very real issues of faculty workload, compensation, and intellectual property need to be addressed as we move into a new era of partnership with outside constituenciesdiscussions that are on-going at MIT.
About the Author:
Jon Griffith is Director of Partner Relations and Administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also manages new distance education initiatives. Before he came to MIT in July 1998, Jon was assistant director for the distance education program at the University of Texas at Austin. UT Austinıs program won national awards for its use of educational technology in distance courses and for its innovative student services.
Griffith was hired to come to MIT as program administrator for SDM, the Instituteıs first degree program offered primarily at a distance. With the consolidation of LFM-SDM, he was named the combined groupıs director of Partner Relations and Administration. Jon can be contacted at: Partner Relations and Administration, LFM-SDM, MIT, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139.