Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 3

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Online Opportunities for Business Courses

Mikelle Calhoun, Georgia Southern University, GA

Britton McKay, Georgia Southern University, GA


Calhoun, JD, PhD is an assistant professor of Management and McKay, PhD is an assistant professor of Accounting in the College of Business Administration at Georgia Southern University.


As distance education progressed from correspondence courses, to tele-courses to online courses, the Internet has facilitated a richer educational experience. This paper provides an overview of some key issues for teaching online and explains a few unique opportunities inherent in the virtual learning environment when teaching, for example, business courses. The intent of this paper is to provide information useful to those considering teaching online or simply considering how the reality of our Internet-connected world should expand thinking about learning and the educational experience.


Online learning is a rapidly growing trend. From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of undergraduate students taking distance courses rose from 8% to 20% (Radford & Weko, 2011). Educators who ventured early into online teaching were charting new territory. While new software eased the burden of online course development, translating a face-to-face course to an online format is still a major task. Furthermore, administrators often do not understand that the lack of a physical presence does not lessen the work involved with the class (Steiner & Hyman, 2010).

Some disciplines are more successfully adapted to online delivery (Arbaugh & Rau, 2007).  For instance, the online realm is particularly appropriate for business courses given the dynamic nature of business issues and markets, the impact of globalization and the trend toward international sustainability. The flexibility of online education has also made it attractive to many working business students (Pimpa, 2010; Steiner & Hyman, 2010; Lear, Isernhagen, LaCost & King, 2009).

This paper is intended to provide perspective on online teaching for those new to this learning environment and provide suggestions of additional learning opportunities in, for example, traditional face-to-face business courses for using the Internet and online activities. The paper begins with an overview of teaching online. The second section discusses the enhanced learning opportunities available through online application examples, student assessment/evaluation approaches and “live” experiments and simulations. The third section of the paper contains practical considerations regarding Internet information resources. The final section has conclusions and caveats to consider as education continues its shift to more virtual instruction.

Overview of Teaching Online

Online teaching is a fairly recent phenomenon. University online initiatives have varied significantly in both timing and scope. Several Georgia schools were quite bold when in 2001 they formed a consortium and launched an MBA program entirely online. Harvard Business School did not offer its first fully online course until the fall of 2005. That same semester Hurricane Katrina created a situation where online teaching provided a backup plan for teaching in the face of the hurricane’s destruction and disruption. Students and teachers can overcome restrictions of time and space online (Papachristos, Alafodimos, Arvanitis, Vassilakis, Kalogiannakis, Kikilias & Zafeiri, 2010). Courses can be offered anywhere to anyone with Internet access.

Many students initially choose an online class over a traditional class because of the flexibility and media richness of those classes (Steiner & Hyman, 2010; Daymont, Blau & Campbell, 2011). Interestingly, Steiner and Hyman (2010) found there was very little difference in student achievement between online and face-to-face classes. Being offered the option of either online or face-to-face, however, increased the student’s satisfaction with the course and, in turn, the overall evaluation of the instructor (Steiner & Hyman, 2010). An online course, though, is not just classes recorded and uploaded.

There are three foundational dimensions to online learning. The first dimension is the degree of reliance on the difficult-to-control online format versus the face-to-face structured format (Rose, 2012). Some faculty struggle with the loss of structure and include traditional, counter-productive concepts (Arbaugh, 2005). In 2008, Angelocci, Lacho and Bradley (2008) documented the adjustments and learning of Louisiana faculty suddenly forced online. Both faculty and students brought face-to-face course expectations to the online environment that caused frustration (Angelocci, et al., 2008).

The next dimension concerns the learning experience or pedagogy (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010), that involves the self-regulation by students in the learning process and the degree of student interaction (see also, Zhang, 2005). It is an entirely different teaching and learning experience, with different requirements and different means of assessment (Brower, 2003, Daymont, et al., 2011).  The 24/7 availability of material and the “open-book” reality of online courses give students more responsibility and more control over course material. As a result, pedagogy shifts to higher levels within Bloom's Taxonomy of learning, such as problem solving and independent learning. Once accepted, these changes can be very positive (Tse, Pun & Chan, 2007) and can promote a more thorough understanding of course material.

Student interaction within an online course presents unique challenges. Many business schools advocate group work, which cuts against the natural tendencies of students working online. Most students prefer individually-driven, solo online activity (Proserpio & Gioia, 2007). A “scavenger hunt” exercise to find and comment on the relevance of current events, specific data or other information on the Internet taps into the skills of most of today’s Google- and app-savvy students. According to the Department of Education (Means et al., 2010: xvi), “Studies indicate that manipulations that trigger learner activity or learner reflection and self-monitoring of understanding are effective when students pursue online learning as individuals.” Individual work should perhaps be the mainstay of the online course, but with careful planning meaningful student interaction still can be incorporated through use of discussion boards, chat rooms and blogs (Baker, 2011).

A third dimension of online courses is the asynchronous nature of the instruction. Traditional courses are generally synchronous and linear. The asynchronous online format is a significant aspect of the increased flexibility that attracts many students (Daymont et al. 2011). However, there are resultant scheduling complexities and pacing issues – for student assignments and for instructor grading. Clarity of deadlines and windows for taking tests is critical. Baker (2011) explains the asynchronous online environment requires the instructor to assume different roles covering pedagogical matters along with social, managerial and technical concerns.

Online education is a model for continuous improvement. There may always be problems with technology, or issues of cheating, plagiarism and student disengagement. The educational paradigm, however, is shifting. The potential for instructional improvements in online courses and through incorporation of online activities in traditional courses is immense.

Enhanced Learning Opportunities Afforded by Online Instruction Elements

Online learning allows for greater variety of instruction methods, accommodates the changing nature of students and aids in keeping course material current. In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Education published an extensive “Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”. Between 1996 and 2008, over a thousand studies were published about high school and college level online courses (Means et al., 2010). Interestingly, hybrid courses evidenced the greatest learning enhancement over face-to-face courses, surpassing even fully online courses. Incorporation of online learning elements in any class increases variety, thereby enhancing the learning environment and the students’ perceptions of classes (Arbaugh, 2005; Daymont et al. 2011).

Online coursework is well suited to today’s students. “Growing up with the Internet, it is argued, has transformed their approach to education, work and politics.” (Economist, 2010). Students who have been raised in this Internet age “now expect rich, interactive, and even ‘playful’ learning environments” (Proserpio & Gioia, 2007: 73). The lack of face-to-face classroom interaction does not present a hurdle to many of our students. Proserpio and Gioia (2007) explained that today’s Internet-savvy students are more accustomed to what they describe as “lonely” Internet searches. They find that search style valuable and desirable (Proserpio & Gioia, 2007). In our “blog-happy” world, student online commentary may be more easily encouraged than in the face-to-face setting.

Teaching courses online also facilitates both timeliness and relevance of course material, allowing for placement of topics in a broader, current context. Business courses are especially suited to the online format given the increasingly global context where all business is international and given the very dynamic nature of business markets. Current events covering topics from the effects of oil price changes on domestic inflation to a new technological innovation to a rumored merger of international firms can present opportunities for: (i) course concept application examples, (ii) “real world” analysis with course assessment or evaluation possibilities; and (iii) “live” simulations or experiments.

Application Examples

Providing a course online facilitates use of the Internet to access business examples in news and media sources as well as the websites of organizations, data services and governmental entities. Instead of a dated example in a printed text, students can be directed to Internet sources for breaking news or differing perspectives on topics. Discussion boards and chat rooms can enhance analysis by promoting commentary and interaction between students and instructors regarding of events in “real time” as they occur (Brower, 2003, Baker, 2011). True to the Socratic approach, students can learn from one another through postings and critiques of postings, which are recorded and may be graded activities.  The use of directed discussions with instructor responses, especially at the beginning of an online class can impact the level of engagement of the student throughout the semester (Lear et. al, 2009).

The online environment allows for inclusion of many traditional teaching tools; but removes the shackles of those “required textbooks” and mandatory lectures. Textbooks may be relegated to the role of “recommended, but not required” given the availability of much of the text information on the web. Lectures are easily converted to audio slide presentations, the review of which becomes discretionary. In true asynchronous fashion, students may listen to parts or all of each lecture at their convenience. Shifting traditional teaching tools to more of a status as “reference material” creates space for more work on application exercises that may enhance understanding of course concepts.

Evaluation/Assessment Opportunities

Evaluation of online education has challenges. While quizzes and traditional exams have a purpose, learning goals need to be different.  Assessing rote knowledge is impossible in the essentially “open” environment. Instead, tests become learning tools. Consider, for example, that an online multiple choice quiz may pull 20 questions from a large test bank. The average student will take 30 minutes to complete the quiz. If 4 students meet at the computer lab to take their quizzes together, those students will spend approximately two hours discussing the course material. Not surprisingly, the Department of Education (Means at al., 2010) found the learning value of quizzes in the online environment was similar to that of homework. The assessment value of quizzes is, however, limited.

When tests become learning tools, attention can shift to assessment activities requiring more application, evaluation and analysis. Business students can use current events papers to show comprehension of course concepts as they are exemplified in recent news. Annual reports may be summarized to identify and evaluate critical market circumstances or business decisions. Research on different financial markets can support comparisons and analysis. While every quiz becomes “open book.” Assignments based on current events should force independent thinking and limit the potential for cheating as each semester the relevant information changes. Reliance on real facts will also make those evaluation and assessment activities more meaningful to students.

“Live” Simulations and Experiments

A staple in some business courses has become a prepared simulation based on fictitious information. As faculty become more comfortable with online courses and virtual teaching environments, new possibilities develop for simulations involving real facts, in real time. Some finance courses already have stock market exercises. Alternatively, new marketing campaigns or investment announcements can be analyzed, projected and followed. Finally, real facts can be considered and evaluated for potential (though not actual) transactions Students can be assigned the task of evaluating the purchase of one firm by another. Students could also be assigned a research project based on a future employer (or company with whom the student will be interviewing), allowing for benefits from the assignment that extend beyond that one class.

Practical Considerations Regarding Internet Information Resources

Whether students are conducting research for papers or are directed to additional examples of important course concepts, the Internet is a valuable resource. However, part of the learning experience should cover appreciation of data source reliability. Students often lack the experience to know where to look and lack the ability to judge the legitimacy of Internet information. Proserpio and Gioia (2007: 73) commented that students “sometimes have trouble remembering the content of their Google searches, and recognizing trustworthy sources, to the point of even being able to distinguish between advertising and fact” (citing Graham & Metaxas, 2003). “Students have trouble evaluating information and do not have a critical attitude towards information on the WWW (sic)” (Walraven, Brand-Gruwel & Boshuizen, 2009).

Finally, an opportunity to enlighten and perhaps please students is through providing links to sources for information. Given the number of unacceptable Internet data sources, finding acceptable ones can be tricky. A basic Google search of something like GDP and a country’s name may “hit” on many links to unacceptable sources before listing an acceptable primary source of the information. Today’s students can navigate the Internet, but will benefit from instructor assistance analyzing reliability and cataloguing various Internet sources.

Some Conclusions and Caveats

A caveat or limitation of online courses and online assignments is the matter of expectations. Expectations can be a problem both at the start of the course and throughout (Angelocci, et al., 2008). Student expectations can be altered and managed. For example, a pre-course quiz in an online course can force students to review all course material at the beginning to insure general understanding of the online format. With online courses and online activities, clarity and transparency aid in keeping everyone on “the same page.” Instructor email, announcements, discussion board postings or chat room sessions can provide responses to student questions and reinforcement of the course format or assignment instructions.

Careful advance planning is more important for an online course or activity (Baker, 2011). Making the course more dynamic through involvement of “real time” Internet information does not mean a complete loss of structure or parameters. Advance planning also should incorporate consideration of the time commitment for both students and the instructor at each stage of the course. Advance posting of grading rubrics, course calendars, complete assignment instructions and Internet data source websites helps students better navigate online courses and assignments.

Online teaching is growing more prevalent and important.  It caters to learning expectations of today’s students and enhances the salience of the course material. Furthermore, the Internet is not just a potential teaching tool; it is a critical element in the fabric of today’s society that should be welcomed – flaws and all, into many courses, especially business courses. The ideas discussed herein are appropriate for both completely online and more traditional face-to-face courses. With the importance of the Internet in our daily lives it only makes sense that as educators, we should embrace its use in the classroom.


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