The MBA Degree on Television: The Fusion of Teaching and Technology

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TIME Magazine stated, in its April 13, 1992 issue, "that a crystal ball is not required to envision the university of the twenty-first century; it is taking shape right now at dozens of universities." In a cover story entitled "Campus of the Future," TIME pointed out that Ball State University is one of those.

About 200 Ball State classrooms and labs have been wired with a fiber-optics Video Information System (VIS) with color monitors. The system enables professors to tap into the library's inventory of videos, films, videodiscs and other media. It is a result of a partnership between the university and AT&T, which developed the Teaching Environment Model of the Campus of the Future. This is an integrated voice-data-video network available to faculty, staff and students for the transmission of instructional information. Ball State has been instrumental in spreading the technology beyond its campus.

The January 11, 1993, issue of U.S. News & World Report discusses a partnership between GTE Corp., other technology companies and Ball State in which a rural Indiana school system is equipped with a fiber-optic network that brings knowledge from around the world into every classroom.

In addition, the university has pioneered the concept of "distance learning," which uses television to provide classes for students in special classrooms over the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunications System. This is a closed-circuit state-wide television network. The TIME article showed a Ball State professor in a TV studio-classroom writing on a stack of light blue paper with a felt tip pen under an overhead camera. His hand and the writing appears on the classroom monitors as well as on TV screens in classrooms throughout the state. This picture accurately reflects the excitement of television teaching. From its inception this has been a one-way video and two-way audio network.

The Key Word Is Interactive

Classes are taught in a state-of-the-art television studio. It is also a classroom attended by on-campus students. For the students at the TV sites, they not only get to see and hear the class discussion, but they can participate by using a "digital tele-responder." This is a telephone handset with a push button which, when depressed, sends the question or discussion into the studio-classroom and out over the entire system so that every class member can hear both the student input and the professor's response. Students receive live instruction rather than pre-recorded one-way lectures, and their ability to communicate with the professor during class is an important feature. This interactivity allows students to react to the presentation, ask questions and spontaneously contribute to class discussions.

The Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System (IHETS) uses digital compression technology to program channels that transmit the signal to the TV sites. A television signal is sent to Indianapolis through fiber optic circuits to be transmitted from a satellite uplink antenna. The satellite retransmits the signals to receiving antennas at TV sites throughout Indiana. These sites are located at corporations, hospitals, military bases, vocational schools, and some public and private schools. The cost of equipment for a receiving location ranges from $6,900 to $8,500 for a single-channel system.

During the 1993-94 academic year, courses in accounting, biology, business information systems, calculus, Chinese, economics, English, finance, genetics, history, management, marketing, nursing, physics, psychology, real estate, Russian and theater were offered on television.

A truly valuable service to Indiana is the opportunity for registered nurses without baccalaureate degrees to take the courses necessary to complete their education. But the area in which Ball State University is revolutionary is the program in which the Master's of Business Administration degree can be earned completely on television. That is how the author became involved in television teaching.

The MBA program is accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, and this accreditation applies to degrees earned via television as well. Courses are offered at over 60 corporate sites in Indiana, one in Louisville, Ky., and two in New Jersey to more than 330 graduate students. This program serves as a model for the entire nation.

Challenges of Teaching on TV

Television brings the classroom to the student rather than requiring the student to come to the classroom. Many working professionals are unable to attend traditional classes on college campuses because of time and distance. Television makes the MBA degree accessible to such students. For students, interactive television simulates the traditional classroom as closely as possible. For the professor, however, it is a different ball game.

For the graduate student with a baccalaureate degree in a discipline other than business, several Common Body of Knowledge courses must be completed before beginning the twelve-course core curriculum, and these are also taught on television. Financial Accounting, taught by the author, is one of those. This is a prerequisite course for those who have never studied accounting. Let's explore the special challenges and pleasures of teaching accounting on television in contrast to the traditional college classroom.

When teaching on television you can't use a chalkboard. There is not enough contrast on a green, brown, or black board for the characters to be seen clearly and they are far too small to be picked up by the camera. Even if the writing is large enough for the camera, the area is too small for sufficient information to be shown. Also, an overhead projector can not be used, for much of the same reasons.

Further, most overhead transparencies are long, or in portrait orientation, while the television screen is wide, or in landscape orientation. There is not a good fit between the two.

A related problem is presentation of subject matter. The worst thing that can be done in television teaching is to point a camera at the professor and let him talk. What could be more boring? We can conclude, then, that traditional teaching methods don't work on television.

This sounds like a great disadvantage but it is not. There are many wonderful teaching techniques available for television that are far superior to traditional methods. Let's discuss some of them.

Joys of Teaching on Television

A television classroom is like any other TV studio; it has a control room presided over by a director who makes the professor look good. It is loaded with equipment that allows the use of a variety of teaching media. Screen graphics, videotape, music, still pictures and computer presentations are examples of what can be used to enhance learning. There are few college classrooms that can equal this capability.

Let's be specific. Every text on financial accounting and principles contains a history of accounting, usually mentioning Fra Luca Pacioli, the Italian monk who, in 1494, wrote a book containing a description of double entry accounting. In my television teaching, I present this historical account by showing an excellent video, "Luca Pacioli, the Unsung Hero of the Renaissance." It is difficult to imagine a more interesting historical presentation than this.

To illustrate important points I designed TV graphics by drawing stick figures in pencil with messages relevant to the subject. A graphic designer turned them into cartoons, which the director calls up on the monitor in response to a cue. The possibilities for this sort of presentation are limited only by the imagination of the instructor.

Providing feedback for assigned homework problems posed an interesting challenge. Solutions for accounting homework take the form of journal entries, financial statements and financial analysis. In the beginning I had the designer prepare graphics to be shown on monitors. The problem was that only a small portion of any solution could be shown at a time, so students could never see the whole picture. A balance sheet or an income statement in four pieces is not very enlightening.

This difficulty was inadvertently solved by the publisher of the textbook for the course. It had problem solutions in the instructor's manual that were printed in large, boldface type that shows up well on the overhead camera. Placed under the overhead camera, the result is a solution on the TV screen similar to what an overhead projector can show. This provides a more complete solution for both the in-class and TV students to see.

For some accounting problems it is beneficial to develop a solution line by line, and in a traditional classroom this is done on the chalkboard. On television the overhead camera is ideal for this purpose. A stack of light blue paper is positioned under the camera in a frame, and writing on the paper with a felt tip pen fills the TV screen.

The professor, of course, d'es have to talk on camera. But interspersing the lecture with videos, graphics, pictures and problem solutions adds interest to a presentation with great capacity for dullness.

Even when lecturing, it is not necessary for instructors to remain stationary. Gesturing is highly desirable and moving about avoids monotony. The lavaliere microphone is cordless, and the director has no trouble following a professor with the camera. A sense of humor is appreciated and the professor should smile a lot. Glumness has no educational value. One should strive to be loose and informal. Students watching a TV monitor miles away will be appreciative.

All of this is important, but the most brilliant innovation for, at least, my teaching success is a software package from Lotus Development Corp. Accountants are not known for their artistic creativity. It should not be a surprise to anyone therefore that, as an accountant, my creative ability is limited. It seems like a miracle, but Lotus Freelance Graphics has allowed even me to be innovative.

An Accountant's Approach to Computer Graphics

It is truly remarkable what Freelance Graphics (and similar presentation packages such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Adobe Persuasion and Corel Presentations) can do. They all have templates, often called by other names, and they all have similar features. I will focus on Lotus' package, but remember that the concepts apply to other programs as well.

My starting place is the SmartMaster set (templates), and there are 66 from which to choose. Each one has 11 page layouts, such as the bulleted list, two-column bullets, 1 chart, 2 charts, 4 charts, bullets & chart, bullets & symbol, organization chart, table, and basic layout. If a presentation is such that a SmartMaster set is not the most useful, Blank is one of the choices. There is complete flexibility for building the presentation on a blank screen. However, by choosing a SmartMaster set, a great deal of imagination is not required. Also, the page layouts can be customized in many ways, including adding a company or university logo.

Freelance is equipped with 15 fonts and 545 clip art figures, which are called "symbols." Each SmartMaster set has its own fonts, but they can be changed at will to any size and style. The symbols can be inserted anywhere and adjusted to any desired size.

For the artistically inclined, there are drawing tools that make it possible to produce custom illustrations. One can use up to 256 colors to enliven any drawing. The result of choosing a SmartMaster set and filling in the various page layouts is a screenshow similar to a slide presentation. Like with a slide show, the presenter moves from one slide to another, but unlike a slide show, there are 35 transition effects to make such movement more interesting. My favorite is Curtains, which shows red stage curtains closing on the existing slide and opening on the next one. A time interval can be set to change the slides automatically, or they can be changed manually by clicking the mouse. Manual is the better choice when a screenshow is illustrating a lecture, because slides can be changed at exactly the right moment.

A good example is my lecture on internal control of cash, a very important topic for all businesses. It consists of six slides using a variety of fonts in various sizes and colors illustrated with drawings from the figure library. Figure 1 is an illustration of these six slides. They provide a visual backdrop for the following important points in the lecture:

  • Internal control requires a separation of duties between custody of cash and accounting for cash.
  • All cash receipts must be deposited in the bank.
  • All bills must be paid by check.
  • A petty cash fund is required for small expenditures for which checks are impractical.
  • Petty cash expenditures are eventually paid by check when the fund is regularly replenished.

There is a computer in the TV classroom on which Freelance is installed, and I just insert a disk containing the screenshow files. I bring the first slide up on my monitor, and when hearing a pre-arranged cue, my director puts it on the studio monitors and those at the television sites. As the lecture progresses, I touch the mouse button and each successive slide appears in living color.

There is an interesting fringe benefit from all of this. I printed the slides, copied them onto transparencies and used them in my Intermediate Accounting classes, which are taught in a regular classroom. Inkjet and laser printers can print slides and drawings directly on transparencies. My next project is to make transparencies with a color inkjet printer. Color transparencies will be even more interesting to the students.

Conclusions

The point of all this is that television teaching is very productive in that it provides educational opportunities for people far from a university campus, and extremely interesting challenges for those who engage in it. It is a lot of fun, especially when non-artistic types like me can use technological innovation to become creative. n

Arnold Cirtin is a Professor of Accounting at Ball State University. E-mail: 00alcirtin@bsu.edu

Products mentioned:
Lotus Freelance Graphics; Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, MA, (800) GO-LOTUS, www.lotus.com
Microsoft PowerPoint; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA, (800) 426-9400, www.microsoft.com
Adobe Persuasion; Adobe Systems Corp., Mountain View, CA, (800)833-6687, www.adobe.com
Corel Presentations; Corel Corp., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, (800) 77-COREL, www.corel.com

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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