“Connected” Learning: Brian Ray Deconstructs Online and Blended Education

Access to online learning is becoming more and more necessary for business schools to remain relevant in this increasingly connected world. Recently we spoke with Brian Ray to gain perspective on the rationale, benefits, and future implications of online and blended education.

Access to online learning is becoming more and more necessary for business schools to remain relevant in this increasingly connected world. Recently we spoke with Brian Ray, associate dean and director of the Heavener School of Business at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a facilitator of AACSB’s Online and Blended Education Seminar, to gain perspective on the rationale, benefits, and future implications of online and blended education.

What are some of the main driving forces behind the move toward online and blended education?

Cost and access are always the primary drivers that seem to be discussed in a variety of settings, including state legislatures and central administrations. I think pedagogical approaches are starting to begin new discussions in this area. But for the foreseeable future, cost and access—including access for traditional on-campus students—will be topics that drive the main themes around this issue.

What barriers stand in the way of schools adopting newer, more technological models of learning?

I think the primary barriers concern faculty reluctance/skepticism as well as the concern of many institutions that moving in a big way into online or blended education will diminish the reputation of the institution. I think concerns about prestige, as well as perceptions in the marketplace, should no longer be a significant concern among large public institutions. Hybrid/blended education is not as significant a concern at some of the smaller, private institutions, but concerns remain in that space with regard to undergraduate education.

How might more traditional programs be enhanced by implementation of online platforms?

Instead of using the phrase traditional programs, it may be more appropriate to use the phrase traditional approaches. For example, many institutions deliver introductory courses in a traditional sense and don’t offer significant access (e.g., microeconomics, management, marketing, business law). Institutions should consider asking themselves what prevents them from offering access to a business minor for every undergraduate student on campus. Online pedagogical approaches can be utilized to allow access to a business minor for all undergraduate students while at the same time preserving the class sizes of major-specific courses, thereby ensuring an intimate classroom setting that allows for a vigorous exchange of ideas.

Has the quality of online learning changed in the past decade? If so, how?

The easy way to answer this question is to ask a similar question: “Has the technology of cell phones improved during the last decade?” The answer to that question is a clear yes. Just as we now have a smart phones, we now have “smart” learning management systems (LMS). By that I mean we have LMSs that are much more intuitive and user-friendly. But more importantly, we have a group of students for whom technology is simply second nature, as opposed to something new to be learned. Today’s students are seldom “climbing a technology learning curve” at the same time they are learning new academic content.

What benefits do students gain from programs that offer full or partial online programs?

One significant benefit that students receive is simply greater control over their time and how they spend their energies during the week. If a student is able to watch lectures at a time of his or her choosing, the student now has the ability to engage in internships during traditional classroom hours throughout the week. Nontraditional students also have more flexibility with regard to childcare and any other activities with traditional “eight to five” hours. I have noticed that students in quantitative courses have less need for teaching assistants and office hours because an online lecture allows the student to push pause and watch a professor work a problem on the board over and over again, as many times as a student may need before she or he fully understands the material.

Are there benefits to employers seeking to hire graduates of these programs?

One benefit that comes to mind is actually not academic in nature. The benefit focuses on a student's ability to juggle many responsibilities. In the online program I administer, I have quite a few students who balance educational pursuits, a full-time job, and family obligations. To be able to do so effectively with a high GPA and strong letters of reference from a supervisor shows that this student has the ability to manage many responsibilities and be successful. It is difficult for a traditional student who is in school “full time”—and involved in student organizations—to be able to describe his or her abilities in the same convincing way.

Do you believe face-to-face class meetings will soon be a thing of the past? If so, how must higher education institutions adapt to remain intact?

Face-to-face class meetings will never be a thing of the past. But before I talk about the in-class experience, I often jokingly say there will always be traditional higher education settings (e.g., residential campuses) as long as there are parents with 18-year-old children they'd like to see move away! It's hard for many parents to imagine a more important and impactful maturation experience than three or four years on campus in an enriching living and learning community. Some environments simply cannot be replicated. A student can't have an online experience that has the same impact as a semester in Hong Kong. There's no way that West Point will ever offer an online undergraduate degree program.

Going back to the face-to-face classroom meeting question, the real issue is what the professor hopes to achieve by having students in the classroom. A vigorous debate of an ethics case happens much more effectively synchronously than it would on a discussion board. The same goes for a public speaking course.

Does online education present certain implications for higher-ed degrees in general; that is, do you foresee the degree structure itself changing based on new technologies and industry demands?

My initial thoughts are that new technologies and industry demands actually won't change the structure of degrees for the foreseeable future. I do think online education has made it tempting for some institutions to provide a high degree of flexibility in learning format, such that students might start a course whenever they want or take an exam when they feel ready, as well as other types of flexibility that are not part of a traditional fall/spring calendar. The challenges are many in this regard. Imagine a faculty member who has 200 students in a course in which each student is in a different place on the syllabus. Also, many students are just never “ready” to take the exam because of the various competing interests on their time. A set dates forces them to get ready! Accordingly, I think a calendar that provides some structure for faculty and students is advisable.

Brian Ray is the associate dean and director of the Heavener School of Business. Ray received his bachelor's degree in finance from Stetson University. After his time at Stetson, Ray went on to earn a PhD in university administration from Florida State University. Ray is also a graduate of Harvard's Management Development Program. In addition to his work in higher education, Ray serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He is a recipient of the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, one of the Army's most prestigious honors for company-grade officers. In his current assignment, Ray serves as the command chaplain for a unit of 37,000 soldiers and leads the pastoral care of over 100 chaplains. Ray served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning Bronze Star Medals for his service in those theaters of war.