The MSc in Business Information Systems brings a diverse cohort of UK and international students each year. The elective course ‘E-business’ requires students to identify the main features of an e-business and indicate ways of using information and communication technologies to improve their operation. Previously students would write a business plan for an e-business or propose a process to formulate e-business strategies in a 2500 word assignment (50% of the overall mark). Results in previous years were mixed. Many students struggled with their academic writing whilst others did not see how the assignment would help them gain some practical experience. In addition, in the student evaluation questionnaires a recurring comment was that students ‘did not exactly know what was expected of them’.
Working with Students
The innovation this year was to enable students to choose their own assignment pathway in order to meet the criteria. Some students wanted to set up their own e-business in the UK. Other students were interested to see if they could go home and find out how e-businesses could work there or to find out what e-business meant. Based on these aspirations I proposed four generic assignment topics to students, asking them to suggest others. Two of the assignment topics required students to engage with real situations:
1) set up and run a business on ebay for at least one week;
2) visit a technology park (TechHub in the London Silicon roundabout) followed by conversations with entrepreneurs and analysis of one of their e-business ideas.
The other topics required less experiential but more analytical engagement:
3) analysis and evaluation of how an expert (Mary Portas) has helped high street businesses in the UK with a view to finding out how the idea of an e-business could help them;
4) a more ‘academic’ (traditional) assignment which involved describing and critically evaluating in depth one topic related to e-business that was introduced during lectures, or a specific subtopic of current interest.
Once these topics were agreed, we held a number of meetings with students during class. The content and expectations of the assignment in each topic was ‘negotiated’ and I tried to balance what they were proposing to do with the learning outcomes of the course. For instance, the scope of topic number 3 (analysis of Mary Portas’ advice) focused on the strategic analysis that she made in one business using elements of the course and evaluating the potential of information technologies for a future e-business. Negotiation was based on questions and answers, with some decisions being implemented in the assignment brief. At the very beginning of the process I presented some of the generic criteria used to mark the assignment in the previous year. I also asked one of the students to summarise and send me the result of negotiations in each meeting. I would then add my own ideas as course leader (to clarify what I expected) and then forward it to another student who would do the same after the next meeting. We did three rounds of email forwarding. I took the final email and produced an assignment brief which was then posted in Moodle. This brief contained a summary of each topic, what students were expected to do and a suggested structure for each topic. I then encouraged students to make up their minds and choose one topic - up to that point some students said in the meetings that they were still undecided.
In the last session I collected some written feedback in addition to the course evaluation questionnaires. The written feedback asked for answers to the following questions: How useful was the assignment? How would you improve it?
Overall, the feedback was positive. Students found the assignment more practical, relevant to the ‘real world’ and tailored to their expectations. They could also see how some of the course themes (e.g. strategic planning of an e-business) could work in practice and help them set up an e-business. During the assignment negotiations some students said that the assignment was ‘practical’ and engaging, different from other assignments they had to submit on the MSc.
In their assignment evaluations as well as during the negotiations some students suggested adding a bit more structure to the assignment (for instance being given a product to be sold via ebay). Some students would have liked more time, although I encouraged them to start working on their assignment straight away following the negotiation meetings that were early on during the course. Others would have liked to have more hands-on guidance on how to operate an e-business. Students who chose the first topic (setting up and running an e-business on ebay) were therefore encouraged to collect and share evidence about their business performance (in terms of sales, views, bids). Other students ventured to meet entrepreneurs and set up future meetings. They have now asked for external speakers (e-business entrepreneurs) to come and talk to them during lectures.
Student could be encouraged to reflect on their own skills and knowledge through the introducion of a reflective log as part of the assignment.
Students could also be given some hands-on experience prior to their assignment through additional workshops. This could include, for instance, a quick tutorial on the use and regulations of e-bay, a short video about TechHub or Mary Portas, or a small exercise on how to conduct interviews with entrepreneurs.
Some students did not contribute much to the negotiation, probably due to the fact that this was a new type of activity for them. The use of a class wiki could help students to share ideas and contribute to the content as well as oversee the progress of negotiations. I intend to take all of these ideas forward for the course in the next academic year.