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A portal model for interactive learning: business education.


This paper examines course development in a business education class that provides students with interactive learning opportunities based on team projects and cross-curricular learning activities implemented in an academic Web portal space. This teaching and learning model enables students to conduct research using online business databases, analyze their research in teams, and then publish the results of their analysis on the World Wide Web via the academic portal.

Introduction: Challenges in Business Education

As we move into the 21st century, organizations are attempting to manage and make sense of an "internetworked" world where information technology (IT) refuses to slow its growth, or neatly arrange the information overload it produces. In their 1999 article about databases, Larson and Levine report that as many business managers strive to ensure their investments in IT produce useful information for business decisions, they voice the common complaint that their companies are "data rich and information poor" (p.8).

Several real world examples serve to illustrate the difficulties in managing and sharing knowledge in the workplace. In a white paper they published in 2000, Klynveld, Peat, Marwick, Goerdeler (KPMG) surveyed executives and managers from 423 businesses (with revenues of at least $300 million dollars) in Europe and the United States about their company's initiatives in the Knowledge Management (KM) arena. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents felt that KM could play a "very significant" role in improving their company's competitive advantage in the marketplace. At the same time, 65 percent of the respondents reported that they suffered from information overload; 62 percent said that their employees wanted to share knowledge, but do not have the time; and 55 percent reported that their employees are not using the technology available to them on the job to share knowledge effectively.

Losses suffered by companies when knowledge is not shared or retained are illustrated by a recent interchange between the Russian government and International Harvester. Silver (2000) reported that Russian officials approached the company about building a new truck factory: "The Russians chose Harvester because it had built a plant in Russia 20 years earlier. But what the Russians had remembered, Harvester had 'forgotten'--there wasn't a single soul still in the organization who knew anything about the previous project" (p.28).

These examples highlight the fact that colleges and universities need to foster teaching and learning environments in which students develop the skills they need to manage, share, and use technology more effectively. Students matriculating in a business education curriculum need to be conversant in both information technology and sound managerial practices that promote effective decision-making within a business organization. These students need to:

1) learn and adopt new models for using technology to manage the information overload facing organizations today;

2) improve their ability to access, analyze, and synthesize such information;

3) increase their ability to distill information into manageable categories; and

4) develop skills for integrating that information into effective business decisions.

But how can faculty best teach both IT and knowledge management skills? One promising approach is that of active, collaborative learning. We know that students learn best when they are actively involved in the process. McKeachie reported in 1999 that students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is being taught, retain this knowledge longer, and express greater satisfaction with the learning experience than when the same content is presented in another instructional format. But McKeachie (1999) also points out that stimulating active learning and setting up functional small groups in a large class is a particular challenge.

This article describes an innovative project currently underway at the Isenberg School of Management (The Isenberg School) of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst), a project that responds to the aforementioned challenges. First, we will outline the evolution of SOM 210, Introduction to Business Information Systems (SOM 210), a large lecture course of 270 students per semester that includes small group projects and is designed around an academic implementation of Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server 2001 software. Second, we will report on pre- and post-assessments of student satisfaction and learning. Finally, we will summarize lessons learned in developing active, collaborative learning in a technology-rich environment.

Course Design: Delivering Course Content Through An Academic Web Portal

When taught in previous semesters, SOM 210 focused on students learning how to use specific software applications (e.g., Microsoft Word). In response to the need for students to acquire higher-level information processing skills, SOM 210 was redesigned and new learning outcomes were established. These learning outcomes were developed with the goal of enabling students to:

1) manage information maintained in commercial business databases;

2) access, analyze, and synthesize such information (knowledge management);

3) distill information into manageable categories;

4) develop the skills needed for integrating that information into effective business decisions;

5) master problem solving skills;

6) use communication and presentation skills; and

7) learn to work productively with others.

In order to accomplish these outcomes, a series of weekly lab assignments requiring three-member teams to conduct online research were created. SOM 210 students working in these teams accessed various business databases leased by the W.E.B. Dubois Library on the UMass Amherst campus. At the beginning of the semester, each team chose one particular company to study. During the remainder of the semester, team members examined all aspects of their chosen company's management strategy and financial performance by conducting journal research, gathering current statistics on key company performance indicators, and downloading historical company financial statements.

For example, one lab assignment required students to develop a dataset of annual key performance indicators (KPI) for the company they researched as well as other companies that compete in the same domestic market. Students used the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) code for their company to query Mergent Inc's FISonline database. The results of their query produced an Excel spreadsheet containing the KPI (total revenues, total assets, total liabilities, and stockholder equity). This spreadsheet was later used by students to analyze company performance, and was published to their team's workspace in the academic portal. Whereas the lecture and readings provided information about KPI and relevant information systems, the process of collaboratively completing the lab assignment enabled students to develop KM skills.

The academic Web portal used in SOM 210 could be customized by each student team. Students could include up-to-date resources from a range of sources. The portal provided access to information such as news and stock quotes from MSN and other sources, as well as student news and scheduling information. For the SOM 210 course, the portal identified the eight information systems (IS) related topics covered during the semester, with assigned online readings for each topic. The readings were selected by the instructor from the thousands of online journal subscriptions provided by the UMass Amherst Libraries. By using the SharePoint portal, the problem of outdated and expensive IS textbooks was solved.

The academic Web portal enabled students to establish separate password secured workspaces on the portal for each working team. Lab assignments call for each team to research specific companies using the online databases and to archive URLs of Web sites visited and other resources in their team workspace. At the end of the semester, each team used its saved work to create a group presentation using PowerPoint. In addition, each student was responsible for writing an individual paper detailing the research they conducted.

Team lab assignments require interdependence amongst students, are relevant to the course learning outcomes, fit the students' skills and abilities, allow for a fair division of labor, and assimilate different learning activities experienced in the lecture and lab components of the course. Lab assignments in SOM 210 are designed specifically to facilitate learning activities to acquire computer technology skills, effective information research, and business decision-making strategies.

In today's corporate environment, portals provide a Web-based single point of access with which corporations can bring order to the deluge of information they face, and deliver the information their employees need to be successful in the day-to-day operations of their employer. When they graduate from UMass Amherst, most of the students enrolled in SOM 210 will work with corporate portals in the workplace to conduct research and collaborate with others. By gaining skills in portal use in SOM 210, students gain a competitive advantage when they enter the workforce because they will have been exposed to a major technology used in the 21st century workplace environment.

Assessment of Course Redesign and Learning Outcomes

In order to determine whether students met the established learning outcomes, a pilot study was conducted during the spring 2002 semester. The Center for Teaching at UMass Amherst conducted a pre- and post-assessment on student self-reported learning outcomes. Also, a technology use and teaching effectiveness survey was administered in the middle of the semester to gather student feedback on the perceived impact of the Web portal on their learning. The pre-assessment survey was administered during the first week of the SOM 210 class, and the post-assessment survey was administered during the week before finals to the same group of 270 students. In both pre and post surveys, students were asked to self-evaluate how they perceived themselves as a team member, their attitudes toward collaboration, their understanding of attributes of good teamwork, their computer/technology skills, and their library research skills using business databases.


The results of the pre- and post-assessments revealed that the integration of this academic Web portal helped build students' technology skills. The percentages of students who rated their computer technology skills as "excellent or above average" jumped from 43% in pre-assessment to 57% in post-assessment. Their overall team-building skills also significantly increased in the areas of goals building (from 30.0% at the beginning of the semester to 47.8% at the end) and trust building (from 8.4% to 17.4%). The percentages of students who rated their ability to generate investment reports as "excellent or above average" also increased from 22% in pre-assessment to 37% in post assessment. Their understanding of business publications improved from 19% to 37%; their ability to use library databases also increased from 16% to 31%, and their oral presentation skills increased from 34% to 45%.

The midterm assessment on instruction delivery and teaching effectiveness also resulted in positive feedback on the use of the portal for student learning. Students indicated in their write-ups: "The Web portal is useful and fun. I've never used just the Internet for a class; I think it is very useful and practical." One student said: "The Web portal for the class is excellent. It provides a vast amount of information and is extremely useful. I suggest more classes use them." Another student also observed: "I enjoy the Web portal activities. They allow me and my group members to use information online in order to complete assignments ... I enjoy working in teams during lab sessions."

With the successful redesign of SOM 210, the academic Portal is now being extended to cover the six "core/foundation" courses of The Isenberg School's undergraduate curriculum. In addition to SOM 210, these courses include: Introductory Statistics; Introduction to Financial Accounting; Introduction to Managerial Accounting; Quantitative Tools for Management; and Introduction to Business Law.

With this expanded academic portal content, students can participate in a mix of lecture/discussion classes and computer labs where they work in small, collaborative groups on team projects. Assignments in SOM 210 and other core courses were designed to facilitate learning activities to acquire computer technology skills, effective information research, and business decision-making strategies. These exercises enable students to incorporate the learned materials from one course into other core courses so they can start making connections between these subject matters in business education.

Lessons Learned and Conclusion

The pilot implementation of an academic portal in a core business education course enabled faculty to conclude that this innovative approach met, and in many cases, exceeded their expectations. Integrated learning was embedded in team projects, library research, information analysis and computer skills acquisition. Students were always actively engaged in the classroom and during the lab activities. In their study about web technology and instruction, Becker and Riel indicate that the integration of Web in instruction actually extends to more active learning assignments (Becker & Riel, 2000). In this case, the Web portal as a tool was used to facilitate students' competency in communicating, thinking, producing, and presenting their ideas.

At the Isenberg School, a significant increase was found in students' ability to work in teams, including a) understanding, supporting, and taking ownership of the team's goal; b) trusting the other members of the team, and c) putting the team's goals ahead of their own. A significant change was also found in students' abilities to conduct library research and to use business databases and investment reports. With the competency and collaboration fostered by using the SOM portal, the majority of students indicated they would recommend the course to fellow students and suggested that other university courses also adopt the portal technology across curriculum.

During the portal development and implementation processes, we have also gleaned a few lessons about what we believe require additional adjustment to ensure that this technology works in supporting student's active learning and collaborative projects. These lessons include: a) a need to strengthen the connection between content presented during lecture and the assignments completed in lab; b) a need to develop lab assignments to fit the time allotted for lab work; c) a need to take into account the work of every team member when reviewing and grading completed lab assignments; d) a need to provide timely feedback to students about the points they earned for completed lab assignments; and e) a need to improve access to online databases for students living off campus.

The results of these studies along with learned lessons from the past two semesters' implementations have led the way to the next phrase of the Web portal in spring 2003, which will include students at the National University of Ireland, Galway business education program, and the Isenberg School's MBA distance learning program. This new venture will transport the collaborative learning application using the Web portal model to a global setting and benefit business education on both sides of the Atlantic.


Becker, H. & Riel, M. (2000). Teacher Professional Engagement And Constructivist-Compatible Computer Use. Teaching, Learning, and Computing, 1998 National Survey (Rep. No.7). University of California, Irvine, Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations.

Larsen, T. J. and Levine, L. (1999, Spring). Information Technology at the Turn of the Millennium: Past, Present, and Future Trends. [Electronic version]. Database for Advances in Information Systems, 30(2), 7-12.

McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching Tips. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

KPMG Consulting, LLC. (2000). Corporate Governance: the New Strategic Imperative Retrieved from URL:

Silver, C. A. (2000). Where Technology and Knowledge Meet. Journal of Business Strategy, 21(6), 28.

Mei-Yau Shih, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Gino Sorcinelli, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Mei-Yau Shih is the Coordinator of Teaching Technologies at the Center for Teaching, where she works with faculty on integrating technologies for teaching and learning in the classroom. Gino Sorcinelli is a faculty member in the Accounting and Information Systems Department, and Director of Computer Resources in the Isenberg School of Management (The Isenberg School).
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Author:Sorcinelli, Gino
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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