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  July 10, 2000

Any-Time, Any-Place Study Suits
MBA Students in On-Line Finance Class

"I feel like a pioneer charting new territory," says Katherine Pancak.

Pancak has just finished teaching a graduate course in finance. The challenge for her was that she met with her 31 MBA students only once, on the first day of class. The rest of the six-week summer session course in personal real estate investing was held in cyberspace.

"We met only once to go over the technology," says Pancak, an associate professor-in-residence at the Stamford campus and associate director of the Real Estate Center, who had never before taught a course on-line. It was taught through WebCT, a website tailored to the needs of higher education, that allows the distribution of course material, discussions and exams to take place via computer. Pancak structured the course so that students could log in at any time from any place.

The class went smoothly, she says, though not without some technical glitches.

The first day of class, students were given two pieces of paper: a course syllabus and information on accessing and using the website. None of the students had used the WebCT platform before.

"We met to go over the logistics of WebCT and how they could access it," Pancak says.

"Just to illustrate what I mean by the pioneering spirit of it, I had worked this out to a 'T' and the day I got there none of the computers could bring up WebCT. I panicked, but soon found out it was a server problem," she says, noting that "UConn handled the problem quickly and efficiently."

Everything else during the course - lectures, discussions, readings, quizzes and two projects - was conducted on-line.

The course was divided into 12 topics, with two presented each week. For each topic there was a set of readings, lectures, designated Internet sites, discussions and a quiz at the end of each week. There were also two textbooks. Pancak says the lecture notes highlighted important points and gave students practical tips.

"I tried to keep the lectures in a conversational tone, even though they're written," she says.

Class discussions were held via bulletin boards. "I thought I would just get a comment or two - students saying, 'Oh, that's great' and 'I agree'," she says. Instead, there were "paragraphs and paragraphs - a lot of personal opinions and personal experiences being shared and students talking back and forth to each other."

Both students and instructor appreciated the flexibility of the on-line class.

"It's good to have a few courses that offer students the ability to be at different locations," says Pancak, "especially in our MBA graduate program where the majority of our students have jobs that do require some travel.

"To get my lecture notes, they could come on at two in the morning. I didn't have to be on," she says. A student whose job took her to London for most of the session, for instance, was able to take the course without a problem.

Pancak herself spent a week in Las Vegas at an academic conference: "I was able to attend the conference for the week and not have to cancel a class, still have time for a quiz, and have everything going according to schedule."

"The tradeoff," says Pancak, who usually knows every student in her classes by name, "is not having the camaraderie of live interaction with students. They miss hearing me discuss and get the nuances of the content."

Pancak says she usually logged into the class a minimum of two to three times a day, when she read the bulletin boards, e-mails, posted lecture notes or graded quizzes.

A quiz was given at the end of each week, with the choice of taking it from Thursday at noon to Saturday at noon. The quizzes were timed for 30 minutes and consisted of 20 multiple choice questions. "I know they can have their books in front of them while they're taking the test, and that's fine with me. I've built that in," Pancak says. "They would have to have done the readings ahead of time to be able to answer the 20 questions in a timely manner."

What's nice about taking the quizzes on-line, she says, is that students can get their grades instantaneously. "As soon as they're finished, they get the results and see what they got wrong, what the right answer is and why."

Although Pancak would like to teach the course again, she says she might take a more blended approach, including meeting halfway through the session and at the end. She'll make that decision after she gets feedback from her students.

Sherry Fisher