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Case study 11: International Business Programme, University of Greenwich

Overview

This case study brings together results from two main pieces of research conducted on two cohorts of MA/MBA students. Master level students are expected to engage in peer learning to support and enhance their personal and professional development. Through the application of Social Network Analysis (SNA), the relational networks of learners were mapped and analysed together with their learning preferences.

Our findings clearly show that relational networks are predominantly built among learners belonging to the same ethnical group. When focusing on students undertaking their internships, surprisingly no association between the relative positions in networks and performance was found. Research findings were utilised to highlight implications for the development of teaching and learning strategies enabling postgraduate learners to master viable transferable skills.

Keywords

Employability; Peer learning; Personal Professional Development; International Business

Describe briefly the activity/initiative/practice

In order to improve the learning environment for students on the programme and encourage the learners themselves to critically review their learning experience we decided to undertake an in-depth investigation involving different cohorts of postgraduate students. Specifically, two projects were carried out on two separate intakes of students, with both projects adopting relational view learning perspective (Marton and Booth, 1997).

Masters students are expected to engage with peers forming a community of learners in order to learn and develop relevant skills. Consistent with this view SNA (Wasserman and Faust, 1994) was used to map and analyse the relational networks of learners. Initial research was focused on understanding friendship, study and support interactions of learners. A specific questionnaire was aimed at both investigating students’ learning preferences and also understanding where students go for support (both study and personal) and professional advice.

As foreign postgraduate students come to the UK for a limited time only and have to acquire many skills over a short period of time, the challenge is considerable. The inability to rapidly adjust to the new environment with its unfamiliar approach to teaching, learning and assessment often results in low performance. When learning new material students tend to trawl the internet via Google as a first source of reference and in case of outstanding questions - by asking those peers who have covered this material already (we have two intakes of students – September and January). On a bigger scale, students tend to stay in their comfort zone by communicating with peers of similar national backgrounds both in the classroom and outside the university. We also found that culture engrained learning preferences often lead to strong patterns of ‘reliance and trust’ on the authority (in our case - tutors) by that under-using a valuable resource – peer community.

This was particularly obvious when we studied the network relationships of students on placements as part of the second project. In this case online interactions (comments on blog entries) were considered, together with a qualitative analysis of the contents of the messages exchanged. We found that concern about being wrong and an unwillingness to share views, prevented many students from actively blogging and cross-posting, resulting in generally low engagement and posts that were rather descriptive and lacking in critical thinking. With the difficulties of creating online relationship and the concerns about “being wrong”, no association between positions in networks and performance was identified, with cultural similarity (measured considering the nationality of learners) remaining the driver for the creation of relationships. However, if prompted by tutors, students did post and participated in blogging activities when given clear instructions.

What is the background /context to the activity/initiative practice?

The MA (one year) and MBA (two years) International Business Programmes at the University of Greenwich Business School are specifically designed to reflect the increased emphasis on multidisciplinarity, information technology and the international business perspective arising from today’s market developments. In both programmes to a different extent, learning and training is organised to meet employers’ expectations of integrating theoretical knowledge and applied skills. Teaching and learning is designed to train minds and also develop a range of intellectual and practical skills to enable students to become effective specialists in the global knowledge economy as traditional boundaries between sectors are breaking down.

Students undertaking the programmes are from different geographic regions, but predominantly from Asia. They spend a year in the classroom learning the foundations of international business and in their research are encouraged to specialize in one of the following areas:

  • General Management
  • Public Policy
  • Business in Emerging Economies
  • Consulting and Business Analysis

In the second year MBA students embark on professional internships, where they are expected to secure a job with management responsibilities and continue their learning in SOL mode to develop critical reflective skills.

What made/makes it "Master's" level?

Holders of a Master’s qualification are expected to be ready for employment. Master’s students are expected to continuously learn independently and sustain their personal and professional development, whilst developing their knowledge and challenging their perspectives (QAA, 2007).

Masters programmes allow learners to develop their potential in a structured way compared to undergraduates, who rely more on the support of tutors and instructors. They are expected to be more autonomous and play a more active part within a learning community where professional development occurs by effective collaborative discussion (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999). The shift from a learning style based mainly on the tutor’s guidance, towards a more relational, collective one, where learners collaborate with fellow peers is a fundamental component of “mastersness” and ultimately professional satisfaction.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of "Mastersness" - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

Our research found that students often rely quite heavily on “authority” (tutors) rather than their peers. Moreover personal networks were often established only with peers from the same nationality, resulting in a split of allies based on ethnicity. In a global world, where culture is essential for management, this might generate some concerns which need to be addressed. This may well be because the students on the programmes are mainly international, and come to the UK for just one year, with little time to adjust to a new learning environment and the new expectations placed on them. For the same reason students establish connections with others who they feel they can “trust” on the basis of some cultural similarity. The development of more robust networks across ethnic groups would require more time and appropriate training for both tutors and students.

When focusing on the experience of students in internship it was found that engaging in online networks is a demanding task. Some students might require specific training on the use of certain tools and the cohort presented a lot of heterogeneity in terms of IT literacy. The technological infrastructure in different locations also varies, thus limiting the type and amount of activities which students could perform online.  Previous personal face-to-face interactions in classroom settings seemed to be a prerequisite for the creation of meaningful online connections. In researched sample students also rarely demonstrated the ability to engage in critical reflection. Specialist training prior to internships could enable learners to link their professional experience with relevant academic knowledge more effectively.

Acknowledging these issues should influence the development of new teaching and learning strategies of international postgraduate students, and particularly those courses which are delivered on-line.

Where to next in terms of "Mastersness" and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

Our study employed formal techniques to analyse the networks generated by students during their studies. Social Network Analysis has been already widely used in similar context and is perceived to be particularly useful in tackling the issue of exclusion from online communities of learning (McDonald et al, 2005). Integrating this methodology with an analysis of individual characteristics and learning preferences is important in designing a suitable learning environment capable of supporting the objectives of a master level course.

Postgraduate education in the UK is becoming increasingly international, with students from all over the world arriving to learn and develop their skills in trusted high quality UK academia.

In order to maintain this eminence and satisfy the needs of learners, cross-cultural peer trust and responsibility for individual learning and development needs to be further nurtured.

Possible initiatives could involve teaching teams engaging in a multi-style teaching approach and cross-culture curricula development (De Vita, 2001) and designing learning activities in such a way that students feel responsible for the outcome with tutors playing the role of facilitators (Yakavenka & De Vita, 2012).

International students can easily feel isolated and extra curricula activities could be instigated to encourage interaction with learners from different backgrounds, enabling students and tutors to effectively embrace the cultural differences, thus supporting the “development of viable transferrable skills and critical culture competencies” (Yakavenka, 2012:154). These initiatives could complement more specific training on IT and critical reflection skills for example.

Due to the extensive internationalisation of the activities of UK HEIs, it is essential that UK teaching teams have on-going professional dialogue with foreign partner institutions’ in order to develop a common meaning of concepts such as “professional practice” and “critical reflection” as these can vary depending on different cultural settings.

Following consultations with tutors and students in partner institutions in other countries, we have submitted a funding application to HEA with the aim of designing a specific toolbox to facilitate the development of critical reflective skills and other horizontal skills by learners and tutors.

References

  • Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: a reconceptualization of educational practice. In: C. Reigeluth (Ed.) Instructional-design theories and models. A new paradigm of instructional theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 269–292.
  • De Vita, G. (2001). Learning Styles, Culture and Inclusive Instruction in the Multicultural Classroom: A Business and Management Perspective. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 38 (2), 165–174. .
  • OMcDonald, B., Noakes, N., Stuckey, B., & Nyrop, S. (2005). Breaking down learner isolation: How social network analysis informs design and facilitation for online learning. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Paper available at http://cpsquare.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/stuckey-etal-aera-sna.pdf [Accessed May 1st 2012].
  • Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
  • QAA (2007). Subject benchmark statement: Master's degrees in business and management. Document available at http://www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Pages/Subject-benchmark-statement-Masters-degrees-in-business-and-management.aspx [Accessed April 9th 2013]
  • Yakavenka, H. (2012). Developing Professional Competencies through International Peer Networks. In V.P. Dennen & J. Myers (Eds.) Virtual Professional Development and Informal Learning via Social Networks. IGI Global Florida State University, pp. 134-154.
  • Yakavenka, H., & De Vita R. (2012). Engagement in online learning: a case study on MBA students undertaking a professional internships. Compass: the Journal of Learning & Teaching at the University of Greenwich, 6, 5-10.
  • Wasserman, S., & Faust, K. (1994). Social Network Analysis: Methods and applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Contact

Dr Hanna Yakavenka, University of Greenwich Business School, email: Dr Hanna Yakavenka 

Dr Riccardo De Vita, University of Greenwich Business School, email: Dr Riccardo De Vita