Make way for Professor Google

Stop using the internet as an appendage to classroom learning – and integrate it into every finance lesson, writes Phil Young.

The internet and digitization have changed even the way we buy a tube of toothpaste. They have revolutionized the way we keep up with the lives of our friends and family. Most people I know would not feel comfortable if they walked out of their homes without their smartphone. The march of digital has transformed the way businesses operate around the world.

But one place that has managed to remain relatively unaffected by this sea change in technology is the classroom in institutions of higher learning.

Granted, there are many examples of the use of digital in higher education. There are instructor-led online courses, self-directed “eLearning” courses, corporate webinars, and free courses offered on YouTube by professors from top universities or internet sites such as Kahn Academy.

But they are generally used as substitutes for, or supplements to, the traditional classroom. Indeed, these technology-based alternatives are often labelled “virtual” classrooms in contrast to physical, face-to-face classrooms. Technology has also been used extensively to digitize and repackage teaching material. Those of us of a certain age might recall walking out of the campus bookstore during the first week of the semester with 43lbs of textbooks in our bags. Today’s students can now conveniently download all their course material, including only selected chapters of textbooks, in neat files of PDF documents. Yet the way these materials are used in the classroom has hardly changed.

When I talk about integrating digital technology into the classroom, I am not talking about anything radically new. I am simply proposing that instructors start to incorporate the use of the internet during their classroom time. And by this, I don’t mean the occasional insertion of a YouTube clip in a PowerPoint slide show. I mean allowing students to use their smartphones or tablets and laptops in real time to access the internet for information relevant to the class discussion.

This is exactly the opposite of current practice. Many instructors discourage or prohibit the use of any electronic device during class,  amid concerns that this would dilute a student’s full attention to what is going on in class or distract others in the class – including the instructor. Instructors may also be concerned that students would try to google the answers to the questions posed in the class discussion.

Yet I can offer two good personal examples in which the internet has been an effective addition to classroom discussions. One is the discussion of business cases and the second is in the analysis of financial data.

Harnessing the internet in business cases

Two business cases that I often use in my classes are Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Harvard Business School, 2012) and Nokia and the New Mobile Ecosystem (INSTEAD, 2012). But with each passing year – or even month – it becomes more difficult to rely on the information about these companies solely up to the point when the case studies were written.

Therefore, I instruct my students to prepare to discuss these companies and their situations using the information in the business case. But then, in class, after some discussion of the published case, I ask them to use the internet to search out key events that have occurred since the time the case was written. This keeps the material fresh. Of course, students can do this anyway during their pre-class preparation, but they usually use their limited time to concentrate on the assigned case material. I also find that the class discussion itself motivates them to want to find out more about what happened after the case was written. By giving them “on-demand” access to current information, they start to contribute even more to the class discussion. Everyone, including me, learns a lot this way.

Harnessing the internet in financial data

The second example involves the real-time use of the internet when I teach courses or seminars in finance, particularly for corporate education programmes. Financial ratio analysis is an important topic of study in an introductory finance course.

In the old days, instructors in academic finance courses, as well as non-academic courses, were comfortable with using the financial information in a textbook – which was already at least a year old by the time the book was published.

The textbook examples drew on one or two company annual reports. If instructors wanted to supplement this information, they might ask their students to pick one or two companies or they themselves might provide to their students hard copies of the financial reports of a few companies.

But now, with the availability of financial data on the internet, financial information on hundreds of companies is only a few clicks away. There are many sites that provide financial statements and ratios of publicly traded companies such as  www.finance-challenge.com, which I helped to develop in the interest of achieving a more dynamic teaching environment.

As noted, I have found that using the internet to access key financial data during the class is a particularly effective way to bring financial ratios to life. The way I used to teach this subject was to have my students peruse the annual reports that I had selected for them, find the relevant information, and then use this information to compute a list of key ratios that depict the overall financial health of the companies. But once I opened up the class to the use of the internet, I was able to expand the scope and details of the class exercises in a wide variety of ways. Here are two examples:

1. The quiz show approach:

I ask the class a series of questions pertaining to the business operations of well-known companies. Here’s an example quiz:

  • Who has the higher profit margin: Whole Foods or Walmart? Why?
  • Apple iPhones comprise 20% of the global market for cell phones but over 90% of its operating profit. Why?
  • Using the DuPont model as a reference, how do you think McDonald’s makes its money: from its net profit margin or its total asset turnover? Explain.

Students or executive participants go to their devices to find the answer on the internet and the discussion continues with their newfound facts and figures.

2. The A versus B approach

I ask the class to select two or three competitors (for example, Toyota versus General Motors, Coca-Cola versus PepsiCo, Amazon versus Walmart). I then ask them to surmise the absolute and relative magnitudes of their standard financial ratios, such as gross profit margin, net profit margin, total asset turnover. Their answers or “educated guesses” reflect their understanding of the companies’ business models and  competitive positions in their markets. They search out the answers on the internet. Depending on the class time allowed, I ask selected students to lead the discussion regarding their findings.

From classroom to home:

Once students see the immediate application of various financial metrics in these classroom exercises, they become even more motivated to continue to use these readily available internet resources on their own outside of class.

Somehow, the energy level of the class increases when everyone hunts as a group for the relevant data and various individuals start to find the answers for themselves, using the speed and convenience of the internet.

In the learning process, the sharing of the information found on the internet can be just as important as the discovery of the answer itself. Perhaps this is an offshoot of the sharing culture spawned by social media. But, in any case, by sharing what they have found, students, in effect, become somewhat like teachers. And we all recall the old axiom that the best way to learn something is to teach it. (Also see the “learning pyramid using internet access in classroom activities” above)

I’m not saying that students should enjoy an unfettered use of their devices during the class. But for certain class activities, such as those that I have described, I believe that access to the internet is a real aid to the learning process. In the learning pyramid opposite, I try to summarize how I believe that the selected classroom use of the internet helps students to retain what they have learned.

I trust that readers will not misinterpret my main argument. I do not think that Professor Google will take over the classroom anytime in the near future. For me, the ultimate learning app is still a good teacher. But, when used judiciously, the internet can be an amazing classroom teaching assistant.

Phil Young PhD has been an active member of the Duke CE Global Educator Network for the past 12 years. He has more than 35 years of experience as an MBA professor and as a corporate education consultant and instructor.

ILLUSTRATION: ELLY WALTON