Fostering creative thinking among business students is no small task. Creating new business electives, developing corporate partnerships and exchange programs, consulting with entrepreneurs and executives are some of the means business schools are currently employing to enhance creativity and innovation in their curriculum (Business Week, 8/1/2005). These methods are primarily based on the premise that some form of traditional face-to-face or social interaction will be employed. However, in today’s business schools, a growing number of programs are focusing on technology-mediated learning modes as supplements and/or alternatives to the traditional learning pedagogy. Indeed, technology-mediated learning via online delivery is quite common in most universities and colleges across the United States (Hollenbeck et al., 2005). As a result, significant advances have been made in the area of online learning.
With the growth and changes in online education, it is logical to pose the question: How will online education impact students’ creativity? For business schools, this question is especially critical for two reasons. First, a number of potential employers are apprehensive about the academic quality and appropriateness of online programs (Dellana et al., 2000; Bigelow, 1999). Second, the question of whether creativity is diminished in online education remains largely unanswered in the extant literature.
The issue of creativity was brought to the forefront when a recent article in BusinessWeek.com (8/3/2007) was headlined with “B-Schools Soft on ‘Soft Skills’.” These ‘soft skills’ included human capital areas such as innovation and creativity. Two years ago, another Business Week (8/1/2005) article suggested that “The core offerings of nearly all B-schools are not meeting the growing demand for creative, innovative managers” (p.80). If business schools are not fostering the development of creative thinkers, will this be compounded by the fact that many business programs are currently offered via online education? To explore this question, the authors pose the question of creativity to MBA students currently enrolled in the core level graduate Marketing Management course. Based on their responses, suggestions are presented to help educators enhance the level of creative thinking among their online students.
In general, the extant literature on distance or online education has focused primarily on two broad research areas. Ample research has been published on the benefits and pitfalls of distance education (Powell, 2007; Patel & Patel, 2006). There are also numerous studies comparing distance education with the traditional learning environment primarily in terms of cognitive factors – such as attitudes, outcomes (e.g., satisfaction, grades), student perceptions (e.g., preference, perceived quality) and learning experience (Spooner et al., 1999). Meanwhile, research on the integration of creativity in online education has been, at best, sporadic. This is despite the fact that creativity is considered one of the integral elements in the higher education experience (ChanLin, 2006; Jackson, 2006).
Creativity Dimension in Higher Education
The relationship between learning and creativity has long been established in numerous research studies (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2007). Unfortunately, presenting students with creative instructional activities can be quite complicated. This is because creativity is related to a myriad of factors independent of the learning environment such as personality, beliefs in education, cognitive processes, motivation and individual background (Sternberg et al., 2005; Horng et al., 2005).
Creativity encompasses the ability to imagine or invent something new; the attitude to accept change; and the process to continue to improve (Harris, 1998). In other words, creativity is “the ability to come up with new ideas that are surprising yet intelligible, and also valuable in some way” (Boden, 2002, p.95). Therefore, universities and colleges are, in part, the breeding grounds for creative thinking since these institutions offer avenues for idea exchange and dialog. Students’ creativity, according to Cropley (2006), is indeed largely a function of one’s socialization in their education environment.
In business education, the ability, attitude and process relevant to creativity are instrumental in enhancing the professional success of business students. Evidence of students’ creativity is a competency skill highly sought after by employers (Horng et al., 2005). This is because employees who are able to combine both logical/rational thinking with creativity are more effective managers and corporate decision makers (Vance et al., 2007). As a result, business educators strive to train and develop students to be creative problem solvers. This is evident in the instructional pedagogies common in face-to-face traditional business courses such as case analysis, team projects and internships.
Creativity in Online Learning
As mentioned earlier, studies on integrating creativity into distance education have been sparse. For online business courses, integrating creativity is perhaps more challenging. The social dynamics in an online setting are invariably different from the traditional classroom. With the social environment conspicuously absent in a technology-mediated environment, how is creativity developed and fostered? And, if business students are not able to experience the creative process in their online educational training – how will they in turn develop creativity in their work environments?
Muirhead (2007) and Amabile (1999) suggest that online instructors are primarily responsible for integrating creativity in their online curriculum. Online instructors have to assume the role of a facilitator rather than a lecturer (Horng et al., 2005). This can be accomplished by challenging students’ current skill sets; providing well defined goals; grouping students into teams with diverse backgrounds; providing encouragement and timely feedback; making students feel that their input have more value-added; and asking questions that encourage creative thinking.
Essentially, developing avenues for creativity is driven by the instructor. And yet, these instructors often receive minimal feedback from online students on what actually works and what does not. Worse, there has been little research work conducted on this critical topic.
Objectives of this Study
To examine the issue of creativity and to bridge the gap in the literature, this study investigates the perceptions of MBA students taking an online course. In particular, the authors focus on whether online courses enhance or stifle students’ creativity. That is, are online MBA courses exposing students to some exercise in creativity? Are online business programs enriching or diminishing the creative experience of its graduates?
The current study involves MBA students enrolled in an AACSB accredited regional state university. MBA students were utilized for this study because of the professional nature of their degree and their presumed maturity level. This is consistent with Arbaugh’s (2000) suggestion that graduate students should be the basis for developing Internet-based courses. The main university campus is located approximately 60 miles from a major US metropolitan city in the Southwest. A large number of students enrolled in the MBA program are employed full-time and take online courses primarily for convenience purposes.
Marketing Management Course
The graduate Marketing Management course is one of the core courses in the MBA curriculum. Every semester, the course is offered both online as well as in the traditional face-to-face classroom. However, given the University’s location as well as the type of students (i.e., employed full-time) in the MBA program, more sections are offered online than face-to-face.
Two concurrent sections of MBA students enrolled in the online Marketing Management course served as the sample groups for this study. The same instructor taught both sections. Therefore, teaching style and course content as potential extraneous factors were minimized. Students’ grades were evaluated based on four major components: discussion/participation, case submissions, mid-term and final examinations.
Currently, eCollege is the instructional online platform used by the university. For course discussion purposes, eCollege allows students to interact with the instructor and their colleagues primarily through the use of the discussion board. The discussion that took place in both sections were all asynchronous is nature. Typically, the weekly discussion was available over a period of three days. This gave MBA students ample time to provide their inputs and interact with their colleagues.
A total of 63 students participated. Of the 63, fifty-two students had some level of experience in taking previous online courses. Approximately 70% of the students were in the 25-35 age range and had worked for at least three years. About 90% of the sample group was employed on a full-time basis
Halfway through the semester (i.e., before the midterm examination period), online students were asked to respond to a series of questions regarding innovative MBA Programs and the application of creativity skills within programs. A discussion board was set up to allow students to post their answers and/or respond to their colleagues’ comments. The discussion questions were asked specifically within the context of online courses. To minimize potential response bias, the questions were asked in relation to students’ general online experience. The questions were not directed specifically towards this Marketing Management course. Online students were asked the following: (1) Do you lose any exercise in creativity in taking online courses? (2) What can be done to enhance students’ creative thinking?
“Some” Creativity is Lost
Of the 63 online MBA students, 18 claimed that “some” creativity is lost in taking online courses. These students noted that some creativity is lost primarily due to the lack of social interaction. They posted that:
- Yes, definitely. Hands on or face-to-face interaction encourages what real businesses are all about – being part of a “team.”
- The only loss that I feel from an online course compared to a live course is the interchange between students. Ideas can flow and you can “bounce” off of each other better.
- Yes. The social interaction is an aspect that cannot be underestimated. One of my major concerns with online courses is the lack of interaction with other students.
The student comments above are consistent with Cropley’s (2006) point that groups, role models, mentors and classroom climate (i.e., elements of the social approach) are all important to students’ creativity. Obviously, the presence of these elements is more evident in the traditional classroom setting.
About 30% of the sample group suggested that creativity is driven by interaction. In particular, face-to-face interactions with other students and the instructor offer the chance to gain more insights and ideas from others. Likewise, the social interaction gives them an opportunity to expound on the experiences of their classroom colleagues in a visual manner. Guilford (1950) refers to this as “divergent thinking.” The importance of divergent thinking is consistent with the distance education literature on social cognitive learning and social learning (see Laffey et al., 2006).
However, it is noteworthy to mention that the students also suggested that in the traditional classroom setting discussions are often dominated by a cadre of individuals. As a result, the rest of the class may end up being on the receiving or listening end of a few students’ ideas. Hence, for these students the traditional classroom setting offers little or minimal avenues for creativity. One student posted that those students who usually would not voice their opinions in the classroom may be more likely to express their ideas in an online course. That is, students who typically would not participate in the classroom will be more inclined to express their ideas in an online course and are more receptive to the online discussion (see Horng et al., 2007).
MBA Students’ Consensus – Creativity is Enhanced
In general, the majority of the students (40 out of 63 students or 63%) who participated in this study agreed that creativity is not lost in online courses. Interestingly, some suggested that an online course is creative in itself. Twenty eight students (44%) claimed that they are compelled or pushed to be “much more creative” in their online courses than in the traditional classroom to compensate for the absence of the face-to-face social interaction with their classmates and the instructor. Based on the students’ responses, two reasons were offered on why creativity is actually enhanced.
First, more than half of the students claimed that they are more creative in their online courses because they want their input to have more value-added. They attempt to leave a more indelible impression in their coursework, assignments and discussions. As a result, their discussion postings, case analyses and projects are more in-depth, substantial and/or creative. As one student wrote, “I need to be more creative because I am unable to build a tangible relationship with the professor.” This is consistent with Horng et al.’s (2007) student-centered learning environment where students become co-learners and performers.
Second, 40% of the sample claimed that because their online MBA courses are generally more challenging, they have to be more creative and strategic in their thinking. One’s input during chats and discussions must have some value-added. Otherwise, it will become fairly obvious that one’s responses did not deserve much merit. Likewise, term papers, team projects and other types of collaborative works have to be developed in an efficient manner given the interaction exchange constraints. Interestingly, this is part of Horng et al.’s (2007) class management strategies for creative teaching.
What Enhances Creativity?
Based on this sample’s online experience, the students suggested that creativity can be enhanced and fostered depending on: (1) the subject matter and the instructor; (2) course format and structure; and (3) grades associated with the creativity element. It was also noted that courses lih and statistics have lesser avenues for employing creativity especially when delivered online. For example, marketing instructors can utilize a myriad of topics integrating creativity into the course material. In the case of one of the authors, as part of the discussion on advertising, students were required to watch Super Bowl commercials as part of the discussion assignment. The electronic interchange this assignment generated was quite lively and demonstrated the various points of view students had in analyzing various advertisements. The use of multi-teaching aids and the connection between teaching contents and real life are instrumental in developing creative instruction (see Horng et al., 2007).
Ultimately, the consensus opinion was that the instructor has the responsibility to promote and challenge the way online students think. He/She has to be involved throughout the course, provide active leadership and give value-added information. The typical reliance on any textbook, lecture notes and presentations have minimal impact for online students. Instead, the format and structure of online courses have to be re-evaluated constantly. Are the course materials relevant? Have current business trends been discussed? Did the case analyses reflect the applications of various course concepts and topics?
The following are some examples of students’ written responses:
- It is not the online part that creates [creative] issues, but rather the course content.
- I don’t necessarily think that online courses cause loss of creativity. It depends on how the course is structured.
- There is a greater tendency to let creativity slide in online courses. I think it really depends on the structure or format of the online course and the subject.
- No, because professors often are more creative with assignments and methods of discussion with students.
- It depends on the nature of the course and it is designed around emphasizing the creative exercises.
- Online courses are good programs for self-learning so I think there is nothing to lose in creativity.
Creative Instruction Used in This Marketing Management
For this particular marketing course, the authors believe that creativity was enhanced through the management of the class discussion and interaction as well as the use of real business questions to stir the students’ creative thinking. The grading scheme was set up so that 50% of the final grade was assessed based on two components: case analyses and discussion participation. The case analyses involved business problems that required students to be analytical, competitive and creative in their presentation of viable business solutions. The students were also required to participate in a weekly discussion board. They were required to provide a discussion post and respond to their colleagues’ comments. The topics covered interesting and current marketing-related topics such as ethical marketing (e.g., Is ethics an oxymoron in marketing?); fads, fashions and trends (e.g., provide some examples); demographic segmentation (e.g., changing demographics of US consumers); sex in advertising (e.g., why sex sells), to name a few. It is also noteworthy to mention that during the discussion of cases and topics, the instructor played a strong role in prompting thought provoking questions and interjecting personal thoughts regarding the subject matter. Feedback was also provided in the form of a summary of the weekly discussion. Consequently, the instructor was viewed by most students to be quite “visible” which may have led to the development of an interactive relationship.
Creative instruction encourages independent thinking, active participation and freedom of expression (Horng et al., 2007). Based on the findings in this study, we can conclude that online MBA students are indeed exposed to creative instruction. Creativity is not necessarily minimized or diminished if online instructors invest their time in establishing well-defined goals and developing a course curriculum that provides ways for students to express their ideas and insights. When online MBA students are exposed to this type of learning experience, then business schools have done their part in providing avenues for divergent thinking. After all, divergent thinking is essential in understanding the dynamics of any business environment.
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