Content-led online courses to teach the basic knowledge and skills required for face-to-face classes: Blended Learning at the Imperial College Business School

Award Winner: 
2011 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Karlie Etim, David Lefevre, Darren Moon, Marc Wells
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Imperial College London
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Each student attending the Imperial College Business School undertakes a period of online study prior to arriving to attend face-to-face classes. The courses cover the fundamental principals of core business subjects such as accounting, quantitative skills and finance. Students embarking on graduate courses in business start with significantly varying degrees of expertise in these subjects and the purpose of the online courses is to ensure all students attain the baseline level required for the face-to-face classes. The approach relies heavily on content and tutors play a less prominent role. The approach has been refined steadily over five years to the point that student satisfaction is comparable to the face-to-face classes.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

For the past five years, the Imperial College Business School has run online courses covering the fundamental principles of subjects such as accounting, quantitative skills and finance for incoming students. These online courses are followed by face-to-face tests and tuition once students arrive at the school. Each online course requires students to study for 12-15 hours. The content material prepares students for the face-to-face courses on their programme and is revisited on these courses. The primary purpose of the courses is to reduce the variability in students' knowledge of key concepts at the time they start their face-to-face study. This allows the face-to-face lecturer to choose a level of difficulty appropriate to the whole class and helps to keep all students engaged.

The courses follow a content-led pedagogical approach, meaning that the primary delivery mechanism for learning is a series of content screens consisting of a combination of text and interactive multimedia. Online tutors play a more peripheral role than is common on most online courses. Their role is to monitor students' progress through the courses and to respond to questions posted either asynchronously through a discussion board or synchronously via a chat facility. The emphasis on content enables students to access top rate material prepared by senior staff while gaining open access to tutors that only less-senior staff can provide.

We do not recommend that this content-led approach be adopted as the pedagogical approach for a degree programme as a whole. We believe that structured, meaningful tasks conducted with peers and tutors are required to achieve many of the higher order learning objectives to which degree programmes aspire. In addition, we have found that the approach is more suited to technical quantitative subjects than the more qualitative subjects taught on business programmes. However the content-led approach can lead to significant benefits for students when used strategically and where appropriate. In addition to the pre-study programme, the Imperial College Business School has adopted this approach to deliver supplumentary courses that enable students to acheive credits towards CFA accredication.

The use of these courses has grown from one course in accounting with 50 students in 2005 to 18 courses across 7 subjects taught to more than 500 students in 2010. Each year the staff involved have made significant improvements based on evaluation and feedback from stakeholders. This steady improvement resulted in the online courses receiving comparable student evaluation scores to their face-to-face counterparts in 2010.

The key lessons we have gained are as follows:

  • The approach is significantly more efficient than equivalent face-to-face sessions. The initial investment required to build the courses is more than compensated for by subsequent efficiency gains.
  • The use of tracking data allows us to identify students experiencing difficulty and provide them with high value targeted support.
  • Rapid e-learning methods have significantly reduced the time and cost required to build online courses compared to 5 years ago.
  • A tight integration with the subsequent face-to-face classes accelerates student activity and engagement in the online environment.
  • The regular distribution of metrics obtained in online environment provides valuable feedback and allows stakeholders to identify potential problems at an early stage.
Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The online courses now receive student evaluation scores comparable to their face-to-face counterparts.
Prior to the introduction of these courses, lecturers in accounting and economics regularly reported that the varying ability in the basics of accounting, quantitative skills and finance across the student cohort was a significant issue on their courses. They no longer do so.

The use of these courses has grown from one course in accounting used with 50 students in 2005 to 18 courses across 7 subjects taught to more than 500 students in 2010.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Learning effectiveness and faculty satisfaction: Students enter the course with improved basic knowledge and skills, and lecturers are less likely to report varying ability among students as a drawback to instruction.

Scale: (Cost effectiveness, Affordability): The content-led approach can be significantly more affordable than tutor led equivalents because tutor time is significantly reduced. Deatiled cost data are not available for distribution outside the College. The growth of the program is a testimony to its effectiveness.

Access: Prior to the online pre-study courses the School provided workshops in quantitative skills to MBA students in the two weeks prior to the beginning of the first term. Around 20% of students attended these sessions as compared to the 100% of students completing the online equivalent.

Student satisfaction: Online courses receiving comparable student evaluation scores to their face-to-face counterparts in 2010. 


Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Web content delivery equipment and software, such as a CMS.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The most significant cost is the reduction of the cost of skilled educational technologists required to work with faculty to build the courses.

References, supporting documents: 

Below are three screenshots which illustrate the approach described above, an image of sample course cotent, an image of tracking metrics, and an image of interaction with course tutor.


Other Comments: 

1. Innovation:

At one level, the content led approach is not innovative in that it shares characteristics with computer based training approaches in vogue in previous decades. However, recent developments in online delivery systems (LMSs, CMSs) and content development tools provide the opportunity to significantly increase the sophistication of this approach.

2. Replicability

This initiative is a pedagogical approach and can be replicated.

3. Potential impact

Using these courses the School can be confident that all students have acquired the basic knowledge and skills required for their degree programme: All students are required to pass an assessment. If they fail, they are first given the opportunity to return to the course material and retake the assessment. If a student repeatedly fails the assessment then the school will analyse the student's interactions with the course materials and provide personal tuition focusing specifically on the areas identified as problematic. This approach provides detailed formative feedback both to tutors and to the students themselves. Anecdote: My personal highlight of this approach relates to a student who passed a course on quantitative skills after 4 attempts. He beamed with pride as he was able to tell his father that he has passed a mathematics exam for the first time!

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
David Lefevre
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