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A Scholarly Role for Consumer Technology

PARIS — During a one-week welcoming event here for the General Management Program at the business school Essec, incoming students are introduced to the school, the curriculum and the staff. At the end, they are handed what educators there see as one of their most important learning tools: an iPad.

While specialized education tools have long played an important role in the classroom, some of the most commonly used gadgets and Web sites have become teaching tools of choice at business schools like Essec and elsewhere.

Facebook is increasingly used to foster a sense of community for business school classes that meet just a few times a semester; Twitter is used as a way for students to be heard in big halls, letting them ask questions during lectures without having to raise their hand or voice; and videoconferencing software is used at many business schools as a tool for communication between far-flung networks of professors and experts.

Experts at Essec and elsewhere say that out-of-the-box consumer applications and gadgets are extremely valuable in the hands of business students.

“They are used to tie the group together,” said Beate Baldwin, program director at Essec, whose program integrates some of the most widely used gadgets and sites as learning and communication tools. Tablet computers in particular are often used to display video and play audio files, and to foster communication, whether through instant messaging or through videoconferencing.

Besides increasingly relying on tablets — while their General Management Program students use the iPad, the global M.B.A. students use a Galaxy Tab device — Essec also employs popular Internet services to help teach.

The school runs an internal communication system with Google services at its heart. All e-mail is exchanged with a customized version of Google’s Gmail, instant communication is handled by Google’s new social networking service, Google+, and teaching materials like case studies and book chapters are loaded onto Google docs.

“We made the analysis that corporate technology is less efficient than public technology,” said Jean-Pierre Choulet, Essec’s chief information officer.

The collaboration with Google started in 2009, school officials said. It gives students at the business school a version of all the services that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to, free and behind a firewall.

Other European business schools are using technology favored by millions of young people around the world to teach their cadre of business elites.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, for example, uses Twitter as a back channel for large lower-level business courses.

Students in lectures that hold several hundred of their colleges ask their questions by typing using specific hashtags to filter posts relevant to the lecture. Professors standing just meters away check their screen while lecturing to be able to answer questions they deem relevant.

Konrad Osterwalder, who is in charge of teaching and technological development at the university, said the process makes students feel less embarrassed about asking perhaps obvious questions while allowing professors to see how many students have the same question before launching into a perhaps tangential discussion.

Many European business faculties have learned to use Facebook to communicate with their own students and the outside. Alexander Mädche, who teaches information systems at the University of Mannheim Business School, uses a Facebook page to communicate with his students. He leaves it open so that potential recruits can look in and former students can stay informed.

In setting up such new communication networks, Mr. Mädche said, it is important to be aware “which social networking system works for what target group.”

So for more formalized alumni groupings, the University of Mannheim, just like Essec, uses LinkedIn, a networking service used widely by professionals.

Essec’s LinkedIn page is “hermetically sealed,” explained Ms. Baldwin, ensuring that Essec alumni — often in executive positions at global companies — only interact with the school’s alumni and students.

Not all schools are this tech-savvy, but the trend is moving toward bringing popular technology into the classroom.

At H.E.C. in Paris, another major European business school, iPads are being just now being integrated into the executive M.B.A. program.

Published: November 23, 2011