Pamplin professor employs innovative teaching approach in classroom

“In the natural sciences,” says Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business professor Alan Abrahams, “collecting, cataloging, and comparing living specimens has long been a popular, collaborative mode of discovery and learning.”

Thinking that the “expeditionary learning” approach could be applied to information systems, where specimens are “human created” and “rapidly evolving,” Abrahams, an assistant professor of business information technology, undertook a pilot study in his course on e-commerce technologies. The results, he said, show that expeditionary learning has “a clear and effective impact” on students.


Assistant Professor Alan Abrahams (far left) and Damon Silva and Andrea Lovett, students in his spring 2010 class on e-commerce technologies, organize boxes of the Online Business Guidebook for delivery to readers. Assistant Professor Alan Abrahams (far left) and Damon Silva and Andrea Lovett, students in his spring 2010 class on e-commerce technologies, organize boxes of the Online Business Guidebook for delivery to readers.

An additional benefit of involving students in the discovery and documentation of new information system “specimens,” or types, Abrahams said, is that it can help ensure that students' knowledge of the state-of-the-art is comprehensive and current. Keeping up with leading-edge technologies in commercial information systems, he said, is a mammoth task for management information systems educators.

His efforts earned him the Decision Sciences Institute’s prestigious 2011 Instructional Innovation Award.

In expeditionary learning for information systems teaching, the instructor begins by “chartering an expedition” — defining the learning objectives in an area, in this case, e-commerce, Abrahams said. “Students are given some discretion to explore beyond the minimum terrain. They collect and compare information systems specimens, or types, from various subtopics,” he said. This forms the “chapters of the expedition catalog they would produce that documents the habitat, distribution, form, functions, and relationships of specimens collected.”

Students then apply selected systems to an actual problem. “As in biology, the best insights are obtained from living specimens, so students are expected to create and review real, live implementations.”

Finally, he said, they share their results with others through the expedition catalog.

Many information systems classes offer experiential learning opportunities through projects for businesses or nonprofits, Abrahams said. He argues, however, that the expeditionary learning process of his pilot study, which sought not only to develop students’ knowledge of e-commerce technologies but to enhance their skills and confidence in starting e-businesses, is different in several respects.


Alan Abrahams In addition to e-commerce systems, Alan Abrahams lists Web mining, healthcare operations management, and storage of legal documents among his research interests.

“Most significantly, students do not solely rely on instructor-provided educational resources. Rather, the students are engaged in the development and dissemination of the instructional materials themselves, effectively teaching while learning.”

The 92 senior-level management information systems students in his course developed and distributed a guidebook on e-business and gave presentations about the guidebook to about 500 students at two dozen high schools and one community college.

Moreover, Abrahams said, “students must engage in concrete experience and active experimentation by identifying, assessing, and implementing various technologies. The activities in his class, for example, included choosing and implementing an email marketing package and creating and tracking multiple email marketing campaigns. Students must also reflect on their experiences and document the process they followed to implement the technology.

Through surveys, Abrahams found that students encountered a broader range of technologies in his study than in a traditional experiential learning process with a single local client business. They reported personal, civic, and academic gains from expeditionary learning that were comparable to those in a traditional service learning class.

Abrahams noted that his study’s one negative finding was the lack of more positive course evaluations, which he attributed to the effort that had to be dedicated to getting the guidebook out to potential users. “While distribution of the expedition catalog may achieve university outreach goals, excessive in-class attention to catalog distribution may compromise course ratings. We therefore recommend that distribution be handled by an external cadre of volunteers, by a professional publishing company, or through a wiki.”

Abrahams, who received a doctorate in computer science from the University of Cambridge and a bachelor’s degree in information systems from the University of Cape Town, won a Best Paper award at the 2010 Information Systems Educators’ Conference for his earlier work with undergraduate students on active student learning. He began experimenting with the expeditionary learning style began in spring 2006 with a programming class at the University of Pennsylvania.

Expeditionary learning, he said, can be applied to other information systems fields, such as data mining, groupware, and systems development methodologies. “Our results have shown that expeditionary learning is worth pursuing.”

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A prestigious national award

The Decision Sciences Institute’s Instructional Innovation Award recognizes “outstanding creative instructional approaches within the decision sciences.”

Its focus is innovation in college or university-level teaching, either quantitative systems or behavioral methodology in its own right or within or across functional areas such as finance, marketing, management information systems, operations, and human resources.

 The award, which comes with a $1,500 cash prize, is co-sponsored by the institute, Alpha Iota Delta, and Prentice Hall.

Students' guidebook finds a market

In expeditionary learning, students assemble the knowledge resource of the expedition catalog, in this case, the Online Business Guidebook, in which the students assess each of the technologies. 

The catalog was distributed outside the classroom. “To our surprise,” Assistant Professor Alan Abrahams said, “the expedition catalog proved wildly popular among external learners, who downloaded it from the students’ website over 60,000 times.”

The guide, 40,000 copies of which were printed with funding students secured from information technology vendors, has been adopted as required class reading by several college instructors and is recommended as an e-commerce education resource by the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship and the Service Corps of Retired Executives, Abrahams said.

The guide was distributed to more than 500 small business development centers in all 50 states. The U.S. Small Business Administration, Abrahams said, requested permission to offer an abridged version of the guide on its website as a free online tutorial.

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