Pamplin College of Business professor Alan Abrahams has won the Decision Sciences Institute’s 2011 Instructional Innovation Award for his pilot study on using “expeditionary learning,” an educational approach used in the natural sciences, to teach e-commerce technologies.

Abrahams, an assistant professor of business information technology, notes that collecting, cataloging, and comparing living specimens has long been “a popular, collaborative mode of discovery and learning in the natural sciences.” His pilot study, he says, demonstrates that expeditionary learning can be an effective technique in the information systems field, where specimens are “human created” and “rapidly evolving.”

In expeditionary learning, Abrahams says, the instructor begins by “chartering an expedition” — defining the learning objectives within an area, e-commerce, for example. “Students are given some discretion to explore beyond the minimum terrain. They collect and compare information systems specimens or types from various subtopics, which constitute the ‘chapters’ of the ‘expedition catalog.’” They then apply selected systems to an actual problem and share their results with other, external learners.

Many information systems classes offer experiential learning opportunities through projects for businesses or nonprofits, Abrahams notes. He argues, however, that the expeditionary learning process of his pilot study is different in several respects.

“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 480 students at two dozen high schools and one community college.

Moreover, Abrahams says, “students must engage in concrete experience and active experimentation" — by identifying, assessing, and implementing various technologies —  reflect on their experiences, and document the process they followed to implement the technology. Through surveys, he 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.

“To our surprise, the expedition catalog itself (the online business guide) proved wildly popular amongst external learners, who downloaded it from the students’ website over 60,000 times.” The guidebook has been adopted as required class reading by other college and community college instructors, he adds, and is recommended as an e-commerce resource by the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship and the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

The guide was distributed to more than 500 small business development centers in all 50 states, and reorders received from 23 states. The U.S. Small Business Administration, he says, offered an abridged version of the guide on its web site as a free online tutorial, which has since been completed by nearly 62,000 additional participants.

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, says expeditionary learning can be applied to other information systems fields, such as data mining, groupware, and systems development methodologies. “Our results show that expeditionary learning has a clear and effective impact on both internal students and the external wider community and is worth pursuing.”