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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Local Bankers, Pro and Con

Today I had two quite different experiences regarding our local banks. 

On the bright side:

This morning, in a message on my office phone,  the senior vice-president in charge of small business loans at a bank based in a neighboring town told me that he would be able to spend a good part of an upcoming Saturday afternoon speaking to my New Ventures and Entrepreneurship class about the importance of a sound business plan, and about the services that a bank can provide to a new business.  That is most generous of him, and I am grateful. He did so also last spring, and the students very much enjoyed his contributions.

In contrast:

Later today, an MBA student here at Plymouth showed me that a different local bank where she has her checking account and debit card had charged her $30.00 for overdrawing her account by about $16.00.  The overdraft occurred while on spring break in the South, six days ago, and her University payroll deposit of about two hundred dollars will go into the account tomorrow morning.  So, the effect of this "overdraft protection" which is written into her contract is that the bank has loaned her $16.00 for one week, and has charged her $30.00 for the money.  Let's do the math.  What is the effective interest rate she was charged on that loan?  Well, if it is simple interest (close enough to make the point), the interest charged is 30/16 = 187% of the loan, for a period of one week.  Annualized, that comes to 52 * 187% =  9750% interest.  Some might call that usurious, but what do they know? 

I am sure that the bank in question will state that the charge was not interest on a loan, but a contractual and agreed-upon penalty charge for its covering an unsupported debit rather than rejecting it, and that their client signed an agreement to that effect when the account was opened.  But their client, in this case, is a foreign student, who opened the account within a week of arriving for the first time in America.  I hardly think that she has been fairly treated.  I am especially upset because I have had my Plymouth bank accounts with this bank since 1973, and it was I who recommended the bank to my student.

I applaud this MBA student for bringing this situation to my attention.

Tomorrow morning, I will visit "my bank," where I expect that they will make this situation right, and reverse all or most of that penalty.  If they do not, then I shall, after having banked for almost forty years there, take my business from them, and to the bank of the gentleman "on the bright side," as described above.  I will then be free to name this institution, both here and in a letter to the editors of the local paper, and of the Manchester Union Leader.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring Break(!) & Side Trip Explained (then Unexplained)

I write today from the Red Roof Inn on Two-Notch Road in Columbia, South Carolina.  Shirl and I have been to Orlando to see son Jamie and daughter-in-law Amy, to Ft. Myers to see the Boston Red Sox, and to Miami to see son Brian and daughter-in-law Nika.  We stayed three nights in a luxury condo in the Orlando area, and since that splurge have been more frugal: one night at a Days Inn in Ft Myers, and one at the Red Roof Inn in West Palm Beach, where we also visited Larry Forand and his wife Norma.  Larry was Shirl's music teacher in the Westborough, Massachusetts, schools when she was a girl, and has been a lifelong friend of the family.  He is 84 now, and still a warm and humorous guy.

Two lost hours spent in stop-and-go traffic south of Washington on the trip south convinced us to take the I-81 ("Mountain") route home from Florida.  So Thursday we came to Columbia, where we pick up I-77 to Charlotte, and shortly thereafter join I-81 for the beautiful trip up the Shenandoah Valley toward the Northeast.  But we have spent an extra day and night here in Columbia, thus giving me (the driver) a much-needed rest, and a chance to catch up on my course preparations.

Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, is also home to the University of S. C., where two PSU colleagues and I spent a week in the summer of 1997, taking a training course in the teaching of International Business.  It is a lovely old southern city, with a beautiful campus.

Perhaps, one day soon, I will be allowed to reveal the real reason for spending two nights here.

Finally, three cheers for my 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe.  Over 96,000 miles, using no oil, and cruising comfortably at high cruising speeds with a heavy load.  Motorheads of the World, Unite!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Happy Day in Westboro

We had a scare early last week.  Shirl's sister Joan called Monday evening, and reported that she and her husband Dick were taking Barbara Kimball, Shirl's 95 year-old mother, to the hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.

We knew Barbara as a remarkably healthy woman for her age, who had never used alcohol or tobacco, and who still had a sharp mind and ironic wit, not unlike her younger daughter Shirley.  But that night Barbara was bleeding.  On coumadin for a few years to prevent blood clots, her bleeding was at a frightening rate, and Joan Cichowski, Shirl's older sister, a nurse practicioner who has lived at home with her Mom ever since her father Basil Kimball died some 20 years ago, quickly decided that a trip to the hospital was indicated.

After evaluation at the Emergency Room, Barbara was admitted at Memorial Hospital.  There was talk of possible cancer, and a biopsy was ordered.  Shirl drove the 140 miles (~210 Km) to Worcester the next morning.  Her brother David Kimball, Barbara's only son, came down from Vermont. I told Shirl to call me and I'd be there, if ever she needed or wanted me to come.  She promised me she would do so.

Six days later, I drove today to see Barbara and Shirl at the wonderful nursing home in Westboro to which Barbara had been transferred on Thursday.  I took this happy picture.

Shirl and Barbara
We spent the afternoon with Barbara, and actually witnessed her taking three walks up and down the hall with a physical therapist.  We talked, and talked, not only with each other, but also with Barbara's two roommates and their visitors.  As you can see, Barbara looks great.  The crisis is now over.  The biopses appear negative (though more test results are due tomorrow).

Needless to say, I was very happy to see my mother-in-law looking so chipper.  After all, there is only one woman alive who loves me as much as Barbara Kimball does. Here is her picture.  ;-)  

Shirl and SOL

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Teaching Online

Online teaching is certainly different from classroom teaching, and like most long-time teachers, before I tried it I was a skeptic.  I doubted that a credible, challenging, graduate-level course could be delivered over the Internet.  That was back about 2002 or 2003, when Plymouth State was still a college, and the Plymouth State University College of Business Administration was still the PSC Business Department.  We have all come a long, long way in the past eight or nine years.  For me, one of the most surprising and happy developments of the period has been the realization that effective online teaching at the MBA level is not only possible, it is in some ways better than classroom teaching.  I have no doubt that my online courses are as rigorous, and are more demanding (on me and on my students) than my face-to-face classes ever were.

I use the same textbook in both venues.  I cover the same material.  I use just as many Harvard Business School case studies.  With the help of the steadily evolving online teaching software (WebCT, then Blackboard, and now Moodle), I am in communication with my class all week long, and the interpersonal rapport that develops as students struggle with case analyses, and we exchange e-mails and forum posts, can be intense.  When I end up actually meeting one of my online course alumni, as at the Graduate Commencement each May, it is as if I am seeing a long-lost friend. Often, I receive spontaneous hugs!

You see, in the typical face-to-face class, a small percentage of the class, the well-prepared few, can lead during a case discussion, and the smart but ill-prepared class members can tag along, and contribute a cogent question or comment, thus appearing to be "with it."  It is difficult to know who is really working and learning until written assignments are due... often only twice during a course, as was the pattern even at Harvard Business School back in the Sixties.  (Those case-based "Bluebook" exams were the shortest four hour periods of my life.)

In contrast, my online students must post written work each week, and also take a quiz on each assigned chapter in the text.  The latter are a small percentage of the graded work but are a way of making sure that the textbook's boilerplate is actually read.  In some MBA programs I would not use a textbook in an operations or management accounting course, but our MBAs run the gamut from CPAs and engineers to artists, poets, and MDs, and need the theory and vocabulary lessons that a well-written textbook can provide.  Still, the meat of my graduate courses is in the cases.  So, learning to teach cases effectively online was my biggest concern as I started my online teaching career some nine years back.

I posed that problem to Royce Robertson, then a young IT staff member at Plymouth State who was charged with supporting us teachers in our early forays into online education.  Royce and I discussed ways to make case analysis meaningful for the students, ensuring that all would get a chance to attack unfamiliar business situations on their own, and thus avoid having a few eager beavers dominating the discussions and hogging the learning process.

Case analysis is a matter of studying the situation described in a case, sifting the relevant from the irrelevant data, identifying the problems, opportunities, and areas requiring management attention in the case, then setting objectives, identifying alternative courses of action, weighing their costs, practicality, and probabilities of success against a chosen set of criteria, making a decision, and then boiling it all down to an action plan.  That is real work.  It is also the heart of the "vicarious experience" that makes for quality in an MBA program.  Graduates of case-based courses can think.  They do not fear the unfamiliar, they enjoy its challenges.  How could I see to it that my online MBA students got that kind of a learning opportunity?

The answer that Royce and I came up with was what I call "paired discussions."  Each week, students are assigned to a group of two, one as Analyst, and the other as Respondent, and placed in a private online discussion forum.  Analysts must post their case analysis, insofar as they can take it in the time available, not later than midnight on Saturday night.  Respondents must post by midnight, Sunday.  Then, on a weeknight, the whole class gathers in a synchronous chat session.  The chats can be amazing.  There might be as many opinions as there were groups (we cap our online course sections at 20, so ten groups would be the limit).  The discussion is lively.  Sometimes, I reveal in the chat session (with permission from the student) a good spreadsheet or other interesting item posted by a student in the forum.  The objective of the chat is constructive, not competitive.  The goal is to leave this two-hour chat with a better understanding of the case for all concerned.

Following the chat, I grade each student's work in the private forums.  The average of these post grades is the single most heavily weighted grade item, usually 50 to 60 % of the final grade.

Each paired team is encouraged to discuss the case all week long.  The Analysts must post first, but they are not condemned to work in a vacuum.  In the following week, I shuffle the groups, and swap roles.  So normally no one is Analyst two weeks in a row, and everyone gets to work with a wide set of classmates.

The amount and quality of the work I see in these case discussion forums is generally gratifying.  It seems that the MBA students are a proud and self-respecting bunch of people.  None of them wants to let a teammate down, or be seen as a slacker.  So, they really get into the cases.  (The similarity to the mentor system of warrior training in ancient Greece has often occurred to me.)   And rather than seeing two papers, or two exams, from each student in a term, I see eight quizzes and nine or ten written case analyses, all of which are graded.

By the way, my students have been most kind to me in their online course evaluations, which are done confidentially after each iteration of every course taught in our College of Business Administration. The courses have worked.

This week, for our spring quarter, for the first time I have launched two different online courses in parallel, Operations Management and International Business.  Please, wish me luck!