Postgraduate Diploma and MSc in E-Commerce at Birkbeck College
In early 1999, a surge in the fortunes of the fledgling Internet sector led to strong assertions, in the popular press, about the death of conventional economics. It was claimed that the rules of the old economy were not relevant to the modern Internet economy. If so, what were the rules of the emerging New Economy, and how should the teaching of academic economics be changed to incorporate these? Our search for answers was not mere academic curiosity: many of Birkbeck's part-time students work in areas closely related to the growth sectors and they needed some answers too.
That summer we decided to launch a Postgraduate Diploma in E-Commerce, a one-year part-time programme that would help students to appreciate the economics, finance and technology underlying the emerging e-commerce revolution. Even though the programme was developed at short notice and in response to relatively recent events, we wanted the curriculum to emphasise the likely long-term trends in the economy. We invited the Computer Science Department at Birkbeck to develop and teach the technology components. While they were initially reluctant to participate at such short notice, they agreed to join in. The College agreed to approve the programme through a new fast-track procedure. We then spent the summer recruiting students (a mixture of IT consultants who wanted to learn economics, and economists who wanted to learn about new technology and the new economy), and researching the subject. Often speaking to prospective students gave us valuable research leads. We also set up an Advisory Panel of industry experts and policy makers to help us refine the curriculum, and created a rudimentary website as an online resource for students.
The Programme began in Autumn 1999 with 55 students, many of whom worked closely in the area of e-commerce. Some were remarkably well informed about the Internet, and this made for lively classroom discussions. We supplemented the regular lectures with a programme of guest speakers, drawing on the massive pool of Internet entrepreneurs, analysts, policy-makers, venture capitalists and lawyers working in the London area. Most students appreciated this mix of theory with first-hand experience. A few were disappointed that the New Economy was not quite immune to the rules of conventional economics, but grudgingly came to accept this in the light of the stock market crash. Interestingly, the students learnt a lot from each other, and we too learnt a lot from them.
In Summer 2000, we decided to extend the diploma programme to a Master's programme in E-Commerce. This would allow Diploma students to obtain an MSc by completing advanced options in e-commerce and, quite usefully, by doing a long independent dissertation. Developing new material on a tight timetable was not easy, but it is heartening to see the first 14-odd students complete their MSc this summer.
In response to student feedback over two years, we have restructured the programme. First, we invited the Management Department to join as equal partners in our programme. Indeed, the Internet has had a significant impact on business practices and organisation design, so that inclusion of these aspects in the curriculum is crucial. In the same spirit, we have invited other disciplines, such as law, to contribute to what has become a robust, multidisciplinary programme. Second, to help students match their diverse backgrounds to a range of multi-disciplinary offerings, we have enabled greater choice of specialisations within the programme. For details, see http://www.bbk.ac.uk/ecommerce/
On reflection, developing this programme has been an exciting learning experience for most participants and has certainly influenced our personal research agendas and our teaching on mainstream economics programmes. Economic theory is often accused of being far too removed from the real world. Teaching e-commerce may not quite bridge the gap, but forces us to think hard about economic theory in the light of new events.
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