J. Ben Arbaugh
by Ron Basler
Student Multimedia Reporter
setting the online course
In 1996, the dean of the College of Business at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh approached J. Ben Arbaugh, then a junior faculty member, with a challenge: create the first fully online course that would provide the same quality education of a traditional classroom.
This was before Facebook. This was before Google.
Arbaugh’s online education experience at that time was limited to reading journal articles about this type of education delivery. He jumped at the chance. “Everything I had read at the time said this would be the wave of the future,” he says. “I concluded I could not afford not to be a part of this.”
At the Faculty Scholarship Recognition Luncheon: Dr. J. Ben Arbaugh, a John McNaughton Rosebush Professorship recipient, chats with Linda Freed, Director of the Office of Grants & Faculty Development.
The class Strategic Thinking, a 1.5 credit course, with 25 graduate students began summer of 1997. As with any new venture, Arbaugh had to work out the kinks involving the inordinate amount of time spent to prepare for a new way of teaching and learning. Since that first class, the College of Business has expanded its online offerings to eight MBA courses on a rotating basis, as well as almost two dozen electives each semester.
UW Oshkosh business professor Alan Hartman, the then-dean of the College of Business, credits Arbaugh with much of the College’s online education success. “I do not think the faculty would have accepted online delivery if he had not shown its effectiveness,” Hartman says, adding that the College was one of the first AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) accredited schools in the area to offer classes online. “I remember being at a meeting of Midwest business deans in 1997 when someone asked who was offering classes online—two deans raised their hands, Whitewater’s dean and me.”
Since 1994, Arbaugh has been teaching students on- and off-line about project management and international entrepreneurship. He is a five-time Academy of Management Division best paper award winner. He authored Online and Blended Business Education for the 21st Century (2010) and co-edited Student Satisfaction and Learning Outcome in E-Learning: An Introduction to Empirical Research (2011). In the fall of 2011, Arbaugh was awarded the John McNaughton Rosebush Professorship Award, the highest award for faculty at UW Oshkosh.
Using Business Sense
Born to a longtime grocery store owner and a customer service representative in South Charleston, W. Va., Arbaugh had little idea which career path he’d take after college.
He did know this: he did not want to go into the family business of running a grocery store, where he spent much of his mid-to-late teen years working as a bagger. However, he did learn a valuable lesson while working for his dad. “When I was at work I needed to be fully at work,” he says. “That idea was instilled in me by working in my father’s business.”
When Arbaugh attended Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., he first focused on computer science. He soon switched to management and thought about a career in academia after taking a class from a certain economics professor. “[He] was the first professor I’d observed that made the idea of being a professor seem attractive,” says Arbaugh, who remembers the professor’s relaxed teaching style and ability to convey content in an engaging way. After Arbaugh earned his bachelor’s in business administration in 1984, he briefly worked for the Kmart Corporation and then was accepted into the U.S. Air Force officer training school.
While serving, Arbaugh worked as a project manager in weapons systems acquisitions logistics at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Arbaugh’s job was to manage equipment that supported the Maverick anti-tank missile system by working with
civilian contractors. The Maverick, which is still in service today, is a guided air-to-surface missile used primarily to destroy tanks.
“I was doing project management before project management was cool,” Arbaugh says. After serving four years Arbaugh decided to leave the Air Force as a first lieutenant to pursue an academic career. Arbaugh attended graduate school at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, earning his master’s in business administration in 1989 and received his doctorate from Ohio State University in 1994. That same year he came to UW Oshkosh. Three years later, he designed and taught the first fully online class for the College of Business.
Leveling the Learning Field
Through the years, Arbaugh knows there are education skeptics who say that online courses cannot truly replace the traditional classroom experience. Those people, Arbaugh says, “are uninformed.” Research has shown evidence to the contrary, he says.
Online courses offer benefits that are often missing in traditional classroom settings, he says. “Classroom discussion often awards those who are the loudest or who gets their hand up quickest rather than the ones with the most reasoned and thought-through response,” he says.
For students participating in online discussions, everyone gets a shot at being heard.
The online setting allows Arbaugh to use a wider variety of resources that can be found on the web. As with regular classroom discussions, Arbaugh may have to deal with students who go off-topic during class, but that is all right with him. In many ways, he says, those moments initiate further learning.
For example, a student in his Personal and Professional Development graduate course recently mentioned the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In response, Arbaugh posted an article that presented an alternative view of the book in hopes that students will realize the importance of seeing things from multiple perspectives. As the author or co-author of more than 50 refereed journal articles, Arbaugh often shares his research findings with his students. “If we as instructors aren’t drawing from the learning and education research in our respective fields, then how are we advancing things beyond?” he says.
A Researcher’s Mind
His colleague Barbara Rau, professor of human resources at UW Oshkosh, says the students have benefited greatly from Arbaugh’s scholarly work. “As a teacher, Ben has excelled in online instruction by taking what he has learned from his research and incorporating it into the online classroom,” she says. “He truly cares about improving management education not just for himself, but for all of us who teach in this field—always keeping in mind that it is the students who ultimately have the most to gain from these improvements.”
Alvin Hwang, chair of the International Business Programs and professor of management at Pace University in New York, agrees. “Dr. Arbaugh is an authority on hybrid learning research with many publications in top management and educational journals today,” says Hwang, who has co-authored numerous papers with Arbaugh.
Spending Time with Family: Dr. J. Ben Arbaugh volunteering with his family at his son's football game.
“He is held in high esteem by many academic professionals in the Academy of Management, Decision Sciences Institute and various other educational bodies that have recognized his contributions to hybrid learning research and use of technologies in education.”
In addition to his teaching duties and research, Arbaugh has served as editor of the Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal, a highly esteemed journal whose mission is to advance the knowledge and practice of management learning and education. After December of 2011 Arbaugh will step down as editor, fulfilling his three-year term. He still plans to be part of the journal as a contributor.
Teaching Life Lessons
Arbaugh doesn’t have complex teaching objectives. “I teach students how to think for themselves, think about their lives, and to consider how they might apply and improve project management practice in their organizations,” he says.
For a graduate course, Arbaugh has students write a Professional Needs Assessment and Development Plan, a living document of what they need to do to achieve their goals or dream jobs. For this project Arbaugh is not a teacher, but a life coach for his students. “They’re not course assignments but rather they are goals and objectives for the whole of life, both professionally and personally.”
He cautions his students who take their plans too seriously and feel letdown if they fail to achieve their goals within a certain time frame. “A former pastor that I had made a comment once that people tend to overestimate what they can do in a year, but underestimate what they can do in a decade.”
To the students, who try to cram everything in the first 12–18 months, Arbaugh asks,“ Why are you in such a hurry? Is it going to kill you if it waits a year before it gets done?”
When asked if he had written such a plan years ago, he laughs and shakes his head. “It would not have looked like what I am now.”
He is grateful for the opportunities afforded to him as a professor and management education scholar. He says he could not have achieved as much as he has without the help of his wife, Paula. “I would not have been able to do what I have done [professionally] without her stabilizing hand on the home front,” he says.
When Arbaugh is not teaching or doing research, he enjoys spending as much time with his family as he can. He volunteers as the score/time keeper for 8-year-old son Aidan’s football games, where he sits in the press box with his other sons Alex, 13, and Addison,11.
Arbaugh has no regrets in choosing the path he has taken. As he looks at all his professional accomplishments, he says aside from his family, “the things I am most proud of are things that get translated back to the College of Business.”
Student reporter Isaac Federspiel also contributed to this report.
In this podcast, Dr. J. Ben Arbaugh discusses his book titled "Online and Blended Business Education." Produced by Ron Basler.