Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
The community spirit of the Internet has banished any back-to-school jitters at the Sloan School of Management for the incoming MBA Class of 2001, the first business school class in the nation required to apply online.
The more than 300 entrepreneurial students from 46 countries on all seven continents have taken online technology to unanticipated heights, making them the most wired class to enter MIT Sloan. Students already have used the Internet to get to know one another, to organize and to launch projects, giving them a head start on two demanding years of study.
As early as last April, admitted applicants launched a Yahoo! club. The virtual group soon grew into the largest business school club on the Yahoo! site, with 332 members and more than 175,000 page views. They started with a chat room for discussions with faculty, administrators and each other, and quickly advanced to publishing a series of online newsletters.
As the string of member commu-niquï¿½s grew, the group created an indexing system to locate and retrieve messages. The admitted applicants arranged gatherings worldwide, often inviting second-year students and alumni/ae for picnics, dinners, a rafting trip and a nightly gabfest at the "pub du jour." The virtual connections also gave the incoming MBAs a jump on one of the upcoming semester's most critical tasks: learning to work well in teams.
Some had already met hundreds of classmates, virtually or in person, before their August 30 orientation. Beyond simply socializing, the virtual connections have included a mutual aid society to help each other secure financial aid, help late-comers apply to school and help the more precocious prepare for job interviews. Pooling their own funds, the students formed a housing syndicate to lease apartments quickly in the region's tight real estate market. Two even more entrepreneurial subgroups cemented commercial partnerships and set out in search of venture capital.
Gwendolyn Hasse, 29, an early organizer of her class's wired odyssey, said that alumni/ae she spoke with after being accepted advised her to get to know as many classmates as quickly as possible because she could learn a lot from them. She and the others got the electronic tools they needed from Sloan and started the site. "From there it grew like an electronic potluck: everyone brought something else," she said.
Moving to an online-only application process also transformed how Sloan interacts with MBA prospects and manages the admissions process. Having all students and administrators linked online "improved the quality of customer service," said Rod Garcia, director of MBA admissions. "Rather than weeks of exchanging materials, post cards and phone calls -- and lots of time spent anxiously wondering in between -- the Class of 2001 knew in real time where they stood in the application and acceptance process."
The breadth of the Internet exploits even surprised some of Sloan's incoming web wizards, including Gokul Rajaram, 25, a software engineer with an MS in computer science.
"I used to think [the online linkups] were frivolous," said the Indian-born Rajaram, who emigrated to the United States in 1994 to attend graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. After two years there, he knew about 40 classmates. Already he knows about 200 "Sloanies" and has worked with dozens of them on various projects.
"Sloan has one of the toughest curricula in the country," he said. "But we'll hit the ground running, because we already know each other's work styles and how to allocate jobs to get stuff done fast and right."
Even "e-ophytes" have amassed skills and capabilities they never expected to have. Chris Buchholz, 27, an Oxford-educated Norwegian investment banker, was only an occasional e-mail user. "I was e-illiterate," he said. But once he was accepted and linked to Sloan, he was able to embark on a scuba diving tour of Asian beaches and still obtain his immigration papers and get acquainted with classmates.
Given the group's wired culture, it is not surprising that in an online survey that the Class of 2001 conducted, nearly 80 percent said they may pursue the new Electronic Commerce and Marketing management track that Sloan is launching this fall.
"Entering students used to be dewy-eyed, and the faculty was in control," said Professor Nader Tavassoli, co-director of the new track. "But these guys have acquired so much information, business skill and opinions, they aren't waiting to be guided."
They already have done homework on one of the track's major assignments: devising strategies for building lasting communities of consumers and suppliers around virtual enterprises. As a result, Professor Tavassoli is amending his syllabus to make this their first project.
A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 5).