Integrating an Integrative Strategic Experience

The title is a play off the course that I am hybridizing this spring for delivery in the fall. The course is BA 466 – Integrative Strategic Experience. This is the capstone course for undergraduates in the College of Business here at Oregon State University.

First, a little background about this “experience”. When I started at OSU eight years ago, this course was both the writing intensive and capstone course for the college. That was a lot of weight to carry — it was case-based and was taught using a strategic management textbook with a series of progressively complex cases about businesses and problems or opportunities they encountered. At the same time the college decided the WIC should happen earlier in a business student’s education, the course coordinator determined strategy is better taught using a simulation… hence, the word “experience” in the title.

Micromatic

Micromatic Industry Central

Micromatic offers Solo Practice, Team Play, and Solo Exam modes.

The simulation (Micromatic) pits teams of three or four students against each other in an industry. Firms in the industry manufacture a fictitious product and sell it globally. Students make decisions related to marketing, operations, and finance using strategic management principles. Complications are introduced through the use of two currencies (dollars and euros) in three geographic regions. Companies must manage a workforce and a salesforce, position their product, manage inventory, decide where to locate plants.

The upside of this sophisticated simulation is its realism; markets can shrink or expand independently of each other, buyer loyalty is nonexistent, running out of cash is severely punished with expensive emergency loans. The downside is that it takes a lot of practice. I estimate 10-20 hours to learn the software (depending on the student) before they can apply strategic management theory to make and execute a business-level strategy. It is nearly impossible to fake a knowledge of strategy in this environment.

Going Online, Then Hybrid

In fall 2015, the college began offering a fully online course in Business Administration through Ecampus. BA 466 seemed a natural for online delivery given the computer simulation component. The course was QM certified in November 2016.

Still, after teaching this course in both domains (online and in-person) more times than I care to admit, something was still not right. Wishing I could offer the course both online and in-person, I was delighted when the college asked for volunteers to develop the course as a hybrid!

And, so far so good.

The Design Comes Together

A long time ago I stopped fighting students who didn’t believe it would take as much time as I thought to learn the software — of course, they are all quick learners. So, I am adding three progressively challenging practice sessions during class time. A fourth work session will allow students to study a previous class’s sample industry where they see the decisions made by a successful and an unsuccessful company. This helps them to understand what to do and avoid for their own company.

Fortunately, the textbook I use for the course contains eight chapters; it gets covered during this initial 4-week period. A fifth class period will act as an integration opportunity for students to apply what they have learned through the recorded lectures, textbook, and in-class exercises to create an action plan for the company competition.

The competition will run over three weeks and entirely in person. Students can use the week-long breaks between sessions to adjust their strategies and improve their position in the industry. The simulation creates a virtual pile of data in spreadsheet format. Student groups will be assigned a client company to evaluate during the final two-week case study portion of the course. Playing the role of an outside consultant, students apply strategic tools to understand their client’s performance. They identify two opportunities for improvement and create a set of actionable recommendations. They submit this client report in writing and record it as an oral presentation. Both assignments are uploaded into Canvas. Much of this case study activity takes place in the classroom, where consultants speak directly with clients. But, much takes place using collaborative technologies outside of the classroom as well.

Not Done Experimenting

Optionally, after completing the group effort, students have one more opportunity to complete the same client report process solo. A version of the simulation software in exam mode allows them to create a new data set. They write a client report with recommendations for the exam mode company where they are both client and consultant. (This addresses the issue of meeting your client!) Students can start during dead week if they choose this option. It is due in Canvas by the middle of finals week.

To make this optional exercise desirable for high achieving students, it is mandatory for any student wishing to receive an “A” or “A-” in the course. That is, even if they have an “A” after the group project, the best they can receive without finishing the optional final project is a “B+”. Students who want to finish early get what they have earned as of the end of the group project.

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CMS Driving your Course? Should it?

As an adopter of the Flipped/Hybrid course philosophy, I am very blessed in that I come for a background in computer science. Why is this such a  blessing for me is that I don’t fall into the trap of my teaching being limited by the tools at my disposal. While access to ready made tools allows for the rapid creation of online course materials including grading rubrics, distribution, and multi media these may not be enough.

For example, in one of my courses students are required to get approval from external customers for changes. This can not be done within a traditional CMS. It is important however so how should it be handled? Does the teaching faculty ask for emails from stakeholders that they enter approvals for? How are the approvals recorded? It is completely outside of the scope of ‘stock CMS’ programs. In my case I was able to write custom webpages and databases for doing the work.

That leads to another common problem however, don’t reinvent the wheel. Once we start creating ‘special’ ways of doing things, we can can run the risk of only doing our custom methods costing large amounts of energy.

However, the choice between custom and generic is hard to make. Experience is the ultimate tool in making the decisions. For me, I have done everything custom for the last 10 years but this year I have finally began to include Canvas (a CMS) as a piece of the puzzle. I have found it to save me a lot of time with only minor impacts to the quality of the course.

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Technology

We read a few different articles in Week 3.  In the ones that covered technology, it was interesting to see that at least one article said “don’t do too much technology too soon”, while others said to make use of it…

I am of the “don’t do too much too soon” camp, and believe that we need to keep it as simple as possible. Some tech companies look at how many clicks it takes to get something done; I know that my interest is lost and my mood deteriorating at the 4th click.

 

 

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Working to be the “World’s Best Hybrid Finance course”

My face-to-face FIN 340 course is structured as a combination of lecture via PowerPoint and problem solving. I usually achieve the latter by going through a few examples on the board or spreadsheet, depending on the topic, followed by providing students with an opportunity to try some problems themselves, either in groups or individually. My course is quantitative in nature and this format has worked well for students to achieve the course’s learning outcomes. The lecture component of the course consists primarily of a discussion of theory, topic background and foundation. I provide students with slides on Canvas prior to class. The slides provide students with theoretical points and formulas but no examples. I use class time to elaborate on the slides through examples, providing connection to current and historical events through videos, article discussions, etc.

To avoid pitfall #1, Upload your course material, then call it a day, I have to ensure that the examples that I discuss in class (non-quantitative) are captured in the material I provide to the students; and that the material connects the theory with what I think is relevant from the examples. This would include incorporating video and article links into material, and would require some advance preparation although some of the ‘color’ added is real-time. To address real-time issues, I may consider discussion boards in my course. I also expect to provide students with the opportunity to provide feedback (our College is considering software for this) on their understanding of the online materials, and adjust, to the extent that I can, the areas of emphasis in the face-to-face meetings.

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Don’t upload then leave, you know better!!

As I’ve listened too many of former students and advisee’s, there are instructors and professors that just assign readings, lectures, or articles in their classes and leave it up to the students to decide who to go about understanding the info. I’ve taught a couple classes online and find myself from time to time doing this. I need to be better about about making sure to explain how the material applies to class if perhaps through video or through an assignment or through an activity. This needs to be a goal for me every week about also to make sure that the in-class time is appropriate to the material online and thoroughly connected. I’ve taught hybrid before and this was my biggest issue. I felt as an instructor that I had a issue with the students not connecting enough with material and making sense of it. I need to find activities/assignments that can be started online but completed in class to make that connection. That ability to keep the material present and engaged will make better for me to connect the dots for the audience!! This is going to challenging at times but the payoff will be worth it at the end.

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From Pitfall to Springboard

I would like to avoid Pitfalls 4 & 5.

My experience with Pitfall 5 – In the Leadership Collaborative (LC), Learning Teams play a crucial role at the nexus of theory and praxis.  In the F2F sessions, Learning Teams are the primary means through which learners explore new concepts; experiment with applying those ideas to their work; discuss, debate and question; reflect on practice; and consult with each other.  In my first iteration of the hybrid, I endeavored to create this space for learners.  I created discussion boards for each Learning Team and asked Mentors to engage the teams in general conversation.  The effort was a bust.

My experience with Pitfall 4 – Another strategy deeply embedded in the LC is the use of time for individual work, whether that be experimenting with an idea, practicing with a tool or reflecting on previous efforts.  These moments of reflection provide the information from which the Learning Team work commences, from which new concepts can be presented, and from which on-the-job application can be considered.  The objective is that learners are consistently provided opportunities to explore the relationship between new information and what already exists in their cognitive maps.  In my first iteration of the hybrid, I did not experiment with the opportunities for replicating this experience online.

So, my idea…  In the classroom, I follow a rule – no more than 10 minutes of presentation before learners are actively engaged.  So, the general flow is 10 minutes presentation, individual work, team work, large group reflection.  It occurred to me that I can replicate that process – somewhat – as I create this hybrid.  What I’m thinking is that I’ll create 10 minutes videos, paired with quizzes-as-learning-aides.  I’ll then create an individual assignment and a discussion board.  Part of the assignment will be to reflect, in the discussion board, on what the person learned, struggled with, wondered about, as s/he completed her assignment.  Hopefully, this will initiate the same rich online sharing as occurs in the classroom.  When we gather for the F2F, our work will build on the individual work and teamwork that occurred online.

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Canvas: It’s not all that smart on its own.

Course management tools are useful–we can, I’m sure, all think of ways that they make a professor’s life easier.  No need to have course packets of readings ready to be copied a month before the term starts, no need to copy each and every assignment 100 times, simple and easy-to-use rubric tools for grading (no need to lug about those 100 papers once they’re turned back in, either!).

They also, sadly, have their drawbacks, as does any tool that’s designed to be used by a wide range of people. When you think about it, we ask Blackboard and Canvas and other similar systems to accommodate wildly different teaching and learning needs. Our campus, for instance, uses Canvas for everything. This includes introductory, 800-person, in-person required classes that are offered 3 times each term; online senior capstone courses; tiny, highly-specialized graduate discussion- and guest speaker-based seminars.  The needs for each of these courses are vastly different–is it any wonder, then, that Canvas cannot handle all of them absolutely perfectly (or even, ANY of them perfectly)?  No.  A middle ground is the only way, and the software developers have, I think, done a decent job at this.  I teach a variety of classes, and have no more trouble with any one of them than another, but rather a few minor troubles–not always the same–with each.  (Your mileage, obviously, may vary.)

One potential drawback of online courses stems from “letting Canvas drive the thinking/organization of the course.”  One example from my own classes is Canvas’s “module” feature. When our campus switched from BB to Canvas a few years back, there were faculty webinars, live demo/Q&A sessions, pdf handouts circulated by email, etc., to help faculty learn the new system. Each and every one of these learning tools emphasized the absolute importance of using MODULES to organize your Canvas course. Modules, these documents claimed, are what makes Canvas great.

However, while the idea of a module makes sense in some contexts, in others (here I’m thinking those highly-specialized graduate seminars, of which I teach 3) they really just…don’t. As I set up for my first term with Canvas–and I was an early adopter, so this would’ve been….Winter of 2015, I think…I realized that there was no way I could teach my undergraduate introductory epidemiology class (which is conveniently already organized into 4 discrete Units) *with* modules, but my graduate seminar (which is organized entirely based on guest speaker availability, student interests, and often changes last-minute as the group collectively decides to pursue some line of inquiry or another) without. Knowing myself, I had to find a way to have both my canvas sites set up in at least marginally-similar fashion, or I’d spend the whole term utterly confused.

My solution, which I intend to employ in the hybrid version of H425, is to run everything instead through the “syllabus” tab. So, I make an assignment for everything.  And I mean *everything*.  Readings, lecture slides, class handouts, and of course, genuine turn-something-in assignments. For things that are just informational (e.g., handouts), or an assignment with no explicit product (e.g., readings), Canvas conveniently has a “non-graded assignment” classification. Just give that handout a “due date” of the day I’m going to hand it out in class, et voila!  It pops up on the syllabus tab listed right there in order.

What do YOU do with canvas?

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Engaging students in knowledge production

One of the main benefits, in my mind, of rethinking delivery of a course is the all too rare chance to really evaluate what concepts, outcomes, and learning strategies you are trying to achieve with a course, and then working through the creative process of realizing those achievements.  In my own case, I have a course I have been teaching for years, with the requisite annual tweaks that improved the course, but I had rarely had the chance (or need) to do a complete rethink of the course.  As a result, I have fallen into pitfall #4 – putting plenty of “knowledge” in front of the students, but too rarely really engaging students in the development of that knowledge in their own selves.  Moving to a flipped approach provides an opportunity to really consider what types of learning materials and strategies deeply engage students in knowledge generation, while taking advantage of the expanding capabilities of electronic media.  My course focuses on modeling a range of biological and ecological phenomena, with goals that are both skills-based and concept-based; how to represent systems mathematically, how to understand and represent linkages between system components,  how to discover and anticipate general patterns of behaviors based on underlying systems structures.  This a rich domain for interactive learning, and software tools are perhaps getting close to useful for supporting interactive learning and engagement.  I’m just now started to delve in to some of these tools, and am looking forward to seeing where this goes.

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Helping to create creators of knowledge

As someone who consistently preaches the gospel of active learning to my students, I aim to overcome Pitfall #4, expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it, as described in Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design (Links to an external site.). In fact, in my current syllabus I have a statement that says, “Knowledge is not something that can be simply given from one person to another. Therefore, simply showing up to class and passively listening is not sufficient to result in learning.” In order to help students in my hybrid course become creators of knowledge rather than just consumers of it, I have identified a few crucial aspects of the course, which I will outline below.

First, the core assignment of my Managing Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility course is the Personal Ethical Action Plan. This assignment is a very personal, action-oriented game plan that students are encouraged to take with them into the world of work. In it, students are tasked with identifying their core values, identifying and analyzing instances where they did and did not act on these values, crafting a professional purpose statement, drafting a self-story that shares the origins of their values, and then analyzing their strengths and weaknesses regarding speaking up when their values are challenged. Thus, the type of knowledge created in this assignment is primarily self-knowledge. Importantly, however, this self-knowledge is focused on changing behaviors such that they are more consistent with the values each student embraces.

Second, I utilize learning journals where students are encouraged to engage in two types of writing. The first type is reflective, unstructured writing that is intended to allow for reflection and assimilation of knowledge. The second type consists of responding to structured prompts that challenge students to go beyond what was provided in the text and/or other online resources in creating a deeper understanding of how the material fits with their pre-existing knowledge base. The combined impact of these writing types is that it allows students to “know what they think by seeing what they write” an adaptation of Karl Weick’s statement “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

I am still thinking of additional ways to foster an environment where creating knowledge, in the case of this course primarily self-knowledge, becomes a primary aim rather than simply consuming knowledge. I am interested to hear of ideas that others have with regards to this pitfall.

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Class Presentations- #4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it.

I thought that a few of the “pitfalls” mentioned in Five Common Pitfalls of Course Design were strongly tied to each other. For example, #3 about not being the “sage on the stage” and #5 about students learning from each other are flip-sides of #4, the idea that students can generate knowledge for themselves. I deeply agree with the principles behind all of these explanations of pitfalls, and I want to make sure that my course doesn’t fall into them (or falls into them as little as possible).

I think that giving students the opportunity to do presentations, bot individually and as a team, will give them the opportunity to move through Bloom’s Taxonomy past repetition of facts all the way up to creation of knowledge. Students can do mini-presentations in teams during class, meanwhile teaching other students and adding richness of diversity in perspectives that would not be possible with just one person or two people (me or my co-teacher) delivering all of the information. This set-up will allow them to leverage their experience and the experience of their classmates for mutual benefit.

In addition, I would like to give individual students opportunities to turn in online presentations of course materials to demonstrate understanding and then require the class to comment on these presentations and ask questions. I believe this scenario will help us to avoid pitfalls 3, 4, and 5 all at the same time, facilitating a more student-centered and engaging classroom community.

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