BY KEVIN MOE
In today’s world of education, although content is still king, what increasingly matters is how it is being delivered. For example, experiential, or “hands-on,” learning has long been recognized as a valuable teaching tool. The Carlson School is well-known as a pioneer in this respect. The school launched its hugely successful Enterprise programs years ago and has since incorporated experiential components into many of its classes. Now, there are other drivers at play changing the field of education delivery.
Improving technology and changing student attitudes are motivating schools to look beyond the traditional lecture hall. Online classes, hybrids, flipped, compressed—no matter the design, these classes are a response to student demands for flexibility, relevancy, and engagement.
“When students graduate, we want them to be productive, skilled contributors to the workforce and civic life. Their work will not be sitting in a room listening to someone lecture, and then regurgitating memorized facts on tests,” says Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Senior Lecturer Rand Park.
Kristin Pardue, 98 MBA, ’07 Executive Leadership Program, and husband, Brad Von Bank, ’02 MBA, are in the perfect position to understand the educational needs of today’s students at every level as well as the needs of the companies they will work for.
The duo are co-founders of Rêve Academy, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help students dream with direction by providing pathways to digital careers.
“We work with students in the fifth through 12th grade who have historically not been on traditional higher education pathways,” Von Bank says. “We’re excited to see a lot of them attend college upon graduation and develop big entrepreneurial dreams for their future.”
Pardue is also the CEO and Von Bank the CBDO of Rêve Consulting, a strategy and service design consultancy that helps people and organizations innovate and grow. In addition, Pardue leads an annual workshop for Carlson School MBAs on design thinking, a much-needed subject for students going into strategy, marketing, or technology.
“Today’s students want to curate and personalize their educational experience, tailoring it to what they want to do in the world,” Pardue says. “They can educate themselves through new channels at the push of a button via YouTube or Udacity. So, they don’t always see the relevance of what is being taught in traditional settings with regard to their goals.”
Pardue says she has noticed several drivers behind this new paradigm. First, there is the “self-service” and temporal nature of how people now consume information. Second is the complexity of the world today due to accelerated change and the uncertainty of whether there is such a thing as disruption-proof career tracks. Finally, there is the rise of the cost of education coupled with a need for investment in continuous learning. “We have heard from undergrads, graduates, and middle-skilled workers who are currently retraining, that their fears concern the true value of degrees, the availability of jobs on the other side of graduation, and the return on their financial and time investments,” she says.
Von Bank says today’s students are looking for learning experiences that are much more applied, iterative, and multi-modal. “We are seeing an increased desire to engage in the learning process, as well as more comfort with failing and the eagerness to learn from it,” he says. “Students today have a window into the world that not only allows them to observe change at an incredible pace, but also understand the multi-faceted nature of the global economy.”
To adapt to meet the needs of these students, schools need to push for more interdisciplinary learning, more integrated learning with multiple stakeholders, and a variation of learning modes, Von Bank says. “Some of the ideas we implement at Rêve Academy are applied learning, group work, and creating strong relationships with employers through our student-run businesses,” Pardue says, adding that there are also opportunities in creating job-relevant and job-ready degrees or certifications that address disruption in specific industries, such as technology or healthcare. “Also, I strongly believe that schools need to foster the development of soft skills in their students, given that employers continue to say that this is a gap they are encountering in their hiring process.”
Companies, for their part, need to focus more on the continued learning of their employees and prioritize the resources needed to allow their workforce to continuously adapt. “Leaders need to understand what competencies in their people are critical to their business success and hire and train for that,” Pardue says. “If they can’t provide the skill development themselves, they need to work closely with educators to develop micro-credentials, certificates, or degree programs that ensure graduates have the skills they want to hire.”
MBA student Cody Dick is well aware of how technology has permeated all levels of education. “At the elementary level, children are able to use tablets and personal computers to complete homework, and programming classes are now available from a very young age,” he says. “It makes me want to return to kindergarten a bit—I’d love to get the technology-based education that many kids now have access to.”
In fact, one of the reasons Dick chose the Carlson School is due to its high ranking in multiple publications for its technology curriculum. “Having a technology emphasis allows me to spend time enrolling in classes that will help me learn more about technology management,” he says.
Dick has noticed that technology has also affected where he gets the most meaning from courses. “In our core classes, the most benefit has come from professors who place less emphasis on rote-memorization and more focus on the synthesis of ideas,” he says. “With Google as the predominant tool of the average technology worker, why waste time learning facts, figures, or computations? If anything, the advent of technology has only increased the need for business leaders to have soft skills—information knowledge is only one small facet of a well-rounded businessperson.”
There have been a few classes that haven’t integrated technology as much as he’d like, but Dick happily has found that the school is very open to suggestions. “I get the most benefit from a course when I am encouraged to use a laptop, given applications that I would see in the workplace, and provided with data and figures that support contentions that the professor presents to us,” he says. “When these aspects haven’t been present, there have been many opportunities to give feedback to give students agency in the structure of the program.”
Lastly, Dick identifies another aspect of the educational landscape that ultimately leads to greater insights for students—diversity. “I can think of a dozen specific discussions I’ve had with students in my program that have changed the way I’ve thought about a problem or situation, and, more often than not, these discussions were with people materially different than me,” he says. “Diverse learning environments enhance the student experience in a tangible way, and when students select an institution of higher learning, diversity has now become an imperative.”
He says when he talks to fellow business students, one comment he hears frequently is “it’s so cool that we have students from so many different backgrounds. How can we work to improve diversity even more in the coming years?”
“I’ve been very impressed with the admission staff’s ability to assemble a class that has a wide variety of professional backgrounds and represents many distinct cultures, races, and beliefs,” Dick says.
“I really appreciate when a professor combines a lecture and discussion in one,” says first-year undergraduate student Ifeoluwa Ekunsanmi. “These formats really help. When a teacher brings in a thought-provoking question, topic, or real-world example and allows the class to give opinions and feedback, it helps us see the topic from multiple perspectives and strategies.”
Although she enjoys the traditional lecture format, Ekunsanmi believes student interaction and participation is important. “One of my professors gives us scenarios based on situations that create complex ethical questions and decisions,” she says. “He pulls up a poll and we vote on how we would respond to the topic. After the polls are in, we discuss why we took such a stance.” Ekunsanmi explains that this format allows students who do not enjoy talking in class a way to participate. “This builds the culture of the Carlson School in a unique way. It gives each student a voice and helps classmates understand different viewpoints and why individuals think the way they do,” she says.
Ekunsanmi finds that integrating multiple teaching methods—polls, discussions, role playing, game simulations, and traditional lectures—engages all learning types and fosters new ways of thinking. “Carlson School students would receive an edge from this multi-format teaching style,” she says.
If there was one method that she has found most valuable so far in her studies, it would have to be the case study. “It allows us to feel like we are consultants, something that cannot be done in an hour lecture,” she says. “We are able to research and learn about the real world and how it operates. We are able to see the types of issues and dilemmas companies face, and we may possibly face one day.”
Carolyn Watkins, a Full-Time MBA student expecting to graduate in 2018, says she has a lot of experience with non-traditional classes, or even ones that consist of more than a typical, scholarly lecture. She’s had courses based on large group discussion, case analysis, and project-based work with an external partner/company. For class format, she says she prefers anything other than lecture.
“There is absolutely a time and a place for a full-on lecture, but I feel that the experiences that I’ve had in or outside the classroom that have been the most impactful and memorable are the ones that allow me to apply classroom concepts to a real-life scenario,” she says. “These experiences provide a unique opportunity to fully understand how course concepts are being observed and used in business.”
Watkins says she finds experiential learning the most attractive form of education as it aligns best with her learning style. However, she says that many times, this format’s effectiveness is based on the structure of the class and the support of the instructor. “My ideal class would be a balance of project-based work with an external partner and class discussion,” she says. “This gives an opportunity for application as well as reflection.” She adds that she finds it imperative to have strong instructor expertise and classroom support for project-based work to be successful.