What do you do when you’re starting a new course on Innovation? You’ll need to think like an entrepreneur yourself – sense an opportunity, act on it, and mobilize resources and people to make it happen.
This is my story of establishing a course with new ways of teaching at Nord University Business School. Engage was established in 2016, about a year before I was supposed to finish my PhD at Nord University Business School. At the same time, the Business School was revitalizing their Master program in Business Science. To make the story short, I was asked to participate as an Engage representative (although I was not formally a part of Engage at that time), where my mission would be to see how Engage could be integrated into the new program. Me and my Engage colleague Gry Alsos discussed different possibilities on how to integrate Engage to the study program, but I must admit, I really didn`t understand what integrating Engage really implied, and I barely understood what Engage was really about, so I had a hard time explaining to people what our vision and mission was. Eventually, it was decided that we could create an “Engage course” that would be compulsory for all the master students, and that I would be responsible for developing and running it. That was the start of an interesting, frustrating and very educational journey. Partly because I was trying to finish my PhD at that time, but also because my interpretation of creating an Engage course was to stir everything about Engage together into one single course. Engage has many goals, including teaching students about innovation and entrepreneurship, developing students entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and educate people so that they become change agents and able to solve complex world-wide problems. What in the world would be the theoretical foundation for such a course? I wasn`t familiar with team/action/experience/problem-based teaching methods either, so It was overwhelming, and I had no idea where to start.
Innovation and Change processes
Fortunately, Bjørg Riibe Ramskjell, my creative colleague came to join the development team, and I was rescued. Creating a new course is innovation, and innovation takes teamwork. So together, we created the course “Innovation and Change processes”. Actually, we involved several people, our colleagues, students, partners in Engage and external organizations to get input to the content, the tools and the methods for the course. I would therefore say it was an open innovation process, as we integrated their ideas, knowledge and expertise to create the best course possible.
Approximately 50-70 students from all across the world participates in this course. This brings great diversity to the classroom in terms of backgrounds, languages and cultures. The overall objective is to teach students about innovation and entrepreneurship and how to meet challenges in business and society through an entrepreneurial mindset. However, the course is designed to encompass a much broader objective, including practicing student-active learning activities, student-to-student learning, developing collaborative skills and encourage student engagement. The main feature of the course is therefore the mandatory project week we call Blast-Off Week, which involves practice through action/experience/problem/and team-based learning methods, as well as reflection.
Blast-Off Week is four days of intensive project work, where students collaborate in international teams to come up with innovative solutions to real problems presented by local organizations. This means finding new business opportunities, new markets, new perspectives to current solutions, or other ideas to help them meet the demands or changes in their environment. It require the students to use what they have learned during class, their knowledge and creativity, and make the necessary assumptions and choices which will result in a potential solution to these challenges. The solutions are then presented in teams on the fifth day where they are evaluated and graded.
Challenging and represent uncertainty on many levels
The week is challenging and represent uncertainty on many levels for the students. For instance, they have to work in teams with people they don`t know and that are from other countries and cultures, speak English and present in front of their classmates every day and to the organization and sensors, and they have to be creative and create new concepts and solutions, from which there are no “correct answers”. The teams are also jointly evaluated and graded as part of the assessment, which will affect their final individual grade in the end of the course. This is for some of the high-achieving students very stressful. Some also question its relevance for themselves or the study program, and do not see how knowledge and skills about innovation and entrepreneurship correspond with their vision of what a business graduate needs to be attractive on the job market. This is an important element as the students do not choose to take this specific course, but have to participate and pass in order to graduate.
Because the week is challenging, mentors are engaged to help facilitate and guide the teams in the process. Blast-off week first ran in the fall of 2018, with eight faculty members from the business school as facilitators. Their task was to be present and available for the students during the week, provide feedback, help the students when they got stuck and make sure the teams made progress towards the finishing result. The following year when Blast-off week ran for the second time, some of the faculty where replaced with students that had taken the course the previous year. Acknowledging the uncertainties experienced by the students related to Blast-Off Week, we consider the involvement of peers that have already been through the process as helpful in the facilitation of the teams.
After two years of running this course, we find that the course – and especially Blast-Off week is particularly effective for team and network building, creativity training and for practicing innovation. And although it is resource intensive, we believe that it contributes to accomplishing the vision of Engage, which is to increase the number of students in Norway and around the world with entrepreneurial skills and the mindset to become change agents in all contexts.