Simulation-Based Pedagogy for Business Students (Mellon Project Report)

My project has been to redesign the BA 495 Strategic Management capstone course into a simulation-based management training program that integrates and reinforces knowledge and skills learned in courses of the core business curriculum. I have successfully implement the first iteration of the project in Fall 2016, providing students with an enhanced business strategy simulation experience enriched with a series of value-added activities and assessment. I am now implementing an improved version of the simulation in Spring 2017 based on feedback from students who participated in the first version.

The simulation software used in my course is called Marketplace Live Simulation (MLS). This is a web-based, large-scale, full-enterprise simulation interface offered by Innovative Learning Solutions, Inc. MLS has been used for corporate executive training programs in a variety of businesses around the world, such as Coca Cola, FedEx, Delta Airlines, Walmart, and IBM. The Mellon Foundation digital pedagogy award allowed me to work on the customization and adoption of MLS for business majors at Austin College. Our students are now learning with a management training tool that is widely used in real-life corporate management training.

The simulation employs a competitive market environment in which students build a business from the ground up to enter the microcomputer industry. The teams are tasked with introducing a new line of microcomputers into several international markets. MLS offers different difficulty levels for the simulated market environment. In Fall 2016, I used a market environment involving six decision rounds, three customer segments, and four geographic regions. This was my first semester at Austin College and I had little idea about the caliber of business students at the college. I started with a standard difficulty level in and planned to lower it, if necessary, in future iterations. However, observing how well students handled the decision making process in the simulation, I upgraded the difficulty to a very high level in Spring 2017. Students now interact in a market environment that involves eight decision rounds, five customer segments, and twenty geographic markets. A fifteen-minute overview of the simulation’s decision content is accessible at the MLS website.

Map of the simulated market environment involving twenty geographic markets in which student teams competes for strategic dominance in the microcomputer business. Source: Innovative Learning Solutions, Inc

The simulation requires students to form executive teams consisting of four or five members. Within each team, students work as the Vice Presidents of specific functional areas. Throughout the decision rounds, they conduct market analyses, evaluate the strategic position of the firm, and make tactical decisions with regards to product design, R&D, manufacturing capacity, production processes, inventory management, human resource management, sales channel planning, advertising, and financial accounting. They are required to adjust strategies and tactics in response to uncertainties arising from the market environment, the consequences of their own decisions, and the actions of competing teams. The goal is to achieve strategic dominance in the marketplace that is measured by a balanced scorecard within the simulation.

Image of a typical brand design interface in the simulation software. A student in charge of the Vice President of Marketing position uses this interface to design brands based on the evaluation of market data and the offerings.of competitors.

I conducted executive briefings on a weekly basis. Each team meets with me for about fifteen minutes to discuss and justify the decisions that they are planning to make for the decision round. These sessions trains students in professional meeting preparation and management and allow me to monitor the critical thinking process of each student. I challenge the students’ thinking by looking for inconsistencies in their analyses and decisions. I do not indicate the correct decision to make, but try ensure that students have considered the relevant issues related to their strategic and tactical decisions. In Fall 2016, executive briefing sessions were conducted orally, and I used a rubric to evaluate whether students can think on their feet and respond to questions and challenges in a thoughtful, confident manner.

To emphasize the development of business writing skills, I have implemented a executive memo requirement for Spring 2017. Students are now required to justify their decisions both orally and with a two-page executive memo. I have now also developed a rubric for the written memos, assessing the student’s ability to thoughtfully present his/her tactical decisions based on a concise analysis of the market environment as well as a consideration of how these decisions will impact the firm’s overall strategy. Both the oral and written rubrics measure student performance along the dimensions of Depth of Understanding, Breadth of Understanding, and Management by the Numbers.

At the middle of the simulation exercise, students are required to prepare a business plan and present it to independent judge(s) who serve as venture capitalist(s). I am currently working with one independent judge for the business plan presentation. However, I have plans to involve two judges in future. With his extensive business experience, Mr. Charles Curtis, Executive Director of Information Technology at Austin College, has been a great resource person to play the role of the venture capitalist. I am thankful to Mr. Curtis for his willingness to take part in this exercise. Business plan presentation is a comprehensive and complex assignment. Students develop a formal strategy involving detailed tactical plans and pro-forma financial projections for the next four decision rounds. In Fall 2016, the PowerPoint presentation, tactical plan, and pro-forma financial statements served as the business plan. To emphasize writing, I have added a five-page written business plan component in Spring 2017. To maintain tactical confidentiality, each team presents their business plan in a closed-door meeting with the venture capitalist. Teams answer questions and try to persuade the investor that they are worthy of a full investment. After listening to all presentation, the investor then decide how much to invest in each company.

For Spring 2017, I have added a follow-up negotiation meeting with the investor. In these meetings, the investor (i.e., Mr. Curtis) met with each team separately to discuss the plan in more detail and negotiate an investment amount. The business plan preparation serves as an important tool for the development of the students’ ability to think broadly and deeply about their business. The purpose of the follow negotiation meetings is to give students a hands-on experience with business negotiation process. Students faces the challenge of learning how to ask for money, justify its use with a credible plan, and convince a critical investor. I have developed rubric for assessing students’ performance in presenting their business plan. The rubric cover thirteen performance dimensions. Students receive a copy of the rubric and we discuss it in class to make sure that expectations are fully understood.

At the end of the simulation, the venture capitalist is invited back to class. Teams present a final report to the investor about their business performance. They must look in the eye of the person from whom they took money and be accountable for their actions and performance. It is often uncomfortable in real life to report performance outcomes that fall short of promises. Student go through similar experience as part of the simulation. I have also developed grading rubrics to evaluate final presentation performance. The final report rubrics covers thirteen performance dimensions and also focusses on the assessment of lessons learned from the simulation.

Mr. Charles Curtis, who plays the role of a venture capitalist in the simulation exercise, with students after the business plan presentation session in Fall-2016.

Observations:

I used a sports-like draft process to form teams in Fall 2016. The simulation business environment is highly competitive and students are required to keep corporate information confidential. Since the size of the student population is relatively small at Austin College and most students personally know each other, maintaining business confidentiality proved to be challenging. I even had students who were roommates, but placed on competing teams. They reported that it took conscious effort  to refrain from discussing the simulation due to a fear of unintentional disclosure of corporate secrets. As a result, there was some effect on the openness of the conversations that they had previously enjoyed. Based on feedback, I changed the team formation process to a peer interview-based model in Spring 2017 to allow students more flexibility in choosing teams.

The peer interviewing process was an engaging experience for students. Most students reported that it was their first experience of sitting on the employer’s side of the table in a job interview, and it gave them an opportunity to reflect and evaluate their own job interview skills as candidates. However, some students used this opportunity to recruit friends or relationship partners in simulation teams. Teams that formed based on personal relationship are currently struggling to perform well. Since friends within a team tend not to challenge each other’s thoughts, peer scrutiny is relatively weaker in these teams, and as a result the quality of the decision making is poorer. I now realize that it is necessary to teach students the importance of keeping personal life and work life separate.

To integrate knowledge gained in other courses is one of the top learning objectives of this course. Evaluation of oral executive briefings and written executive memos show that students struggle to demonstrate cross-functional knowledge in early stages of the simulation. The average score on the breadth of understanding for the first four decision rounds in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 combined was 1.94 on. a 4-points scale, where 2 is the benchmark for satisfactory rating. Students generally lack the understanding of how decisions made in a specific functional area are tied into the overall strategy of the firm. In the later part of the simulation, the breadth of understanding score increases to an average 3.2, where 3 is the benchmark of effective rating. This indicates that the simulation promotes better decision making by helping students see how their decisions can affect the performance of others and the organization as a whole.

A strong group dynamic is at the core of the simulation exercise. Students are provided with an opportunity to work within a group context where group performance is a major determinant of final grades. I allow teams, under my careful supervision, to fire non-performing team members. If a student is fired from a team, he/she receives significant grade penalty and is required to complete the whole simulation on his/her own. In Fall 2016, one student was fired from their team and eventually had to drop the course due to increased workload. This challenging conditions tends to remove the barriers between the individual students and motivate them to become colleagues by creating a shared space that emphasizes care, trust, and commitment.

Instructors interested in developing simulation-based course should keep in mind that the changing market environment makes each iteration of the simulation unique. As a result, course preparation takes a significant amount of time as instructors will need to evaluate market condition faced by each team to be able to contribute during the executive briefings.

Simulation-based pedagogy offers an experiential learning process that emphasizes repeated action, reflection, accommodation, and testing. This process allow students to refine their knowledge and developed business skills. As such, simulation based-pedagogy can be implemented in any business courses. In the future, I am planning to extend simulation-based pedagogy at Austin College with a Jan Term course targeted to non-business majors. This will create hands-on experiential learning opportunity for non-business majors to develop an understanding of business with a fun, intro-level business simulation.

More Maps–Further Explorations with ArcGIS Online

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-1-02-15-pmSo far this month we’ve explored how to create digital pedagogy projects using both Google My Maps and Story Maps Journal. This week we’ll conclude our month of focusing on spatial literacy and digital mapping with a more in-depth introduction to GIS, or Geographical Information Systems. Specifically, we’ll discuss what you can do with a free public account at ArcGIS Online.

ArcGIS, the most widely used resource in digital mapping, is actually a suite of applications of varying degrees of accessibility and complexity. The desktop version of the program is installed in a number of the computer labs at Austin College. The web-based version, ArcGIS Online, is accessed through a browser. There are subscription-based organizational accounts, but also a free version that is referred to as a “public” account. Though some of the advanced analytic and visualization feature are only available via subscription, the free public account offers a quite robust set of features that is worth becoming familiar with. The Story Maps journal application is one such feature. However, there are many other ways that you can incorporate maps and spatially-referenced content into your teaching and research outside of the Story Maps platform. We’ll take some time in this week’s workshops for conversation and exploration of some possibilities.

Meanwhile, here’s a quick start guide on using ArcGIS Online with a free public account:

Digital Pedagogy Johnson Center Lunches–March 5, 19

johnson centerBernice Melvin, Director of the Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching, has graciously offered DP@AC two Thursday lunch periods for March. We’re kicking around some ideas for discussion, but we’d like to hear from faculty…what issues and topics related to digital pedagogy would you like to discuss and hear more about? We interpret “digital pedagogy” pretty broadly, so if you’ve got any thoughts or suggestions, post a comment and let us know.

Several Points of Contact in the New NMC Horizon Report

nmc_itunesu.HR2015-170x170This year’s New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report just came out last week, and there are some intriguing points of intersection with the trends they identify and digital pedagogy practices and initiatives we’re interested in @AC.

For example, NMC identifies six trends accelerating higher ed tech adoption in the next few, including “Increased Use of Blended Learning,” “Redesigning Learning Spaces,” and “Increasing Cross-Institution Collaboration.” Each of these figures prominently either in the structure of the Mellon Digital Pedagogy grant itself and as a topic of conversation at Johnson Center workshops and lunches, around campus, or both. Of the challenges impeding adoption, “Improving Digital Literacy” and “Teaching Complex Thinking” are both issues we have been dealing with for several years if not longer.

Among the other developments highlighted, flipped classrooms and makerspaces are both concepts that have been much discussed of late. Makerspaces, in particular, are an early focus of this blog, and chemistry professor Andy Carr’s flipped classroom experiments are supported directly by the Mellon Digital Pedagogy grant.

I’ll have to agree with NMC that these issues will be prominent ones to watch at we move deeper into 2015.

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Welcome to the blog and website for academic technology at Austin College. We hope this becomes a place where faculty and students at AC can find and share ideas and inspiration about improving teaching and learning with digital technologies. Thanks to a generous Mellon Foundation grant, “Collaborative Pedagogies for a Digital Age,” we are increasing our support for innovative projects in the Austin College academic community.

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