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How to Introduce an Entrepreneurial Mindset to Collaborative Course Design

August 10, 2017 //

Verhoeven, Histand, and Hill (pictured left to right) all design courses for the INNO curriculum.

Bert Verhoeven is a university professor of the best course you never got to take—students in his courses spend their time writing TV commercials, designing wallets, and interviewing Muffin Break customers.

Verhoeven is part of a recent partnership between Flinders University, in Adelaide, Australia, and the Fox School to teach innovation and enterprise (INNO) curriculum to help Flinders students thrive in today’s competitive landscape.

Pulling from a variety of methodologies, including design thinking and lean start-up, the INNO curriculum challenges students to learn experientially. “Businesses struggle to teach theory,” Verhoeven explains. “Universities struggle to teach tacit learning. The goal of the INNO courses is to bridge the gap between the two.”

The curriculum design team for INNO includes several longtime entrepreneurs like Verhoeven, who has 25 years of experience creating and leading new enterprises. The team also recently welcomed Michelle Histand, director of innovation at Independence Blue Cross, as the new associate director of the Flinders project at the Fox School. Unwilling to let learning stop with the students, the INNO contributors push themselves to think like entrepreneurs throughout the curriculum design process.

Below, faculty from Flinders and the Fox School share five lessons they’ve learned for any institution hoping to apply an entrepreneurial orientation to collaborative course design.

Students at Flinders not only learn a lot through the INNO curriculum, they love coming to class.

1) Practice Opportunity Recognition

Every entrepreneurial journey begins as an insight. In the case of the INNO partnership, inspiration struck when TL Hill, managing director of Fox Management Consulting, learned that Flinders was instilling innovation as a backbone of curriculum across their university. Hill saw an opportunity to help build an inventive new program while simultaneously honing the Fox School’s skills as a leader in entrepreneurship education.

Recognizing opportunities can begin with some basic questions: What are the pain points in your courses and programs? How do things look and feel from your customer’s perspective? Who is doing it better? Where can you glean insight outside of the academic world?

Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, advises hopeful entrepreneurs to be “opportunistic collectors,” taking inspiration from poems, lyrics, or snippets of conversation. Whatever your sources, practicing opportunity recognition begins with believing that new and better curriculum opportunities exist—and staying on the lookout.

2) Create Shorter Learning Cycles

Thomas Watson Jr., of IBM, famously advised, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” This saying was born out in the well-known Marshmallow Challenge, a group exercise where teams were asked to build towers of spaghetti and masking tape with a marshmallow on the top.

The challenge gained attention when kindergartners were found to significantly outperform adults, creating taller and more inventive structures in less time. The key to the kid’s success was jabbing the sticky sweet on top immediately. While adults plotted and planned, the tots were busy trying and failing and learning. By shortening their learning cycles, the kids allowed more opportunities for failure and success.

The instructors creating INNO courses are practicing this process in real time. Their initial course curriculum was laid out only a year ago, and is already undergoing its third overhaul. While this pace can be exhausting, it is leading to courses that are quickly becoming some of the best attended at Flinders.

In addition to investing in curriculum adjustment, universities can create shorter learning cycles by sharing projects and ideas earlier. Welcoming feedback into a partially planned course, giving a presentation on a young project, or planning Skype conversations early in a partnership allows course designers to fail quickly and adjust accordingly.

“We keep asking ourselves, ‘How do we learn faster?'” says Verhoeven. The answer? Create shorter learning cycles.

3) Prioritize Reflection

Much like resting your muscles after a hard workout, reflection is necessary to ensure learning cycles lead to genuine improvement and growth. One of the most common ways universities practice reflection is soliciting student feedback. The Fox School has made a practice of broadening that approach to collect feedback from all stakeholders.

The first design of the INNO curriculum was based on the Fox School’s past experience, and on brief conversations with Australian business leaders early last fall. In October, the Fox School sent a team to Adelaide to conduct focus groups and extensive interviews; the next summer, Verhoeven traveled to Philadelphia to reflect after the first full semester of courses launched.

All of this conversation fueled the curriculum rewrites of the last year. Like a cat chasing its own tail, reflection generates new learning cycles which create fodder for more reflection.

4) Cultivate Your Culture

Creating the right culture is essential for new businesses, as Hill explains, “because they’re fighting so hard against the tide. They don’t have time to disagree about everything.” The same can be said for collaborative curriculum designers hoping to push the envelope.

Cultivating culture starts by articulating a clear vision. The INNO team is challenging students and faculty to relearn how to learn. Their motto is “differently think.” Paying attention to that vision, clearly communicating it, helps them stay on track.

A strong vision becomes a helpful litmus test for building a team. “There are many different ways of teaching entrepreneurship,” Hill says. By understanding their vision, and hiring to match that vision, the INNO team is developing a strong culture and paving the way for an effective team.

While culture can feel amorphous and hard to pin down, it is the secret sauce that every successful enterprise has to master. Universities practicing collaborative course design must tend their culture well or risk developing mediocre curriculum or short-lived partnerships.

Rapid prototyping, shown here with Lego blocks, is one of the skills students learn in the INNO curriculum.

5) Facilitate Conflict

Once a team is fully formed, it’s time to start storming. The INNO team has some unique challenges, working across universities, continents, and cultures, but any team will have differences. As Verhoeven puts it, “There’s always friction; that’s entrepreneurship.”

One way to ensure that conflicts remain productive is to designate a conflict facilitator. For the INNO team, the facilitator is tasked with paying special attention to all communications, and responding quickly to any concerns that arise.

Appointing one person to monitor group dynamics ensures that all parties feel heard, and nothing has time to fester. This frees up the group’s energy to move curriculum design forward.

Designing courses collaboratively while integrating an entrepreneurial lens is a messy process. Treasured ideas get thrown out, failure becomes routine, and there isn’t time to get comfortable.

Yet somewhere, at the end of all the frustration and pain, is a new idea, a better course, a fresh way of helping students grow their potential. Like a fluffy marshmallow suspended on a tower of noodles, the goal is to leave students with skills and insights that will stand the test of time.

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