An ecosystem approach to immersed business education

Pre-Covid-19, I coordinated some of the China immersion units at the Business School. I created immersed learning experiences by providing students with real and authentic encounters in physical places. This involved carefully planning how classes would be structured, how projects should be completed, and when and where company meetings would be scheduled. Students immersed themselves in local Chinese culture and had on-site learning through encounters with executives and entrepreneurs.

Covid-19 dramatically changed the immersed business education program with students participating remotely and asynchronously. One of the units I coordinated in 2020 S2, for example, has 32 students located in 20 different cities and 5 time zones.

To maintain the personalized immersion experience in this new context, I built upon previous research conducted around constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003) to the implementation of a business ecosystem approach in immersed education. This ecosystem perspective has been recognized in prior work on business ecosystems and national innovation systems, which specifically seek to utilize interoperability, collaboration and network effects to create unique advantages.

Empower students in co-design business projects 

Instead of pre-planning the projects and schedules, students started the unit with the responsibilities to input views and skills to shape business projects’ scope and problem space. Last year, one of the project companies was fintech firm Novatti (ASX: NOV).

The co-design outcomes were a set of unique research questions and problem spaces for Novatti that fit with students’ diverse experience and skillsets. Students’ morale was significantly lifted in producing outputs for Novatti.

Build learning communities in collaboration with local and global stakeholders

Adopting an ‘ecosystem’ approach, students’ business projects were put at the center of the ecosystem before reaching out to multiple stakeholders to invite their inputs and collaborations. For Novatti’s fintech project, I had involved stakeholders including its founder (the entrepreneur), Alibaba and CBA (competitors), Nokia and Huawei (technology providers), KPMG (legal services), and Rawson Lewis (investors). These stakeholders were keen to support students learning but also were happy to find out general thoughts from other stakeholders through communicating with our students.

Students participating in post Covid-19 immersed business learning.

The outcome is building an open learning environment connected to key players in the community. In the USS results, students commented that they “gained useful and valuable insights” and were able to “sustain linkages with people and places beyond this unit”.

Embed diversity into learning outcomes to promote student collaboration  

Covid-19 has made domestic and international students less motivated to collaborate. To address this challenge in my classes last year, diversity was emphasized as a key principle in unit learning and assignment criteria. Collaboration software Miro and Trello, along with simulation games, were used for class discussions and group works.

Up-scale immersed business education

The ecosystem approach means the immersed business education experience can be applicable to larger units with the support of latest web-based communication technologies. For improvement this year, I am testing the ideas in the large unit of IBUS6020 (600 enrolled for 2021 S2), with the support from Business Co-Design and the Microsoft Teams pilot scheme. So far the student feedback has been great.

The lessons I learned are that the personalized immersion experiences can be “created” in a Covid-19 virtual learning environment based on synergistic employment of co-design, ecosystem approaches, and diversity into learning activities (not just the assignments). Different from the China immersion units, this personalized immersion experience is not a result of carefully planned face-to-face delivery in an overseas context. It is the outcome of an organic learning communities actively interacting externally with multiple key stakeholders and internally among students cross-borders. Students see the purpose of their learning in a meaningful way and take responsibility for their learning outcome as a key stakeholder in the ecosystem, leading to unique immersion experiences. 

About the author

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Wei Li is a Lecturer in International Business at the University of Sydney Business School. Before joining the university, Wei Li worked in corporates in the UK and China. She has been coordinating several China immersion units at the Business School for the Master of Management and part-time MBA programs since 2015. Wei is very passionate about project-based learning and immersed business education.

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