An integrated approach to complex learning through partnership pedagogy and leadership in action

Employability is a key priority for the University of Sydney Business School, and the university more broadly. This is highlighted by the university receiving consistently high rankings, 1st in Australia and 4th in the world recently. Our students are expected to engage in a developmental process resulting in new and more complex ways of thinking and information processing. Not only do our graduates need to acquire knowledge, they also need to quickly adapt and apply that knowledge in complex dynamic contexts, as well as to lead and thrive in today’s world.

Why complex learning through partnership pedagogy?

We observed that students are challenged in attaining problem-solving and leadership skills in an increasingly uncertain and complex world (Raduescu et al., 2016). First, students often lack direct access to the business context, limiting their ability to successfully apply theoretical concepts when solving problems in new contexts. Second, the silo structure of our degrees is at odds with the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of business contexts (Leonard et al., 2020). An integrated approach to learning is essential, as real world concepts taught in different units of study do not manifest and cannot be understood in isolation from each other (Raduescu et al., 2016). Third, leadership skills are too often taught at a conceptual level with few opportunities to practice, limiting students’ ability to enhance their leadership, especially through effective collaboration.

In response to this, the Digital Business (Business Information Systems) Capstone, the final unit in the University of Sydney’s Master of Commerce Digital Business specialisation, engages students in complex learning (van Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2017) through partnership pedagogy (Pauli et al., 2016). In partnership with Prezzee, an Australian technology unicorn, students are exposed to a complex scenario of expanding a digital business in a new market. The capstone uses a co-design approach (Leonard et al., 2020), in which learning is co-designed and co-created with academics, students, industry partners, and alumni so it is authentic, relevant, and brings students into the complex world outside the classroom. In addition to complex problem-solving skills development, students are challenged to practice their leadership skills in an intertwined process of self-reflection on their leadership in action.

This approach involves several intrinsic and highly interconnected processes, as visualised in this diagram.

An integrated approach to a complex scenario: engaging in a team-based industry project and individual leadership development

The capstone design follows an integrated approach to a complex scenario by engaging students in a high level of collaboration during an industry-based project in parallel with an individual pursuit of leadership development.

First, students engage in a process of discovery of real-world complexity in diverse teams. Deep learning is scaffolded in an active manner to increase students’ ability to integrate the relevant disciplinary knowledge. Students explore and integrate knowledge acquired from:

  1. Studying the units of their specialisation
  2. Interacting with their peers within and outside their groups
  3. Interacting with academics who are invited as subject matter experts to refresh core knowledge relevant in the project context
  4. Interacting with the industry partners though various touch points during the semester
  5. Engaging with alumni as their mentors

Systems thinking and mapping tools (e.g., concept maps) are used as guiding frameworks within workshops and on-going assessments to facilitate students’ process of discovery and integration of knowledge. Such tools help students develop a more holistic understanding of a complex situation and support their problem-solving ability. Through the industry-based project and interactions with industry and alumni, the connection between what students learn and life beyond classroom is more apparent, contributing to learning transferability outside the classroom (van Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2017).

Second, students pursue a personal growth process by developing a chosen leadership skills through leadership in action. Starting with a leadership self-assessment, students choose a leadership skill to enhance and take the lead of a project area they feel comfortable with (e.g., context analysis, project approach, data collection, or data analysis). Students practice their chosen leadership skill both as the nominated leader of their project area and as valued team members across the entire project. The leadership development and practice are documented and demonstrated using a three-stage scaffolded reflection based on value creation in a community of practice (Wenger et al., 2011).

Students’ focus on leadership effectively supports their team collaboration – it allows them to practice and gain confidence in working with, and leading, others. The on-going individual and group assessments act as formative assessments – they guide students in addressing complexity, and are critical in maintaining the overall project focus and progress.

Key outcomes and students’ achievements

In its inaugural online delivery, the capstone has been a huge success, achieving a 4.8 student evaluation score on the ability to respond creatively to novel problems. Students successfully pitched their solutions to the Prezzee C-suite in a hybrid event showcased in the Business School news. This experience made a direct impact by encouraging students to think holistically, challenge the status quo, integrate different knowledge, and present in front of executives – career relevant skills required to adapt, thrive and lead as a graduate in the 21st century.

“The quality of the presentations reflected a high level of academic rigour and the student perspectives have allowed us to think more broadly about some of Prezzee’s strategic challenges.”

Dalton Fogarty, Head of Strategy at Prezzee

“It was fantastic to ultimately show our results to a group of Prezzee executives and receive their high praise. After all, where else would you get the opportunity to pitch in front of the CTO of one of Australia’s fastest growing multi-million dollar companies before you graduate?”

Rui Fu, Master of Commerce Graduate

The self-reflection of leadership in action improved students’ ability to understand themselves, and others. The integrated approach led to students scoring 4.9 out of 5 in the evaluation survey on their capacity to exercise leadership and influence when required.

Extracts from students’ final reflections support the value of this approach, particularly in building self-confidence by acquiring a wealth of knowledge while unpacking a complex problem within a capstone community of practice.

“In comparison to being an active talker in the past, the critical part of what made the difference lies heavily with analysing and complimenting each other when we brainstorm ideas. As a team we improved by maintaining a positive attitude when we faced a problem. In fact, being an active listener has helped me in bringing everyone together in figuring out the solution to the challenges we face.”

“I feel I met most of my goals and I’m now more confident presenting to executives and answering questions about a project that I’m presenting, because I was knowledgeable about the subject and had more visibility. This gave me the opportunity to directly explain my ideas to Prezzee’s executives, and a chance to influence decisions at an executive level. I found the presentation to Prezzee better than expected, because I was well prepared and found the audience receptive.”

The process was also beneficial to academics given the exposure to a diverse range of leadership skills and development processes.

What have we learnt from successful complex learning through teamwork and leadership in action?

Following the success of this integrated approach, we recommend four guiding design principles:

  • Focus early on helping students establish their leadership objectives and setting the foundation for high performing teams and collaboration.
  • Use on-going formative assessments with different goals. For example, include several reflective leadership skill development check-ins through a staged reflection, to maintain students’ attention throughout the unit. Weekly project progress reports are another example to encourage students’ co-ownership of the project and to maintain their focus on progress.
  • Have the right balance between what to scaffold, and what not to scaffold. For example, the opportunities to develop the nominated leadership skill arise from students experiencing challenges within the project, such as how to respond to the project complexity or work productively within their team. Thus, ensure scaffolding is limited to allow students to experience these challenges. By contrast, scaffolding is heavily required to help students to unpack the project complexity, thus use systems thinking mapping tools or other tools to frame their thinking and integration of knowledge.
  • Actively engage alumni as mentors and senior level industry partners to validate the value and transferability of students learning beyond the classroom.

Feature image: Photo by on Shutterstock

About the author

Corina is a Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems with teaching and research focus on innovative experiential and interdisciplinary learning environments. Corina led large scale curriculum initiatives to enhance students’ complex problem solving skills and employability. She was successful in receiving educational innovation grants and was awarded the Vice Chancellor Award for Outstanding Educational Engagement and Innovation and Wayne Lonergan Award for Outstanding Teaching.

2 thoughts on “An integrated approach to complex learning through partnership pedagogy and leadership in action

  1. A version of the article without the education and business jargon would be useful, as I had difficulty understanding what the students were actually doing. Are they working as interns at a gift card company? Sounds like a cover story from “Get Smart”. 😉

    1. Hi Tom, the project is not an internship – it is about investigating all aspects for a digital business to move into a new market – with focus on localisation. Students must look at all relevant aspects of a digital business including digital infrastructure, data infrastructure and governance, digital product features to meet the cultural values, legal aspects and their implications, operations, market value. These all need to be integrated and provide a set of recommendations including an implementation plan and risk analysis. This is a very complex project.

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