First published 15 September 2020

Discover what blended learning during a global pandemic looks like at QUT. In this article, we go behind-the-scenes of a one-day entrepreneurship workshop in Semester 2, 2020.

Going into the QUT Business School's MGB227 Entrepreneurship workshop, we assumed the all-day design sprint for students would be an intense, action-packed collaboration zone.

For a unit based on design-thinking, however, it seemed eerily quiet in the P Block learning space on a Saturday morning.  

Nearly 100 students sat silently at their Gardens Points computers in Semester 2 Week 3, 2020, intently moving rectangular objects across their screens. Peering over their shoulders, you could see they were typing into coloured notes on a digital canvas, slotting them into spaces, updating the notes, and then sometimes deleting them.  

These movements looked quite different when viewed from an online perspective. Hundreds of students on campus and at home were actively participating in a frantic ideation process as part of the entrepreneurship unit experience, jostling for digital real estate and anonymously responding to each other's notes. 

The silence was intentional. It enabled students to think quickly without disruption and interact with other students with minimal bias. 

Professor Rowena Barrett, Executive Director, QUT Entrepreneurship

Armed with one of four industry problems, the students were forming ideas, proposing them visually to their fellow students, classifying them, and then voting for their favourite ones. One student in each team had been voted as the ‘decider’, enabling them to tip the votes in one direction and prevent deadlocks.   

The initial silence did not remain in place for long. By midday, the active group participation began.

It happened easily for those meeting in person, while there were some technical issues for those meeting in Zoom due to a break-out room limitation.

Facilitators Graham Fellows and Marvin Fox hurriedly responded to these issues from a facilitation space located in a different room in P Block, accentuating the digital connection between the physical participants.   

The students of MGB227 were participating in a well organised, multi-phased journey across various online programs.

Led by the QUT Entrepreneurship team in partnership with four industry participants, the unit is designed to introduce students to entrepreneurial processes, frameworks and methodologies that can be applied to real-world industry challenges. 

The one-day sprint was a blended workshop, bringing together a rich on-campus experience with a purely online experience for some. 

This sprint represents a digital learning experience more likely to occur in higher education moving forward and is represented within QUT through the Digital Learning Framework.

Delivering entrepreneurship at scale

The digital-focused sprint was a steep learning curve both for students and staff. Surprisingly, some students had never used Zoom before. Others expected the workshop knowledge to be actively ‘dropped’ on them in a traditional lecture-style format. Some were taken aback by the facilitators not being in the same space with them while they were on campus, as students and facilitators only come together in the afternoon for the panel discussion. Some students were startled by the reliance on their personal laptops as they moved away from the COW computers and brainstormed as a group.  

Solving technical issues were as much a feature of the day as the group participation. The team had to work quickly to shift collaboration into other platforms as the tech roadie-in-residence, Ross Hutton, worked exclusively to solve the break-out room issue. 

Marvin and Graham were the engine room of the day, setting the scene, moving phases forward and providing real-time guidance for the students. They were supported by Rowena Barret and a team of QUT Entrepreneurship staff that contributed to the sprint throughout the day. This team were joined by industry partners that pitched their problems and then shared their life experiences with the students.   

According to facilitator Graham Fellows, the day’s format was 'far more engaging than traditional slides and one-way presentations'. 

'The challenge for the students is to be independent and developing their own ideas, then come together with their team and collaborating on an aligned mission,' Graham explained.  

Rowena Barret, Marvin Fox and Graham Fellows in the MGB227 'engine room'

Fourteen phases of learning in one day

The day's learning was divided into 14 phases that started at 9am and finished at 3pm.

The initial phase was a client lightning talk and introduction to the industry problems the students were to tackle. This was led by Marvin and Graham from a central Zoom channel, introducing each of the industry partners.

These partners included Rob Joseph, co-founder of Anti Ordinary; Murray Saylor, managing director of Tagai Management Consultants; Leanne Kemp, founder and CEO of Everledger; Siiri Hatakka, business development at Everledger; and Vibhor Pandey, community coordinator of the QUT Foundry at The Precinct in Fortitude Valley.

Rob Joseph wanted to know, how can we attract big-name talent to our brand?

He pondered how the company could make friends with athletes, get them onboard and lure them away from their current brand sponsors. This had to be done without a budget!

An additional challenge he proposed related to the distribution of Anti Ordinary's recycled helmet. How could they get a hold of damaged helmets?   

He said he wanted to work with students as he wanted new minds to work on the problem in the safe environment of the university.

'Everyone here today has different perspectives. I'm keen to see what those perspectives are and getting them involved,' he said.  

Murray Saylor wanted to know, how can we as an Indigenous business expand our offering in the extended reality space? 

Murray said that one of the things that students will get out of working with him in this unit is a chance to apply classroom knowledge to a real-world problem in a dynamic business. He encouraged students to research his business and what it means to apply Indigenous business practice into procurement supply chain management.

When asked what he was hoping to get out of this collaboration, Murray explained that he was looking forward to being exposed to fresh ideas.

'I'll be honest, I'm looking to engage brothers and sisters that are smarter than me, with a more contemporary set of academic knowledge,' he said. 

'I'd like to learn what the current theories are and the application of these to the problem that I'm sharing with you.'

Leanne Kemp wanted to know, how can we improve the supply chain process in the diamond industry?

She noted that the diamond industry could make use of technology from other industries. such as near-field scanning in shipping yards. 

'That technology is super cheap, but it’s never been used in diamond industry for the fingerprint. It's applied innovation, not everything has to be created new. Cast your mind out pretty far and wide,' she encouraged students.  

Leanne said Everledger is 'attempting to do something quite extraordinary. I recognised there was a gap in the world. Supply chains that have critical importance are hidden.'

She said technology enabled people to following the journey of product through all suppliers involved, improving clarity and ethics for buyers. 

She challenged the class asking, 'where are masks sourced from? Are they saving lives or potentially endangering lives?'.   

Vibhor Pandey encouraged students to focus on pain points

Vibhor Pandey, an entrepreneur that co-founded Grandshake two years ago, is also a HDR student and QUT staff member. He led the group of students wanting to work on their own idea. Vibhor encouraged the students to find out what is a pain in the market.

'In doing that we looked to identify who is our customer, and who is our user. We operate in high school space. Students are users, schools are our customer. We had to create a product that is designed for the student, but schools are willing to buy,' Vibhor said.  

He encouraged the students to engage in trend-scanning. 

'What we do is look at macro and micro trends. When we scan, we look at what might happen in the next 5-10 years, the way demographics may change, how consumers are changing and what might happen in the future. We ask ourselves, how are we going to tackle those trends and challenges.'  

The active ideation process begins

With an industry problem in hand, the second phase required students to develop positive long-term goals in response to their selected challenge. Students were encouraged by Marvin to be as optimistic as possible with their outlook in this early phase.

In phase three, students silently generated a series of questions. These were converted into 'How Might We?' (HMW) questions that were to be directed at the industry mentors in the fourth phase. The silent-action process emphasised individual thought process and de-emphasised group think and bias.  

After interviewing the industry partners with their HMW questions, the following phases involved the generation of a large volume of ideas, prioritising them, and then critiquing them through an impact/effort matrix (pictured). The goal was to get at least one idea into the sweet spot of high impact and low effort.  

Students were then asked in Phase 10 to concentrate on the selected idea(s) located in the sweet spot and roughly sketch a more detailed version of the idea(s).

They started by performing a warm-up ‘Crazy Eights’ led by Marvin and Graham. They folded a piece of paper to make eight boxes, and were then encouraged to put down an inspirational crazy idea each minute for eight minutes. They were told not to hold back. 

'Get your brain thinking,' Graham said.   

Graham Fellows interacting with students on and off campus via Zoom

'It could be a service scenario, web site, could be stick figures, boxes and rectangles. Just get it down, and keep it to yourself.'

The crazy eights warm-up was then followed by actual solution sketches created in Phase 11. These were the solutions that landed on the 'sweet spot' of the impact-effort matrix. 

Students were asked to make their ideas stand out to a potential client, and have enough detail to be practical. Ideas needed to be presented so they were easy to view, read and understand.  

Completed sketches were then quickly added to the online 'art museum', with minimal time to fuss about perfection. The teams then did a speed critique of the sketches, ending with a straw poll to select the best idea.

Some of this process can be viewed in the embedded 'silent student collaboration' video. 

Both Marvin and Graham were particularly excited about the next stage, Phase 13: actionable steps to prototype. 

'Action is the most cited quality of entrepreneurship,' Graham said.

Marvin agreed, saying that entrepreneurs have a bias to action.

'It’s about getting stuff done,' he said.  

Students were asked to prepare a slide deck for a potential client presentation in the future, leading into the panel discussion. 

Panel discussion at the end of the workshop featuring the four industry partners and QUT entrepreneur-in-residence, Wes Huffstutter

Panel discussion

To wrap up Saturday's workshop, all four industry partners were joined by QUT entrepreneur-in-residence, Wes Huffstutter, in a panel discussion covering the challenges of navigating entrepreneurship and putting ideas into practice. A major topic was how to build the motivation needed to take the leap and start the entrepreneurship cycle.

Leanne said that she spent 2-3 months of a cycle just reading and researching the industry.

'I was making sure the problem is real, and the timing is right. It’s not about what you are selling, it’s about what people want to buy. That’s part of the market test,' she explained.  

'We had to anticipate if there was maturity of the software, industry was willing to change, and that someone is willing to pay for it.'

Murray reflected on his initial ideation process, agreeing with Leanne that it took several months and was quite transformative for him as a person.

'The ideation piece was almost generational. From a dysfunctional family environment to connecting with the right people... The journey of an entrepreneur was almost a survival process into entrepreneurship.' 

His tipping point was when an employer said they need to downsize, and asked him to sign a cheque and walk out the door in the next hour.

'Within 24 hours I was a sole trader rocking along,' Murray said.  

Further into the entrepreneurship cycle, Rob agreed with Vibhor that people didn't seem to care about the technology. 

'They cared to a point, but it’s more about how they felt. Does it tick a box? Is it comfier? They don’t care how about the technology, how does it make it better?' he said.  

Leanne urged students to speak the other person’s language and combine that with deep technical knowledge that was the right fit for the time.

'Understand the why. Understand technology at its essence, from a protocol level,' she said. 

Murrray said it was all about the brand's unique story.

'That’s what people are interested in. Creative value in a cultural diversity space. They are interested in the cultural element and how does it equate to value in the supply chain,' he said.   

Rob emplored student to find the right partner that matches and complements their skills.

Workshop materials look a bit different at QUT during a pandemic

Reflecting on Zoom technical issues

At the start of the day, Graham had the numbered list of teams with each team member identified. The aim was to assign students to a Zoom break-out room based on their team number. But doing this requires Zoom profile names to be the same as names listed on the class list! (A student with the profile name ‘Secret Surprise’ is still to be identified.)  

But once named ‘correctly’, then the team number needed to be added to their profile name so they could be assigned to a breakout room by the Zoom host. This was made more difficult as Graham was still receiving messages from students about team changes at 9am. 

Unfortunately, the hard cap limitation of Zoom break-out rooms caused an even greater issue. With 51 student groups and four industry panel sessions planned, only 50 break-out rooms were possible at once. 

Ross and Graham worked diligently to get the teams identified and organised. 

'It seems that everyone with a team number above 40 can't get into a room,' Graham said on the main Zoom channel to all students.

Graham and Marvin turned the disruptive situation to their advantage by openly reflecting with the students in real-time on the technical issues they were facing.  

'I love it. It's like we are seeing pain points and workarounds,' Marvin told the students through Zoom as the problem unfolded. 

'My brain is ticking 'what value can I add to this situation?', 'how can I improve the user experience right now?' he questioned.

‘With an entrepreneurial mindset, these are the things that you can notice all around you. What annoys you, what kind of makes you scream out loud. What might be done to fix it'.

'That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Spotting those things, being really empathetic." 

Graham and Marvin then directed students to alternative digital platforms for collaboration, such as Facebook Messenger, Slack or WhatsApp. They emphasised that some teams had been able to meet in Zoom break-out rooms.

'Let's get creative as we're all in this together,' Graham said. 

The adventure continues

At the completion of the 14 phases, the QUT Entrepreneurship team reflected with the students on the day's advances and setbacks.

The design scribble concept was presented (pictured), and Marvin identified that the students were currently in the unknown world of the initial research phase. They would go through many twists and turns to get to the final proposed design.

Marvin also explained that openness to feedback is fundamental to a growth-oriented entrepreneurial mindset. Rowena encouraged students to provide as much feedback on the day's experience as possible, regardless of whether it was positive or negative. 

While the exhaustive day had finished, it was only the beginning of the unit. 

Up next for the students are eight weeks of impactful activity, including market segmentation, speaking to customers, and development of a slidedeck for presentation to investors. The students need to create a visual to present the features and benefits of the product or service. 

We'll keep you updated on how this exciting digital learning experiment progresses across the digital continuum.

QUT Learning and Teaching Unit
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