COMM 101 – Tweet, click, blog: A new way to learn business

To get good marks, students have to read newspaper articles, attend class and share ideas whilst tweeting, clicking and blogging. There are no textbooks or exams.

COMM 101 is a business foundation course covering fundamentals such as supply chain, marketing, accounting, ethics, finance, sustainability, social enterprise and leadership.

“It really feels like the first time school is at the same pace as the outside world,” says first-year commerce student Maria Sun. “I love the interactions in the classroom. You really have to be alert because ideas move so fast in the room.”

Part of that alertness, says Sun, means doing the assigned reading before class. Without a textbook to rely on, students must go online and read the five to six pages of news articles from sources that often include the Harvard Business Review.

Currently, there are 480 students enrolled across multiple sections of COMM 101. Jeffrey Fong counts himself lucky to have been one of the 90 students in the COMM 101 pilot earlier this year between January and April.

“I struggled in my lecture-based courses,” recalls Fong, “but excelled when it came to reading and analyzing a case, exploring possibilities and generating recommendations  and conclusions.”

Now in second-year commerce, Fong says he’s reaping the benefits. “COMM 101 gave me a solid foundation that allows me to constantly think about ties between different aspects of business. I now think about marketing issues during my managerial accounting classes. I think about human resource issues during my managerial accounting.”

Designed by Sauder instructors Paul Cubbon and Jeff Kroeker, COMM 101 uses a kinetic, high-energy format to stimulate and engage learners.

Upon entering the large lecture hall, students are greeted by upbeat music playing before class starts. Music again punctuates changeovers from large-group to small-group discussions. There are often two lecturers at the helm plus a teaching assistant and the occasional guest speaker.

Cordless microphones are passed around to make sure everyone’s voice is heard during discussions. Several large screens show the class Twitter account as well as other materials such as video clips or student presentations.

Twitter serves several purposes, says Cubbon, a marketing and social media expert. One is to document the rapid-fire exchanges. “We looked at other plat­­forms and tools, but they don’t have the ability to archive in-class discussions in a flexible, real-time format.”

Students work in small groups of three or four, distilling their arguments into crisp, succinct points, 140 characters at a time. Out of a total of 30-40 tweets projected onto the screens, the instructors refer to three or four to spur class debate.

Topics run the gamut from whether Canadian Tire should sell groceries to how trendy fashion retailer Zara can produce and ship designer knockoffs to stores within three weeks.

“We run the 80-minute class like a business meeting,” says Kroeker. “Twitter can make a 100-plus class feel like 30 where everyone is able to share their ideas and ask questions.”

Also projected onto the screens are students’ clicker responses. Clickers are an electronic device that works like a TV remote, instantly relaying results for surveys such as, “How many of you drive a hybrid?” or multiple choice questions. Students are assigned clickers that record their class participation.

Clickers provide another means for students to employ critical thinking and shift from passive listening into active mode, explains Kroeker, who teaches accounting. “This tool allows everyone in the class to apply concepts from their readings.”

Students’ tweets become part of a digital portfolio as do their weekly 200-word blogs where students apply class concepts to interpret the business news. Slowing down the pace at the end of each class, the instructors schedule a reflection period for students to make notes on key  points and principles.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 12 | Dec. 3, 2010

Photo: Martin Dee.

Photo: Martin Dee.

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Instructor Paul Cubbon explains the COMM 101 grading system

In total, participation is worth 25 per cent of the grade, in a combination of clicker questions, in class, hand-in assignments and verbal contributions. The other 75 per cent comes from individual papers, a group project plus presentation, blog entries and end-of-term reflections on learning takeaways.

We assign value to being able to ask good questions and link concepts to each other and to specific situations. This requires confronting ambiguity and the more abstract challenges.

Halfway through the course students are invited to give themselves an interim grade on participation, and set their own course of action for the second half of term. This is part of helping students to take responsibility for their own learning.

To date, the mean grades are at least as good as a typical first-year commerce course. However, we are seeing an improved quality of critical thinking and professionalism. The focus on engagement and dealing with concepts as opposed to just facts can be disconcerting for some students in the first instance. However, we observe rapid improvements in many students through the course of the term.

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