Leading a Virtual Classroom with External Partners

by Prof. Dr. Iris Hausladen | May 19, 2020
Giving an online lecture is one thing. But hosting a course based on a case study with an external partner can post a whole new challenge. Prof. Dr. Iris Hausladen shares her approach and explains how she managed to create a fun experience for everyone involved.

HHL’s Value Chain Management case study with McKinsey consultants

This interview was first published in May 2020.

Over the past few weeks, we have shared the stories of our professors and students and learned about their experiences during the lock-down. For today’s interview we spoke with HHL’s professor Prof. Dr. Iris Hausladen, Holder of the Heinz Nixdorf Chair of IT-based Logistics, about creating a virtual learning experience with external partners for the full-time Master in Management students.

“Teaching classes online can be seen in the higher flexibility to prepare and run a course dedicated to a special audience.”

Before we talk about your new online course, let’s talk about your work as a professor at HHL. What topics do you focus on and what courses do you normally offer?

Since joining the HHL community in 2007, my research and teaching have focused on how to coordinate material, data and information flows along global, interlinked and complex supply and value chains.

Thus, my activities are focused on topics such as intelligent IT-solutions for logistics and supply chain management and business model development and evaluation in the field of digital logistics. Other topics include digital transformation, business process and project management as well as value chain management and industry 4.0.

Additionally, I teach and research sustainable logistics systems and networks (e.g. city/urban logistics and last mile logistics) as well as organizational development and competence management in companies, predominantly in the logistics sector. The courses offered to our students integrate multiple aspects mentioned above.

Full-time Master in Management students working on case studies prior to contact restrictions.

Due to the current covid-19 crisis you were forced to switch your “Value Chain Management” course to an online format. What did the original course format look like?

The Value Chain Management course was planned as a case study in cooperation with our partners from McKinsey, including group-work in combination with content related course modules.

Finally, the students were supposed to present their case results in class, combined with a kind of “round table” discussion afterwards. Their class participation and the handed-in case study results constitute the grading basis.

Then this very special kind of “big bang” – who’s extent no one anticipated – affected both teaching and learning. Nevertheless, following the philosophical statement of Heraclitus “Nothing is as constant as change” we needed to take a step back, reflect on our course structure from a holistic point of view and reassess. How could we – in only 2-3 days – restructure contents, didactical principles as well as some procedures such as e.g. grading, interactivities, presentations?

How did you adapt the course to its online format?

Value Chain Management focuses on integrating internal logistics processes as well as external supply chain activities in the digital age. It is therefore interesting to understand how the covid-19 crisis shut down partly destroyed sequences of current value chains all over the world. In consequence, reflections on the crisis and its impact on the paradigms considered in class proved to be a mandatory task. We also needed to show the practical/real-life perspective on value chains today as well as in the future.

Working with Microsoft Teams to coordinate team work

We kept the case study basis of the course as planned and used Microsoft (MS) Teams to introduce our partners, sharing their insights on the tasks to work on. The entire course modules were done using the MS Teams software, asking questions and allowing students to unmute their microphone, and asking them to engage in discussions with each other.

A webcast helped to answer open questions for the follow-up case study work. Lecture slides were shared online, containing notes from the lecture. Digital flip charts were created with the help of empty PowerPoint pages that were later uploaded via our Campusnet system, so that the students could concentrate on the what was being said during the online class.

“Value Chain Management focuses on integrating internal logistics processes as well as external supply chain activities in the digital age.”

Instead of doing exercises and interactivities via group discussion, I opted for doing individual work with short online presentations on a voluntary basis followed by reflections and discussions – also using the available chat function.

Class participation was replaced by online open-books quizzes we offered via MS Teams, so that the students were flexible in answering them by the given deadline. The final presentation of the case study was then done individually with the defined teams and our partners from McKinsey, so that there was enough space for reflections, discussion and feedback.

Finally, we used – quite at the course beginning – the MS Teams tool “Polly” to ask the students about whether more interactive sessions should be implemented in the course content.

Could you imagine to continue teaching classes online? Where do you see advantages and where possible challenges?

Yes, absolutely, because online courses can be an option for international and/or part-time courses in instances where travelling is maybe limited from a logistical and/or economical perspective.

Furthermore, HHL might be setting up a complete digital study program in the future. The advantages of teaching classes online can for example be seen in the higher flexibility to prepare and run a course dedicated to a special audience. The chat functionalities allowing one to answer content related questions and/or to enable student teams especially in part-time programs to organize their online team meetings are an interesting tool.

Online teaching requires its unique didactic approach

However, I see the need to base the permanent establishment of online teaching on an appropriate didactical concept which requires some preparation time in advance. Just to state a reference example in the field of IT-based logistics: a decade of years ago companies created online catalogs for selling their products (focus: B2B context) online.

They had to realize that the key to success is not only to create a pdf-file of the standard/printed catalog but to extend it customer group specifically e.g. by 3D representations, illustrations, construction drawings, videos etc.

The same is true for lecture notes, interactivities and case studies. It is necessary to reflect beforehand how they can be (re)designed and realized best by using MS Teams, Webex or Zoom.

Therefore, the current situation bears a very high learning potential for both sides – lecturers as well as students. Critical reflections of initial test-runs offer a good approach to step-by-step professionalize online teaching at HHL and to further integrate the “virtual classroom” in our didactical portfolio.

“Our partners were impressed by the outcome of the students’ case work – especially keeping in mind, the circumstances of the online teaching and learning situation at the moment.” – Heraclitus

What feedback are you receiving from your partners who are part of the case study? How has working together changed due to the online format?

The cooperation with our partners from McKinsey did not change from its basics. They already know HHL from past partnerships, so for them the situation is very familiar. Over three years now, the case study work was improved and professionalized.

Thus, the “working together” did not change due to the online format and the feedback of our partners is consistently positive. Both external colleagues were participating from their home offices and via a Microsoft Teams invitation. There were no technical limitations or bigger disturbances.

Since traveling was no longer necessary for them, they could – although by higher force – concentrate their “energy” on their daily online work as well. Our partners are impressed again by the outcome of the students’ case work – especially keeping in mind, the circumstances of the online teaching and learning situation at the moment.

“My very personal learning is to stick to one platform during a single course.”

What has been a valuable lesson that you have learned over the past three weeks that you can pass on to colleagues preparing to switch up their course format?

Generating helpful take-aways are a mandatory part of every single project whether it is about new teaching methods such as online lectures, further improving onsite classes or establishing optimized business processes in a company. We hold a faculty experience exchange on a regular basis since the corona crisis “reshuffled the cards” of our course programs.

My very personal learning is to stick to one platform during a single course, exploring available tools such as Polly, online quizzes, and learning something about the provided chat function as well. Thus, there is the possibility to have a CIP – Continuous Improvement Process – established to identify both the opportunities and restrictions of a tool.

Because of this reason, we started with MS Teams and have been using this software tool now for two courses already. In parallel, I am excited to learn about the potentials as well as restrictions of the Webex tool as well as of Zoom.

“You could not step twice into the same river”

Apart from that, changing activities session by session brought the flexibility needed for the transition out of the traditional course format. In consequence, additional uploads in Campusnet might be required sometimes, but I am convinced that students honor the degree and pace of adaptability given the highly exceptional situation at the moment.

In closing, following the wisdom of Heraclitus: “You could not step twice into the same river”, i.e. every teaching and learning experience is very special in itself and cannot be repeated identically at another time/”place”. Thus, guidelines for the virtual classroom should only be formulated in a generic way to give every lecturer enough room for didactical flexibility and experience building.