Teaching Outside the Box

Four professors share their thoughts on transforming the business classroom—and how they hope business schools will support their efforts.
Teaching Outside the Box

Business professors don’t need to be told that their classrooms are changing. In most cases, they’re the ones making the changes. Whether they’re creating multimedia supplements, designing memorable lesson plans, or leading global excursions, business faculty have seen their traditional teaching roles expand to include mentoring students, facilitating consulting projects, and inventing completely new approaches to education.

Four such professors have spent years cultivating their philosophies and strategies for the business school classroom. They’re more than willing to share their favorite lessons, and their students are eager to describe the impact these lessons have had on their educations. From their descriptions, it’s clear that all four view their classrooms as environments for interaction, creativity, exploration, and reflection. More important, they view themselves as innovators, with their schools as their biggest supporters and their students as their greatest motivation.

“I brought in guest speakers, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to have on tap a virtual panel of experts that I could call on at a moment’s notice, even if it was only to speak for a few minutes on a boring topic, like interpreting financial statements.” —Deborah Streeter

‘Wake Up Your Students!’

Deborah Streeter
Bruce F. Failing Senior Professor of Personal Enterprise
Department of Applied Economics and Management
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Scott Belsky says that his undergraduate entrepreneurship class with Deborah Streeter was an eye-opener—literally. “Professor Streeter teaches self-awareness in entrepreneurship, as well as the instinct to know the questions you need to ask yourself,” says Belsky. “We learned that entrepreneurship is as much about leadership and self-awareness as it is about business.” Belsky, who graduated from Cornell in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree focused on economics and entrepreneurship, is now fittingly the CEO of his own New York-based consulting company, Behance, which helps professionals spur their own creative ideas.

Just how does a professor teach self-awareness? It’s not easy, but Streeter gave herself an advantage. She conceived and designed eClips, a searchable online database of more than 6,000 digital video clips, which feature in-depth interviews with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and employees of startup companies. She uses those interviews to weave professionals’ personal insights throughout the course and help students develop their own.

Streeter got the idea for the database 20 years ago, when she wanted to create a stronger link between her classroom and real-world business. “I brought in guest speakers, but that wasn’t enough,” Streeter explains. “I wanted to have on tap a virtual panel of experts that I could call on at a moment’s notice, even if it was only to speak for a few minutes on a boring topic, like interpreting financial statements.”

Streeter integrates eClips video into her class discussion via PowerPoint slides and assignments. She also creates eClips “listening lists” for students on particular topics and invites them to create lists of their own. The large database allows her to choose just the right speaker to address particularly challenging topics.

In fact, students found eClips so useful, they suggested that Streeter make it accessible to everyone. In response, last year she created a public Web site, eclips.cornell.edu, which urges professors to use the video clips to “Wake up your students!” Students and faculty from 70 countries and 800 universities now take advantage of the massive database and Streeter’s own suggestions for ways to use the videos effectively in business courses.

In many traditional business courses, students too often complete coursework and then speak to executives, participate in internships, or complete a project. Spontaneous interaction between the classroom and the business world is often missing, Streeter believes. Through eClips, Streeter works to integrate the two areas into “a common space. I wanted to create some chemistry to make those two worlds collide.”

In March, Streeter won a 2007 Olympus Innovation Award for eClips, an award bestowed by the tech company Olympus and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). Streeter is proud of the recognition, but acknowledges that the creation and maintenance of eClips requires work. She estimates that the project takes as much as 40 percent of her time outside the classroom. However, the university views her database as her scholarly contribution because of its educational value. “I made a tradeoff between my research life and eClips, but I’ve been able to do that because of my university’s support,” Streeter says.

For Belsky, Streeter’s efforts have been well worth it. “I thought eClips added a strong dose of reality to the class and allowed Professor Streeter to integrate a ‘protagonist’ into any class discussion,” he says. “Real-life video clips add context and examples to business courses. I think knowledge really takes hold when students are engaged and can see for themselves the relevance of what they’re learning.”

Stay in Touch With Industry

Yew Kee Ho
Associate Professor of Accounting
National University of Singapore Business School

Yew Kee Ho of the National University of Singapore admits that accounting isn’t the most exciting topic, but he believes its implications on business are profound. Ho’s primary challenge, he says, is to find ways to breathe life into the topic, making it immediately applicable to what students are learning.

“Accounting has to be taught from a student-centric perspective,” says Ho. “I need to help them visualize the role accounting will play in their future careers.”

In his corporate finance course, for example, Ho asks students to view all their decision making in terms of “options,” much as they would view a financial option regarding any contract or investment. To illustrate his point, he walks students through a decision between taking an additional honors year in school and entering the job market, using a simple tree diagram. The exercise shows that while an additional academic year presents a short-term cost in terms of lost salary, it promises a greater long-term return in knowledge, skills, and career choices.

Lin Weiling, one of Ho’s students, counts this lesson among the most valuable of her undergraduate business education. “Professor Ho taught us that decisions should not simply be made at face value for the short term,” says Weiling. She now uses Ho’s decision-making process in her work as a management consultant at Shell Eastern Petroleum. “When oil prices are volatile and events in one country have ramifications in another, investment decisions have to be considered very carefully. I’ve appreciated the ability to identify and propose key recommendations that allow the company to buy an ‘option’ to best position the business.”

Ho wants to accelerate his students’ learning process through such “live case studies” with which students can immediately identify. Whether it’s a topical case he has written or examples he brings from his experiences in corporate consulting and executive training, Ho does all he can to “inject realism into the class,” he says. “Such practical cases get the students’ attention.”

One of Ho’s favorite assignments stems from a court case for which he was an expert witness. “I give them the series of questions I was expected to answer in the case. The students then produce a consultant report to represent the client in court,” says Ho. “It’s fun, but students struggle to deal with complex issues and present them in an understandable manner in a court of law.”

Ho also works extensively with local charities, serving as the chairman of the audit committee of a local hospital; as a member of the investment committee for the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association; and as the treasurer of Singapore’s Boys Brigade, an organization that provides educational opportunities to young boys. For Ho, charitable work isn’t just philanthropic; it’s also vital to his teaching. He writes new cases based on his experiences, on everything from one charity’s “hand-to-mouth” approach to cash flow management, to another’s lack of good financial reporting, to yet another’s efforts to keep its stakeholders satisfied. Through his cases, he wants students to see more than one side of moneymaking.

Not to mention, he adds, that students respond well to cases that have a charitable bent. A dry topic like project evaluation, for example, is normally about numbers and calculations; when students see this topic at work in a charity-based case, they can appreciate its social and nonquantitative dimension. They realize that “simply making a profit isn’t everything. It’s making sustainable profit that’s important,” says Ho. “I want them to know it’s possible to achieve objectives with a certain degree of social consciousness.”

Weiling emphasizes that Ho’s own real-world experiences were essential to her engagement in his course. “Most business schools are well-equipped to impart theoretical models to students. However, many lack the industrial connection,” she says, emphasizing that Ho’s use of live cases and industry-related projects enhanced her own understanding of industry. “It would be helpful if, like Professor Ho, more professors sought out the practical training that we lack,” Weiling adds.

Ho, of course, is a champion of faculty involvement in real-world business. “Business professors must have credibility. They cannot teach the students how to do business if they haven’t done it themselves,” he says. “The danger in today’s business school is that professors might end up being ‘armchair generals’ who haven’t done what they are trying to teach.”

Make Room for Inspiration

Francisco “Jay” Bernardo
Professor of Entrepreneurship
Asian Institute of Management
Makati City, Philippines 

“Inspiration walks” aren’t standard educational fare in business school, but they are in Jay Bernardo’s course. Bernardo, a professor at the Asian Institute of Management, asks his students simply to go outside, take a walk, and think, just to see what ideas come to them. “Teaching entrepreneurship forces the professor to become as much a facilitator of knowledge as a source of knowledge,” says Bernardo.

For Michael Imanuel Scheelhardt, who attended AIM as an exchange student last year, the inspiration walk was a revelation. “Professor Bernardo wanted to inspire students to think of a new business concept that potentially could be applied to the market,” says Scheelhardt. “To me, the notion of wandering around to be inspired, to come up with a commercial idea, was a great way to train us to be creative.” Not only that, says Scheelhardt, but Bernardo also emphasized that inspiration comes as much from failure as from success. “He taught us that a crisis or fearful experience can be a source of opportunity,” says Scheelhardt.

In his classroom, Bernardo relies a great deal on what he calls “live case methodology.” In addition to walking for inspiration, he asks students to think about something as common as a cell phone in different ways. “Imagine this cell phone is a mall,” he asks his students. “What possibilities do you see?” That kind of approach gave Scheelhardt what he calls his “Eureka moment,” when he learned to take an established product and reassemble it in a new context. “It was innovation in practice,” he says.

Bernardo sees the tools for classroom innovation all around him. They may be cell phones, field trips to Asian companies, or projects of his own nonprofit foundation, LET’S GO (Leading Entrepreneurs Toward Sensing Global Opportunities), which he created to help lift Filipino youth out of poverty.

His work with LET’S GO often serves as a perfect educational backdrop, as his MBA students participate in the foundation’s projects. In EntrepAsia, AIM students and faculty travel to several locations throughout Asia to learn the realities of business. AIM’s finance faculty, alumni, and students also work with LET’S GO director Mau Bolanteo in the “Fun-ance” project to develop games that teach finance to would-be entrepreneurs in ways that make the topic fun and fresh. 

“My students really get into the spirit of these projects, wanting to discover, learn, and experience the outside world,” says Bernardo. “They want courses that will show them something new.”

Through his travels with EntrepAsia, exchange student Carlo Calimon says he was made acutely aware that he needed to think globally. “In EntrepAsia, I learned that we should not be limited by the boundaries of our country. I learned to think bigger,” says Calimon. “Students don’t want to be limited to learning from books and cases. We want to learn more from the experience of our professors, or through multimedia. We want to experience theory and put it into action.”

Bernardo’s innovative drive comes in part from his own experience as an entrepreneur—he started a successful manufacturing business before entering academia—and in part from his own sense of responsibility as a teacher. His greatest satisfaction comes when the students he has mentored launch their own successful businesses, he says.

He also sees his role as a teacher as one that touches not just his school, but the nation and world, particularly through his involvement in LET’S GO. His foundation is now working on a three-year project with the World Bank, the National Labor Organization, and the Department of Education in the Philippines to create a new high school curriculum in entrepreneurship to provide alternative career paths for the 70 percent of high school students in the Philippines who don’t go to college.

“I’m prepared to bring this project into Africa or other parts of the world where an education in entrepreneurship can do so much to help,” says Bernardo. “Academics automatically command a level of respect and authority. We can use that authority to create opportunities to bring about big change. I think one professor can reach out to a much larger community than his school alone.”

“I really take to heart the idea of building a bridge between business and academia.” —Eli Jones

Build Bridges to Business

Eli Jones
Professor of Marketing
Associate Dean for Executive Education
C.T. Bauer College of Business
University of Houston
Houston, Texas

For Eli Jones, selling isn’t about “closing the deal.” It’s about building relationships with the customer. Likewise, teaching a sales course isn’t just about teaching students the basics of selling; it’s about immersing students in the skills and responsibilities of salesmanship. He does this by placing them face-to-face with corporate clients throughout their coursework at the University of Houston’s Sales Excellence Institute (SEI), which he helped launch and directed for the last ten years. Jones was just promoted to full professor and an associate dean’s position in May, and so now passes along the direction of SEI to a successor.

“I really take to heart the idea of building a bridge between business and academia,” says Jones, who worked with several faculty and staff to create SEI’s programs. Of the nearly 1,000 students taking sales classes at Bauer, about 100 apply to SEI each semester; no more than 60 are accepted. Once they’re in the program, however, they’ll be presented with multiple opportunities to sell before they ever accept their first sales position.

“The first thing the students must do is sell themselves,” Jones explains. One of the students’ first assignments is to identify a company where they’d like to work. Then, they locate internal contacts and call to convince those contacts to become their mentors. Once students find mentors, they receive blue blazers that signify that a company will sponsor them throughout the curriculum. To land that first sale, “students must be able to show the value proposition of their request,” says Jones. 

Students continue to sell for each subsequent course. In their customer relationship management course, for example, students work in SEI’s call center, where they make calls inviting companies to participate in the Institute’s annual golf tournament and fund raiser. They make sales calls to vice presidents and CEOs to sell spots at the school’s career fair, learning how to speak effectively to senior executives along the way. In their last course on key accounts selling, students meet with senior-level executives to convince them to become partners of the University of Houston and SEI. Jones and other faculty accompany students as they make this final sales pitch.

As a professor of marketing, Jones believes he must make sure his students have every opportunity to sell—and he integrates those opportunities throughout every aspect of SEI’s program. “I want to keep the program experiential,” says Jones. “At SEI, we not only teach courses and bring in speakers, but we also spend a great deal of time driving students around Houston to meet and engage in conversation with executives.”

Jana Marshman, who graduated with her BBA and an advanced certificate in sales in 2002, now works as a financial advisor for Ameriprise Financial Services in Houston. She says she didn’t truly understand the impact that SEI’s program had on her until she began working. “In the program, we were working for ourselves to surpass our own personal quotas. We were working not just to finish a project and make a grade, but to build a reputation that would land us a job,” says Marshman. 

Through all those sales calls, she experienced “the rejection, nervous tension, and success that come with persistence,” she says. “After graduation, I felt more comfortable and confident in front of clients because it was nothing new to me.” Because of that confidence, she says, she was asked to teach new advisors within months of becoming an advisor herself.

Those real-life experiences, says Jones, are designed to dispel misconceptions about what it takes to sell. “Too many people who haven’t had formal sales training believe they’re good at sales because they have the gift of gab. We convince students to take a hard look at sales as a profession, to show them that sales isn’t about being pushy or manipulative,” says Jones. Through “live selling” experiences, he adds, “students learn the art and science of sales.”

Big Risks, Big Rewards

Streeter, Ho, Bernardo, and Jones enjoy their roles as innovative professors, which hinge on their willingness to take risks. However, they realize that, for some faculty, risk taking isn’t exactly the norm. Streeter finds that young faculty, especially, are often afraid to follow “the road less taken” in the classroom, as she did with eClips. They fear that lower evaluation scores, time constraints, and decreased research production may hurt their prospects of advancement.

To allay their fears, she often mentors younger faculty to guide them as they try new approaches—and help them recover if those approaches don’t go as planned. “If their reviews come up and their evaluations are a little lower, they need to let the administration know they’ve tried something different,” says Streeter. “I’ve never gotten perfect scores on my teaching evaluations, because I’m always willing to push students beyond their comfort zones. When I do, they’re often quite ticked off at me at the end!”

But when she surveys her students sometime after they complete her course, they often think differently. “A year later, my students will tell me that their experience in the course was amazing,” she says. “They’ve been able to put what they learned to work.”

No innovation comes without someone stepping beyond the status quo—that holds particularly true in the business classroom. But when that innovation adds spark and relevance to a student’s learning experience, it only helps solidify a school’s reputation for excellent education, say these educators. More important, it helps students to adopt a more innovative, creative, and “beyond-the-box” mindset—which, as it happens, is just what many of today’s employers are looking for.