Keeping a Competition Nimble

Students take the lead in converting a case competition to a virtual format.
Keeping a Competition Nimble

AS IT DID for schools worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic required the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University in Logan to cancel or reschedule events. But one notable exception was our annual leadership case competition hosted by our Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center. After the university announced on March 11 that all on-campus events would be canceled until further notice, we initially thought this would make holding our case competition impossible. But luckily a student came forward and offered an alternative solution—to make the competition virtual.

We held a meeting with the student to discuss the possibilities of a virtual event. Although there were still many unknowns, we decided that holding the competition online would be an opportunity to demonstrate resilience, adaptability, and optimism. The competition was originally set to begin on March 12, but we postponed the event one week to give us time to change the format.

In the face-to-face competition, student teams analyze a case and present solutions to alumni. In the process, they learn how to lead and solve problems as part of a team while receiving feedback from judges. Our first step was to choose the software that would allow us to replicate these interactions. We quickly narrowed down our choices to Zoom and Google Hangouts, because both platforms are user-friendly, well known to students, and can accommodate more than 100 participants. After testing both platforms, we chose Zoom because the connection was more reliable and the gallery viewing mode allowed judges and participants to see everybody in the virtual room.

Next, we developed a plan to move students seamlessly in and out of virtual rooms over the two-hour competition, while maintaining the quality of the student experience. Perhaps the biggest challenge was making sure that everyone would join their virtual rooms at the correct times. We sent several messages to students detailing the schedule and explaining what was expected of them. We knew that increased contact—in other words, “overcommunication”—would be essential, because some students would likely miss at least one of the instructional emails.

Of course, we couldn’t let a good crisis go to waste—we designed a case for the competition in which students would be acting as members of an executive team leading an international airline through COVID-19.

Now more than ever, our students are craving the opportunity to connect with their fellow classmates and teachers.

We split our eight teams and six judges into two different virtual rooms. During the first round, teams had seven minutes to deliver their presentations; then, judges took a few minutes to ask questions. After each team finished with the Q&A, the judges took five minutes to record their scores on a cloud-based score sheet. Then, the next team joined the room. For the second and final round, all participants and judges joined a third virtual room to watch groups deliver their presentations.

At this stage, we added a twist in the case for our finalist teams—that the CEO of the airline had tested positive for COVID-19. This “live” case encouraged high engagement and innovative solutions from students in a complex and uncertain environment.

Our proactive efforts paid off—the event ran smoothly, without any technical difficulties. Students joined their rooms on time, and they achieved the competition’s learning objectives despite the transition to a virtual format. Moreover, our alumni judges even asked to interview a number of our student participants for internships.

In fact, the virtual format worked so well, we are considering an international event next year, inviting universities outside of the U.S. to participate. The experience left us with four main takeaways, which we think have broader application as educators pivot from in-person to virtual education:

Be resilient. As we look ahead, we know we will make mistakes as we try to incorporate more virtual experiences. However, our students are craving the opportunity to connect with their fellow classmates and teachers. We believe our students can benefit from interactive virtual experiences, so once our campuses re-open, we plan to continue to hold classes, events, programs, and experiential learning exercises online.

Overcommunicate. In virtual interactions, it’s easier for students to misunderstand expectations and overlook important details. We can remedy this issue by increasing contact with students. Furthermore, the more organized our methods of contact, the less likely these communications are to come across as intrusive or overbearing.

Don’t be afraid of virtual course delivery. The available technologies aren’t perfect, but we have found that we can generally trust our students to be respectful and participate in online discussions.

Let students lead. Nelson Mandela once said, “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the nimblest go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” Many of our students are more comfortable using technology than we are. The idea for our virtual competition came from students willing to be nimble in the face of change—we simply followed their lead.

Weston C. Hyde is program manager and Bret Crane is associate director for the Stephen R. Covey Leadership Center at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University in Logan.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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