The (Trade) Show Must Go On

A reinvented class assignment highlights just how creative and adaptable our students can be.
The (Trade) Show Must Go On

WHILE COVID-19 HAS forced many business professors to transition their courses online, it also has encouraged many of us to become creative in how we deliver educational experiences to students.

As a lecturer at Eastern Michigan University’s College of Business in Ypsilanti, I teach a business communication class that’s required for students with business-related majors and open to students from other disciplines. The last two weeks of classes traditionally are devoted to an assignment in which two- and three-person student teams develop ten-minute sales pitches about products from companies of their choice. They dress in casual business attire to pitch to an audience, as if they’re at a trade show. For this assignment, students typically combine face-to-face presentations with PowerPoint slides and trifold boards featuring the company’s logo, products, and promotional items.

To gauge how successful the sales pitches are, I also require each team to show that at least two audience members have taken some action based on the information in the product presentation. For instance, teams must show that classmates have followed a business on social media or downloaded a company app.

When the class moved to 100 percent online delivery in mid-March, I had to quickly revise the assignment—students would now have to deliver their presentations online using Adobe Connect. They would have to professionally introduce themselves, give the background of the company, a sales pitch of one product, and then suggest actions audience members should take based on the product or service they had chosen to sell.

Students used the Adobe Connect platform to share their PowerPoint slides that often included company website content, product images, screenshots showing how to download mobile apps, and URLs of promotional product videos and promotional codes. Because the Adobe Connect platform’s screen-sharing feature was too cumbersome to play videos easily, many students simply played audio files instead.

In addition, several teams delivered quizzes over the platform. Students who achieved high scores were awarded digital gift cards that were emailed after the sessions.

To develop their presentations from their separate locations, student teams often communicated via text and used tools such as Google Docs and Google Slides to coordinate their market analysis. They surveyed the rest of their classmates through Canvas Inbox.

My students described the virtual trade show as a glimpse into the future tech of the workplace.

I used email and private phone conferences to help students resolve any team-dynamic challenges, many of which revolved around how to navigate Adobe Connect. I hosted many practice sessions during the video conference class session and even set up private consultations with individuals and teams to allow for more experience. I made sure that all students could rate their confidence in navigating Adobe Connect at least an 8 on a 10-point scale.

The switch to a virtual format caused me to change several assignment parameters. I chose not to require a webcam to grade the professional-attire portion of the grading rubric, because webcams were scarce to purchase and many students didn’t have them on their home computers. Because so many students were new to navigating Adobe Connect, I also dropped the requirement for teams to show that two of their classmates had taken actions as a result of their pitches.

I didn’t want students who had lost their jobs to feel that they had to expend anything for the digital trade show. However, their classmates still responded to sales pitches by downloading the Shipt app, signing up for the Converse Newsletter, custom designing a pair of Nike shoes, and answering Kahoot quiz questions about Sony’s PS24 to win a $10 gift card.

At the end of each trade show presentation, I asked what students liked the most. They were always appreciative of any giveaways, gift cards, special trade show promo codes, and app download details—especially if these promotions could help with things like ordering food online.

I plan to tweak the trade show assignment for the next iteration of my course in several ways. For instance, I might use the breakout-room feature in Adobe Connect to have students meet virtually—in that format, I will meet with all the teams to make sure they are progressing in their confidence. If I have enough time to train them, I also will show them the screen-share features so they can show videos of company advertisements and conduct live Kahoot quizzes.

I will also show them how to upload their own PowerPoint slides, a time-consuming task I took on during the winter term. And because some students missed the communications I sent via Canvas Inbox announcing the Adobe Conference link, I not only will use Canvas Inbox and the university’s email system to reach students, but also will set up the trade show presentation dates as Canvas Events on the modules for each Canvas course shell.

When I asked a couple of my students to describe their experience participating in the virtual trade show, they told me that it was a glimpse into the future tech of the workplace. “It’s good for everyone to be effective in communicating on platforms like Adobe Connect or Skype,” Thomas Puhl told me. He’s an undergraduate finance major, who conducted his digital presentation on Aflac. He acknowledged that there were a few technical glitches—but he viewed overcoming them as part of the learning experience. As he put it, students need to learn to “stay relaxed and change things up in the moment.”

My students also felt the advantages of digital events helped counterbalance the drawbacks. “They allow presenters to influence a wider audience range, and there’s no need for all the audience to be present in the same facility,” according to Devin King, an undergraduate in sports performance and fitness major who conducted his presentation on Rolex. “The digital trade show may become the preferred method to present due to convenience and its overall reach in many settings.”

Overall, I believe our digital trade show highlighted the ability of my students to adapt to—and be tremendously creative in—a 100-percent digital environment. I was truly inspired by their contributions, by their willingness to help one another through connectivity and audio issues, and by how well they worked together.

Lisa Barley is a full-time lecturer in management at Eastern Michigan University’s College of Business in Ypsilanti.

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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