Spotlight on practice: Community-centered teaching and learning – Yi Li
Dr Yi Li is a lecturer in the Department of Marketing. Her MBA students expressed ‘high satisfaction’ with her unit stating that “I feel as though the lecturer has a huge impact on the quality of the online course, possibly more-so than in a traditional lecture environment. And in that respect, Yi Li has been fantastic”. “The module is presented in a very easy to digest format and I am subsequently able to absorb significantly more information and learning than expected. Dr Yi Li has been very responsive and available.”
Here, Yi explains how her ‘consumer centric’ approach to teaching guides the creation of community and collaboration among her students and how she achieves this in the online environment. As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia.
Modelling consumer centricity when teaching marketing
One thing that I’ve been striving to do in teaching this unit is to demonstrate the marketing philosophy at the core. I strongly believe that the best way to show students what marketing is about is by embedding the thinking of marketing in the teaching delivery process.
One of the key marketing philosophies is ‘customer centricity’, where consumers are placed at the centre of the company’s day-to-day practices and decisions: you need to have a deep understanding of your consumers’ needs and pain points in order to make your offerings relevant and appealing to them and to provide superior consumer experiences. Similarly, in student-centric teaching and learning, it is important we put students at the centre of our attention and build our practice around fulfilling student’s needs and improving student’s experiences. Therefore, in designing and delivering this marketing unit that is part of the MBA, it is imperative to have a good understanding of the students in order to create a highly engaging unit that delivers a great student experience. So, what are the MBA student’s wants and needs in this unit?
I have been teaching on the MBA program for the past 2 ½ years and I love the students. They are super smart, motivated and committed, but at the same time, they are extremely time-poor. Many of them have full time jobs and because of the lockdown, they were facing family obligations and other challenges in their lives. MBA students come to be trained as future CEOs or entrepreneurs, or they want to be moving up the management ladder. They want the most current and highly practical knowledge and skills which they can apply right away. These specific needs have been the foundation to deliver this marketing unit.
These students want to learn the state-of-the-art practices in marketing, tools that have hands-on applications, and interesting, recent examples of marketing practices that they can relate to in their jobs and lives.
When explaining the marketing practices, I give students lots of current examples. For example, I came across a new product called “Mirror” which is an interactive mirror which embeds at-home exercise programs. I immediately incorporated it in that week’s teaching for students to analyse what needs and pain points this product addresses and how this product gets a consumer’s job done better than other existing products or services. Through this exercise, students can form a straightforward understanding of how to evaluate new products from a consumer-centric perspective.
So after moving all the students online when COVID hit, my approach was to consider the new pain points students might experience in this online environment and how to remove those pain points for them. I think there are a few key things here, the first being…
Creating a sense of community in the online environment
Although we have online offerings for different units in the MBA, I know the majority of students choose to study on campus for a very good reason…
Part of the learning students want to have is from the teacher, but part of the learning they want to have, is from their peers.
Our students are from different industries, with different working experiences and backgrounds. These differences allow them to bring in a different lens to view a problem and different approaches to solve it. They can learn enormously from each other in class discussions and group exercises. Furthermore, students also want to be part of a network and a community. This is a critical component of the value of an MBA degree. As a result, students were concerned about missing opportunities for learning from each other and for forming close ties with other students. To address this pain point, I did a few things in the online teaching environment.
At the start of session, I introduced myself by putting up a video on iLearn. Then I asked everybody to introduce themselves and share a unique fact about themselves. Students all participated and they commented on each other’s introductory posts. This serves as a start for students to get to know each other. This is also a great opportunity for me to get to know each student to get a sense of their background and personality.
When assigning students to online group activities, I always make sure I assign them into different groups. I have an Excel file where I track who has been working with who in the past. I maximize the opportunities for them to work with new peers every week. Students appreciate this arrangement because it allows them to interact with and learn from different students.
Every week I create an SOS Corner on iLearn.
This SOS Corner is for students to ask any questions about the content, the assignments or anything that requires clarification. The SOS Corner is an open forum and I encourage the students to respond to the questions before I do. The goal is to encourage students to help each other out, in order to create a supporting environment.
And finally, I created a forum in iLearn for students to post anything they want to post and share with the whole class. For instance, one student in the self-introduction post mentioned, ‘I love music’ – and then I replied, ‘why don’t you share some of your music playlists with us?’. This student did open a new post sharing her favourite music. Then other students started to join in. Students started to post their loved songs and entertaining videos, which was really fun!
Maintaining personal contact with students
The second key point is that during COVID, moving teaching online largely limited the personal contact between me and the students. When I taught this unit offline, I would always go to class early and chat with students. This helps us get acquainted easily and allows me to quickly build a rapport with students, which gives them the confidence and comfort to participate in the class. There is always a nice atmosphere in the classroom, which I find way more difficult to create online. However, I think there are still ways to remove this pain point from students.
I make it clear to students that I am available for them. They have multiple ways to reach out to me. In iLearn, they can post in the SOS Corner or the general discussion forum, which I generally respond to quickly. I have a weekly Zoom consultation hour (4-5pm AEST), which accommodates students living in different time zones (particularly India and middle east). I also emphasise that students can write me emails if they have questions or if they want to schedule additional zoom meetings.
Students should not feel invisible in the online learning environment.
I show students that I pay attention to them. Students easily feel left out, alone, and invisible in the online environment. It is important to let them know you are paying attention to them. For instance, by getting to know the students, I can cold-call students in the weekly Zoom sessions to engage in the discussions with confidence because I know they are capable of contributing. Doing this in the early weeks can effectively remove the awkwardness of participating on Zoom and quickly get students to be active and engaged.
I also monitor student performance on a weekly basis and if I notice that a particular student’s performance has declined, I will reach out to them and check if everything is OK. Students appreciate these check-in emails and they will actually catch up on their performance. They also become more open in their communication which gives me the opportunity to provide support.
I spent a lot of time joining students’ group meetings to brainstorm with them. It was such a great opportunity for me to work with students on their fun projects. Students find that they have more clear guidance and instant feedback on their ideas and applications. I love those times also because it’s an invaluable learning experience for me – students have their unique views and ways of thinking which are often so illuminating.
Praising students for their achievements
This point is to some extent related to the previous two points about creating a sense of community and make students feel that they receive enough attention. Moreover, praising student achievement is a great source of motivation and inspiration. In my weekly feedback, I always use students’ best work as the exemplar answers. This gives credit to students who have excelled in the assignments. It also gives other students concrete examples of good work and the standard of work we expect in this unit. Overtime, I can see clearly an overall performance improvement across the whole class.
I also made some group activities into competitions. The groups would post their work in iLearn where other groups can ask questions and provide feedback. All groups then give each other marks, which contribute to my final overall evaluation. The winner is announced in the discussion forum and the whole class can celebrate together the winning group who has done a great job.
Number 1 tip for teaching online for the first time
I think the top tip would be to really get to know your students and make them know that you care about them. This is particularly important for an online learning environment where students can so easily become invisible. More effort needs to be put in keeping them engaged and motivated.
And feedback – give more feedback! The more work we ask students to do, the more feedback we need to provide. Students have put in a lot of work and they need to know if they have done well or not.
Feedback is a two-way street
Session 2 was the first time for me to work on this online version of the unit and to get it up and running, so I expected that there could be some problems. To manage students’ expectations, I asked the students to be patient and to let me know of any technical problems right away. I also kept an open channel to ask students for their ongoing feedback. The earlier I receive their feedback, the earlier I can try to incorporate feedback in the unit.
Every week during the Zoom session, I would ask students how they felt about this week’s content, whether they had any feedback or suggestions. Feedback is a two-way street, not only do we need to provide feedback to students to help them improve, students can certainly do the same for us. I always find students’ feedback constructive and actionable.
The act of gathering students’ feedback, essentially, is another manifestation of consumer-centricity – we care about students’ needs and wants, and we will incorporate their insights in our teaching to create a positive student experience!
Dr Yi Li is a lecturer in the Department of Marketing in the Macquarie Business School. She has a BSc in Psychology from Fudan University (China), a MSc in Economics and Social Sciences from Bocconi University (Italy) and a PhD in Marketing from HEC Paris (France). She has been Visiting Scholar in Department of Marketing at University of Florida (US). Her research focuses on understanding how consumers process marketplace information (i.e., price, promotion, etc.) and its impacts on consumer spending decisions and product choices. She is also interested in uncovering consumer lay beliefs and their impacts on consumer decisions. View her Research Profile.