Teaching Lean Innovation in the Pandemic

Remote education in the pandemic has been hard for everyone. Hard for students having to deal with a variety of remote instructional methods. Hard for parents with K through 12 students at home trying to keep up with remote learning, and hard for instructors trying to master new barely functional tools and technology while trying to keep students engaged gazing at them through Hollywood Squares-style boxes.

A subsegment of those instructors – those trying to teach Lean LaunchPad, whether in I-Corps, or Hacking for Defense – have an additional burden of figuring out how to teach a class that depends on students getting out of the building and talking to 10 to 15 customers a week.

400 Lean Educators instructors gathered online for a three-hour session to share what we’ve learned about teaching classes remotely. We got insights from each other about tools, tips, techniques and best practices.

Here’s what we learned.

When I designed the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps/Hacking for Defense class, my goal was to replace the traditional method of teaching case studies and instead immerse the students in a hands-on experiential process that modeled what entrepreneurs really did. It would be guided week-to-week by using the Business Model Canvas and testing hypotheses by getting out of the building and building Minimum Viable Products (MVPs). After trial and error, we found that having eight teams presenting in a three-hour block was the maximum without exhausting the instructors and the students. That format, unwieldy as it is, remained the standard for a decade. Over time we started experimenting with breaking up the three-hour block with breakout rooms and other activities so not all students needed to sit through all the presentations.

When the pandemic forced us to shift to online teaching, that experimentation turned into a necessity. Three hours staring at a Zoom screen while listening to team after team present is just untenable and unwatchable. Customer discovery is doable remotely but different. Teams are scattered across the world. And the instructor overhead of managing all this is probably 3X what it is in person.

While we were making changes to our classes at Stanford, Jerry Engel was smart enough to point out that hundreds of instructors in every university were having the same problems in adapting the class to the pandemic. He suggested that as follow-up to our Lean Innovation Educators Summit here in Silicon Valley last December, we should create a mid-year on-line Summit so we could all get together and share what we learned and how we’re adapting.  And so it began.

In July, 400 Educators from over 200 universities in 22 countries gathered online for a Lean Innovation Educators Summit to share best practices.

We began the summit with five of us sharing our experience of how we dealt with the online challenges of:

If you can’t see the presentation slides click here

But the core of the summit was gathering the collective wisdom and experience of the 400 attendees as we split into 22 breakout rooms. The one-hour discussion in each of the rooms covered:

  • What are your biggest challenges under COVID-19?
  • How is this challenge different now than during “in-person” learning?
  • What solutions have you tried?
  • What was most effective?

The output of the breakout sessions provided a firehose of data, a ton of useful suggestions, teaching tips and tools.I’ve summarized the collective notes from the breakout session.

Customer Discovery and Minimal Viable Products
The consensus was, yes you can “get out of the building” when you physically can’t. And it’s almost good enough.

  • Discovery can be done via Zoom or similar remote platforms and in some ways is more effective – see here
  • During Covid most people no longer have gatekeepers around them
    • Sending lots of cold emails works (at least in COVID times)
  • You could find the best mentors and the best sponsor for a given project
  • Building and demonstrating hardware MVPs is a challenge
    • One solution is to send a design file to a fab lab to be printed
    • If you would normally have your potential customer hold, feel or use the product, make sure you video a demo someone doing that
  • For software MVPs create video demo snippets of less <1 minute to illustrate each of your features
  • It’s critical to offer a “How to do customer discovery remotely” and “how to build remote MVPs” workshop

Class Structure
3-hour long classes are challenging in person and require a redesign to be taught online.

  • Keep students engaged by having no more than four teams in a presentation room at one time
    • Have other teams in breakout rooms and/or with other instructors
      • Breakout rooms must be well thought out and organized
      • They should have a task and a deliverable
  • Break up lectures so that they are no longer then 15 minutes
    • Intersperse them with interactive exercises (Alex Osterwalder is a genius here, providing great suggestions for keeping students engaged)
    • Work on an exercise in class and then talk more to it in office hours
    • Avoid canned video lectures
  • Be more prescriptive on “what is required” in the team presentations
  • What’s the goal for the class?
    • Do you want them to test the entire Canvas or …
    • Do you want them to work on product market fit?
      • Teams will naturally gravitate to work on product/market fit
  • Vary the voices at the “front” of the room
  • Guest speakers – previously extraneous but needed now to break up the monotony
    • But if you use guests have the student’s whiteboard summaries of what they learned
    • And have the guests be relevant to the business model topic of the week
  • Understand that while students attend your class they actually pay attention to their mentors
    • Recruit mentors whose first passion are helping students, not recruiting or investing in them
    • Ensure that you train and onboard mentors to the syllabus
    • Have the mentors sit in on the office hours and classroom
  • Invite lurkers, advisors, and others “invited” to show up and chime in
  • Be prepared for the intensity of the preparation required as compared to pre-COVID times
    • Recruiting students and forming teams is especially hard remotely
    • Double or triple down on the email and other outreach
    • Hold on-line info sessions and mixers

Teaching Assistant
Having a Teaching Assistant is critical

  • If your school won’t pay for one, get some unofficial “co-instructors”
    • They don’t have to be a teacher–use an admin or a student intern
  • They are critical to managing the admin side of marketing, recruiting, team formation, communications and overall support for the teaching team.
  • Team formation requires TA heavy lifting of emails/team mixers/team
    • as well as match-making by TA’s and instructors
  • During class TA’S need to be focused on chat, breakout room and presentation logistics
  • Don’t assume (or let your TA assume) that prior practices will work in a virtual environment.
  • Be prepared to try different approaches to keep class moving and engaged
  • Pre-class write up a “How to TA in a Remote Class” handbook
    • Go through it with your TA’s before class
  • Use security in advance; avoid open entry (Zoom Bombing)

Student Engagement
Zoom fatigue came up in almost every breakout session. Some of the solutions included:

  • Play music as students arrive and leave
  • Recognize that some may be in different time zones – take a poll in the first class session
  • Start each class session with an activity
    • Summarize key insights/lessons learned from their office hours and customer discovery
    • For those using Zoom – use the Whiteboard feature for these summaries
  • Have students turn on their camera on to ensure the class they’re engaged
    • And have their microphone off, their full name visible, and a virtual background with their team ID
  • Create deeper connection with the students
    • ask them to anonymously submit a statement or two about what they wish you knew about them
    • ask the students to bring something to class that tells us something about them
      • have them bring it to the breakout rooms to share with their teammates and others
  • Randomly cold call
    • Don’t be afraid to call out students by name, as Zoom format makes raising hand or asking a question more awkward
    • Ask their advice on what someone else just presented or what they learned from the other team
    • After doing this a couple of times, everyone will become active (so not to get called on)
  • Require additional student feedback on chat – critical to keeping engagement high
    • Focus on quality of feedback over just quantity.
    • Have the students and mentors use chat during team presentations to share contacts, insights
  • Dial back the radical candor– take the edge off as the students are already stressed
  • Offer longer office hours for teams

(All the breakout session slides are here.)

Summary
When the National Science Foundation stopped holding their annual conference of I-Corps instructors, it offered us the opportunity to embrace a larger community beyond the NSF – now to include the Hacking for Defense, NSIN, and Lean LaunchPad educators.

When we decided to hold the online summit, we had three hypotheses:

  1. Educators would not only want to attend, but to volunteer and help and learn from each other – validated
  2. Instructors would care most about effective communication with students (not tools, or frameworks but quality of the engagement with students) – validated
  3. Our educator community valued ongoing, recurring opportunities to collaborate and open source ideas and tools – validated

The Common Mission Project is coordinating the group’s efforts to create an open forum where these instructors can share best practices and to curate the best content and solutions.

A big thanks to Jerry Engel of U.C. Berkeley, the dean of this program. And thanks to the Common Mission Project which provided all the seamless logistical support, and every one of the breakout room leaders: Tom Bedecarré – Stanford University, John Blaho – City College of New York, Philip Bouchard – TrustedPeer, Dave Chapman – University College London,  James Chung – George Washington University, Bob Dorf – Columbia University,  Jeff Epstein – Stanford University, Paul Fox – LaSalle University Barcelona,  Ali Hawks – Common Mission Project UK, Jim Hornthal – U.C. Berkeley,  Victoria Larke – University of Toronto,  Radhika Malpani – Google,  Michael Marasco – Northwestern University,  Stephanie Marrus – University of California, San Francisco,  Pete Newell – BMNT/ Common Mission Project US, Thomas O’Neal – University of Central Florida,  Alexander Osterwalder – Strategyzer, Kim Polese – U.C. Berkeley,  Jeff Reid – Georgetown University,  Sid Saleh – Colorado School of Mines,  Chris Taylor – Georgetown University,  Grant Warner – Howard University, Todd Warren – Northwestern University,  Phil Weilerstein – VentureWell,  Steve Weinstein – Stanford University, Naeem Zafar – U.C. Berkeley, and the 400 of you who attended.

Looking forward to our next Educator Summit, December 16th online.

The video of the entire summit can be seen here

7 Responses

  1. Thank you for giving people outside the USA a chance to participate. That’s one positive of this very sad and difficult time.

    Like

  2. COVID-19 has indeed helped solve many problems we never thought of, honestly I’ve learnt a lot from your article and I would love to be part of this project coming december. Keep me updated, I don’t want to miss this summit.

    Like

  3. I also love showing funny videos when coming back from break. Inevitably it takes people 3-5 minutes longer than I ask them to return to the meeting. During this time I show a short video to lighten the mood and get everybody laughing. For example: (An oldie but it still holds up!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYu_bGbZiiQ

    Like

  4. Great Article!. I learnt so much and I would love to be part of this project. Keep me informed, I don’t want to miss this summit coming December.

    Like

  5. Proud to be part of a great team to create and pull off this event. Steve – Thanks for sharing our lessons learned!!

    Like

  6. This is a great post and the shared doc is fantastic! Thx!

    Like

  7. Steve, thanks for capturing and sharing the whole seminar in this article. It was a great event, lots of learning and validating with peers how we are pivoting our teaching in the new conditions. Looking forward to December gathering. Thanks all

    Like

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