Piloting Riipen at Waterloo: Umair’s story on experiential learning
Photo Credit: @bitsto
We recently sat down with Umair Shah, a lecturer at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Management Sciences, a department within the Faculty of Engineering, to find out why and how he brought Riipen into his classroom. Umair’s journey with Riipen began in the fall of 2017, when he partnered with Jane Chomyc at the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) to pilot Riipen in his large online organizational behaviour class at Waterloo.
After several iterations and adjustments, Umair is preparing to launch his fourth assignment on Riipen, and he has some advice for other educators curious about introducing this type of experience to their students. Umair shares his keys to success, and the things he wishes he’d known a year ago. If you’ve been considering using Riipen for an online course, you’ll want to start here.
Umair used Riipen in both his fall and winter undergraduate organizational behaviour course, and in his summer graduate-level fundamentals of senior management course at Waterloo. He will be using Riipen again this fall for the same organizational behaviour course. Between 210 and 240 students are typically enrolled in the organizational behaviour course, and all assessment is done online, while the senior management course serves approximately 20 students and is delivered in the classroom.
Umair saw Riipen as an opportunity to replace stale case studies with real-world problems, and give students access to a valuable employer network. “Riipen was presented as an alternative to case studies and I jumped on it right away.” Having completed a project with the International Red Cross as a graduate student, Umair understood first-hand the power of experiential learning. “I still remember that experience. It gave me both learning and networking opportunities, and I knew this would be good for my students...The biggest outcome was that the students should connect what they’re learning in every module to the real-world.”
The assignment design was similar for all 3 classes; students were tasked with developing an action plan to address a leadership or management challenge of the industry partner’s choosing.
In the last year, Umair’s nearly 500 students have worked in over 60 teams to complete projects and submit deliverables to 14 industry partners.
If your students are already organized in teams on your learning management system, do not create different teams for the Riipen project.
Umair’s organizational behaviour students are organized into teams on the first day of class. Waterloo’s learning management system allows teams to form discussion groups and provide peer feedback. This helps foster initial collaboration amongst students who do not have the opportunity to interact in the classroom. When Umair introduced Riipen in the fall of 2017, he assigned his students to different groups for the Riipen project, but he now feels strongly that instructors should aim to keep the students in the same groups throughout the term.
“We make these groups (in the LMS) on the first day of the course, and the project starts one month in. Students are already communicating with each other, so they get on board with the Riipen project really naturally. This is something we did not do with the first offering, and that was a challenge.”
Of course, a one-month head start will not remove all barriers to effective remote collaboration, and that’s okay. As Umair says, “Students are not very comfortable working with people in an online setting. This is something I want to teach them; in real life, they will be asked to do this all the time.”
More employers is not always better, especially when you are introducing Riipen for the first time. The project-based experiential learning model is flexible; give yourself a few terms to find your sweet spot.
Working with multiple companies provides student teams with a wider variety of projects, but it also necessitates communication with more employers both before and during the assignment. While many student teams engaged with their industry partners independently, there were times when Umair needed to provide additional support, joining conference calls with employers to moderate discussion, or clarifying project scope. Depending on your availability, and your students’ experience level, consider involving fewer industry partners to reduce the margin for error.
“In the first offering, I was over-ambitious and wanted to work with as many companies as possible, providing multiple projects for all the teams I was trying to create. In the second offering I changed that, and instead of working with 10 companies, I worked with 3. Going forward, I’m going to change that again and test how well a competition style approach will work in a large classroom with a single company.”
Umair notes that some larger employers may even provide multiple projects. This was the case with Dofasco, a global steel producer. “We had 8 teams assigned to them, but because it was a large company we were able to work with multiple sections of the HR department, and get separate projects for every team.”
With each subsequent class, Umair has adjusted his approach to improve the experience for both student and employer. In the first offering, students submitted their deliverables directly to the employer on the deadline. Now students submit their work for an interim review a week prior to the deadline, allowing Umair and his teaching team to make critical improvement suggestions before deliverables are posted to the Riipen platform for employers to review.
This model has also allowed Umair to partner with a single employer for his current online class. While all 240 students will complete the project, only the top 5-10 submissions will be submitted to the industry partner for feedback.
Be patient, and rest assured that your efforts will pay off.
Umair acknowledges that embracing this new teaching model has required patience and a willingness to experiment.
“It takes time. Allow yourself a few terms to get it right, and don’t judge your success on the basis of one experience.” He also emphasized the importance of his department’s support to the success of the initiative. “Encouragement came from the top down; I was very lucky in that regard.”
The day before we spoke with Umair, his graduate students had presented to a Program Director from Toronto not-for-profit Business in the Streets (BITS). “The students were so motivated and excited that they wanted to take pictures with the industry partner, and were thanking us for his visit to campus.”
While Waterloo is renowned for its co-op program, there are plenty of non-co-op students eager to connect and engage with employers. One of Umair’s online students came to see him on campus to thank him for the opportunity to participate in a project with Riipen. “He was returning to his home country after finishing his undergraduate degree, and he thanked me for providing him with this Canadian experience - this experience that was going to be quite valuable to him back home.”
After three semesters on Riipen, Umair has not received a single piece of negative feedback from an employer about the quality of his students’ submissions. The response from both learners and industry partners has been largely positive, and he’s thrilled with the impact of this investment in experiential learning. “I want to be an instructor who is open to these kinds of challenges. I know that it’s not easy, but it’s rewarding.”
We would like to extend our thanks to Umair Shah, for his generosity in sharing his experience with us, and to the Centre for Extended Learning, as well as the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo, for their continued support.