Agile transition to online learning in Digital Business Master Class

During the intensive course, students from Aalto and the School of Business’s partner universities deep-dived into different aspects of digital business and completed five projects for partnering companies. A successful mid-course transition to virtual teaching inspired an online version of the course for summer 2020.
19 students posing with smiles at the School of Business rooftop terrace.
Digital Business Master Class students on their first day at Aalto. Photo: Juuso Kivinen

The Digital Business Master Class is an intensive course with a two-week contact teaching period of daily lectures and project work. The graduate-level business course has a strong focus on international participants from Aalto University’s partner schools. Spring 2020 was the first time the Master Class was organised outside of the summer semester, which helped the course reach new groups of students both internationally and inside Aalto University. In addition to the new course timing, the spring 2020 Master Class will be remembered for the unexpected changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overnight transition to online learning

Since over 80% of the Spring 2020 Digital Business Master Class participants were short-term exchange students visiting Finland for only two weeks, the international travel restrictions issued at the end of the first lecture week caused considerable changes for the course. In addition to supporting social distancing, lectures were moved online to allow participation by international students who had to return home mid-program. One of these students was Kento Morishima from University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School, who gave thanks for the quick re-arrangement of lectures: “Although I had to go home in the middle of the programme, I still learned a lot thanks to the virtual learning opportunity.”

Another aspect that needed to be considered was business projects that students were working on. Digital Business Master Class is a challenge-based course, where collaboration with company partners and solving real digital challenges is an important part of the learning experience. This spring, student teams worked on project cases provided by two of Aalto University School of Business’s premium partners, Finavia and Konecranes. The original project deadline was at the end of the two-week contact teaching period.

“Because of the unexpected circumstances, our students had to make travel arrangements for flying back home mid-course”, Laura Kitinoja, program manager of the Digital Business Master Class, explains. “We couldn’t expect them to finish the project work by the original deadline during the confusing and stressful time we were facing.” Finishing the projects was still important since they accounted for a large part of the course assessment and learning goals. Digital Business Master Class’ solution was to give the students an additional week to get home and finish the project work. The decision was supported by the company partners. 

“In a global pandemic situation like this, there is no option but to be agile and make changes to adapt to the new teaching environment”, Laura Kitinoja comments. “In the end, the project results turned out great. Coordinating the virtual project work across several time zones must have been challenging, and I know that a few teams wished they had had more time for finishing the projects. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the quality of the work the students delivered despite such unforeseen circumstances”, Laura Kitinoja says. 

The quick move to virtual teamwork became an additional learning experience for the students. Hunter Danse from UNC Kenan-Flagler describes his experience with the teamwork aspect of the business project: “It was good to communicate early and have things in place, so when we were all over the world we knew how to communicate and what were the practices we wanted to implement to get things done. But, it was also important to be flexible and not be stuck on one idea or one way to do things. I think what we did well in our team was to have an early understanding of the rules that we would adhere ourselves to.”

Digital business in theory and practice

The lectures at Digital Business Master Class are a collection of topics relevant to digital business, each taught by an expert lecturer in that area. While this gives students a broad look at the phenomenon of digital transformation in business, it also requires an exploratory attitude and willingness to reflect on the topics and their importance in terms of one’s own academic interests and work context. 

“The course topics complemented each other very well. I am not from an engineering or IT background, but the content was pitched at just the right level. The session that added the most value for me from a workplace perspective was the session on Data-Driven Marketing. I got some really insightful and practical tools that I can use at work”, says Cherèl Swartz from University of Stellenbosch. 

Many course participants mentioned the business project as the most valuable part of the Master Class. For Kento Morishima, it was a welcome opportunity to implement both his existing skills and new learnings in a real-life environment: “For me, the consulting project was the most valuable experience during the course. It gave me the chance to solve a real business issue regarding digital transformation. I learned a lot about digitalisation through the lectures, but it was crucial for me to leverage these learnings to solve the real business case.“

The business project also had a deep impact on Seowon Jung, one of the Aalto degree students who participated in the course. After completing Digital Business Master Class, she has decided to further pursue her degree into directions of marketing analytics and digitalisation: “My studies have been more focused on theoretical and traditional parts of business and marketing so far. However, after the project, I started really to notice the importance of understanding the effects of digitalisation and analytics. “ 

A multicultural and multidisciplinary community

“I made friends for life and used the opportunity to network quite a bit”, Cherèl Swartz tells. “The richness of the interactions within the larger group of students was great. I can’t stress enough the importance of a diverse team and being able to learn from each other. Being multicultural and coming from different disciplines really adds that extra something to a team.” 

Interaction and peer-learning have been a student-favourite on the Digital Business Master Class year after year. Since the participants come from all over the world, with different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds, the opportunities for exchanging experiences about digitalisation and the business world are excellent. The fact that most international master’s students already have a lot of work experience adds to the richness of interaction. Seowon Jung comments that this led to great takeaways for her: “Discussing with people from different backgrounds and learning new things from them with an open mind is the only way to learn something that is outside of your comfort zone.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of a diverse team and being able to learn from each other.

Cherèl Swarz, University of Stellenbosch

Facilitated online Digital Business Master Class for Summer 2020

The global situation remains uncertain and many universities have cancelled their study abroad programmes for summer 2020. In response, the Digital Business Master Class team made the decision to transform the DBMC of summer 2020 into a fully online course. “We were encouraged by the quick transition to virtual teaching on the spring course and there was a clear demand for online courses during the summer”, says Laura Kitinoja. The online course has so far been very well received by Aalto University School of Business’ international partner universities. Laura sums up the goals for the online DBMC: “Offering international experiences and opportunities for challenge-based learning is still our key priority. We hope to find excellent ways to facilitate these experiences online this summer.”

Read more on the topic:

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Preparing for multiple scenarios in challenge-based online teaching

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Digital Business Master Class team

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