Interactive group-work, in big scale: possible with digital tools, but not without them

Group work, simple. Interactive group work, also simple…As long as you as a leader of it, do it with 5, 10, maybe even 50, people. But if you want to do it with hundreds, even thousands, of people, it becomes tricky. On top of that: how to hear their solutions, get feedback? Then try this.

Imagine if we could learn for instance marketing via “real life”, instead of via presentations and lecturing. Imagine also: huge amounts of “learning” during a limited amount of time.

Adding to that: would it not be nice to help people see for themselves that connecting to a possible customer does not have to be complicated? To a lot of us, it is a high barrier making a “cold call” (contacting un-known people to get a customer meeting). We invent excuses for not even trying. We all know this. We just do not speak about it.

I often travel to Stockholm City via train ending up at the main rail-way-station. Huge amounts of people going back and forth. Huge amounts of shops trying to sell to them. What could happen if people could engage with all the possible customers and shops there?

It is a big difference between discovering things of your own, compared to someone telling you “how life is”.

Some years back it came to my mind that all these ideas “dreams” actually could be fullfilled, even with really big groups, just with the help of a blog-tool. The case I describe here have I used several times already. It works pretty well.

I tell students to meet at the central station; at the spot on the picture. They only need to bring their own smartphones.

But actually; this has nothing to do with “students” as such – not even necessary with marketing. This “concept” could be done with any kind of audience. Useful for a big corporate meeting for instance (but with different kind of “real life” I guess).

Participants get a small piece of paper. A QR-code and a weblink. That’s it. Here a picture of the site that this leads to (link to it later). I built it with the help of WordPress, which happen to be a dominating “plug-and-play-provider” on the globe for websites.

The days when we needed to know HTML-programming in order to develop web-sites is already way gone. Today it is like using PowerPoint. I overstate, but not much. However, the point is: you can build sites yourself.

Pictures of students starting the exercise.

On the website they find all the information needed for the exercise. They also get info on how to contact me during the exercise, if needed.

Actually, I just sit at a coffee-shop at the station during the exercise, partly in order to check things out. As you will realize fairly soon someone for instance has to get rid of possible chat-bots interfering with the exercise, and that is me who does it.

Fairly often students also tend to pass me by while sitting there during the exercise. They seem to be interested in telling me things they discovered, we chat on it for a while, then they continue. How come they do that?

Besides the way it looks when we meet in the beginning. Messy; as it should be at a rail-way-station.

Here is the exercise:

  1. Find a friend to work with. You work in pairs.
  2. Decide on a company at the rail-way-station you want to investigate (on the site they have info on all shops existing at the station. I have embedded a link to them where the station itself have gathered a list of them, and some corporate info).
  3. Post openly in the commentator-feed dedicated to that company, that you have chosen a particular shop, so everyone else knows and have to choose another one instead (here you directly see why someone has to check that no digital chat-bots appear…the commentator-field is totally open to anyone on the globe).
  4. Go to that shop and ask customers the suggested open-ended questions you find on this site. Post the answers you get in the commentator-field.
  5. Sit down for 7 minutes and come up with ways to solve possible customer problems that you have found. Post your suggestions. If tech is needed, please tell of what kind.
  6. Talk to someone working at that shop, tell them the feedback you have got from talking to customers, and ask the person for reflections on your ideas (is something already solved, was is new knowledge to that person, did they like your ideas for improvement or not etc). Post also this in the commentator-field.
  7. Chose another company that another group already have chosen. Give your reflections on that group´s findings so far.
  8. Head back to your own comments on your own chosen company. Look at the new comments that another group have given you.
  9. Finally, comment that groups comments (on your own chosen company that is).

This assignment has made like hundreds of students continuously talking to each other for two hours, not even stopping when I have claimed the assignment to be over. Some even continue when heading back home on the subway.

I constantly can communicate with the students myself, like for instance comment a certain post they have written, or tell everyone that the assignment is now over (they tend to forget time, maybe because they enjoy it).

Everything ongoing on the site is possible to see by everyone live. Picture of the coffee-shop where I sit besides.

What I am trying to achieve? I´m trying to create a live interactive group-discussion with huge amounts of people involved concerning specific issues in the field of marketing.

So far, something like 500 comments being posted in less than one hour have been created. Compare that to what happen in a room when you present something to a big audience.

Here is the site. Last autumns edition: https://eitatstockholmcentral.wordpress.com/

Participants ask, reflect, think, post, learn, talk to people, get feedback, post again, reflect again etc. It becomes like a game. Could it be that they even smile on the way?

There is a reason why the term gamification is discussed when it comes to e-learning.

The next day I give a, more or less, traditional lecture about the topic of marketing to the students, but; it is only based on observations they themselves posted the day before.

In the end of that lecture I also ask them if it was difficult to contact people during the exercise. Adding to that: I have mainly done this with international students, coming from all parts of the globe, so maybe English became an issue (rarely in Stockholm, but how could they know?).

No-one has problems with contacting people. They just tell people that they do a “student-exercise” and then people gladly respond.

Then I ask what could have happened if they would have asked people for their mail-address and phone-number, for possible follow-up-questions later on. Most people would actually say yes. People in general like to help nice students out.

If that happened; students would have got contact-information to future possible customers.

Correct: This is a way to piggy-back on other actors already existing customer-traffic. It is also the method several big global actors have used with tremendous success during the last decade, like for instance AirBnB who got a big break by doing more or less the same, but on Craigslist. It is a classical method in marketing (See for instance https://www.cbinsights.com/research/craigslist-unbundling).

Here a list of companies that have used this particular method during the last decade, only via Craigslist.

I thereby have managed to show the students that “the scary thing called cold-calling” doesn’t have to be scary at all – if you just have an excuse, which the exercise gave them.

Invent an innocent excuse before contacting people and then they will stop and talk to you.

I hope you can see in-front of you that nearly everything that is normally thought at basic marketing courses all over the globe can be (and is) covered here (even “digital marketing”). But not by me speaking about it. It is done by the students discovering it by themselves.

The “only” thing I actually do afterwards is to help them put words on things they already have discovered. I easily also add theory here, but “backwards” so to speak. I just help them to make sense of their own experiences.

By that I also save the students, and me, several unnecessary hours of traditional lecturing.

There are different ways to learn something. It can be done in a slow way, or a faster way. It can be done without smiling when it does happen. But it can also be done with a smile during the road.

However; I´m not claiming this to be the “best/only” way to learn. People are very different and learn in different ways. I´m just claiming that this way to learn seam to work for a decent amount of people. To people that love this way of working; it is a great method. To people that prefer for instance reading, this is not the best way to learn.

But if you want live interaction with big numbers of people, using books and lecturing and presentations might not be the best way.

It´s correct that it has taken some time to develop, and fine-tune, this “concept”, and build the site. But most of the time has been spent on finding out how the “mental game-engine” behind the exercise should work, test it and fine tune it, so to speak.

This exercise can be used year after year. Since it is based on input from the students, the content never repeats itself.

It could also easily be used with something like one thousand students at the same time.

The only size-limit here would actually be the amounts of shops existing at the Central Station. But then give me a bigger railway station on the globe, or a huge galleria, or an airport, and also that barrier could be removed.

All this means that if someone is claiming that live interactive group-work in big scale is not possible to achieve, I think I just proved that to be wrong. Of course, it can be done. It is only a question on how it is done.

But could it really have been done without digital tools?

Could it be that we sometimes get stuck in the technology itself when doing education, or hosting seminars, instead of thinking about what we can do with the digital technology we already have at hand, as well as what we actually want to achieve with it?

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