A Blueprint for Meeting Society’s Impact Challenge

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Wednesday, April 3, 2024
By Kevin Sweeney, Jodi Detjen, Pelin Bicen, Amy Zeng
Photo by iStock/andresr
The world faces existential challenges. That’s why we must design immersive educational experiences in which students learn to solve wicked problems.
  • Organizations, policymakers, and communities expect business schools to produce graduates who can help design feasible solutions to complex societal challenges.
  • To become capable problem-solvers, students must be put to work solving personally relevant real-world issues in collaboration with key stakeholders in the community.
  • With this in mind, Suffolk University has developed a pedagogical framework for delivering immersive hands-on learning that shows students the impact of their contributions and inspires them to make the world a better place.

Society faces ever-increasing existential challenges that demand resilience, innovation, flexibility, and creativity. Rooted in incredible social complexity and global interdependencies, these “wicked problems” are substantial, pervasive, and difficult to solve.

Our graduates will be expected to have the skills necessary to help organizations deliver critical solutions. That means that quality business education must be both experiential and dedicated to making the world a better place. At the same time, however, we have seen an ongoing disconnect between business school curricula and the real-world need for student engagement, student employability, and community impact.

In 2023, we addressed this disconnect by creating and implementing the IMMERSE Blueprint at the Sawyer Business School (SBS) at Suffolk University in Boston. In this framework, IMMERSE stands for learning experiences that are integrative, multisensory, motivational, emotional, relevant, synergistic, and experiential. Guided by this framework, we design our courses to allow students to conduct collaborative research, engage in design thinking, delve into public policy, and tap into other capabilities so that they can define and synthesize the goals, interests, and concerns of multiple stakeholders.

The IMMERSE Blueprint is supported by our school’s curricula that leverages the capabilities of nonprofit, social, public, and private sectors. As we expose students to the realities of all four sectors, we teach them to apply mindful problem-solving strategies to complex challenges. Over the long term, we want the conributions of our graduates to mitigate the negative consequences that society now faces. 

Expanding on Experiential Education 

Immersive education expands on traditional experiential pedagogy first explored in a 1975 paper by David Kolb and Ronald Fry. Since then, educators have developed strategies that extend beyond Kolb and Fry’s theory, deploying learner-centric modalities that capture students’ attention, stimulate their senses, and foster their active participation in meaningful problem-solving.  

As we expose students to the realities of the nonprofit, social, public, and private sectors, we teach them to apply mindful problem-solving strategies to complex challenges.

Quality immersions connect students emotionally to real-world experiences through the contextualization of issues and personal reflections on their learning and contributions. Effective experiential education also supports active and participatory learning through immersive media, including simulationsaugmented reality, and virtual reality. Since immersive learning is such a versatile approach, learners can quickly acquire new skills at any stage of technological or social innovation. 

The Building Blocks of Immersive Education 

The IMMERSE Blueprint synthesizes best practices and research related to innovative pedagogy, faculty and student engagement, and partnerships. It provides a systematic and cohesive framework for implementing immersion-based pedagogy for all graduate and undergraduate SBS students.  

The acronym IMMERSE integrates the seven critical characteristics mentioned above, with a goal attached to each, into a common framework:

Integrative Unifies interdisciplinary principles and themes throughout students’ programs.
Multisensory   Involves different sensory modalities to maximize learning and engagement.
Motivational Builds experiences that inspire students to learn and solve complex issues.
Emotional Connects with students emotionally by encouraging them to engage in personal reflection on what matters to them and why.
Relevant Extends learning beyond the theoretical, emphasizing the practical application of learned skills to the problems our key stakeholders experience.
Synergistic Creates interactive environments for team-based collaboration and ongoing engagement with important constituencies.
Experiential Implements the principles of experiential (hands-on, real-world) learning in multiple teaching contexts.

We now use this framework as a guide to help us design and deliver impactful pedagogies via all types of learning modalities. Our faculty also use these characteristics to evaluate how immersive their teaching strategies are.

This blueprint challenges professors to reframe their teaching styles—to evolve from merely sharing information to creating opportunities for students to deeply experience content. Although not every class will incorporate every element of IMMERSE, our faculty’s ultimate teaching goal is to expose students to as many of the framework’s characteristics as possible throughout their journeys at SBS.

Supporting the Blueprint

We engage in a range of activities to support educators as they incorporate IMMERSE into their teaching. For example:

  • We deliver extensive faculty information and training sessions on topics such as “How to Debrief Immersive Learning.”
  • We award IMMERSE-dedicated teaching grants.
  • We support a growing cross-disciplinary faculty learning community.
  • We publish a newsletter sharing best practices.
  • We track implementation and best practices through surveys and other tools.

SBS also continues to build additional infrastructure needed to support IMMERSE throughout our curriculum. This effort includes:

  • The planned formation of a representative SBS working group.
  • The continued development of enhanced immersive courses—including the recent reframing of our foundational undergraduate course from a simple review of business topics to a dynamic, integrated, case-based, and client-focused challenge.
  • Expanded data collection that tracks IMMERSE-related pedagogy implementation, student competency-based learning outcomes, relevant assurance of learning (AoL) policies, and feedback from clients that supply projects to our students.

For instance, we are tracking the relevant learning outcomes of our MBA students, who currently form teams to work on six to 10 real client projects throughout their programs. Based on the data we have collected so far, we have concluded that 97.5 percent of our MBA students meet or exceed AoL expectations for analytic thinking related to IMMERSE criteria.

Examples of Teaching Strategies

In the fall of 2023, we delivered the inaugural version of “Tackling Wicked Global Problems,” our new signature required course for all SBS undergraduates. In the semesterlong course, sophomores take on a single wicked problem project involving multiple external clients and stakeholders. They evaluate the issues and associated challenges, before developing creative solutions. Students will apply the skills they build during this course in their subsequent classes.

The course uses systems thinking as a theoretical lens and supplements this framing with a variety of pedagogical approaches and group activities. In this way, the course helps students gain a fuller perspective on the nature of wicked challenges, enhances their appreciation of the stakeholder interests involved in these challenges, and inspires them to iterate plausible solutions. 

“Tackling Wicked Global Problems” follows our framework in the following ways:

Integrative Presents business fundamental principles while integrating key skills from students’ first-year coursework.
Multisensory   Encourages students to engage with one another visually, verbally, and physically using white boards, flip charts, and Post-it Notes, as well as through experiences such as relevant on-site visits or exploration as needed.
Motivational Delivers highly interactive classroom sessions that are described by current students as “fun” and “engaging”—and that appeal to prospective students, who are excited to learn in ways other than traditional lectures and testing.
Emotional Covers topics that elicit high levels of emotional connection with students—for example, in late 2023, content on transportation paralleled significant problems facing Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Relevant Addresses topics that are personally relevant to students—again, last year, students had firsthand experience of the challenges of Boston’s transportation system.
Synergistic Engages key stakeholders (such as the City of Boston) in ways that create insights and collaboration opportunities, allow students to build their skills as they work on complex issues, and make them realize the importance of their work.
Experiential Ensures that the topics and pedagogical approaches are hands-on and apply to the real world.

After the course’s first run, student feedback was both positive and insightful. One student described the coursework as “a big adjustment to try and tackle a wicked problem and be part of a solution.” Another pointed to the “perspective change [that occurs] when you realize that there isn’t a perfect solution, and there are tradeoffs.”

We found the feedback of another student especially heartening in light of what we want to accomplish through the IMMERSE approach. The student wrote that the new offering was the “best course I have taken to show business is exciting and can solve societal problems.”

Understanding Industry Clusters

SBS has multiple graduate programs in business, analytics, healthcare, and public administration that incorporate immersive learning across their curricula. These include course-based consulting work, capstone classes, simulation-based activities, global travel seminars, and other hands-on learning opportunities.

As we continue to refine the principles embedded in this framework, we know that we can close the relevancy gap between business curricula and the world’s need for real-life impact.

For example, all first-year MBA students enroll in “Understanding World Class Clusters” (WCC), where they learn about economic clusters. During each WCC course, students form teams that analyze challenges facing one of Boston’s four main clusters, which center on the industries of healthcare, biotechnology, technology, and finance. 

Student teams receive individual coaching from professors and sponsoring organizations, as they conduct research, deliver recommendations, and coordinate intermediate results with their sponsors. In WCC, our teaching framework is deployed in the following way:

Integrative Introduces skills and themes in the first class session that will be revisited throughout the curriculum.
Multisensory   Not Applicable
Motivational Incorporates a client challenge that inspires students to contextualize and solve real problems.
Emotional Covers topics—such as the 3D printing of houses—that elicit high levels of emotional connection because they address social innovations that are meaningful to students.
Relevant Integrates topics that relate to students’ own experiences—for example, the promise that the 3D printing of homes could potentially address the growing housing crisis in Massachusetts.
Synergistic Engages key stakeholders, such as the founder of the 3D printing business and the community in which her business is based, which offers valuable insights, creates collaboration opportunities, and increases the impact of the students’ work.
Experiential Focuses on topics that turn a stereotypical MBA lecture class into a live challenge that integrates program themes.

The Value of Immersive Learning Principles

The IMMERSE Blueprint addresses concerns that employers, students, the community, and other societal stakeholders have about whether higher education is truly creating a pipeline of talent capable of tackling tough questions. As we continue to refine the principles embedded in this framework, we know that we can close the relevancy gap between business curricula and the world’s need for real-life impact.

When we deliver hands-on, meaningful immersive education throughout the curriculum, we enhance our students’ analytical and critical competencies, all while equipping them with the life skills and resilience they will need to achieve their personal goals. Most important, we show them firsthand how much positive impact they can have if they apply their newfound skills to society’s complex existential challenges. 

Kevin Sweeney
Director of Strategic Partnerships for Experiential and Immersive Education and Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Finance, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University
Jodi Detjen
Associate Dean of Innovative Education and Programs, Executive Director of the MBA Program, and Associate Professor of Practice, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University
Pelin Bicen
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs and Professor of Marketing, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University
Amy Zeng
Dean and Professor, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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