Podcast Transcript: Technology Trends and Teaching During a Pandemic

On this episode of Innovation in the Classroom, our host Dora Smith speaks with Dr. Sabine Matook, an Associate Professor of Information Systems in the UQ Business School at the University of Queensland. Dr.Matook received her doctoral degree from the Technische Universität (TU) in Dresden, Germany and is a senior editor of the European Journal of Information Systems (EJIS) and the AIS Transactions on Replication Research (TRR) journal.

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Dora Smith: Welcome to Siemens Innovation in the Classroom podcast series. I’m your host, Dora Smith, and today I’m joined by a special guest, Sabine Matook, from the University of Queensland. Welcome to the show, Sabine!

Sabine Matook: Thank you very much! Thank you for having me!

Dora Smith: I wanted to start by seeing if you could just give our listeners a little bit of background on yourself: how you came to be a professor of IT at the University of Queensland, a little bit of your background.

Sabine Matook: I’m a German by birth, I have been living in Dresden, Germany for many years, I’ve been born there. I studied at the University of Treston, Information Systems there, and that brought my interest in technology – but it was the Business Faculty and not the IT faculty, which made it very interesting for me to understand better the combination of business and IT. So that interface was particularly interesting because technology normally can do a lot, but the human element is a challenge. So, after I finished my studies there, I started a Ph.D. And in 2004, the Ph.D. was completed at that time, it was about electronic marketplaces. And I applied for the University of Queensland and moved in 2005 to Queensland and I have been with the University of Queensland for 16 years now, researching in the field of technology, teaching thousands of students on information systems, with a particular focus on technology, how it’s developed, and how it’s applied. And that’s also part of my research which brought me to the universities in the US. I’ve had a sabbatical stay at the University of Arizona, at Georgia State in Atlanta. And I visited Canada, the University of British Columbia. And all the time I brought new insights back to the University of Queensland to enrich research and the teaching there.

Dora Smith: So, speaking of technology and how it’s applied, in a previous conversation, you talked about the importance of always being relevant. And I’m sure with maybe some of those world travels or other learning opportunities you’ve had, I just wanted to find out how do you stay relevant as a technology educator? It’s got to be challenging with all these emerging technologies. And has that gotten harder or easier during pandemic times?

Sabine Matook: That’s a good question, Dora. The way I stay relevant is by actually combining research trips or trips that bring me to conferences around the world, with a natural curiosity in the teaching. So, I use opportunities, and at conferences, the major technology operators, like Mendix have presentations about their products that are allowing us educators to use them in the classroom. The way I stay relevant is by actively searching for opportunities, getting insights into what’s going on, what are the latest developments in the market. So, you need to actively look for the opportunities that are there. And academic conferences are a perfect melting pot where practitioners come to present their product, and researchers are getting to know them in a very effective way because you have multiple to choose from.

Dora Smith: And so, when we can’t travel to great locations and events like that, have there been opportunities you’ve had in the last few months to attend some virtual conferences?

Sabine Matook: I attended some virtual conferences, but those then, unfortunately, focus exclusively on the academic side. And you’re having a really good point here that as good as it is that I keep searching and looking for opportunities, that pipeline certainly dries up when you can’t physically go to those locations and use the times when you’re not engaging in academic work to get those inputs. So, when we talk about the pandemic and some negative aspects of academics, in that particular case, clearly, the limits of getting new insights become harder. So, it’s challenging to constantly find those opportunities because you don’t know what you’re looking for, what you’re searching for. So that’s clearly a backdrop now.

Dora Smith: You can’t just discover walking around on a trade show floor as you would before.

Sabine Matook: Exactly, that’s completely removed and that makes it certainly harder. If the pandemic would keep going on for years, it would require new strategies to stay relevant and to bring in the latest development into the classroom.

Dora Smith: It reminds me of something – I’ll send this link to you after we get done – throughout 2021, we’re going to be doing as part of another role I have with the American Society for Engineering Educators, an industry 4.0 Workforce Development Series. It was meant to be a physical event next month, it’s going to be about six events virtually. And the idea is really to bring industry and academia together. So, I think you’d see some value in it not being an academic, only audience and engagement, but more to come on that.

Sabine Matook: That’s perfect. That’s exactly what is needed to get that stimulation and the discussion going between otherwise two more separate worlds. Definitely.

Dora Smith: One of the last times we talked, I was asking a little bit about the impact COVID has had, and I think at that time you talked about there even was sometimes just some increase in enrollment. Where do things stand now? What’s been the impact on the University of Queensland and more specifically, your teaching approach?

Sabine Matook: What we had seen is that when the pandemic started, a lot of students deferred or delayed their studies. And then, now, it has become the new norm of online teaching. So, acceptance is much higher now for taking that online teaching. While in the first semester, the students started face to face, and then we moved online and some decided – not many, but some – they would wait until the second semester because surely in two months’ time the pandemic would be done and they could go back to face to face teaching. As we know today, the pandemic was not done at the beginning of July. And then, the online teaching improved so much, and it became clear to those students – and word of mouth was certainly strong here – that it’s actually quite nice, it has a lot of benefits: you can do it from home, you don’t need to travel to university, the materials are much easier to access because it’s all online, your slides are online, the videos are online and your lectures are online. So, you have a portfolio all in front of you at the screen. So, the numbers have increased. And, in that course particularly my course that I’m teaching, Information Systems Analysis and Design, from 2019 to 2020, in the entire year, we have a 40% increase in students taking that course, which I’m very thrilled about because students learn how to use technology to engage with business and to make an impact in the business setup of organizations.

Dora Smith: And so, have you had to change your teaching style at all?

Sabine Matook: Yes, of course. In the very first couple of weeks, we researched because this was something where you could not really draw on experience. Everything was new. We worked together with the students to find a new teaching style and the teaching style that eventually emerged was a more engaged one. I created a lot of checkpoints, fact-checking, little exercises to keep them engaged. So, we were teaching three slides and then we had a short multiple-choice, which actually was just the answer to the slides earlier, but it kept them engaged. We gamified a lot of the exercises purely because I realized very quickly that students who are talking to me, they are engaging with me – and that was very vital, it was very rich in the discussion. But what I was missing, compared to the classroom, where they are physically, is talking with each other. And so, that became a challenge that had to be managed. And we used eventually breakout rooms to connect students more with each other and gave them more abstract problems to solve, where it was not just a quick thing, and then they quickly provided an answer; we really needed a team to engage to work through a question. And that’s not something you would do in a physical classroom on a regular basis, because that has the potential to, the teaching gets out of control because you can’t manage a classroom of 200 students, and suddenly everybody is allowed to discuss on their own every 15 minutes. But in a virtual world, we had those breakout rooms, we used them much more effectively. And because of the technology, students were asked to create one slide, and then each group presented their slides. So that’s something where the technology – Zoom, as we used it for the teaching – was fantastic in facilitating a lot of sharing knowledge, presentations by the students, train their communication skills, presentation skills. The online teaching as challenging as it was for the students, and the educators had a lot of benefits eventually, but definitely, it required some major adjustments to teaching.

Dora Smith: Well, let’s expand on that a little bit more, because I think one of the other things you’ve shared with me is how the technology you see it’s shaping our behavior. So you talked a lot about your style, and then the role of the general learning tools. Let’s dive a little bit more about what you philosophically think about the role of technology in the classrooms, specifically as maybe how it relates to how you use Mendix. And some of how I think you talked a little about providing scenarios for your students and that really being a way for them to be able to learn the tools and be able to apply them in context. Can you share just a little bit more about that?

Sabine Matook: Yes, wonderful! Good question. And I might need to go back a little bit about my own personal teaching philosophy, which is a very participatory teaching style. I teach information systems, so the creation process right from the beginning, where a business analyst or systems analyst would engage with users. I’m in a business school, I’m not teaching IT development, my students will not become perfect Python coders; they will get hands-on experiences and their job will be at the beginning of the development process. So, that phase is characterized by customers sharing their ideas or their vision on the technology they would like to have. And there is no right answer for it because if you contract management system, one company would like to have it very detailed, very specific, and another company would like to engage all their suppliers with it. Both want to contract management systems, however, it has very different shapes. So, a participatory style involves students and clearly shows them that there is no one solution, one right solution. And all the students which come in and hope to get set on a path and identify exactly how to get there, go through a huge learning curve because they have to accept that there is no one right solution and that it is in collaboration with your team, and then eventually with the customers to come up with a mutual appreciated solution. And that’s the teaching style I’m applying. I give them scenarios of real-world cases that range from creating solutions for fitness studios, how you could book your gym sessions; this year, we had playgroup sessions’ share. Our students were given an entire scenario of how a playgroup works to implement a booking system for playgroup sessions. Next year, we will have senior craft workshops. So they’re getting real scenarios as they would get in the industry. And then they are asked to work through it.

Sabine Matook: And we always could do this based on paper. Four or five years ago, we were doing a lot on a paper base, recreating UML models, recreating data structures. In some stage, we said, “Wonderful, that will be valuable for a customer.” And my students were holding a piece of paper in their hand and thought, “Great, that piece of paper is very valuable.” What we can do now – and that’s why I’m such a big fan of Mendix – is we can take it to a final product. Mendix is a low code platform, and that means it is possible for a business student that has an appreciation and a basic understanding of technology – as we will see in industry, business analysts are web designers, are project managers, they’re developing software; all those roles have a basic understanding of technology – and they can use such a low code platform to create a working system. And so, with the Mendix the focus is showing, taking the scenarios to the real product, we can go through the entire life cycle of product development or software development. And you find almost all textbooks available for the teaching of software analysis and design or business analysis and design, they structure their chapters based on the software development lifecycle from identifying requirements to testing. But all of them are just doing it based on paper. So, hundreds and hundreds of students around the world in the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe – where those textbooks are commonly used – they end with a piece of paper. And thanks to Mendix, our advantage is now we can really take that piece of paper and say, “Okay, forget the paper. Paper is great. However, here, you can do every step along the way, in technology.”

Sabine Matook: And this is actually more real for the industry than it ever could be because in industry, when you work, when the students have a job, they can’t just come up with a paper. So, technology allows us to illustrate all the teaching principles, all the practices, and we can show the applicability. So, the technology allows us to demonstrate the theoretical concepts, it provides the students with huge satisfaction in their learning because now they have a running solution, and they click a button and it actually works. They can enter data, and it works. And it shows them something they have created. And the very last benefit of using that technology is that they put it in their job portfolios. I have had multiple students from last year where we started using Mendix, coming back to me and said, “I talked in my job interview that we used Mendix and that was such an opener because suddenly everybody wanted to know more. I talked about with the employers how I used and what I created.” One student said, “And then I looked in my teaching materials, and I showed them what I did.” And needless to say, they all got the job, and they’re all very happy working now. So, it helps me to show what I teach my students, it helps my students to get jobs and be relevant, and it shows how the textbooks can be implemented in practice.

Dora Smith: That’s fantastic, Sabine. Because, one, I love the collaboration that comes from that scenario approach that you’re talking, but you’re really setting these students up – as you’ve just described – so much for a much more successful career and more value add to those industry companies. Because if we can get more students on the business and IT side of things to have that digital mindset – that’s what we want to try to bring to play to at least touch and get familiar with the tools – they’re going to be able to be so much more innovative than they would have in just a piece of paper type of solution. So, kudos on that! So, one of the things you shared in your intro is you have been all around the world in various roles and I guess I’d like to come back to learning styles and how they shape our behavior and what you’ve seen from the way students learn around the world. What can we learn from those different styles? Have you seen some more effective than others? And I know maybe it’s shifted now during COVID, but if you can just look back over your career, just some thoughts you have about how we could really improve innovation by bringing more diverse styles together on challenges.

Sabine Matook: Being a global citizen, I had the privilege to experience different types of students, different learning styles, and that also reflected in how you react to them how you respond to how students learn. And in a very simplified manner, you can compare two different learning styles. One is more an active, engaging, demanding type of student who’s very curious, very proactive and, I have to say, challenges the educator. So you’re always on the edge, you need to prove to the students that the knowledge is correct, that this knowledge is the right one. And you almost have to pitch the teaching content to the students to accept that. They challenge on a constant basis. They learn by really dissecting the information you give them and do a feuding as an antithesis to what you want to teach them. And then you have a very different learning style, where students are way more passive, they’re taking in the knowledge, they’re listening, they mindfully reflect on that information given. And, as an educator, you can take them on a journey, you can explain a lot of things, and they will listen and they will accept. That is, I have to say, a very comfortable teaching style because you’re not questioned; you’re seen as the source of knowledge and as the right one, which is good for students but it requires the academic or the educator, of course, to tell them the right information. So, if you take those two extremes, a combination of them would be, of course, preferred.

Sabine Matook: And when we moved to the pandemic situation, the advanced and the more demanding, questioning, challenging student could very easily translate that learning style or that teaching style into the online environment where you are really required to manage that dyadic discussion because all the other 150-200 students in the Zoom lecture got lost and confused, what is this about. And the more taking-in students, they, of course, we’re challenged. They are challenged because suddenly they can get lost. In the classroom, you can actively read on their faces, because they wouldn’t say if they didn’t understand. But in the direct face to face interaction, you could see on their faces, if they’re now drifting off, and you need to repeat something, or you give another example. In the online environment, you don’t see their faces to the same extent as in the physical world. That’s why the adaptation of the teaching style was really required to bring the more passive students, the more reflective learners into more of that engaging way. So, they needed to engage more.

Sabine Matook: And so, if you ask me what’s a perfect learning style, my global travels have really provided me with an understanding that there is no one right style. And so, almost like a swing, you have to, in the 90 minutes you have, you sum teaching where you actively transfer knowledge, push them out to the students, and manage very much when a student comes. But I’m not convinced this is right. You go, well, let’s hold on, let’s move on. And you just need to manage that and say, “I have 15 minutes of attention span. I have to transfer the knowledge, to push it out to the students.” But then you need to actively create an environment where you say, “Okay, here’s a problem, challenge it.” you sometimes create controversial examples to get that negative or that refuting response activated so that students start critical thinking. Because if they accept everything I say, it would be easy, but it would feel very uncomfortable because I want students to be independent thinkers in our society or in the workforce in their environment. And if they accept everything I say, I might have not done my job well.

Dora Smith: It’s interesting you talk about critical thinking. I mentioned doing some work with ASCE, and we just did a survey to existing students that are near graduation, or those that are fresh hires in the last five years. And the students and fresh hires identified that critical thinking was one they wish they could get more experience with, in education. So, trying to think about how we replicate some of what you’ve done from a scenario base and give them those opportunities to challenge critical thinking. And I like what you said, too, really trying to figure out how we combine the powerful and the passive personalities, in ways that are collaborative, because we need both personality traits. So, I guess I wanted to end on really trying to find out from you what advice you have for students to best prepare. We’re going to continue to have a future with disruptive technologies, whether or not we’re in pandemic times, but there probably will continue to be these really global crises that we have to address. I’m just curious about what advice you’d have for students to consider. I think one of the things you’ve said in the past was it’s really about creating competent learners and maybe lifelong learning. But can you share just your thoughts on what advice you would give students?

Sabine Matook: When I was in the first week of my studies, years ago, the professor said, “You are here to learn for what comes after.” And that has really stuck with me that the university is a place where you learn to learn. We’ve seen that with Mendix from last year to this year, certain features have changed. If I would teach my students the level of how to use a particular feature, they would be, a year later, completely lost. So, the students need to learn, and the entire teaching is directed through teaching them how to acquire – in a self-organized manner – skills. Of course, we use current knowledge as an example, and for the exercises to teach them how to go about learning. And so, the Mendix one is developed with an agile methodology of constant change, of constant improvements. And so, the students see that – throughout even the semesters – things improve, things change. And they can’t be scared of it, they need to embrace it as a way forward because we’re educating individuals that are between 20 and 30 years old, that will be in the workplace for another 50 years. And if we teach them single, very fine-grained knowledge on a particular problem, and how to solve a very unique problem, that knowledge won’t be applicable.

Sabine Matook: So, the teaching itself is directed through concepts and abstract processes. And a student gets always scared when you say, “I’ll teach you a theory”, because they go, “Oh, I don’t want theory, I want to be a practitioner, I don’t need theory.” And then I spend quite some time to explain to them that theory is like a net where you can fall in, and theory has the beautiful benefit of, if you truly rely on the theory it links concepts together, it shows generalizable, time-resistant connections and relationships. And that’s where the students need to get down to understanding how a process works. The particular content of that process will change over time, the knowledge will change, laws change, regulations change, technology changes, even countries move together, as we’ve seen with Germany, 30 years ago, it’s 30 years this year. So, you see that theory is a friend. I know it’s scary for students, but theory – and that is why I can combine my research with the teaching. The theory is what students eventually can hold on to. If they understood the concepts, the general relationships, then they will be successful.

Sabine Matook: Another point that I would recommend students to put a lot of learning efforts into is social interpersonal skills. Why? Because understanding content, understanding technologies, knowledge, learning about a new business domain, they can do this – there are books, there are materials out there, there are podcasts where they can learn that from – but interpersonal skills are something you need to over time develop. A lot of work is done nowadays in teams, we’ve seen that if you don’t have a network of social contacts, especially in a pandemic, you get very lonely. And, at the same time, we see now that companies move more to a work-from-home environment, where you, again, need to have the interpersonal interactions and need to learn, to understand how to engage with others, even if they’re not sitting next to you if you’re not co-located with them. So, learning to effectively communicate, to empathically communicate, and to understand how to ask for improvements, how to point out that, “Yes, via technology, a business proposal could be improved” without going blindly “This is wrong!” – is as much as valuable as being able to communicate when a co-worker or a peer student have done a good job. So, taking a moment that students understand that saying ‘thank you’, saying ‘you did a great job here’ is very valuable for motivational purposes for the human individual in the workforce.

Sabine Matook: And so, this is all something that you wouldn’t expect to teach in a system analysis and design course. But it is particular for an environment where technology becomes support. I just said low code, everybody can do it. So, the technology is there, and you need the human element to intertwine with the technology. And so, the human skills are or human interaction skills are so important, and I would recommend students to learn or take any learning opportunity to experiment in that case, to prepare them for the future as a valuable member of the workforce.

Dora Smith: So, that is really incredible Sabine! There are a couple of things you hit on that I would just want to re-emphasize. That focus on interpersonal skills is so important! It’s always a skill we see as something that industry wants more of in future hires. So, what you’re doing to develop that and encourage that is great. But I also liked what you said about that because one of the things we’ve seen is, there are times in academia, still, some silos from research to classroom and where you’re taking, what you’re learning in research and really bringing that in and helping explain that theory into the classroom is tremendous! It’s what we need in these emerging technologies because we learn so much in the research, and maybe it gets published in some papers and presented at some meetings, but the students are over here in a classroom and we want to bridge that gap. So, you’re doing that. I encourage you to keep doing that. You’re a great lighthouse example of this so, we appreciate what you had to share today! Anything else that you wanted to share with our listeners, Sabine?

Sabine Matook: Well, one thing I would love to see is that there is an opportunity that, the great thing of what we created in the classroom, of combining the materials we have with applications of Mendix – and it’s the perfect example because it really allows those combinations. So, you can take a standard textbook and put Mendix next to it and you get that combination. So, I would love to be an ambassador to show others how to make their teaching and how to make their education journey more interesting and more enjoyable. So, that’s something I would very much enjoy.

Dora Smith: Well, we will definitely take you up on that. So, thank you, Sabine, for taking the time to share your insights on classroom innovation. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe and listen to many more of our Innovation in the Classroom podcast. Thank you very much.

Sabine Matook: Thank you so much for having me.

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