Start-Up Founders in Training

An interview with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dr. Phil Greenwood

By Kristi DePaul

How do you instruct college students whose aim is industry disruption or inventing the future? Think of the Elon Musks and the Elizabeth Holmeses of the world.

There’s no formula for success, no concrete, failproof lessons. They are ‘the crazy ones,’ as the famous Apple ad campaign once declared. What does a curriculum, let alone a lecture, actually look like when you’re talking about innovation?

Dr. Phil Greenwood knows the answer. He’s preparing students for one of the most ambiguous, competitive and challenging career paths out there: entrepreneurship.

The power of the case study 

On a cloudy Friday afternoon, Greenwood candidly shared how he has approached the subject at the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s business school—one of the top 25 schools for entrepreneurship in the world.

Entrepreneurship is a field that requires boldness, constant adaptation, an ability to scrutinize one’s own creations, and an uncanny ability to pivot. Typically, he says, he designs his classes with a focus on the standard for situational learning: Harvard case studies. More specifically, those cases that are tech-based, as he notes that today’s students tend to be most interested in social media and Internet-based companies.

Yet something had been missing in class. “You always knew that when students said they read the material, you didn’t get to a certain level of discussion. There was something left to be desired in terms of breadth and depth of their understanding.”

60 hours of your life back

Greenwood used to assign two-page papers to his aspiring entrepreneurs. The kind where you offer your opinion, and support your point. Any faculty member reading this doesn’t need to do the math. For the rest of us, however, here’s a handy calculation: two pages x 20 minutes review time x 30 students x 3 classes = 3600 minutes. Or 60 hours.

That is approximately how long a (quite ambitious, very fast-working) professor can expect to spend reviewing such an assignment for three sections of a course. It’s what Greenwood used to strive to do before a colleague recommended he check out ForClass.

18 months in, Greenwood hasn’t looked back. “It made it so much simpler to evaluate and grade—and made in class discussion much, much richer.”

Before ForClass, Greenwood hadn’t explored teaching technology. Now, he’s able to see responses in real time.

“I’m able to preview and know where students are with regard to their knowledge of the material. I think it really has brought in accountability for the students. It gives them a way to conduct their analysis and be represented (visually) in a word cloud.”

In his classroom, undergraduates and MBA candidates alike experience ForClass. They aren’t necessarily immediate fans of the platform.

“It freaks them out at first.”

(It’s OK—we get that a lot.)

Greenwood elaborates: “when students first get exposed to ForClass—when you show them what it does—the typical reaction (especially among undergrads) is something along the lines of oh God, he can see what I wrote. I just proceed along and put it in the syllabus and weight participation.” (Of course, the seasoned grad students are nonplussed, when compared to first-year students.)

The interesting thing, he says, is the number of students who willingly speak up. “It isn’t just the four or five who always talk. ForClass gives me a wider range.”

But Greenwood doesn’t use it to cold call. What he has found is that the platform seems to encourage those who wouldn’t otherwise volunteer answers—just by knowing ForClass is being used, they decide to speak up. He believes that those students often are able to have well-thought out answers to share in class when they’ve had to submit them beforehand.

“It increases student engagement, without a doubt. When they know they have to do it, even if it’s not a lot of writing.”

Greenwood can poll people individually or in small groups. Sometimes, he’ll ask a question that’ll be a polling type question and will be surprised by how students rate vs. his expectations.

“You expect everyone to give a certain answer, but when they don’t, you can dig deeper for their supporting rationale. The outliers are naturally the ones who get called upon—but you don’t want to point out that they’re wrong or right. Not all answers are black or white. ForClass brings different viewpoints into focus.”

Old school vs. new school

Every once in a while, Greenwood will change things up and return to teaching the ‘old fashioned way’.  In those lecture-based classes, he still might ask one question on ForClass. Sometimes, he uses ForClass for the whole discussion.

Greenwood manages his classes with technology playing a supporting role, not a starring one.

“What drives that is the complexity of the case study. For those that are simpler andfor which students can apply course concepts, we follow the analysis entirely through ForClass. With it, we can explore at least two or three different perspectives.”

Spoken like a true entrepreneur, he called the system “efficient and effective,” saying that it delivers on enhancing productivity and accountability.

Other than the initial shock of seeing their answers graphed or displayed visually, Greenwood’s students generally like having a website to go to where they can enter text. “Everyone prefers an intuitive, user-friendly system because it makes things easier for them and as well as the instructor.”

Is this early adopter a pro? He laughed. “I’m not an expert, but I’m getting there.”

As an educator and trainer in the fields of accounting, finance, and entrepreneurship, Dr. Phil Greenwood has designed and instructed numerous courses for MBA, Executive MBA and executive education customers. Currently, he is a Senior Lecturer for the Weinert Center of Entrepreneurship at the Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison