Some Reflections On Teaching

This month I taught a Stony Brook University-listed course called EST 364, "How To Build A Startup." The course was located at the university's Songdo, South Korea campus. This was my first time teaching, and it has certainly been a bit of a wild ride. 36 students are in the class, 35 from Korea University through a special arrangement in their software management program, and one PhD student from SUNY Korea.

As I discussed in a post on TechCrunch, finding out how to teach this class was quite challenging. As I wrote then:

My own experience this past week is telling. My challenges started almost immediately when I agreed to teach this class on startups. What should I teach? How should my course be structured? I have five hours of class per day to schedule for two weeks, and I can’t just lob content at students and expect them to understand what is going on, particularly in the summer when expectations for studying are (acceptably) lower.

I knew that I wanted the class to be modern and take into account better learning methodologies, such as more active engagement, project-based learning, and a closer connection between active news in the industry and our work in class.

What I didn't realize is how this is to pull off in reality. There just aren't resources online available or platforms that you can sign up for that allows you to just start using these techniques in class. I was reasonably proficient in using them in the end, but only because I have been in school for 17 years and have seen it done many times. It shouldn't be so hard.

The students did really well with the material, and I think (between this class and others they have taken) that they are truly ready to engage in startups and just learn by doing. One issue that came up repeatedly in the class was how Korean students could catch the eye of Silicon Valley recruiters. There aren't really good answers here. One suggestion I gave was to participate in corporate-sponsored programming competitions, since I know people have been recruited through these vehicles. There should be a better answer though given the talent crunch in the region.

I think the overall design of the course was well-received, but several challenges arose that I think are worth sharing:

1) Because this class is being taught in the summer, students are definitely in a less intense mood. That hurt the final projects, since the freedom provided by the project also meant that students didn't feel pressure to meet a bunch of obligations.

2) Furthermore, I left much of the second half of class unstructured to allow students to work on projects and workshop them in class. I think this pedagogical style didn't work as well as I had hoped. Part of the reason may be cultural since Korean students are traditionally just lectured at rather than being considered a key partner in their own learning. The other part is simply that startup culture just hasn't rubbed off as much into Korean culture as it has in the U.S. I was probably ambitious in simply opening the floor for free experimentation, and I think I would structure this a bit more in the future.

3) Korean students are quite diverse in ability levels and desire to succeed. That complicates a class as large as this one where the main work is a large project. One thing that was really surprising is just how completely variable English abilities were -- some students are entirely fluent, while others can barely speak a few sentences before stopping. Some more sociological study of the backgrounds of these students and why they have such different skill levels would be interesting.

Overall, I think the experience was quite positive, and there are definitely some lessons personally for me on how best to teach.

Also, never agree to teach a class longer than 3 hours, and definitely never agree to teach a class that is 5 hours long. Wow.

Some material you can just sort of burn through, but experiential classes like mine on startups really requires you to think through what you are learning and let the lessons sink in. That just can't happen at that speed.


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