Farmer School capstone students take change to remote learning in stride

A student makes her point and gestures to the screen during a Zoom meeting in class

When Miami University made the move to remote learning in early March, it was a big change and challenge for Farmer School faculty members who had to find ways to finish the semester’s classes outside the classroom while maintaining the connective, active learning style for which the Farmer School is known. But it was also a change and challenge for Farmer School students, especially those seniors taking capstone classes.

President Greg Crawford announced that Miami University was switching to remote learning the day before students in Dr. Gillian Oakenfull’s Marketing capstone class were to meet with Procter & Gamble’s Secret Deodorant brand team to receive their client brief for the final hurdle in the course – a real-world, real-time client project. This marketing challenge was the culminating experience of a hands-on course designed to provide Farmer School students of all majors with important work skills including adaptability to difference, strategic thinking, whole-brain thinking, decision-making and collaboration. The project could have become far more difficult when meeting in-person within their student teams became impossible. But the course, and the students, rose to the challenge to add an additional work skill to these students’ toolbox – virtual collaboration and communication.

“My experience, like most, started off a little rocky. Everyone was unsure of where the professors would take the course, especially ours being so group-oriented and collaborative. While there were many changes, there was not really a learning curve when it came to the technology,” Elle Donovan said. “The learning curve came when it was time to communicate and collaborate as a group.”

“This being my second capstone course, I know how intensive they can get with regular meetings, strategy sessions, and meeting deliverables,” Fifi Oginni noted. “You definitely cannot be successful with solely independent work or passive communication, so constant communication, transparency, and group interdependence is still a necessity, even while online.”

But students said Oakenfull worked hard to make what could have been a negative situation into a positive one.

“Dr. Oakenfull made the transition seamless. Immediately, she was prepared with various online tools that allowed us to still get face time with her as well as time with our teams,” Brianna Woods explained. “The ease of this class's transformation really helped when transitioning four other classes all at once. She turned this somewhat-negative experience, especially as a senior, to a positive, relatable work life experience.”

“Being in person made the class a lot more interactive in terms of collaboration. Yet, I feel like we are getting a more personalized experience since every class is now a one-on-one with Dr. Oakenfull and my team,” Ben West said. “Overall, I feel like it has forced everyone to stretch a little out of their comfort zones to make it work.”

Students meet in group chats on Zoom with Oakenfull to continue to deep-dive into complex marketing concepts, discuss their progress with the projects are going, ask questions, and make periodic practice presentations, which requires some coordination among the group members located states apart. They also check-in virtually with the client team once a week to simulate a real-world client/vendor relationship.

The students said they’ve been able to stay motivated and engaged, even though they aren’t in a classroom setting. “I have found myself consulting a slew of resources online that present strategies for students and employees working/studying from home. I have found that adapting a work schedule similar to the one I followed in college has allowed me to remain productive and stay on task,” Colin Higgins explained. “Taking frequent breaks after completing my class work has allowed me to mentally recharge before I move onto the next task on my to-do list.”

“Working in a group has kept my motivation up because I know we all expect each other to contribute equally to the project. I am very interested in the content of this class because it has helped me have a more well-rounded understanding of marketing strategy, which I know will be extremely valuable in my professional life,” Maddie Pine said. “I’ve also maintained my interest and drive to succeed in this course because at the end of the semester-long project, I know we still have a client that is expecting us to present something valuable and impressive.”

Oakenfull met in-person with the Secret Brand team earlier in the semester to plan the project so that the student deliverables would be an application of the marketing concepts she had taught the students earlier in the semester. The final planning touches were put in place online.  For the P&G team members working with the students, the change to remote learning represents business as normal for them. “Really, we’ve been communicating virtually most of the time due to proximity and schedule,” P&G assistant brand manager David Elman said.

Elman and assistant brand manager Natalie Kachadurian said that if the students overcome the challenges that remote learning puts in their way, they’ll likely come out the other side better prepared for the working world today and tomorrow.

“I can certainly see how it's difficult that they can’t meet in person to discuss ideas within their group, but being able to collaborate is a huge thing, especially because you might have people that are in different time zones that you're only ever going to work with virtually,” Kachadurian pointed out. “So being able to build that muscle now is awesome.”

“I can't imagine that we're going to go completely back. I think people are going to realize that you can still collaborate and be productive virtually, and it's just a more modern way of working where people need additional flexibility. So I think it's an incredibly important skill even after all of this,” Elman said.

“The students have done a wonderful job of applying the work that we had done earlier in the course on adaptability to difference. At 8 a.m. the day after it was announced that we were moving to remote learning, each team presented their practice projects to me remotely. They didn’t miss a beat,” Oakenfull recounted. “While I miss the opportunity to really get to know these graduating seniors in the way I would have if we had this time in-person, I focus on the value of their learning how to collaborate, communicate, innovate, problem solve and make decisions in a virtual environment that is likely to be their working reality in a few short months.”