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Interview with Gad Allon of UPenn

Interview with Gad Allon of UPenn

Professor Gad Allon is the Director of the M&T program at the University of Pennsylvania, a collaboration between Wharton and the School of Engineering. He previously taught at Northwestern University and specializes in managerial economics, decision science, and operations management.

We caught up with Professor Allon for a brief discussion on his experiences with Yellowdig and social learning. Professor Allon increased student engagement by sharing current events in the classroom that he hoped would be more relatable to students over age-old case studies. Yet he also hoped to grasp at a certain element of fresh surprise by using present-day news when rehashing old concepts and theories.

[It’s] the fact that there is something concurrent happening where what we teach in class helps understand [the real world],” according to Professor Allon. “So if I talk about Zara, it’s mentioned in 10 different courses. If I talk about Tesla, it’s mentioned in 3 different courses. But the fact that students bring new articles that share something new about [a concept]. To me, this is a win-win, you have someone that thought about it and tried to learn.


There’s an element of surprise that comes from learning something new as an infant or toddler: scraping a knee for the first time and drawing blood, falling off a bicycle mid-peddle, jumping into a pool of water without anticipating the cold.  And perhaps we continue to search for that unexpected, undefined something as we grow and develop, maturing into fully functioning children and then young adults. Studies at Johns Hopkins University confirm that elements of surprise actually stimulate learning in infants, and perhaps this is an intuitive sense that we seem to lose track of over time somehow.

And so the question remains: How can higher education capture these fleeting elements of the unforeseen and provide them within the context of a course?
Essentially I use [Yellowdig] as a way to tell students: Whenever you want to talk about anything, whenever you want to raise an issue, whenever you want to flag something, whenever you want to bring something relevant to your own industry-- that’s your opportunity to enrich discussion based on examples that you find to basically support or contradict what I teach in class.

The concept of sharing news content from the learners themselves in unique and definitely a social learning approach to providing a spark of the unexpected. After all, the content for the semester is yet to be disclosed or even determined. Who can predict tomorrow? And what will be the medium of this sharing process, this library of collective class curated material? Millennial students are used to Facebook and Instagram and Twitter feeds, news bombarded from all sides in a chaotic virtual space that is hard to moderate or control.

[Yellowdig] is very intuitive. Most of the people that respond continuously are probably continuously responding to these things on Facebook or Twitter for their friends. So it is absolutely for digital natives, who have an interest in this topic. They live in multiple worlds and, so they continuously engage in conversations everywhere.

 There is a definite need for a virtual space that is independent of these distractions, a social feed allowing students to focus and interact solely on course content. This is the space at the the intersection of the social, collaborative, academic, and virtual worlds.


On Professor Allon’s new role:
Penn has this program, an undergraduate program between Wharton and the Engineering School called MNT. From that, most of their graduates want to be entrepreneurs later on or managing their own hedge funds and VCs. So the program has it’s own endowment, its own building, its own staff and so I am going to be the director of the program.

I will also be teaching a course in scaling operations, scaling technology operations for the MBA program. And then operations strategy at the executive level.

What are some best practices that you would like to share with the broader Yellowdig community?
The way I used Yellowdig was that every week you had to post something or react to someone. So my courses meet often, they meet twice a week. But there is a lot of lag time between them so you have to respond to someone by liking something or responding textually. But I don’t have a workload, there is no part in the grade that reflects that, but it can be a substitute for class participation--so if somebody is not comfortable speaking in class, [Yellowdig] can be another venue. It’s not going to be evaluated the same way-- so if you only talk on Yellowdig but you don’t talk at all in class, it won’t be a full substitution but it is going to help boost your grade.

Essentially I use [Yellowdig] as a way to tell students: Whenever you want to talk about anything, whenever you want to raise an issue, whenever you want to flag something, whenever you want to bring something relevant to your own industry-- that’s your opportunity to enrich discussion based on examples that you find to basically support or contradict what I teach in class.

The main value for me is that it’s a constant flow of newer and fresher examples. So rather for me to think about taking the most recent concept that I taught and finding examples in reality, I have students continuously digging and looking and trying to find examples and bringing examples and getting to very heated discussions. It’s a great way to make sure that students are involved in between classes with a course, so continuing to think about a course and apply the main concepts and how they apply in between classes. They take responsibility for bringing and thinking about how the concepts apply and engaging the discussion among them, which is really the main goal. So how do you frame an argument, how do you make your case, how do you respond online? All of these elements-- bringing your topic, taking responsibility, and learning how to argue-- are very important aspects [of Yellowdig].

How do you motivate and engage students who are not as involved with the class and just want to get by with the minimum? Why do you think students got involved on Yellowdig?
I would say there were probably 15 students out of 60 that were highly involved. And the rest were not involved at all.

Could some of them have been reading and others not even logging in?
That’s what I thought too. So I said, you must read [articles] and you must vote on that. And for me, ultimately, that was the only way to force people because they knew I was going to bring [Yellowdig] into the class.

And that’s the issue with any discussion board. But it works with Yellowdig because of how simple it is. It is very intuitive. Most of the people that respond continuously are probably continuously responding to these things on Facebook or Twitter for their friends. So [Yellowdig] is absolutely for digital natives, have interest in this topic. They live in multiple worlds and, so they continuously engage in conversations everywhere.

And these are the people that channel that now into the class. But the difficulty is that, in a classroom environment, in an in-class discussion-- even if you are there passively, you listen. In fact, the more passionate these 15 people are, the more they crowd out the others, because, after a while you just cannot keep up with their information. I could not solve that. So whenever I go to Yellowdig I see interesting things, but it was hard to keep up with so I’m not sure what the best practice is. It works better in a course that meets only once a week, because people felt they wanted to say something and they wouldn’t see their classmates for days so they went to [Yellowdig].

Yellowdig actually spoke with a professor from Columbia University and he mentioned something similar about 20% of students being very active on Yellowdig and 20-40% of students being in the middle. He went of his way to publish engagement scores in the class to motivate the bottom students with low engagement.
I worry less about the bottom of the course. I worry more about the middle, because the middle students are the ones who, with a nudge, they would be able to do better. But they are the ones that barely keep up, they have much less time and they might be struggling in other courses sometimes. I didn’t try to make it mandatory, so maybe that’s what I need to do next time.

On gamification within Yellowdig:
I don’t like to put grading or things that are easy to game. The point system within Yellowdig is still very easy to game, I mean counting words-- people just repeat the question. That’s why my grading for class participation is not based on how many times you spoke. Because once there is a one-to-one mapping, that actually alienates the top students.

It’s actually much harder to give a comment that a pin. Students said you need to give more points for commenting.

On new and fresh content on Yellowdig:
The fact that there is something concurrent happening where what we teach in class helps understand [the real world]. So if I talk about Zara, it’s mentioned in 10 different courses. If I talk about Tesla, it’s mentioned in 3 different courses. But the fact that students bring new articles that share something new about [a concept]. To me, this is a win-win, you have someone that thought about it and tried to learn.

I will make time for new examples over existing examples because it’s something that people read in the news now. So now you have a student who didn’t appreciate why the course is relevant before they came, and now they see something that they learnt a day ago to better understand reality [with news].

What does new content do in terms of the psychology of learning? 
I would say that there is some research on the impact of surprise. So people learn better when they are surprised by something. So old content is less surprising, less interesting while new content is more surprising and more interesting.

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