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COVID-19 moved teaching online, but students & staff continue to thrive

29 May 2020
Collaborating with social entrepreneurs through the pandemic
Semester 1, 2020 has been like no other in recent history for both students and staff at the University of Sydney.

Despite the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak, domestic and international students at the Business School are continuing to help social enterprises solve real-world business problems - some even across different time zones.  

These projects are part of an undergraduate subject called Social Entrepreneurship, where students apply their knowledge and skills by working with real enterprises to solve pressing social issues. The unit culminates with the students pitching their solutions directly to the enterprises for feedback.

RARE Program Director, Jared Harrison working with Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation board members on social enterprise project opportunities for University of Sydney Business School students (Alice Springs, February 2019).

"At one point we considered that we might have no other choice but to scrap the live projects and instead ask the students to work on something hypothetical," said Dr Jarrod Vassallo, who coordinates the Social Entrepreneurship unit.

"But the encouragement of our project sponsors was overwhelming and the students were so passionate about the projects, we found a way to make it work."

In previous years, students have travelled to Alice Springs and Arnhem land in the Northern Territory, and Mogo and Eden on the South Coast of New South Wales, to learn directly from the communities they are working with as part of the Rural and Remote Enterprise program (RARE).

Indigenous food project goes digital

Third-year student from the University of Michigan, Michelle Olivia Nee, has been working with Black Duck Foods to create content and structure for their official website. Black Duck Foods is a new social enterprise founded by Bruce Pascoe, author of ‘Dark Emu’, aimed at commercialising traditional Indigenous food produce.

Michelle studying from her home in Chicago (United States) with her dog Ellie (May 2020).

Originally Michelle and five fellow students working on the project had planned a trip to Black Duck Foods’ farming site in Mallacoota (rural Victoria) but social distancing measures due to the pandemic meant they were given a virtual tour via Zoom instead.

"The COVID-19 pandemic meant we had to pivot and ask ourselves what was practically possible given we’re now having to work across different time zones," Michelle explained.

Michelle is currently in her fourth exchange program for her Bachelor of Business Administration. She arrived in Sydney in January and has since returned to her family home in Chicago, after American travel restrictions were announced in March.

"I was on a field trip with other international students in the Royal National Park when the news was announced. We were checking our phones every few minutes, waiting for an email from our home school. It felt unreal," she said.

"Jarrod has been extremely helpful going out of his way to respond to our Slack messages, schedule Zoom meetings, and answer our emails in order to help us nail our project. It’s been a challenge to communicate between Sydney, the farm, and the United States so we rely on him for guidance."

Dr Vassallo added: "The pandemic has sped up an inevitable development: that increasingly, units will be delivered online. We’re lucky to have deep relationships with enterprises like Black Duck Foods who’ve worked with us through these difficult times and students who continue to add real value to their operations."

Students adding value to youth training program in regional NSW

Final year Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies) student, Sachin Shah, is continuing the social entrepreneurship unit from his family home in Killara, Sydney.

Sachin Shah and Dr Jarrod Vassallo on Zoom (May 2020).

Sachin’s group are working with BackTrack, an organisation based in Armidale who provide disadvantaged youth aged 15 to 24 the opportunity to reconnect with education and training.

They recently commenced a training and development program, BackTrack Works, to help at-risk youth find employment in the New England region.

Sachin says the key thing about this unit is its capacity for real-life impact. So far, Sachin’s group has worked on a database of farmers who are looking for contractors for work including animal care, fencing and feeding livestock.

"I was really looking forward to being back on campus and seeing my classmates around the Abercrombie Business School," said Sachin.

"But the pandemic showed me that remote learning can be done. I haven’t had a lot of disruption because our tutors are really invested in us and it’s easy to keep motivated when you’ve got a real organisation and people you’re working with."

How teaching and learning happens online

Sachin and his peers have been using a mix of technology platforms: while lectures are conducted on Zoom, his group use Slack for urgent or short messages related to the project and WhatsApp for brainstorming (and informal discussions).

Dr Vassallo, who teaches the unit together with Jared Harrison (RARE Program Manager), said they needed to make a suite of changes once the COVID-19 cases in Australia started to increase.  

Dr Jarrod Vassallo talks to the Social Entrepreneurship students via Zoom (May 2020).

"We set up designated project groups on Slack to encourage greater student and project sponsor interaction," said Dr Vassallo. "We also replaced the ‘chalk-and-talk’ lecture content with student activities that struck.

"We’re still working on real world challenges faced by actual social entrepreneurs. However, knowing how to apply them with skill is where the learning comes in."

Reflecting on the unit, Sachin said one of the main reasons he enjoyed the subject was "the diversity of people with the same mindset who want to lead for good, even during a global pandemic."

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