The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the life of higher education institutions students and teachers. During the past year we have had to change our usual ways of providing learning possibilities and adapt to the current restrictions. In this article we share some experiences from an R&D project in which students and SME’s have been co-creating products and services - online!
During the recent decades the rural areas of Northern Finland have gone through a massive change in the ways people are making a living. Before, farming was the main source of income for many, but today the number of people receiving their income from farming has decreased, while the average size of individual farms has increased. People living in rural areas have had to find other sources of income and many of them have become multisectoral entrepreneurs. Fields such as rural tourism and different kinds of services provide income for many.
Many of the SME’s located in the sparsely populated areas of Northern Finland are developing their own unique products and services, such as natural cosmetics, deli products, wellness services and outdoor activity services. Creating these kinds of products requires constant updating of the entrepreneurs’ skills and knowledge. Networking with experts across the different fields is also considered important. The new ways of creating value and digitalization have also changed the way companies are developing their marketing and business in general. Some of the most typical challenges revolve around how to get new products to enter the market and creating a solid customer base.
In order to strengthen the skills of the local entrepreneurs in design and marketing, the Oulu University of Applied Sciences (OUAS) School of Media and Performing Arts together with Raahe Business College started a two‑and-a-half-year project called Made in Maaseutu (maaseutu = rural areas in Finnish). The project has received funding from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. In the project the local SME’s together with students, experts and mentors experiment with user-centred, design-based methods and tools to develop their skills in marketing and design. The aim of the project is to bring the local products closer to the consumers. Using co-creation methods in intensive 1-2 day workshops the company’s employees are able to learn fast and apply the skills they have learned in developing their business. The project also organizes 1-week events combining face to face-meetings and virtual meetings. In these workshops visiting the companies is a part of the week’s program.
The project’s co-creation models are based on two models used previously in Iceland (Designers and Farmers) and in Italy (UX-Challenge). Our idea is to combine these models and create a model that is applicable in the Finnish context. The project also aims at finding the best practices for companies and schools’ collaboration and co-creation.
The knowledge about local characteristics has always been an important part of rural development. Close collaboration and co-creation is a way of bringing together the local actors skills and knowledge. The role of schools is coordinating the activities. Other local organizations and associations can provide a channel for volunteer work, guidance and reaching the target group.
When asked, the entrepreneurs mention a few common skills development needs. Most often they mentioned skills related to sales, marketing and productization. Also networking and finding like-minded entrepreneurs were considered important. We started the project by asking some of the entrepreneurs how they would prefer to learn. In their answers they wished for practical and concise workshops. The experts’ active participation in the companies’ everyday life was also mentioned. Due to seasonal type of work and their somewhat limited human resources the companies sometimes struggle to take part in these kinds of workshops, even though they might find their content valuable.
The MADE workshops have three main themes: customer experience, content creation and visual design. During the Spring and Autumn of 2020 four workshops and six webinars were organized. The topics of the workshops and webinars were e.g., how to use Instagram and Facebook in marketing, how to develop the digital customer experience of a service and how to use tools such as Canva in the visual design of a company’s marketing and other communication materials. Also, a one-week workshop about package design was organized
Much of the project’s actions were initially planned as face-to-face workshops, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic during the year 2020, the workshops were quickly changed into online-workshops and webinars. The package design workshop was the only event that had some face-to-face sessions, because the somewhat better pandemic situation in August 2020 allowed face-to-face meetings.
The aim of the workshops was to present new tools for both the companies and students and in a practical way show them how these tools and methods can be used in the everyday development work of an SME. During the workshops, the companies presented their current challenge related to a given topic. Together with the students and experts/mentors the companies then tried to find solutions to the challenge. The aim was to activate the companies in their development work and to provide some concrete tools for how the topic in question could be approached. In the Instagram workshop the companies created an annual clock for social media activities. In the Facebook workshop they made a social media marketing campaign template and in the digital customer experience workshop several canvas tools were presented and used when the digital customer experience of a company was studied.
We quickly realized that facilitating virtual meetings and workshops has its own requirements. Some of the students and entrepreneurs had very little experience in working in an online learning environment, so careful planning was needed in order to ensure the quality of the learning experience.
According to Howspace some common challenges in facilitating online workshops are:
Virtual meetings of larger groups of people who do not know each other beforehand can be a bit tricky when it comes to engagement and activity. It is also much harder to tell how the energy in the group is. By creating a casual and informal atmosphere the participants will feel more relaxed. It is important to make the participants feel safe enough to start the dialogue. A traditional check-in by posing an easy, short question might be a good idea. Same goes for setting the same rules for everyone, like when to keep the cameras/mics turned on or off.
Another thing to consider is the control and understanding of the tools you are using. The combination we favored was a video conferencing tool like Zoom, MS Teams or GoToWebinar with a separate digital facilitation platform. We used platforms like Miro, Google Drive and Moodle. Depending on the activity mixing different methods like polls, multiple choice, talking or writing is a good idea to activate the learners. You should also have a script of what happens when and with which tool, and clearly communicate that to the participants as well. Test new things and tool combinations beforehand with a colleague or a friend so that you can start the workshop relaxed and with a plan in mind.
Each of the workshops consisted of a 1 - 2-hour webinar for a wider audience and a half-a-day workshop for the case-study companies, students and experts/mentors. The webinars were preparation for the workshops so that in the workshop the participants could start working quicker because they already had some basic knowledge about the topic. In the workshops the students and companies worked in small groups. There was also a mentor for each group who took care of the overall proceeding of the assignment and helped with practical matters. In virtual workshops at least two facilitators are needed. This way one facilitator can stay in the main “room” and the others can move between the break-out rooms to see how things are going. In general, it is important for each of the facilitators to know what their role is. One could for example be the host taking care of presentations and activities, while the other takes care of technical issues, moderates and answers questions in the chat and acts as a contact person for the participants. One idea to consider is to have a so-called “visual facilitator” making visualizations and notes of the conversations occurring during the workshop. These materials are shared with the participants after the workshop.
The students found that working with real challenges presented by companies was fun and motivating. Some said that their expectations for this kind of virtual workshop were exceeded and most of them were willing to participate in similar workshops also in the future.
The workshop was a positive surprise and I liked it very much. I learned a lot and I warmly recommend participating in this kind of co-creation workshops for all students!
Some students said that they could have needed a little more practice with some of the tools they were presented, such as Miro. Luckily many of the collaborative online tools nowadays are quite intuitive and easy to use.
I hope that there will be more projects like this! The week was fun and I learned so much!
However, testing the tools beforehand with the participants is a good idea, or at least giving them information and resources about how they can familiarize themselves with the tools beforehand. This way there is hopefully less hassle with the technology. Also, it might be a good thing to give the participants the opportunity to present themselves on the facilitation platform a couple of days before the workshop. All this will save time during the actual event.
When it comes to the duration of virtual events, turning a full-day live workshop into a digital one is not recommended. People’s attention span is a lot shorter when working in a digital environment. To have the webinar and the workshop on two consecutive days worked for us.
Working with the students and experts was productive and I learned a lot of new things. These kinds of workshops are needed and our company is interested in participating in similar workshops in the future too!
Virtual workshops were not a part of the initial MADE project plan. However, we were able to adapt to the ‘new normal’ relatively fast. Especially in the beginning we needed some help from outside of our organization though. Luckily the project budget enabled outsourcing the facilitation of some workshops to service providers that had more skills and experience in facilitating virtual workshops. This allowed us to learn from them at the same time. Some of the lessons learned during these virtual workshops are:
Despite the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic it has also brought about new ways of thinking and organizing events. High quality virtual workshops allow e.g. more flexibility for the participants and they are easily accessible. In the future we plan to use a hybrid-model combining the best characteristics from both virtual and face to face workshops.