Building engagement through stories, with SJSU's Tim Hill

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This is a podcast episode titled, Building engagement through stories, with SJSU's Tim Hill. The summary for this episode is: <p>Professor Tim Hill from San Jose State University, shares how he developed a ‘storification’ model to teach technology to non-technologists. By following the journey of a fictional character named Max, business students learn about Salesforce, and are guided through hands-on exercises to master the Salesforce platform. Hill explains that the storytelling approach helped make a traditionally boring course interesting, even inspiring some students to change their majors to pursue technology fields. He discusses challenges like keeping the content updated with Salesforce changes and plans to use AI-generated voice models of Max for an even more immersive experience.</p><p><br></p><p><strong>Your host:</strong> Daryl Pereira, IBM Senior Brand &amp; Content Strategist</p><p><br></p><p><a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Connect with SJSU's Tim Hill</a></p><p><br></p>
The challenge of teaching technology to business students
00:41 MIN
Development of the idea of storification
00:38 MIN
The development of the 'storification' approach
00:19 MIN
How storification makes a complex process simple
00:50 MIN
Helping business students think innovatively
00:27 MIN
Using AI to create voices for even deeper engagement
00:24 MIN

Speaker 1: Business School.

Darryl: Welcome everybody. This is the Business School podcast where we discuss emerging trends, new patterns, what's happening in the world of business, especially as it relates to what you might not find in a business textbook. And today, really happy to have the opportunity to dive into a topic which is storification and using new storytelling methodologies to make the learning experience more fun. Quite frankly, I wish I'd had more of this when I was going through my education. I think I may have been a touch more successful. But anyway, let's dive in. So to begin with, I'm joined by Dr. Tim Hill from San Jose State University. And Tim, if I could ask you just to give us a quick description, who you are, what you do, and how you got to where you are today.

Dr. Tim Hill: Thanks for having me. So I started out way back in the early'80s as an undergraduate at Purdue. I was in engineering and did my BS and MS there, but I was gravitating towards computers, which were very cool and newish at the time, even though we were using IBM punch cards back in the day. And then I started to get more interested in how solutions would actually be applied in social settings like business rather than just how the tooling would be engineered and designed. So I moved into my doctoral program at Indiana University and MIS. And so that's where I started to branch out into more of these other questions and looked at how the technology could be applied in these kinds of settings. And I had my first teaching job out at University of Hawaii after I graduated and then went to San Francisco back in the early'90s in the days of the CD- ROM market before it crashed, and was working on developing CD- ROMs that were about learning arts, like writing and music. And working with an author in Palo Alto who also teaches writing, Tom Parker. And learned quite a bit about storytelling in developing some of these products. But then the market crashed and CD- ROMs went away because everybody started being able to stream audio and video on the internet and that marketplace went away. So I got back into teaching at San Jose State, and that's where I've been for the last about 25 years now. Part of that initially was teaching, then in administration, which was not as much fun and now back to teaching again. But it was during the period, the 16 years that I was chairing the department that I felt like we needed to tackle this one problem course that we had. And that's where storification suddenly bubbled up and became a solution strategy for us.

Darryl: And just in case anyone's wondering, MIS means management information systems, I think many people know that. And in terms of like you say, you've got this blended background which brings together engineering, computer science, and then the business realm. And so when it comes to teaching technology to business students within the business side of the house at the university side, what are some of the challenges and how does that present itself?

Dr. Tim Hill: One of the things that we have to do in the MIS department in the college of business is to teach all the business students something about the business technologies that they're going to be accessing and trying to use on their jobs. So pretty much all business schools have this course intro to business systems and it's a chance for students to get some knowledge of CRM and database and cloud and enterprise and all that. Now, most of those students are not MIS students, most of them specifically selected not to be in MIS. They chose accounting or finance or marketing or something else because they weren't particularly interested in technology. And so this has always been a challenging course to put on at every business school because it's something that those students wanted to avoid and they're forced to take it as part of their core business curriculum. So making that fun and interesting and engaging for those students has always been a problem. And when I took over chairing the department, that course we had 16 or 17 sections, so about 750 students every semester, lots of instructors in charge of that stuff. And there was not any hands- on component. And so that's really hard, I felt like if students are just seeing slides about these things, CRMs and things, that's not really getting across to them how these things work and how they can be used, how they could really leverage them on their jobs. So we cast about looking for some way to make the course more engaging with the hands- on and give them more of that feeling of how the technology could really be used. There weren't a lot of good solutions. We tried one from a textbook publisher and that was for them to use Microsoft Access. So at least they would get some database experience. But the examples were not very compelling. The little mini cases were things based on library borrowing or based on retirement accounts. And if you think about a 20- year- old, probably the last thing you could ever engage them in is thinking about retirement. So it still wasn't working, it still wasn't really helping much. And it was hard too because it wasn't in the cloud. And so we were trying to get students with Max, half our students had Max, and we were trying to get them to install Access through one of the virtual machine alternatives or something. And it was just a mess and the instructors didn't like it and the students didn't like it either. So in casting about for a better solution, I came across the free cloud- based accounts from Salesforce where students could build on the platform, they could build databases and they could build apps off those databases and they could do some pretty sophisticated process automation. Like when a record gets saved, a new lead record, you can automatically create a new task on that lead for someone to follow up and have that email sent to them as a notification. So I was excited because I thought, well, this solves a lot of problems. This is a way that with Salesforce's model clicks not code, we could let even HR students, some of the least technically oriented students in the college build apps and really see how these things work from the inside out. And our theory really was if they can see how they work under the hood, then when they're on the job, they will be able to spot places in their work, processes where things could be automated or things could be improved, could be more efficient with the technology. And if they have an environment like Salesforce or something that's a clicks not code or low code environment, they might be able to build that themselves. But at least if they didn't, at least they would be able to get their IT people to come in and they'd be able to work with them and tell them, " Here's what I need, here's what I know technology could do for me, that would be really helpful", and get those solutions built out. So that was a big breakthrough. It was just those accounts would be available and they were free and students could do those things. But the problem remained, how do we engage students in something like that and really get them excited and let them have some farm and not feel like they're working on something boring like retirement accounts? So that's where we struck upon the idea of storification, and we thought, well, this is gamification, which we know, obviously there's many examples of gamified learning, but we thought, well, storified learning will also take advantage of students, especially in that age group, this iGeneration age group being into storytelling and being engaged by good compelling stories. And so we thought, how can we write a story that would really capture their imagination? And then we thought about let's make it peer to peer so that they're learning not from me, I'm in my 60s. I've noticed that as I get older, they get less and less a sense of relating to me, and I feel more and more like their grandfather and they like to learn from their peers, and we know that. So we decided to cast the story as one by a peer student in the course who has an opportunity to learn a little bit about Salesforce and then a chance opportunity to work with a startup, building an app to help them with their VC funding search. And we thought, we'll tell this in the form of a blog so that it will feel like social media, it's a platform that they feel comfortable with. It's a student in the same course, like them, same age, who's blogging the experience of building Salesforce apps. And then showing her followers, " Look, it's actually not that hard. You can do this. Just follow these steps. Here's what I did first, here's what I did next." And eventually after an hour, " Here's a mobile app that I built for the founder to be able to track the pitches", that she's making to the VCs. And so that's really the key component that we feel really engaged the students and got them more excited about the course and really transformed it into one where actually some of the students were coming to me at the end of the course and asking to change their major from HR or marketing into MIS. Because they were so excited about the work that they'd been doing, so we really finally moved the needle with this, and it's a powerful technique.

Darryl: What a fascinating story. And I know we have on this podcast as well, spent a little bit of time talking about the idea that in terms of skills that you need to be successful in technology does go very broad. Obviously we do need computer scientists, we need engineers, folks that can build the applications. But then there's so many around, there are so many different opportunities that exist. And this is just obviously in the field of technology specifically even for companies that are actually building and producing the technology, the amount of people that work in those fields that do not have technology backgrounds, myself included, is very high. And something that we want to make sure that it feels that that's something that you're very keen on, was to also make sure that students of any walk of life, in some ways this fear factor of technology where you may have come up against and maybe a high school level or something like that, where you came up with a bit of coding and stuff like that and you suddenly saw some people just running away and could code amazingly, and you weren't quite there. And you felt like, how could I ever get a career in technology? And meanwhile, really interesting what you're showing, not necessarily even just for the tech field, but just generally, obviously now it's very difficult to run a business without using some degree of technology and the degree that technology within any business can give you an advantage can be a difficult point to get across. But it's lovely the way that you're doing this and it's fascinating that you're using this approach of telling stories. And let's talk a little bit more about, so the main protagonist and the person that the students follow, who is that and what's been some of the reception to having this individual that's effectively at the student level that's taking them on this journey?

Dr. Tim Hill: So we wanted this to be a relatable character, and so we wanted to make it just seem like a regular student in the course. Her name is Max, and her first few postings are, " Okay, this is this intro to systems course that we have to take. I'm not really that into it, but the professor seems okay." And we used the name Max. We wanted it to be a girl because we wanted to encourage women to be in technology and to show that they're good at it, but we also wanted guys to be able to relate so we chose a gender- neutral name in Max. And so the first few postings are her saying the same things that we know they're thinking, which are I'm not really that into this, but have to take it. And then another posting is, okay, we're learning a little bit about Salesforce, whatever that is. And then the next posting is, okay, the professor's giving us extra credit points to go to an entrepreneurship meeting. So I would never go in a million years, but for the points I'll go. And then the next posting is, oh my gosh, I met this amazing person, this MBA student at the entrepreneurship meeting. She's founding a startup. We hit it off. She heard I was learning Salesforce and she made this offer, if I can pull together an app, then she'll pay me something and we'll see where it goes from there. So we tried to just slowly bring them along from where they are. I think that was one of the big things I learned in that project, working with that writer. If you've got a good relatable character, then you can take them on a journey and the reader will follow along. You can get the reader to go on that journey from where they are to where you want them to be. And so we tried to make it very relatable. So I wrote this, I was in my late 50s writing this as a 20- year- old girl. And so that was a challenge, as you can imagine, and my first attempt was not great, so I tried to write it in the style that I thought was one that they would use someone like that would use. But my daughter took a look at it, she was 17 at the time, and she was like, " Dad, no, this is not going to work. This is not how we talk. Nobody says this, nobody says that. A bunch of emojis, get rid of all that stuff." So she helped me tune that up and I got the tone much better and the style much better, and I got it, I think, to the point where it feels fairly genuine now. I actually used Google Blogger to write it, to compose everything, so it would look totally authentic. And there are students who somehow miss the part about this being fiction and wind up thinking it's real, which is great. That just thrills me when I hear that. We had one student, we were doing some reflecting exercises, some interviews at the end, and one student, a guy was saying how much he really liked Max, and it seemed like he did think it was real. And I said, " Well, Max isn't real. I'm Max." And boy, his face just fell. He just really showed his disappointment because I think he really, really liked Max, but I was just thrilled to think that it felt that real to these guys. And we know that it is overwhelming when you first log into Salesforce, the sales guys at Salesforce tell customers handing you over the keys to a 747 basically, and one of the instructors logged in and counted the number of places you can click, and it was 183 or something just from the first screen. There's 183 or something places you can click. So the students need that. We felt like the students need that. This is their first time jumping into an enterprise, really leading edge, best in class tool. And it is a little scary, but they're able to do it. It actually works. The vast majority of them read through what's going on, and Max leads them right through it and it works out. So yeah, we're thrilled with what's been happening. We get really good feedback.

Darryl: That's amazing, especially in terms of what you're saying there in terms of Salesforce is obviously known in the industry as doing a lot to push things like the user experience, like you say, make it amenable. Obviously they're mainly focused on the business audience, but it's still, as you get with any powerful tool, there can be a lot when you log in. So it's fascinating the degree to which you can use this storytelling approach to guide and to create a learning experience that can be so positive and that can lead to results like you're saying, where students maybe were going to have developing infatuations. I'm sure that's the upper levels of storytelling right there. On that note, are there any specific, I know sometimes I'm sure we all consume fiction, not often that's so useful as this, and occasionally there can be fiction that's sometimes trying to moralize or trying to a point across, and that can sometimes come across as forced and it feels like it's being set up. And we as the audience, we can realize that. How do you address those kind of things that when you think about creating a fiction and this case where you do have some real, you need students to complete the end of the semester to achieve certain goals, how do you bring that together? I'm sure it takes a very smart level of fiction and creativity.

Dr. Tim Hill: Yeah, it's a fine line, absolutely. And not every student loves these things. Some of them say, " Just give me the steps and just let me go through them." And that's okay. You're never going to capture everyone, but we do feel like we've captured a lot of the in- between people that we would've lost before. And part of it is making it funny. So making it as humorous as possible, that keeps a positive attitude toward the story and toward the character. And part of it is just a feel for a lot of what I learned working with that writer, things I learned when I was performing. So in high school I was in the plays and musicals and stuff in high school, and so a lot of it's just a feel for what people will tolerate and what feels good to them and how you can push them along and lead them along. I have been fine- tuning it a lot all the time, not just because Salesforce keeps updating. That's one challenge. Just last weekend, Saturday night, they started the spring release and one of the students on Sunday morning posted on the form, there's no component button here on step 148, where is it? And I got on, I looked, it's gone. It's a widget button now, and then there's another little sub menu. So that's a challenge in and of itself. But I do go back also and try to fine- tune the wording here and there, the language and the style, just to make it as just engaging as I possibly can because you got to keep them. There's so many steps, some of these labs to keep them in the right place with those 163 buttons or whatever to keep them on the right track, that's a challenge too. And so the steps have to be really clear and they have to be every little step laid out. So each lab exercises 140, 160 steps, maybe 12, 15 pages in the PDF. And so to keep them going, to keep them through that, because they look at that PD up and they see all those pages and steps and they're like, what? But they can do it. They can do it in about an hour and 15 minutes, but to keep them going, you have to sprinkle in little fun bits and pieces, little tidbits along the way. And it's actually those little parts in between the steps, we constantly emphasize to them that the steps are not the learning, it's what you see happening, and it's what she's explaining are the challenges that she's facing and how she's finding the solutions. So the learning appears not in the steps, but in the little paragraphs between the steps where she says, " Here's where I got stuck. I couldn't find a way to do this. Then I discovered this one thing on this one menu and gave it a try, and it actually worked out. It solved it. Here's how you do it." So that's where we're hoping they'll pick up, not just about CRM and about cloud and about enterprise, but also about innovating. We really want them to get the hang of being stuck on something and then figuring out a solution, taking this piece and this piece together and saying" Maybe those can go together and actually make this thing work." And so we hope that Max is giving them the hang of that even though they're following exactly what she's doing, they're not doing anything on their own in a sense. We hope that that's building the neural pathways, reinforcing those neural pathways that give them the hang of, how do I solve this? What can I look for? What might work maybe with this piece in this piece, I can solve it. That's our greatest hope, really, is that they become a little more innovative with the technology that'll come back to them when they're on the job. And they'll say, " Nobody's ever solved this. This process is really inefficient and some technology, I can feel that it could be used here and this would be a solution, and I have a sense for what would do it." So we really hope that will come to them either consciously by saying, " Oh, I remember when Max was faced with something like this", or unconsciously, where it starts to become ingrained after they do it enough that they'll recognize the scenario as something where the technology could play a role. Or any innovation, maybe not even a technology innovation. So that's our biggest hope, and we're actually doing a research project now to see if we're moving the needle on the innovation piece too.

Darryl: That's a really important point I think as well, seeing a lot of business, I think a business doesn't have to get that big before you start to see things like, what we call, the line of business and the technical side of the house start to separate. I remember, I think I was in a startup that had, what was it? I think you got up to about 15 people, and at that point I started, I was employee number seven, but even at that point of when there was about 15 people in the company and we were moving into larger offices, I remember the CEO was worried, concerned because we had two floors. And it seemed to make sense, let's put the technical folks on one floor. Let's have sales, marketing, HR, line of business on another floor. He was concerned that then what's going to happen in terms of this beautiful cross- pollination that happens when you get these groups together? And that was only as you're getting up to 30, 40 people. And now when you think of a lot of organizations that students may be stepping into and very large organizations like IBM, it's definitely something that we try and figure out is how, again, like you're saying, it's this innovation piece of it, and especially how from the line of business side, you can be empowered to have that. As you say, some of it starts with just having a belief and just to have a glimpse of what might be possible. You need that piece first before you can start trying to figure out all the other bits that might come after that in terms of charting a path and the different players and how you can actually then potentially do something that could be very, very valuable for the organization.

Dr. Tim Hill: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, if the tech people are somewhere else and they're not actually doing the job, it's the people doing the job that we hope will have the wherewithal after this to recognize, oh, yeah, this is something where the technology could be brought to there. And tech people won't know that, it's the people doing the job, but they have to have that understanding of what's possible and what's hard and what's easy and would be difficult or what would fit in well. So yeah, we sure hope they're getting that from this, we think so.

Darryl: And you talked a little bit about the research that you're doing in this. So there's one thing, which is the creation of this content in this package, which helps students and guide them through this process. But in terms of then how you look at what students are learning, some of the reception to the storification and the storification projects, what are you seeing on that front?

Dr. Tim Hill: The students, the vast majority of them have been really excited about this, and we have some taped interviews where they talk about, " Yeah, Max is getting into this. She's gotten into this startup. She's gotten a chance to do something. She's figured it out for herself. She's built this stuff and made it work." And so we see that students are getting interviews often that they didn't expect to get by listing that they have some Salesforce exposure on their resumes. Sometimes they've gotten jobs from that, but that's not the main thing that we're trying to do, and we're really not trying to teach them Salesforce. That's a byproduct and it's good, but the main thing we're trying to do is get across to them this idea of how the technology can be innovatively applied in their job, whether it's HR, marketing or whatever. So yeah, we see them get actually excited about this story. Now, one thing that we've also seen lately is that with the AI technologies that have been coming online is that we may be able to create the vlog or video version of Max and make it even more palpable and engaging experience. And so that's what we're trying to do now. We have an actress that plays the role of Max, and so instead of trying to get students to read these PDFs of these blog postings, she's actually talking to the camera. And so she comes on and she's saying to her followers, " Here's where I got stuck this week, but here's how I found this solution, and here's how you can do the same thing." And then we go to screen captures of actually doing the steps so the students can follow along with her, and then she breaks back in with the video again and to see, " So that's how that piece got solved, but then I still had to solve this piece." So we're in the process of developing those. We didn't think we could do those before because with Salesforce changing constantly, it would be just too hard to maintain and make those changes. But we think we've found a scheme to be able to do that, and if we're able to build the voice model for the actress that we think we can, then we'll be able to voice the changed pieces even when she's gone. And so that makes it possible for us to move everything into the video realm. So we've shown some of these samples to the students of the video Max, and we found just an adorable Max anyway, so she's great. She's got a great screen presence, and she's just really engaging, just herself. And students who are working on the written version are seeing these samples now, the video version, and they're like, " Yeah, can we just have them now? Can we switch over right now?" And we're saying, " Well, it's not quite ready yet, but we're happy that you're enthusiastic." So we're excited about getting those going, hopefully for fall semester. But yeah, it takes it to a whole other level, I think, to have her looking you in the eye, telling you how she's figured this out and that out, and then seeing it on the screen happening too. That's our next level of innovation.

Darryl: Fascinating. Especially like you say, video makes a lot of sense. You can build that deeper engagement, but then you've got that problem with the constant updates and potential to use things like AI building voice models so that you can then make those updates even if you don't need to get the actor back in the studio. What a fascinating use of the new technologies that are coming online and that we're getting access to.

Dr. Tim Hill: Oh, yeah, we're really excited because that was the original vision. But then, yeah, the whole update thing, without those technologies, the update thing wasn't going to make that feasible, but now it seems to have, so we're going to push forward and see if we can make this work.

Darryl: What a great story of your journey to storification yourself as starting in the world of engineering. Obviously spending some time in the world of fiction with an author and building those things together to solve a very real problem. Would you have any, just a parting thought, any advice you'd have for students as it relates to, or they might think about skills and even on the business side, what they might think about as they approach IT and MIS and what they might think about it, if they have an interest to get involved, if they have fear about the space, what would you say?

Dr. Tim Hill: Boy, the main thing I would say is that it's not that scary. If you can find these kinds of avenues, it doesn't have to be scary. The technology is out there and there are avenues that you can find that make it not scary. And what you really want to do is think about, I can excel at my accounting job, sell at my marketing job, or I can excel at my HR job if I really know how to... I can do the job if I know how to use the technology that's required for my job, that's fine, but I can excel at my job if I really know how the technology works under the hood. And I can get people to build what I need as long as I can think about it innovatively and be innovative and creative about it, and be on the lookout for ways for potential where I can excel in my job by innovating some sort of a technology solution, even if I'm not building it myself. That's the big message that we try to get across to them.

Darryl: Nice. What a great message. And I know there'll be many ways in which that can happen in which you can achieve that, but this has been a fascinating tale of how you've built the storification program there at San Jose State University. And so really thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule within your teaching, the video, the writing. Maybe one day Max will be on tour, you'll have to figure that piece out. There's so many different places this can go, but I really appreciate you taking the time today for the Business School podcast. This is Dr. Tim Hill from San Jose State University. This has been the Business School podcast where we try and cover those topics that you might not find in a business textbook. Definitely subscribe for more episodes like this, and we look forward to catching on the next episode. Thank you.

Dr. Tim Hill: Thank you so much for having me, Darryl.


Professor Tim Hill from San Jose State University, shares how he developed a ‘storification’ model to teach technology to non-technologists. By following the journey of a fictional character named Max, business students learn about Salesforce, and are guided through hands-on exercises to master the Salesforce platform. Hill explains that the storytelling approach helped make a traditionally boring course interesting, even inspiring some students to change their majors to pursue technology fields. He discusses challenges like keeping the content updated with Salesforce changes and plans to use AI-generated voice models of Max for an even more immersive experience.

Your host: Daryl Pereira, IBM Senior Brand & Content Strategist

Connect with SJSU's Tim Hill

Today's Host

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Cristina McComic

|Content Designer, IBM
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Sam Smitte

|Data and AI Leader, IBM
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Amanda Downie

|Editorial Content Strategist, IBM
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Daryl Pereira

|Senior Content Strategist, IBM

Today's Guests

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Tim Hill

|Professor, School of Information Systems and Technology, Lucas Graduate School of Business, SJSU