The University of Denver, the Department of Entrepreneurship is flipping the traditional classroom on its head.

It’s 2022. In the age of TikTok, smartwatches and self-driving cars, it’s hard not to look around and feel a bit like Marty in “Back to the Future II.” Technology is changing, and people’s needs are changing right along with it.

We are in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized home entertainment. UberEats and Grubhub have transformed food delivery. Education is no different. In this brave new world, universities have a unique opportunity. Right now, more than ever, is the moment for universities to plant their feet and shake up the status quo. With history and reputation on their side, higher ed institutions can pave crucial new roads that will lead their students to success.

High school graduates are loud-and-proud Gen Z learners, raised in both the Information Age and what experts call the Experience Age (TechCrunch). They embrace the internet for its breadth of content, which can be tailored to meet their specific interests. It is safe to assume young college enrollees want this same flexibility and personalization from their universities.

What innovations will make the biggest splash at our universities? How do we innovate the classroom in ways that will meet students’ present-tense needs?

Sprints at the University of Denver

Joshua Ross

Director of Entrepreneurship@DU Joshua Ross. Photo by Cullen McHale.

The University of Denver (DU) has chosen to swim against the current. Within the Daniels College of Business, Entrepreneurship@DU has raised a bold question: what if we gave students options to customize their curricular path with an “à la carte” style of offerings? We are doing this through sprints. Sprints are hybrid one-credit classes offered by DU’s Department of Entrepreneurship. A sprint consists of asynchronous pre-work, one in-person class session, and post-class work. Students are assessed at every stage to ensure the targeted learning outcomes are met.

“Sprints change the traditional higher education learning experience,” said Joshua Ross, director of entrepreneurship. “Traditional academic offerings are generally a quarter or semester in length, focused on several learning outcomes with traditional in-class assessments. The Entrepreneurship@DU sprints focus on a specific topic with one to two learning outcomes.”

Sprints, by nature, provide students the opportunity to identify and enroll in subjects that meet their individual goals and interests. In addition, sprints embrace the recent trend of online education and learning at your own pace. The rise of platforms like MasterClass and Skillshare illustrate a growing interest in self-education. Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides free lessons for K-12 students, has changed the ways students learn, as well as changing the methods teachers use to better understand their students’ needs.

“We are taking the concepts that make these education programs popular, and we are making them our own,” Ross said. “These methods are proven to be successful. We are combining the asynchronous model with the interactive, in-person experience a college classroom provides.”

Christine Hood

The Benefits of Active Learning

Christine Hood is the instructional designer at the Daniels College of Business. She believes that sprints disrupt the traditional hierarchy of knowledge dissemination.

“Sprints give students shared power and autonomy in the classroom, which is deeply rooted in equity,” she said. “Instructors act as facilitators, not lecturers. This model focuses on innovative student-centered active learning.”

Do students benefit from a more focused, sprints-style education? The numbers do not lie.

Studies show that students learn best in active-learning classrooms (The Harvard Gazette). Students feel they learn more in traditional lecture settings, but empirical evidence shows active-learning sessions are much more effective. By design, sprints eliminate the traditional lecture structure.

“This delivery method allows students to learn outside the classroom on their own time and at their own pace,” Ross says. “Pre-class work establishes a foundational understanding of the course topics. The in-class experience builds on the pre-class work through application, critical thinking and problem solving.”

“Sprints allow the students to complete lower-demand cognitive tasks like defining, understanding, and calculating before entering the classroom’s physical space,” Hood said. “Then, students apply their fundamental knowledge to higher cognitive demand tasks like creating, collaborating, inventing, and criticizing when they are in person.”

Cindi Fukami

Let’s use Cindi Fukami’s “How to Effectively Negotiate in Business” as our model sprint. Before the in-person session, Fukami provides students with articles, reading assignments, and interactive media to introduce students to the subject of negotiations. There are several pre-class assignments to gather students’ past experiences and their “mis” conceptions about negotiating, as well as an assignment to negotiate something prior to the in-class session.

Next comes the in-person session. Rather than sitting and listening to a lecture, professors lead the group in hands-on activities that bring the subject matter to life. For example, Fukami’s sprint will place students in simulated negotiation settings. These exercises require prior research and preparation, which is provided to the students several days before their session.

The post-work of the class encapsulates everything students have experienced over the past week. In Fukami’s class, students complete another out-of-class negotiation and create a plan for an upcoming negotiation. Both provide the students with hands-on experience, more tools for effective negotiation, and the opportunity to reflect on the entire Sprint experience.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Entrepreneurship@DU offers more than 30 Sprints. Subjects range from hard skills like accounting and rapid prototyping, to soft skills like design thinking and emotional intelligence. Students build off a common base curriculum, scaffolding Sprints on top to create a unique and well-rounded experience. The wide array of sprints means two students of the same discipline could complete the entrepreneurship minor with vastly different skillsets under their belts, while still sharing essential foundational knowledge on entrepreneurship.

The personalization of sprints allows students to identify the skills most essential to their interests and career goals. These wide-ranging courses allow students to create a path that speaks directly to them, wholly unique from the track their peers may be on. This structure empowers students to “choose their own adventure,” mitigating the fatigue and apathy some students express when taking classes that seem unrelated to their personal aspirations.

This style of education is entrepreneurial in its own right. “Innovation is meant to create the most value for the consumer,” Ross said. “We see other industries making changes to maximize value in the marketplace. Why can’t universities do the same?” Ross believes Entrepreneurship@DU is practicing what it preaches. The range of subjects and style of teaching creates a student-centered environment, maximizing what enrollees get out of their tuition.

This value stretches both ways. According to Christine Hood, “Sprints are a way to keep topics relevant, students thoughtfully engaged, and instructors re-discovering the art of teaching.” Professors stand to benefit from this new educational framework by synthesizing their unique knowledge into one credit classes that puts their firsthand experience to work.

“Many of these instructors practically apply the topics they teach in their careers, so they come in with specialized content knowledge on entrepreneurship,” Hood said. “I set the entrepreneurship instructors up for success by working with them through a backward instructional design process. Countless researchers and practitioners empirically support this process. Backward design initially focuses on co-constructed learning outcomes. The instructor and I co-design assessments and assignments aligned with those learning outcomes. I harness my curriculum and instruction expertise and the instructor’s content expertise by co-generating learning experiences.”

Sprints are designed to provide flexibility to students, but they are not a random assortment of classes—there is a method to the madness. Subjects of certain sprints weave into one another, allowing students to organically develop certain skillsets that set them up to maximize their learning from the next sprints they take. For example, the Primary Research sprint establishes how entrepreneurs collect data needed for decision-making. Once a student understands the fundamentals of research and market analysis, they are then equipped to venture into Market Discovery/Product Fit. Here, they will take their understanding of research and use it to determine best practices of identifying the optimal target market for their business.

The one-credit nature of these classes takes the through-line of a standard college curriculum and gives students the freedom to supplement it with Sprints that best align with their own goals. While students take chronological sprints that provide crucial fundamentals to any entrepreneur, they supplement these classes with subjects of their choice. Maybe you would like to sell your products on Amazon. Alternatively, you might need a strong understanding of retail, supply chain and distribution management. Sprints enable students to maintain an intentional core curriculum while learning and growing at a natural, self-dictated pace.

DU’s Expansion of Sprints

We have seen how sprints are innovating in entrepreneurship, but this model is replicable beyond the scope of business.

Under the leadership of Joshua Ross, Entrepreneurship@DU is replicating this success across campus. Ross has been in conversation with several departments on campus, where non-business sprints and sprint-like courses are under consideration. Currently, sprints are part of the MAET minor (a collaboration between the departments of music, art, entrepreneurship and technology), as well as the Lamont School of Music’s Graduate Certificate.

Daniels is now incorporating sprints more broadly into its programs including in the Executive MBA program and in its new Master’s of Science in Digital Leadership program, to be launched in spring 2023.

In this new frontier of higher education, collaboration and cross-reach are vital. Ross and Entrepreneurship@DU are building bridges and creating inter-college relationships at the university.

As professional industries evolve and students reevaluate their education needs, it is time for radical change in higher education. These are century-old institutions that provide invaluable resources to students. As the world around us changes, the time is ripe for universities to step up and innovate the ways they teach. Students are embracing alternative means of professional development. Groundbreaking opportunities are all-around us. Starting at the University of Denver, sprints may be the firebrand that brings the four-year university into the new age.