Stavroula Kalogeras, Ph.D, Director of the MBA Program, Heriot-Watt University, Dubai

As a practitioner, scholar, and researcher, Dr. Stavroula Kalogeras, Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy, has over 20 years of work experience in higher education and is the newly appointed MBA Program Director at Heriot-Watt University, Dubai. Before this, Dr. Kalogeras was Chair of Marketing for Higher Colleges of Technology, where she successfully led the program, curriculum, and online transition across 16 campuses during Covid-19. She is the author of two books and several peer-reviewed research publications and holds various teaching and research grant awards. As a practitioner, Dr. Kalogeras played a key role in the entertainment marketing and branding of DirecTV, Paramount Pictures, and E! Entertainment Television. In addition to her service as a practitioner and educator, Dr. Kalogeras is a passionate advocate for youth empowerment and transforms student experiences with transmedia approaches to reach today’s students who learn differently.

In an exclusive interview with Higher Education Digest, Dr. Kalogeras discussed her experience as an international educator in higher education, with teaching experience in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. She shared insights into how students connect to her pedagogical approach called entertainment education – or edutainment. The following excerpts from this enlightening dialogue encapsulate the essence of student engagement in practice. 

You innovated a new way of educating and discuss this in your book: Transmedia Storytelling and the New area of Media Convergence in Higher Education. Can you explain your transmedia edutainment teaching approach?

Transmedia storytelling edutainment involves the use of stories to create learning content around a discipline. These may or may not be popular stories; however, the more popular stories may provide a better hook to capture the attention of learners. For example, a feature film moves across media platforms today and can consist of several parts, such as a book, game, online, TV, and film component. I contend that these self-contained narrative extensions, combined with traditional learning content, can be utilized as teaching aids when the context of the material supports the subject matter. Faculty can curate or create their own learning content, but the key to this learning experience is the series of impactful content and the messages conveyed. The well-known saying is “content is king” but so is the execution and the connectivity with learners.

Since transmedia storytelling is already engrained into people’s daily lives, it can be considered a holistic teaching method that is student-centered rather than technologically oriented. Within the story domain, there are already professionally produced stories and student-produced narratives that take the form of web-based stories and ‘mashups’ (videos that combine and modify existing digital media works to create a derivative work). In any event, the transmedia approach can be used as a standalone method to keep the content moving without the storied component.

How can the transmedia storytelling approach be implemented? It sounds like you need to have a media production company.

Today, everyone is their own media company with desktop publishing capabilities at their fingertips, but this is not necessary for transmedia approaches. Instead, it’s about curating and sequencing the best content to engage the learner.

One way to implement the approach is by using a pre-produced video at the beginning of a lecture to hook the learners into the lesson and create a desire for more information. Hollywood uses movie trailers to hook their audiences and to get them to visit the movie theater. Next, you could look for learning content in different formats and design a lesson plan that moves from one platform to the next. Industry-related and current event stories work great as well. Advancing forward you would take the lesson and write up a story to present the learning.

Harvard Business School has a long tradition of teaching complicated topics using stories, in the form of case studies and several higher education institutions have followed in their footsteps. Professor Oliver Knill, who teaches mathematics at Harvard University, describes this storytelling practice on his website. He has used such films as The Hangover, ‘simple arithmetic to Fourier theory;’ A Serious Man, ‘the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics;’ and The Double, ‘a statistics lesson on hypothesis and p-value.’ Moreover, ChatGPT is an example of generative AI in action with more opportunities to assist with the production of learning content.

Can you explain your intrigue with storytelling and narrative practice?

Growing up I always enjoyed a well-told story that had meaning. The capacity to tell and respond to stories is innate in all humans. Simply put, we tell, receive, and learn through stories. In the education setting, the persuasive power of, and our emotional engagement with stories leads to ground-breaking pedagogies in today’s media-rich environments.

People sit comfortably in movie theaters for three hours and can reiterate to their friends the entire narrative well after it has been told. The research shows that narrative instruction engages more parts of the brain and is better remembered over facts; therefore, wrapping facts into a story is by far the superior method of delivery.

When stories are told, students carefully listen. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts or figures alone. Stories contain universal themes that resonate on an emotional level with all human beings. Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all known history.

What is required to implement such an approach and what are the challenges?

The main challenge is having the time to develop a lesson and then to think of the story and the learning extensions. Additionally, understanding what makes a great narrative is important. It’s a time-consuming endeavor, which is hard to execute under the current work models; however, in simplicity, start with a video on the topic to begin the lesson and then sequence the learning content, using various content from a variety of platforms, and connect information to practice by highlighting a current event, example, or experience. To begin, follow the steps of a literature review but now consider a content review instead: (1) identify the topic, (2) conduct a review of the learning content, (3) read through the content and take notes, saving important information, (4) organize thoughts; create an outline/lesson plan and try to include a story as one of the learning modes  (5) iterate as needed. On top of that, I weave into the lesson a motivational component that inspires the learners. For example, I may show Apple’s Think Different image spot (to discuss differentiation strategies) and, at the beginning of the next lesson, show a sports figure in action and reinforce upon completion of the video that not only should we ‘think differently,’ but we must ‘do’ because it is the doers that make things happen! It’s important to note that not every lesson or course that I teach follows a transmedia approach, but engagement levels significantly increase when incorporated.

How do you see the standard lecture and how do you envision the classroom of the future?

Lecturing began long ago when people could not read, and therefore, someone was responsible for standing in front of a crowd to inform them. Fast forward to today and everyone can read and Google for information. The problem with lecturing is learners can only pay attention for 10-15 minutes, yet lectures can be 50-90 minutes and upwards. Numerous studies have shown that during lectures learners’ attention drops significantly after fifteen minutes, and the result is less retention of the material.  That’s where transmedia education comes in, providing different perspectives of the learning content on different platforms, which keeps the classroom moving and engaged.

Humans learn in silos, where math is a different course from English and science. A more integrated approach is required to align with our natural tendencies. It is essential to integrate topics and show the linkage between them. Likewise, transferable skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and time management are vital to develop. Transferable skills are essential skills taken from one career to another that remain the same when everything around us changes. As technology disrupts education, the future classroom will most need human connection.

Can you tell us about your journey and how you entered higher education? What motivated you to enter this field?

It’s a love hate relationship. I was motivated to find out why I despised formal education. Throughout my education, I was challenged by the educational system. Not only did it generally fail to engage me, but on those few occasions when it did, it failed to create any long-term retention. Looking back on this experience motivated me to move forward with great vigor on student engagement. I had suffered under the traditional model of education because my learning preference and learning style was not accounted for. Proponents of the concept of learning styles believe that individual learning styles should be assessed, and classroom methods should be adapted to the individual needs of learners. My learning style has never been assessed in any classroom environment and learning styles have not proven to be effective anyhow.  The idea that we learn best with one approach as opposed to another has been debunked by researchers. Scholars have found that we learn equally well if we watch a video, listen to a short lecture, or complete an activity. Rather than talk about learning styles, it’s more helpful to think about learning modalities, or learning preferences. As a result, I was intrigued to formulate a new model of education to engage a universal audience. Through my research, I discovered that humans are universally engaged by a good story and learned that science supports the transmedia storytelling approach. Therefore, a combination of self-investigation and passion, along with a deep interest in storytelling, media, and business education, became the underlying drivers for my passion for student engagement. Also, my background as a practitioner working for the Hollywood entertainment industry inspired my teaching approach. I collaborated with some of the world’s most inspiring and influential people and learned from the best.

Can you explain how media and education impact the new generation of learners?

The popular term mass media was originally in reference to one media for all the masses, but now the landscape has changed, as there are many different sources of media for different consumers, so the term may be more appropriately stated as media for the masses. Mass media and mass education appear to be running on parallel lines, and as media for the masses arrived, so too did education for the masses. Mass media delivered one message to the masses, while mass education provided standardization to ensure all the children in a society had basic skills and knowledge. The mass education period in higher education is giving way to a new order. Both media and education are influenced by technology, and now they are integrated, for the first time in history, on the internet. Multiple forms of convergence are leading higher education toward a period of transition and transformation. Convergence is a response to pressures arising from a complex set of social, cultural, economic, and technologically advanced systems. More specifically, to answer your question, learners today use media constantly, aligning with their media usage can support the learning experience.

How are students different today and do they learn differently?

A major concern in higher education is the differences between generations and those preceding them. The shift in cognitive styles away from focused attention to short attention spans is distinguished as deep attention and hyper attention. Today, more students demonstrate hyper attention and are not supported by educational institutions. What this shows is that a transmedia approach is a viable solution because segmenting the content into shorter lessons (microlessons) and keeping the content and lesson moving aligns with hyper attention. Short bursts of learning, delivered in the way learners learn, aim to defeat the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, which explains that learners quickly forget new knowledge within days of learning it. Likewise, students only learn and retain the information they are interested in, so helping learners find something they could be enthusiastic about is key to every classroom experience. It is critical to remember that the ability to retain information plummets without reviewing or reinforcing the learning by a competency-based application. Key points to remember are that it is easier to remember things that have meaning, how something is presented affects learning, and how students feel affects how well they remember. The transmedia storytelling approach can address these points when done well. The ability to engage in an interactive classroom can be challenging; however, by learning with new media and technology; a social process of participation in a shared culture can be achieved.

Where does the e-Learning and distance learning paradigm fit in?

The distance-learning paradigm is influencing and changing the traditional methods of teaching and learning with the formation of virtual universities – or alternative education for the masses. The key to this change is differentiation, which means online learning should be different than seated courses. Replicating ineffective teaching practices to the online space is puzzling to me; however, it was useful as a response to emergency online teaching brought on by the Covid-19 scenario. Today, students in higher education have more choices, including the choice between online, blended, free, open, traditional classroom instruction, and new formats. These new modes reflect the experience of being students of the ‘global village,’ a term closely associated with McLuhan and popularized in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media.

How did your discipline in media and marketing help you become a better educator?

The Hollywood entertainment industry is the champion of transmedia practices, and this industry encompasses the world leaders who influence engagement. From a marketing perspective, my product is knowledge, and the customers are my students; therefore, understanding consumer behavior and my target market is key to providing educational experiences that resonate with the new generation of learners who learn differently. In addition, understanding media uses, transparency in the classroom and compassion for learners is necessary. Authenticity and sharing business context failures so learners can learn from others’ mistakes is incorporated in my practice. The key to this approach is to show how one overcame failure. They say you learn more from failure, so here you go!

What insight do you have on the future of education? And how can administrators support these insights?

Higher education needs to be more agile with a quicker response time in developing innovative programs and curricula. Alternative models of education are upon us creating more competition in the educational sphere. We need visionary leaders who understand the challenges of our learners, listen to faculty insights, are willing to lead with vision and impact, and are not afraid to step outside of the comfort zones to create disruption where practices are ineffective.

In the classroom, I believe that microlearning can help with the attention span issue. Microlearning deals with small learning units and short-term focused activities that can be used in online, blended, and seated learning environments. Microlearning can cover any subject matter but with shorter content. The benefit to learners is the experience, which resembles their media usage, such as engaging on social networks frequently for short periods. Microlearning combined with transmedia approaches help tremendously with student engagement.

What are some challenges and time constraints that the modern educator faces?

Our students today come from different environments; some are displaced, others are raised in one family households, yet others do not have the proper support or family care. Educators are the intermediaries between the family, administration, well-being, and academic support services. Keeping educators constantly busy with administrative tasks is killing the quality time educators spend with their students outside of the classroom. Students need more social working environments with faculty. Educators are trusted student mentors and have a significant role in the wellbeing of our students and the development of our humanity.

As the new MBA Program Director in Dubai for the Edinburgh Business School, what will be your focus for improvement?

The Edinburgh Business School has three campuses, including Scottland and Malaysia. With our Global Director’s leadership, Dr. Bryan Rodgers, a transformational leader in his own right, and Dr. Melissa Migin in Malaysia, we believe it is essential to stay relevant. Therefore, we must consider how the future business environment, digital transformation, and AI technologies will impact the MBA. Transferable, critical, and creative skills will still be the foundation of any learning experience. Visionary leadership is imperative, with innovative teaching approaches being a top priority.

Will AI Kill the MBA Degree?

AI will evolve it. If we learn from media, old media never dies, they simply evolve as new media takes shape. During the Golden Age of broadcast radio soap operas were in fashion, then television dominated and took the soap opera away, as the dominant visual medium where the audience could now visualize the drama rather than listen to it and try to visualize it. The same happened when film arrived; television reshaped and survived.

In the same way education will need to evolve to survive and focus on its core competency which is knowledge transfer. It is highly likely that MBA programs will evolve to offer specialized concentrations that meet the demands of an increasingly digital landscape. The MBA can survive by embracing change and fostering ongoing collaboration between academia and industry on research, internships, and program development to ensure graduates possess industry-related skills.

The traditional MBA curriculum incorporates a wide range of subjects to equip learners with the knowledge and skills required for managerial roles. To stay relevant, MBA business schools must constantly update their curricula. Learning today is not just about classroom lectures but experiential learning experiences, where theory is put into practice. The human ability to think critically, be creative, and be compassionate are aspects that AI cannot replace. Likewise, problem-solving, strategic decision-making, creativity, and improved innovation is a human ability.

As technology continues to advance, education needs to adapt swiftly, and visionary leadership is vital. MBA programs can remain relevant and equip future business leaders with the skills needed to thrive in an AI-driven world. As AI reshapes the future of business, there will certainly be a growing demand for specialized programs that focus on emerging fields like AI strategy, ethics, data analytics, digital marketing, digital transformation, machine learning, and leadership. Ethical implications and responsible AI practices will be necessary alongside technical knowledge. Mindful education should play an important part in developing MBA programs.

Students on the MBA should be equipped with skills to diversify their learning and satisfy a growing demand from recruiters for candidates who have both emotional intelligence and business acumen. To work in almost any company today, cultural intelligence is mandatory. As technology disrupts industries, graduate management education must be responsive. Future business leaders must leverage both human and machine intelligence to drive organizations forward.

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