Bringing an Interactive Physical Workshop into a Synchronous Digital Space

Find Your Startup Idea Workshop: Blackboard Collaborate, 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

By Robert Pembleton, Enterprise Officer at Edinburgh Innovations

My job is endlessly rewarding. I have the privilege of working with University students who are looking to become entrepreneurs, often bringing to the table some really exciting, innovative, and delightfully preposterous ideas. Sometimes, however, they are interested in joining the entrepreneurial community and becoming a company founder, but they haven’t come up with an idea yet. For those students, my team has developed a few iterations of a Find Your Startup Idea workshop, which has been run successfully for a few years and has generated a bunch of great business ideas based on students’ skillsets, available resources, and – most importantly – passions.

However, it can be difficult to find a time that students are able to attend and to find a location that suits everyone. So, as an experiment, I decided to try to bring this workshop online: Find Your Startup Idea Workshop: Blackboard Collaborate #FCL19. At first it would have to be a synchronous session, but ultimately the hope is that this can be made interactive and accessible by any student at any time. Because sometimes you want to try to come up with a business idea at midnight on a whim, and that should be okay.

What better time to experiment with a new way of educating students than the Festival of Creative Learning? To inform my methodology I enrolled in the Institute for Academic Development’s course on Blackboard Learn, Introduction to Online Learning. My learnings from this can be reflected in the ultimately delivered workshop: using Blackboard Collaborate over other tools to deliver a synchronous session, ensuring that students feel as if it reflects a human interaction via personalising myself as a facilitator, and ensuring that students had an opportunity to co-create, personally generate, and provide feedback during and after the event.

Personalisation of event facilitator via introduction and photo

Planning the event seemed straightforward at first. This is a workshop that we have been delivering consistently, successfully, for a couple years; the content had been developed, tested, and re-built. Plus, Blackboard Collaborate is a flexible tool that allows for activities which mirror lots of the interactive, physical activities which have made this workshop effective. However, transferring these activities into Blackboard Learn and Collaborate came with some speed bumps, meaning that the project took more time than I had allotted for it and some of the grand ideas I started off with had to be shelved. Of course, when I run this session online again, all of these challenges will be translated to learnings. If I run it consistently, it will become just as second nature as running the physical workshops.

As part of the Festival of Creative Learning, we enjoyed the huge advantage of opening up this workshop to an audience which we don’t normally reach, including a number of sign-ups from outside the country. When delivering the session, I didn’t realise that one of the participants was getting a distance learning MSc and attending our session from the Caribbean. Other attendees mentioned that they don’t normally have the time to attend our in person workshops, and having it online allowed them new access. It was amazing to see learners actively collaborate on innovative business ideas, in real time, with no barriers between them.

Learners collaborating on creating a list of business ideas using tools available on Blackboard Collaborate

My intention to deliver this workshop alone without any support, as proof that it could be done with limited resources was… ambitious. I realised shortly before the session that my usage of breakout rooms, and keeping track of ideas generated while also facilitating wouldn’t be possible. Luckily two of our student ambassadors (Alison Wood and Victoria Pi) stepped in and helped me manage those breakout rooms, troubleshoot IT problems, keep track of ideas, and generally keep morale up. They were essential to making it work this first time, and as Victoria said “That went better than I thought it would!” I’ll call that a success.

My team and I in our “Mission Control” room for the online workshop

I think next time I could possibly do it myself or with one other person, and scale up the event to more learners. I’m hoping to have the chance to give this a go in the next academic year, as it was great to be able to reach out to our distance learners and others that don’t normally attend our in-person events. Many thanks to the Festival of Creative Learning for the opportunity! If you want to chat best practice about delivering this type of workshop or about how Edinburgh Innovations supports the University’s student entrepreneurs, feel free to hit me up at

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