With a strong background in business and technology, this professor sees benefits in taking his students beyond the use of classroom-only tools.
Phil Simon, MILR
Lecturer in Technology and Analytics, Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business
MILR (Master’s in Industrial and Labor Relations), BS in Policy and Management, additional studies in Political Science
Some educators were born and bred to work in academia. That was not the case with Phil Simon, who approached the vocation of teaching later in life.
Simon says he “started noodling with the idea of becoming a professor” in 2015, not long after the release of his seventh book, Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. He was already a dynamic keynote speaker, award-winning author, and recognized tech authority who sits “squarely at the intersection of data, technology, business, and communications.” So it might come as a surprise that adding “professor” to his resume actually made his life less stressful (in some ways).
“I like having a steady salary, benefits, and a retirement plan. At the same time, I have flexibility. This gives me plenty of time to write articles, do consulting, and read and play tennis,” he says.
The role also provides him with some “fundamentally cool” opportunities to interact “with (mostly) people who want to improve themselves,” he says. For example, a few students—whom Simon calls “ridiculously talented rock stars”—became partners with him on a recent business venture called 5marbles, a boutique software-development shop.
And he appreciates that most students (unlike many business clients) actually listen to him.
While being in academia has benefited Simon’s business, being in business has also benefited him as an academic. It has also benefited other educators, particularly those who have stumbled upon his blog posts, which explain the benefits of the intersection of academia and business.
Challenge: Rethinking classroom tech
When Simon began teaching, he found that he missed certain technologies. In some cases, for example, he felt that it took longer to accomplish a goal in Blackboard than with a familiar business tool. He also found himself inundated by students’ emails—many of them duplicating each other’s questions but requiring individual answers—and he preferred centralized communication.
So, with the blessing of his administration, Simon began investigating which business-minded technologies would best meet his academic needs and help students become familiar with tools they might one day use at work.
“Professors wear many hats—one of which is to prepare students for their post-academia lives,” he says. “Sure, some students will immediately flock to graduate school. Odds are, though, their next steps will involve full-time employment.”
Innovation: Enhancing academics with business tools and tech
Simon uses a host of tools in the classroom that are commonly employed by Fortune 500 companies. His successful classroom integration of business technology has led him to write numerous blog posts filled with practical tips and how-to’s for educators. He shares a sampling of his secrets in the “Lesson” section below.
Course: CIS 450 Enterprise Analytics: Capstone
Frequency: 90-minute classes, 2 times per week, for one semester
Class size: 40 students
Course description: This course explores the practice of modern analytics with a particular emphasis on Agile methods (including Scrum). Over the course of the semester, students work with organizations on real-world projects. This typically involves data and statistical analysis, data visualization, scraping data, and more.
See Phil Simon's Teaching ResourcesSee materials
Lesson: A few of Phil Simon’s top tech-tool tips
Here is a sampling of Simon’s suggestions, adapted (with permission) from his entertaining and informative blog posts:
Tell students the benefits of trying new tech
Whatever new tool an educator wants to introduce, Simon says it pays to get student buy-in up front. In “How to Successfully Introduce Slack in the Classroom,” he explains that he tells students that businesses are increasingly adopting Slack, which allows people to create channels (based on team or project), search conversations, and get messages about updates to Slack channels via email (if desired). In the classroom, Simon likes to use the platform for real-time discussions and polls, targeted announcements, and other types of quick and class-wide communication. He is also easily able to get in touch with a student outside of class—without needing their phone number.
Another perk for both student and teacher: “At any given point, I know that I need to search the Slack workspace—and only that Slack workspace—if I need to find something,” he says in the post. This cuts back on those pesky duplicate-question emails and allows students to communicate with each other about assignments.
Consider investing in some accessories
Being heavily tech-reliant can be challenging if the university’s hardware and extras are limited. Simon has made some purchases that he says are well worth the investment—be it using your departmental budget or your own cash. These include the Flio Laptop Stand, which props up his computer so he can easily read the notes in his PowerPoint presentations. He also shares his favorite keyboard, mouse, monitor, mouse pad, pointer, and other tools on his blog “Office Setup of a Tech-Savvy Professor.”
Get an education in using a new tool
Simon introduces students to PowerPoint for slide presentations, though he notes in the article “In Defense of Using PowerPoint in the Classroom” that Amazon banned it in favor of a more narrative approach to delivering information meetings.
PowerPoint’s bad reputation, he says, is undeserved—and not because all slide shows are riveting; we all have seen proof to the contrary. However, when they are yawn-inducing, it is not the fault of the tool. (Put another way: If a novel is poorly written, one would not lambaste the publishing software.)
Simon shares these tips for creating engaging slideshows:
- Use animation to reveal information a little bit at a time.
- Instead of putting a lot of information on one slide, break it into several spartan slides.
- Pepper in interesting photos, quotes, and videos.
- Maximize the point size (i.e., make the type really large) so students “don’t have to squint.”
Make use of academic tools, too
In his PowerPoint article, it is clear that Simon does not view business tools and academic tools as mutually exclusive. Sometimes they can be used in concert to produce a useful result.
An example: “If a textbook figure doesn’t represent well on a slide, I’ll use Canvas to create my own,” his blog explains. The Canvas learning management system—which was designed with this type of application in mind—serves perfectly well in this situation. Check out his 2018 post “Why I’m Switching to Canvas This Summer” to learn more.
Ultimately, Simon says educators should experiment—and stay on the forefront of emerging resources—to find what works best for them. From the looks of it, PhilSimon.com certainly is a good place to start.