In London, the Ultimate Teaching Evaluation Comes With a $100,000 Prize

Matt Thompson

Vijay Sethi gives a quick explanation of how technology networks work.
March 25, 2013

Vijay Sethi is smiling as he faces the roomful of students, but he also looks scared. They don't seem like a frightening bunch, these 55 well-groomed, eager young undergraduate and graduate business students. But this is no ordinary lecture. Mr. Sethi, 52, of Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, usually teaches in "free-flowing" three-hour sessions. This afternoon he has 35 minutes. And, at the end, these students will decide which of four instructors will win $100,000 and the title of Business Professor of the Year.

The award is given by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a publisher that specializes in business analysis, to recognize educators who challenge and inspire. The four finalists who came to a campus of Hult International Business School here this month for the live "teach-off" were chosen from among 222 professors in 31 countries, nominated by 30,000 students.

Mr. Sethi uses humor to win the audience over to his topic: the dynamics of technology networks.

To illustrate his points about how those technology networks relate to everyday life, he plucks examples from a world familiar to the students: Skype, mobile phones, eBay.

He talks fast: not in a nervous way, but in the mode of a game-show host who is zooming his contestants from one point to the next. He asks questions frequently as he navigates a stream of points and explanations.

Before the teach-off, he describes his classroom approach by e-mail: "My style—not sure if I can call it that—is to focus on a lot of content and not be limited by the subject that I am teaching."

To explain network effects, the way products or services change in value as they add more users, he shows the audience a photo of a former Nanyang student who runs a popular Singapore nightclub, Zouk. Traditional businesses like Zouk rely on a network-effect concept, the two-sided market, he says.

"In a nightclub, what is the free side and what is the paying side?" he asks. Up pop two pictures: one of a poster for "ladies' night," and one of men waiting behind a rope to get into the club.

In Mr. Sethi's analysis, Bill Gates passed up an opportunity to build a two-sided market by not buying Google years ago. What Mr. Gates failed to anticipate is that while search engines provide searches free of charge, advertising associated with searches could make money.

Next up is Kevin Kaiser, 48, of Insead, a business school in France. He thanks the sponsors for "the most nerve-racking experience of my teaching life." Yet, as he speaks on the topic of value and value creation, his pace and language seem relaxed. He recalls asking top finance executives whom he teaches: "While you were blowing up the bank, did you know that you were blowing up the bank?"

Johanne Brunet, of HEC Montréal, personalizes her lecture—on creativity, innovation, and marketing—with tales of meditating in India in her youth.

Then Darren Dahl, 44, of the University of British Columbia, approaches the lectern, wearing jeans. His talk also focuses on creativity. Soon he has the class shouting out examples of chocolate-bar brands. He moves about the front of the room, gestures broadly, and scrawls on a whiteboard to illustrate the ways in which rival chocolate companies had to be creative to compete.

Creativity is great, he says, "but are we creative?" To test this, he gives members of the audience 60 seconds to draw the person next to them. Many are slow to pick up their pens, and they giggle when asked to show the results to their neighbors. "Why the heck is that happening?" he teases them. "You are the future business leaders. A little creativity should be exciting!"

He gets the students disagreeing over whether people can learn to be more creative. He draws laughter as he describes hanging out in a drugstore, as part of his Ph.D. research, to observe how people buy condoms.

His closing is in the vein of an inspirational TED talk. He asks members of the audience to reflect on what they've learned and be the leaders "that we need you to be." The students clap, and someone lets out a whoop.

After the lectures end, a panel of judges recommends Mr. Dahl as the winner. So do online viewers from around the globe. But the deciding vote falls to the students in the room. The four professors file back into the room to hear what they determined.

Mr. Sethi shakes his head in surprise as he is identified as the Business Professor of the Year. Speaking on behalf of all who were nominated, he says, "As teachers, as academics, one of the greatest rewards that we get is just the recognition from the students."