Stanford’s Pandemic Playbook: How The Scramble Online Is Working For MBAs

Stanford Graduate School of Business Dean Jon Levin last week when an in-person event was canceled and he addresses students in a virtual Me2We session. Photo by Tricia Seibold, GSB

Even during the first week of MBA classes that were shifted online at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Angela Sinisterra-Woods was already feeling the loss. “I took some classes from my apartment but I actually found that I was craving social interaction,” says the former McKinsey & Co. consultant in her second year of Stanford’s MBA program. “I had seen a lot of people on Zoom but it’s not like you are having small group conversations.”

Stanford MBA Angela Sinisterra-Woods

Ultimately, distancing herself from the daily rhythms of the business school was too much. She ended up taking the three-minute bike ride from her Munger Graduate Residence rental to the GSB complex to huddle around a courtyard table and a laptop with a few classmates. “Even doing that and taking classes outside was really nice to be around people,” she adds. “We’re making the best of a really weird situation.”

That weird situation is about to become even more bizarre. So far, Sinisterra-Woods, her classmates and the faculty had only to deal with the last two weeks of classes in the winter quarter. When the spring term opens on April 2, however, all of the coursework will be delivered via synchronous remote instruction using videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Canvas.

It’s not exactly what a Stanford MBA student or a student at any other elite program ever would have expected–especially when you are spending more than $240,000 in tuition and fees for a high-touch, world-class graduate experience. Many of the most valued aspects of the MBA experience—on-campus, in-person networking, active learning from classmates, and active participation in clubs—will be greatly diminished.

Some students are already understandably concerned about how the crisis will impact their employment options. “A lot of people are worried about that,” says Pulkit Agarwal, who had planned to fly to Singapore during the break to look for possibilities. “There is just a lot of uncertainty about jobs. Some companies have reached out to reassure us and some said they might not be able to honor their offers. At this point, I think it is better to be a first-year because if there is a recession they will come out of it into a better economic scene.”


Stanford MBA Pulkit Agarwal

Stanford MBA Pulkit Agarwal

For the COVID-19 generation, it seems likely that lots of plans will be disrupted. Like most universities that suspended face-to-face classes due to the outbreak, Stanford did it abruptly with little advance notice. On Friday evening, March 6th, University Provost Persis Drell canceled all in-person class meetings, declared that all exams be taken remotely, suspended all spring quarter international programs and shut down Admit Weekend. That gave the school’s staff and faculty an extended weekend–roughly 60 hours–to put 125 class sections online for the final two weeks of the quarter.

The school pulled it off, largely using Zoom, Canvas and Google Docs to deliver classes. There were technical mishaps, of course. And some faculty had to undergo a crash course on how to smartly use the videoconferencing technology. Even Stanford GSB Dean Jon Levin confessed that he learned a thing or two. “It wasn’t perfect,” he concedes. “On Tuesday, I learned that it’s important to face the camera when talking to a virtual class…”

But Stanford pulled through. “This is one of the situations when everybody from staff to faculty to the students remembered our educational mission,” says Sarah Soule, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “It’s all hands on deck. It was a Herculean task. Some things aren’t working exactly right but we got through it. In some ways, that is the thing that has touched me the most. There have been technical glitches when we had to move all of our classes online and some faculty are more technologically astute than others but everybody is trying their best and it has led to interesting collaborations. The students are, of course, frustrated. This is not the experience they expected but they are trying to make the best of it.”


Shifting online was somewhat easier than expected, believes Soule, because Stanford already had in place a teaching and learning group that has helped to develop the school’s one-year-long LEAD programs of fully online courses that are taken by students on a part-time basis.  Those programs, in corporate innovation and leadership, feature synchronous and asynchronous learning including live virtual course sessions, collaborative team-based projects, and interactive experiences.

The first batch of coursework that was rushed online was a no-frills experience, putting profs in front of cameras and students on Zoom. “It was more manageable because it was a boot camp,” adds Soule. “When we start the spring quarter in a couple of weeks we will refine what it is we’re doing. “

During the week, she notes, many profs used the video conferencing tool in innovative ways. Robert Siegel, a lecturer in management, turned his course in product design into a talk show, asking students to submit their analysis of a case study in writing before class at which Siegel and another expert engaged in a dialogue on the students’ observations. George Foster, an accounting professor, brought in a “virtual speaker”–James Coulter, the co-founder of private equity firm TPG Capital. “George embraced it with incredible gusto,” says Soule who noted that Parker said the experience was forcing him to “finally learn how to do this stuff.”

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