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What The New Virtual MBA Classroom Is Like

A screenshot from Matt Cypher’s Real Estate Clinic course at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business

“We’ll go ahead and get started here. There’s a couple of people joining in. David, how are you, bud? Let me give it a second because we have a lot of people jumping in right now. Hey, Ann.”

Matthew Cypher, who is the Atara Kaufman Professor of Real Estate and director of the Steers Center for Global Real Estate at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business welcomes full-time MBAs to his Real Estate Clinic course at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time on the first day of April. It’s a similar greeting he’d be giving to students rushing into his classroom in Washington D.C. But on this early April afternoon, he’s greeting virtual heads popping up onto a computer screen. This is the new reality of residential full-time MBA programs across the country and globe. Once sitting next to one another, the students are spread to who knows where.

“Alright, let’s commence here. Because we’ve got a lot going on,” Cypher continues. “So, I am very pleased to introduce Gil Tenzer here today, coming to us from somewhere in Connecticut, I believe.”

For this particular class — like many of Cypher’s other Real Estate Clinic classes — a guest presenter is featured in the first half of the hour-and-a-half-long course. This week it’s Tenzer, who is a Georgetown McDonough graduate and Wharton MBA and partner at Connecticut-based Contrarian Capital Management, which focuses on distressed real estate investments. He’s virtually here to speak about how the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted real estate — particularly on the commercial side.

Matthew Cypher of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business

CORONAVIRUS HAS FORCED MBA PROGRAMS INTO ‘CHALLENGING’ AND ‘DIFFERENT’ SITUATIONS WITH ONLINE LEARNING

To be sure, the spread of COVID-19 has had a disruptive impact on higher education — and everyone involved with it. The spread started slow but escalated quickly. At first, two months ago — but what feels like two years ago — U.S.-based business schools began canceling travel to China, where the coronavirus was already wreaking havoc. Then reports of the virus showing up on U.S. B-schools started popping up a month ago. And then three weeks ago, campuses across the country began shutting down and telling students, faculty, and staff not to come back until next fall.

Now the new reality is remote instruction for top MBA programs and students across the country. And while some universities — like the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business — had robust online learning networks and infrastructure in place, others were left scrambling to move courses online, sometimes in a matter of a couple of days.

“I mean, it’s been a challenge for everybody, but we made the transition to online teaching within two days, believe it or not,” Robert Dammon, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business tells Poets&Quants. “We took all of our full-time MBA courses, along with our undergraduate courses, and we transitioned everything to online, remote online teaching within two days. Now, a lot of other schools took longer than that, but we did it really quickly, and I think we were able to do that because of the experience that we’ve had over the last five or six years with our online MBA program.”

Akin to Illinois’ Gies College, Tepper has a robust online MBA program, one that consistently finishes toward the top of our online MBA rankings on an annual basis. Still, Dammon says, even with that sort of infrastructure and experience in place, “it’s different.”

“It’s been a challenge,” Dammon adds.

RUSHING FROM RESIDENTIAL TO VIRTUAL IN TWO DAYS

Across the country, the University of California-Berkeley was one of the early schools to move fully online. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ sent an email to the UC Berkeley community announcing the shift on Monday, March 9 and asked professors to be fully online by Wednesday. “When the announcement came on Monday, I wouldn’t say I was surprised. But, did I have a long runway? I would say no,” recalls Brandi Pearce, who is a professor at the Haas School of Business and director of High Impact Teams and Research.

Pearce teaches Leading High Impact Teams, which is offered at the undergraduate and MBA level and Teams@Haas, which is taught across all three MBA programs. “It’s not a traditional lecture format course,” Pearce says of her high experiential and interactive course. Not only would it be a tough logistical switch for her and her students, but the course also includes executive coaches that regularly come to campus for courses.

Considering Pearce has a full day of classes on Wednesdays, she basically had one day — Tuesday — to transition fully online. “I had always taught in person and I never even imagined I would go online,” Pearce says. “Yet, this is what we had to do.” With the assist from the associate director of the Teams@Haas program, Shannon Rogers, Pearce says she was able to make that transition in time.

At Tepper, Dammon says the experience of running a fully online MBA for the past “five or six years,” has really helped the transition.

“Now, not all of our faculty have taught in that format, but because of the expertise we had and the people who were there to help our faculty make the transition, I think that’s the main reason why it worked as well as it did,” Dammon elaborates. “We had the experience, we knew that the format works, and so there was buy-in early, right? You didn’t have to convince faculty that you can, in fact, teach your course this way. Faculty bought into it right away and made that transition easily.”

THE NEW ZOOM CLASSROOM

Brandi Pearce of Berkeley Haas. Berkeley-Haas photo

One advantage to the online learning space, Pearce says, is it has actually created a balancing of communications that doesn’t happen in-person. “What’s interesting about the online forum that it affords is actually hearing from more voices,” she says.

It didn’t seem to be slowing down participation in Cypher’s Real Estate Clinic.

“If you’ve got questions, please get your hands in the air,” Cypher announced once Tenzer finished his opening presentation in the Georgetown course. Hands popped up on screens and one by one Cypher made it through the students’ questions. There are almost 30 students now in the class.

Like many other universities that are somewhat new to online learning, both Georgetown McDonough and Berkeley Haas have been using Zoom to facilitate classes. Some particular aspects and tools of the Zoom platform have been particularly helpful, Pearce explains. Pearce says she usually starts her class with a “provocative question,” and since moving to online, she’s had more answers than when the course was held in-person. “More often than not, I would ask a question and hear from two or three students,” Pearce explains. “But with this I would hear more about the variability in the class — or perhaps not and everyone was feeling the same way.”

The “breakout function,” in particular, has been a boon for the balancing of voices and participation, Pearce says. During the group work portions of her class, Pearce says the students have been going into breakout rooms where they are isolated from the other groups and even her. “It affords a very personalized, kind of curated experience in how they engage with each other and even how I engage with them,” Pearce explains.

MOVE ONLINE HAS BEEN ‘A HARDER TRANSITION’ FOR FULL-TIME MBA STUDENTS

Of course, the transition hasn’t been totally flawless. Pearce says she’s still dealing with some “technical glitches” in the Zoom platform. There are already rumblings of college students across the country wanting refunds for online courses. Last week in a Poets&Quants survey of more than 300 prospective MBA applicants, 43% said if MBA programs remained online next fall when they began courses, they’d want a tuition reduction of 37.5%.

“It may have been a harder transition, to be quite honest, for our full-time students, because they’re used to going to class and suddenly they get a very different,” Dammon says of Tepper’s shift to online learning. “But having said that, the feedback we’re getting from them is that they really appreciate all the efforts the school has put into making sure that their education continues uninterrupted. And they’re finding that this format actually is a format that is very conducive to learning, so it’s worthwhile for them, too.”

Pearce says she tried to empathize early on with the students in her courses. “I really tried to acknowledge early on that this is new for me as well as it is new for them and that we should try to learn together as a co-creation in the classroom. I invited a lot of feedback really early,” Pearce says, advising that students at all universities try to create and keep an open dialogue with their professors during this difficult and uneasy time. “Let your faculty know what’s working and what’s not,” she continues. “Give them some insights into your experience and the impact it’s having on you.”

Pearce says she’s also trying to maintain flexibility with the students.

“This is a challenging moment for our students,” Pearce acknowledges. “And as faculty, I’m trying to create as much space for that and flexibility. Because they are having to navigate things that I don’t think I’m fully aware of.”

Tepper School of Business Dean Robert Damon

Tepper School of Business Dean Robert Damon

MORE ONLINE LEARNING COMING TO THE TRADITIONAL MBA?

Like it or not, there’s a strong possibility the “blended” classroom will be a thing of the future even after the spread of coronavirus slows and treatments and a vaccine are created. “I think the students and the faculty have adapted to it fairly nicely,” Dammon says. “I keep saying, I really think that this episode, this event, will likely accelerate the transition of graduate business education into using more remote online learning. That’s my view.”

In a recent survey of business school deans by higher education consulting and digital marketing firm Eduvantis, nearly three-quarters (74%) of deans said they believe once classes do return to normal, they will have tilted at least a slight amount towards distance learning. Some 17% of the deans said they believe business education will tilt “substantially” towards distance learning.

“This is an opportunity in some ways that gives us the space to test and pilot and experiment where the stakes are not as high in maybe another context,” Pearce says. “What I mean is, we’re all having to do it and we’re all having to learn very quickly. And I think for many faculty — myself included — I think I couldn’t have imagined I would take an experiential course online. And when I had to, I was presently surprised. It felt a little bit safer in some ways.”

ENVISIONING A NEW HYBRID MBA FORMAT

Dammon says he’s long had a vision that the Tepper School would eventually move to one MBA program, tailored to “what fits your lifestyle at that particular time.”

“Whether it’s part-time or full-time, whether it’s on-campus or off-campus, we would offer you an education in a variety of different ways and formats, and you would just tailor it for your lifestyle, whatever was convenient for you,” Dammon explains, comparing it to how people now consume news and other forms of entertainment.

“And so all these distinctions we now make between part-time and full-time, between online and full-time, my view is that all of those things are just simply going to go away, and there will simply be a variety of choices within an MBA program,” Dammon says. “That’s where I was hoping to get this school. I think this event that’s taking place with the virus is going to accelerate that.”

By “accelerate,” Dammon says something similar could happen as soon as next fall if the virus is still a major threat and campuses are still shut down. While he says Tepper isn’t “in a position” to make a formal announcement, they’re toying with the idea of mirroring its full-time residential MBA after the current structure of its online hybrid part-time MBA program.

“Our online hybrid program is a part-time program. We’re now considering in trying to sort of envision what that might look like if, in fact, it was a full-time MBA program,” Dammon says. “So, it’s kind of planning for the fall, just in case. What will happen … You know what I mean? What will happen if, for some reason, this extends into the fall? How are we going to deliver education to students who have entered our full-time program? As I said, we’ve got the expertise, we have the know-how, and it’s just a matter of trying to get things to fit together in the right way.”

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