When MBA students begin their classes at Yale University’s School of Management on Aug. 31, they will opt into an unprecedented learning experience: an unusual hybrid format. The goal of this blend of in-person classwork and virtual learning will be to recreate some semblance of an MBA experience during a health crisis that has upended nearly every aspect of life.
For the better part of the past four months, Yale SOM faculty, staff and students have been meeting to plan just how this experiment will turn out. The result of all that planning is an elaborate and complex scheme of courses accompanied by a set of now-familiar safety guidelines that include face coverings, social distancing, hand washing, and strict limits on face-to-face interaction. What MBA students actually experience will vary from core to elective courses, the continued spread of the virus and and their own creativeness in virtually recreating social functions from clubs and conferences to corporate info sessions and employer interviews.
While certainties are elusive at a time when things can change overnight, the business school is hoping to deliver about 25% of its first year classes in-person, with a more balanced 50-50 split for second year electives. SOM expects to enroll roughly 345 full-time MBA students this fall, the same number of incoming students last year, though an estimated 10% to 15% of the class who can’t yet get to campus will start online. Evans Hall, the expansive home of Yale SOM, will be used only for academic purposes. Students can only enter the building when they have scheduled classes. No social gatherings will be allowed in the building or on its grounds.
‘WE ARE TRYING VERY HARD TO MAKE THE EXPERIENCE RICH AND MEANINGFUL’
“I am hopeful we will be able to deliver something that is somewhat normal because we did it in the spring with student events and a major healthcare conference that went online,” says Sherilyn Scully, assistant dean for academic affairs and student life. “We understand that is what we have to do right now and make it the best it can be. We are trying very hard to make those events rich and meaningful to people who are attending virtually.”
Every core course in the first-year MBA curriculum will be assigned a classroom and students in each of the five cohorts will be divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups. Each student will attend at most one class session each week in person, participating in the remaining sessions remotely. MBA students in group ‘A’ will attend in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while ‘B’ students will attend in person on Wednesdays and Thursdays. All students in Evans Hall will be required to wear a mask at all times and to maintain a minimum of 6 feet of social distance from others both inside classrooms and in the building’s common spaces.
But not all the in-person classes will have a faculty member at the front of the room. Of the five entering cohorts, which typically number around 70 students each, it’s likely that half of the students will witness the class remotely from a nearby classroom. Some professors will teach from the assigned classroom, others from a remote location via Zoom, and yet others may vary their location during the semester. The school is attempting to keep MBA learning teams intact within the ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups, and half the teams in each group will be swapped with each other in the second quarter of the fall to give each student the largest possible exposure to the rest of the cohort during the fall semester.
‘WE LEARNED THAT HAVING TOUCH POINTS ON CAMPUS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT TO STUDENTS’
For second-year elective classes, it can get considerably more complicated based on demand. At SOM and many other business schools, students bid on these courses through an online auction. Yale believes that demand “is likely to be greater than the number of students allowed in the classroom on the A/B schedule. This means that if enrollment exceeds the A/B capacity, some students will be required to take the class fully online,” according to an Aug. 17th message to students.
Enrollment in most SOM electives is mediated through the course auction. Because the physical occupancy limits of classrooms might change during the semester, we will operate the course auction with the following modifications: Students who are assigned to be fully online for a course will be allowed to remain in Evans Hall on their designated in-person day.
Crunching the numbers on all these operational possibilities has been highly challenging. “No one has tried to organize around a 50-50 hybrid before this,” says Gabriel Rossi, assistant dean for faculty affairs. “It’s not something people have experienced. It does split the instructor’s attention in some ways that can be distracting. But we learned that having touch points on campus is incredibly important to students. It’s very much built on network making. Even some touch points are going to go a long way to create the community we want for our students.”
ONE PLANNING COMMITTEE BOASTED TEN STUDENT MEMBERS
At SOM, much of the planning for the fall began in early May. One advisory group, dubbed the Covid Response School Format Committee, met weekly and included ten students out of the total 22 members. “The students wanted and we wanted to be sure that we were taking full advantage of their ideas, their feedback, and their preferences,” says Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of management on the committee. “Obviously, there is a lot you can’t design because there are so many forces beyond your control. But it was really helpful to have robust conversations about student preferences in a world we couldn’t predict. Knowing what they weighted heavily in terms of what they wanted to preserve or recreate was extremely helpful.”
Student involvement in the planning was crucial. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, students have expressed their frustration and disappointment in the administration’s failure to involve them in decisions on the forthcoming fall semester. “I find our students to be incredibly thoughtful and sensitive to what the implications of these policy decisions,” adds Wrzesniewski. “I am in awe of how much their personal disappointment is overcome by a sense of maturity and understanding. There is not one person at Yale who would have wanted it to be this way. To be clear, none of the students would have chosen this. And at the same time they have managed ito take a deep breath and say it is what it is and to help us make it as close to what we had hoped for.”
Adds Rossi: “There is no way we would have arrived at the conclusions we did if we hadn’t brought students in early. We’re doing a little gambling so we may as well plan for what the students want. We encouraged students to meet in committee outside our formal committee so they could come up with new ideas and they did and we were able to incorporate a ton of them. But we also know this is a year when everyone is going to have to be flexible and things can change.”
‘A BIG SYSTEM OF EQUATIONS’
However it turns out, the fall term will be like nothing ever before it. Students who arrive from overseas or from one of 34 states must quarantine for two weeks. When students arrive in New Haven, there will be a required COVID arrival test administered by Yale. The university is also recommending but not requiring additional testing up to once a week. Yale University will ping every student in the morning, asking each to complete a health check that includes the taking of their temperature and whether they have any COVID symptoms. That data gets immediately fed into a centralized database. “Once they swipe in with their ID cards, they will synch with the database and we will get a list of students who are non-compliant.,” explains Scully. “Then we have to give the student a series of warnings and it it could escalate. Yale has a compliance group that will look at cases of willful infraction. It could mean there could be counseling or a warning or telling students they need to be online only and can’t enter campus buildings after repeated warnings.”
Some options were immediately taken off the table after consideration for safety reasons. SOM, for example, chose to do its entire orientation program for incoming students online next week. “We had to jettison any live aspect of our orientation programming,” says Scully. “All of the social bonding events that would have ben live in the past had to go, even down to small group sessions. There just wasn’t a safe way to bring students to campus that way.” The same is true of serving meals to students in the building.”
The most difficult part of the exercise was planning in the midst of great uncertainty. “A lot of the complexity had to do with not knowing what the state guidelines were going to be in terms of how many people could be together in a space because that would change many things,” says Wrzesniewski. “The other thing that made it complicated was not having a clear sense of the announcements made by the administration on visas. So that added uncertainty to how many students would come back given that announcement. And earlier in the summer there were difficulties with consulates that were closed which would have implications for students having their visas. We also grappled with how do we cohort or block this in a way that students are with the same cohort and learning teams, whether they are online or in a class. That is a big system of equations. (Deputy Dean for Academic Programs) Anjani (Jain) gets a huge amount of credit for being the operations wizard on this, and it was extraordinarily complex.”
‘PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY IS A BUILDING BLOCK TO ALL OF THIS’
Getting to this point, say SOM administrators and faculty, took tremendous effort. “We are all working around the clock,” adds Scully. “We want our students to have the best experience possible but we are also setting norms to insure everyone’s collective safety. We want to give this model the best possible chance for success. It’s a partnership, and students, faculty and staff all have to buy in. You have to commit to doing your part. Personal responsibility is a building block to all of this.”
She and her colleagues say they share the anxiety likely felt by the soon-to-arrive students. “There is always tension today for all of us,” says Scully. “I am not unique that I don’t feel some anxiety all around me. However, I think we are doing all we can do to make everybody safe. I feel very blessed to work at a university that can offer students testing and resources that will make us all safer. I have to have faith that students will make the right decisions and do the right things.”
For now, the hope is that the pandemic will get no worse and that the carefully crafted plans will work. “I don’t think we will go back this academic year to a normal schedule,” says Rossi, who adds that roughly half the SOM faculty have agreed to teach in a hybrid format. “It could be that we could be all online or more than 50% online. We tried to design a system that can shift from different variations of 50%. The A/B plan does that because every room we have can meet at least double the hybrid enrollments we are putting into place. Every room has a class assigned to it so we can go to 100% without changing anything. If a faculty member starts online and they want to go hybrid, they can now do that.”