Pre-COVID, I applied and was accepted into Kellogg School of Management’s MMM program. The seven-quarter program integrates business education with a strong foundation in design innovation. I will graduate from the dual degree program with an MBA from Kellogg and an M.S. in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Despite the COVID disruption, I decided to proceed with my business school plans with the understanding there would be uncertainty. I had confidence in the program Kellogg would deliver pivoting and building on key learnings from the virtual Spring Quarter to hybrid learning. I reminded myself that the current reality was temporary. By preparing in this way, I was better able to appreciate the unique nature of my actual experience this summer.
GOING HYBRID TO STAY “COMPELLING AND SAFE”
At Kellogg, a hybrid environment is defined as a course where a professor and a subset of students are in a physical classroom together while another group of students participates remotely. Here, Kellogg’s true challenge was learning how to design a compelling, engaging, and safe MBA experience amid a global pandemic. As an MMM student, I viewed my hybrid experience as one big design exercise as the administration and students created and tested new ways to effectively socialize, learn, teach, and collaborate.
At the start of the Summer Term, I arrived at the Global Hub with my mask in hand, scanned my ID card to enter the building, showed my daily health check badge at the door, and took a seat at my socially distanced, assigned desk. The hybrid experience began immediately with our MMM orientation, which incorporated a mix of virtual and in-person speakers, as well as synchronous and asynchronous events.
To foster inclusion and collaboration in the classroom, Kellogg adopted a “Roomie and Zoomie” approach. It consisted of a cohort of in-person students (the “Roomies”) and a cohort of virtual students (the “Zoomies”). As an in-person student, I was able to interact with my virtual classmates at all times via a gallery wall of Zoom displayed at the front of the class. I also collaborated with them in frequent breakout rooms and polls. Professors, who were in the physical classroom with the Roomies, were able to view virtual students on their screens as well. At the same time, there was a separate “Virtual Course Moderator” (i.e., a hands-on digital facilitator) who helped facilitate questions and participation from the Zoomies.
In true MMM form, I have framed a few key takeaways from my experience as a student in this hybrid classroom environment within the context of core design principles:
1. Allow Constraints To Fuel Creativity: Constraints force designers to look at a problem differently, sparking ideas for creative solutions. In the same way, the constraints of the pandemic sparked the creativity of the Kellogg community, both in and out of the classroom. For example, constrained to Zoom when presenting our final projects, groups brought in eye-catching elements. They included project-related virtual backgrounds or costumes and utilized Zoom polls to spark engagement. While presenters lacked the opportunity to engage in-person with the audience, I cannot imagine students would have come to class in Hawaiian shirts or passed around a poll under “normal circumstances.”
The creativity of the community was also abundant outside of the classroom. For example, our student-run Summer Experience Committee hosted a virtual “International Grocery Tour” in which a few of our fellow students took the class on a tour of markets in Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam. This was a unique experience that I would love to do again and that would likely never have been created if not for COVID.
2. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate: Candidly, I have described my MBA experience as meeting “the man behind the curtain” right as I entered the Emerald City (a reference to The Wizard of Oz). Usually, MBA students enter a polished, shiny experience without much understanding or acknowledgement of what goes on behind the scenes. The disruption of typical programming and processes pulled the curtain back a bit on the inner workings and brought students into the day-to-day operations. As the first students on campus, we had the unique opportunity to help test new modalities, classroom techniques, and teaching tools. For example, one challenge this summer was to ensure Zoomies could hear questions posed by in-class students. In the spirit of rapid experimentation and iteration, in one session of our Business Analytics we tried a different method. Here, each student unmuted themselves and used their computer mic instead of classroom mics. After class, we quickly shared our insights with the administration via a survey. This is an example of the unique opportunity that we now have as students to be involved in designing the classroom experience.
3. Keep Empathy at the Center: When I told worried friends that I still planned to start school despite the disruption from COVID, I pointed out that if anyone is equipped to adapt to disruption it’s likely those leading a program grounded in human-centered design. While this assumption has proven true on behalf of the administration and faculty, what I have been most inspired by is the way in which my fellow students have kept empathy at the center of all decisions.
One challenge this summer was that many international students were not able to be in Evanston due to visa processing delays. With this, the Section Experience Committee made it a priority to design every virtual event at thoughtful times to be as inclusive as possible. Beyond this, one student took it upon herself to send cards to all international students signed by those of us in Evanston. These are just a few examples of the empathy and strength of the Kellogg community.
This Summer Term was not seamless, nor was it the experience that I had originally envisioned when applying to Kellogg. It was, however, full of creativity, experimentation, and empathy (oh, and masks of course). I am grateful for this unique opportunity to be a part of shaping the future MBA experience and am excited to continue my journey.
Here is more information on Kellogg’s hybrid classroom environment.
Sarah is a California-native who is dedicated to leveraging human-centered and circular design to create products that help users live more sustainably. Prior to attending Kellogg School of Management’s MMM program she held a wide range of roles within the Food and Ag space, most recently working in business operations and sustainability strategy at an online grocery company focused on fighting food waste. She is a member of the Kellogg School of Management Class of 2022.