When coronavirus locked down business schools in March 2020, MBA programs moved quickly to virtual learning. No one knew how long the change would last; now, more than a year later, no one knows when — or if — it will definitively end, as most schools continue to offer instruction that ranges from hybrid to entirely remote and plans for the fall remain murky at best.
Even as commencement season arrives for the MBA Class of 2021, some schools still have little or no in-person element to their classes. So what has the last year been like for the MBAs who are now graduating from the world’s top B-schools — who started their journey in the Before Times, when in-person classes were the norm, and not the exception?
In a word: Disruptive, with a capital D. But as the Best & Brightest are almost universally quick to add: That’s not always a bad thing.
OPPORTUNITIES EMERGE IN TRYING TIMES
To say there were hiccups when the global edifice of graduate business education shifted wholly online is an understatement, but from an institutional standpoint, the transition was mostly very successful. Ask 10 deans and you’ll get 10 answers that all basically reflect that view. You’ll also hear about the extraordinary lengths schools went in making the pivot, and not just in terms of dollars — though money was certainly a factor, too.
But what about the students? As part of our annual 100 Best & Brightest MBAs feature, out this weekend, we surveyed students in the MBA Class of 2021 on what they liked about their MBA experience, what they would change, their hopes for the future, and more; this year we also asked for their thoughts on what was arguably the most disruptive event in the history of graduate business education. The answers — from Best & Brightest nominees and winners alike — were as varied and nuanced as their backgrounds.
“During the lockdown, the change to online classes was quite disruptive,” says nominee María Carnal Fusté of IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. “It was a new setting for everyone from students to professors and each of us had to put in effort to adapt to the new reality.”
“The shift to online was hard because it happened in the middle of the Spring 2020 semester,” says Kristen Little of Emory University Goizueta Business School. “The biggest adjustment was not seeing my classmates and missing out on in-person events, which is what really made the business school experience fun.”
“The shift to online after Covid hit was extremely disruptive,” says nominee Alina Dattagupta of the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business. “I’m a very social person and am motivated by those around me so at first it was definitely isolating but what helped was the fact that everyone was going through the same shift.”
Beyond acknowledgement of the challenging reality of living and learning in lockdown, what stands out in most of the responses from Best & Brightest nominees and winners is an emphasis on overcoming challenges, surpassing expectations, and finding ways to not only survive, but thrive.
A real positive bunch, this class of 2021 MBAs!
AN ‘INCREDIBLY DISRUPTIVE’ LEARNING EXPERIENCE
“Shifting to a virtual environment was initially incredibly disruptive to my learning experience and ability to connect meaningfully with my peers,” says nominee Rohan Shamapant of Georgetown University McDonough School of Business. “However, my perspective changed through conversations with friends who chose to see the light in this darkness. They helped reframe the initial disruption by grounding me in acknowledging and being grateful for the privilege I had to still have my health and be engaged in a learning process at all. As we began to understand how to navigate a purely virtual environment, I also recognized how many new opportunities were available only available because of this unique circumstance. I am trying to remind myself that when one door closes another one tends to open.”
There were two major silver linings, says 2021 Best & Brightest MBA James Clinton Francis of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“First, I quickly noticed that both professors and students were more organized and concise in lectures and discussion. Sometimes during in-person classes, I found that the classmates who were naturally more talkative, or had expertise in the topic of discussion, could dominate discussions. With class moving to Zoom, I found that the raise hand function encouraged more diverse voices to be heard. Second, the virtual environment allowed most clubs to invite speakers who normally would not travel to Philadelphia, to present and interact with students.”
And Alina Dattagupta, of Texas-Austin McCombs, adds: “When we all eventually found a stride, we were able to balance staying in touch to maintain personal and professional relationships, organize virtual events, and understand our Zoom fatigue thresholds. One positive from this was the flexibility to attend school from anywhere and so I had the opportunity to spend additional time living with my family in my hometown- an opportunity I never thought I’d get in my adult life!”
AN UNDER-VALUED COMPONENT OF VIRTUAL LEARNING: FUN
Not unexpectedly, MBA students’ responses tilt heavily toward the complimentary when the subject turns to how their schools handled the shift to virtual learning. Best & Brightest nominee Sarah Izzo of Duke University Fuqua School of Business credits her school’s supportive community and traditions with mitigating disruption to either the academic or social experience.
“While professors had to unexpectedly shift and change many aspects to the classroom, students were incredibly supportive of the professors,” Izzo says. “Whether it was guiding them virtually in how to use certain functions on Zoom during a class or facilitating a relevant discussion if a professor had Internet issues mid-class, the Fuqua community did and has continued to show up for each other to overcome the initial hurdles in switching to a new format.”
As always, hard work played a major role. But so did fun — an undervalued component of virtual learning.
“We’ve worked hard to be creative and maintain as many traditions as possible, ranging from new, socially distanced Fuqua Fridays to Section Olympics during orientation,” Izzo continues. “Our orientation co-chairs managed a virtual version of our annual pizza and Oreo eating contest by delivering the food to students at home and judging the competition live via Zoom! The entire community has leaned into their creativity and resilience to create the best experience possible for each other.”
2021 Best & Brightest MBA Aaron D’Souza of Cambridge Judge Business School says his school maintained consistent in-person teaching from September to December 2020 — one of the few to do so. Thereafter, Cambridge Judge “did an excellent job creating an effective hybrid learning environment,” but still had plenty of in-person instruction — helpfully reducing the overall disruption.
“We also had access to study rooms and cafés at the business school, so we could collaborate with our study groups and classmates in a safe manner and within the rules,” D’Souza says.
Nominee Kyle Johnson at Texas-Austin McCombs lost out on a trip to Germany. He also saw his summer 2020 internship transitioned into a virtual work experience. But through it all he remained thankful — and he credits his school and professors for ensuring that “the intensity of my academic and work experiences did not suffer.”
“In March of 2020, the McCombs MBA program did an impressive job reacting to the Covid situation and communicating through the uncertainty,” Johnson says. “The program announced the remainder of the semester would be taught online only, and it invested in remote learning technologies, trained faculty and staff on how to use the new technology, and adapted class learning plans so that our academic calendar was maintained. Fortunately, many McCombs MBA professors had experience teaching virtually, so this helped ease the initial content delivery transition.
“As the program transitioned to a hybrid format in August of 2020, many professors were as excited to be teaching in-person and providing a safe classroom environment as students were to be returning to a classroom setting if they were comfortable doing so. I acknowledge the disruption that Covid caused to the professors’ occupational norms and I appreciate their roles in creating the best learning situation possible.”