Throughout the pandemic and into the launch of WashU Olin’s new exclusively online programs, the school’s faculty members have collaborated with Olin’s Center for Digital Education to reimagine their course curriculum to serve students in engaging, rigorous—and virtual—ways.
The CDE has created “trailers,” if you will, featuring the work of six faculty members who speak about their online classes. Their virtual coursework samples range from the power of text mining to interpreting financial statements, to estimating a mature company’s future stock growth.
New programs include Olin’s online specialized master’s programs, which focus for now on accounting, finance and business analytics. The programs launched this fall and provides students the chance to earn stackable certificates that culiminate in a degree. Olin is also launching an exclusively online MBA program in January that will be aimed specifically at empowering students to lead in a digital enabled world.
That said, the virtual coursework isn’t built exclusively for the online programs. Some professors “flip their classrooms,” providing virtual learning as a means of transferring knowledge—allowing students to do that work on their own time in their own place—while reserving in-person classroom time for engagement activities, discussion and team projects.
One month after fall classes began, my colleagues surveyed students for their first impressions of hybrid learning—the course structure for most of our classes. With strong survey participation across all our programmes, student reaction was positive.
Nearly 99% were happy with our public health measures. Nearly 95% agreed their instructors were prepared. Nearly three-quarters said learning today was the same or better than it was in spring. “Olin has been successful in making this transition easy, and professors have been very accommodating,” one student commented.
Encouraging, indeed. I’m proud of Olin’s staff and faculty for their tireless work toward a world-class experience in the midst of world-crushing circumstances. I’m equally proud of our students, who have shown extraordinary resilience and agility—traits that will serve them well throughout their careers.
But our faculty gathering on October 26 is really what excites me. With members of Olin’s Center for Digital Education, more than 100 instructors met over Zoom to share best practices and swap ideas for teaching techniques and software tools. Everyone in the virtual meeting was determined to raise their game even higher with how they were teaching their hybrid classes.
Everyone wanted to get better.
Heading toward the third horizon
I’ve written before of the three horizons of this crisis. Today, we’re in the midst of the second horizon as we raise our game to provide the gold-standard experience everyone expects—students, staff and faculty.
Certainly, there are challenges. Keeping students in the classroom connected with students online is difficult. Students require extra time to prepare for a class period, which is extra difficult when classes run back-to-back. A student’s situation outside the classroom affects their ability to participate inside the classroom. Instructors such as Ashley Hardin are working hard to build a community among students—whether they’re online or in a classroom.
While sharing a number of concrete, group-oriented teaching techniques, Hardin also said she began the semester by asking students about their favorite musical artists. She created a Spotify playlist for the class reflecting their preferences. “It’s a fun, playful way for them to get to know each other,” said Hardin, assistant professor in organizational behavior.
She was one of three professors—with Seth Carnahan, associate professor of strategy, and Durai Sundaramoorthi, senior lecturer in management—who presented to the group of colleagues.
A robust exchange of ideas
The presenters shared their techniques for doing group work and keeping students engaged in their work. Carnahan, for example, shared how he uses PickRandom.com to “cold-call” on a student when he wants someone to engage more deeply in the discussion.
Throughout the presentations, two dozen instructors and three staffers contributed in the Zoom chatroom, answered each other’s questions, offered ideas about teaching apps and hardware solutions, and reinforced points the presenters made.
They wrote about how they’ve given space for students to confront the social isolation and inconvenience so common in our lives today, how they’ve structured classes to maintain cohesive teams and what new features Zoom has introduced.
For now, we continue to traverse the second horizon of this crisis. And here we likely will remain, at least through the spring semester, given the trajectory of the pandemic thus far.
But meetings like the one on October 26, gatherings that showcase the innovation and vision and creativity of our colleagues—this prepares us to traverse that third horizon. To cross that horizon, we must consider the definition of excellence in a post-pandemic world.
And I can see we’ve already begun that work.
Pictured at top: Seth Carnahan, Ashley Hardin and Durai Sundaramoorthi presented at a faculty idea exchange for online teaching on October 26, 2020.
Samuel Chun is assistant dean, director of executive education and a professor of management practice for WashU Olin Business School. In his role, he’s collaborating with colleagues from the business school and the Brookings Institution to transform how executive education is delivered during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. He responded to questions for the Olin Blog.
How has the pandemic affected the way your team thinks about executive education?
Well, it’s been a transformation. First of all, the core of our activity until February 2020 was the face-to-face executive education offering that’s been every school’s standard—emphasis on “was.” Obviously, that’s not possible for probably another year or so.
So, everything we’ve managed to save has been converted to some kind of electronic delivery. A few years ago, Professor Tom Fields and I experimented with virtual programming. While it worked well enough, I think the assessment was that without face-to-face, the networking aspect really fell off. Really, until seven months ago, no one actually thought executive education could, or should, be done electronically.
Now there’s no choice: we are all learning how to teach, learn and network in novel ways.
How do you see your offerings evolving over the next few years?
What we’re mostly doing right now is what we call “virtual education.” In essence, that means taking our standard classroom materials and piping it through a platform, like Zoom, or Teams. Once we can get back to face-to-face, I think most of that will go away.
Someday, executive education may offer purely online, asynchronous programming that people can take whenever they want, but that’s a pretty full and competitive space.
So, “online” is probably a longer-term proposition. What we’ll probably develop and keep are “digital executive education” programs, which combine our live [electronic] connections with asynchronous online content. I think that’s a viable—and value-adding—proposition for several of our clients. Digital education will be here to stay.
In a recent Olin town hall, you mentioned that the Center for Digital Education has developed a learning management system for use with outside clients. Tell us more.
Ray Irving and his CDE team have been developing a Canvas-like platform (Learn.Washu) we can use for non-WashU affiliates such as corporate clients. It’s phenomenal, and they’ve made incredible progress since we piloted it during the MBA program’s global immersion experience last year.
It’s got course material storage and delivery, interactive communication features, video capabilities, announcements and a lot more. It helps us integrate our clients into the Olin community, which is something our Washington University systems don’t allow.
On top of that, it will have an alumni/lifelong learning area that will also be accessible to our clients. That’s a kind of continuity that we’re really looking forward to being able to offer.
So where does executive education go from here?
Well, the first priority is to re-engage clients who’ve elected to postpone until the pandemic is over. Basically, I’ve heard our physician community suggest this is not going away anytime soon, so “waiting for this to end” isn’t an acceptable option for any company that wants to keep up with executive development.
The next thing would be to continue expanding our offerings in the digital space. Finally, broadening our geographical (and client) reach is definitely something we’re already pursuing. I think digital education and Learn.Washu will take us a long way towards those goals.
Pictured above: Sam on a break from teaching an executive education course from his home teaching studio.
With masked faces and generous applications of hand sanitizer, WashU Olin students, staff and faculty members began a fall semester unlike any other on September 14. Students settled into larger-than-usual classrooms (to maintain physical distance) while instructors in face shields stayed within carefully demarcated boundaries at the front of the rooms.
In spite of a world turned topsy-turvy by the coronavirus pandemic, Olin welcomed 121 faculty who started teaching 207 courses over 427 sections. A third of those classes were delivered fully online—because their large enrollment required it—while the rest were either small fully in-person classes or hybrid classes.
Hybrid courses required subsets of the enrolled students to come physically to class some days and participate online other days.
“I was definitely apprehensive about the idea of a hybrid classroom—as well as any type of in-person component, given the circumstances,” said Sydney West, BSBA ’24. “But after my first in-person class, I’m honestly so impressed with how adaptable we are. It’s new to all of us and definitely feels strange, but it seems everyone is generally just grateful to be back in the classroom.”
Quick prep for hybrid classes
For months, instructors prepared to teach online or hybrid classes in collaboration with Olin’s Center for Digital Education while Olin’s staff developed a system to hire, train and schedule “engagement moderators” for each hybrid class, serving as an in-person proxy for students participating through Zoom by monitoring the chatroom and asking questions aloud in the classroom.
In fact, as student hiring ramped up in the first week, dozens of Olin staff members stepped in to serve as engagement moderators. Paulo Natenzon, assistant professor of economics, was thrilled with how his hybrid course went in the first week.
“I’m really happy with how it came out. But I also realize I have many people to thank for that,” he said, crediting Andi McLaughlin, CRM analyst in marketing & communications, for “saving the day at least three times.”
In the first week, 20 students and 42 staff members served as moderators. By the second week, staff had hired enough students to flip the ratio: Of the 76 moderators scheduled, 59 were students and 17 were staff members.
As classes continued, Olin professors adjusted to the reality of teaching courses to students both physically present and “virtually” attending. “Admittedly, I’d love to have more online student interaction. Perhaps the pace of the class makes it challenging to type in a comment before I’ve called on someone,” said Staci Thomas, lecturer in communication and interim director of the management communications center. “I’ve also discovered that breakout rooms need more time to work together than in-person students do.”
Choreographing a new way of learning
Since before the spring semester closed in May, planning had begun for a late start to the fall semester. Those plans included decals and directional signs regulating the flow of people in and out of buildings, a detailed breakdown of available space to maintain physical separation in classrooms and study areas and a comprehensive communication plan to ensure everyone knew what to do, how to do it and when it had to be done.
Jian Cai, lecturer in finance, reflected on how lovely the campus looked in the first week and how welcome the sight of students was.
“The weather was perfect for the first week and the school is in great order,” she said. “Students follow rules very well, from social distancing, cleaning, to entry/exit protocols. They are engaged in the classroom interacting with me. Overall, communication with students flows smoothly.”
And though she was nervous about starting her first classes under the new pandemic-inspired circumstances, she felt well prepared.
Just like it was planned
“Things instructors needed to set up in classrooms worked exactly as I learned in the training sessions,” she said. “I am really touched and thankful to have our staff members facilitate the running of hybrid classes as engagement moderators.”
The first week ended with the first weekend for the next class of Executive MBA students. The 36 students gathered for their classes at the Ritz in Clayton in order to keep the population density as low as possible on the main Olin campus. They are also the first to participate in Olin’s EMBA since a reboot of the program focusing on values-based, data-driven decision-making, digital transformation and leadership development.
Anecdotally, students across the board have offered good feedback about how the semester began. “This first week back was a whirlwind, but of the good sort,” said Tyler Edwards, MBA ’21.
“More than ever,” Cai said, “I feel the close connection within our community, and I am proud to be part of it.”
Pictured above: Professor Andrew Knight teaches a hybrid course in Emerson Auditorium. In front of him, socially distanced students sit in the auditorium, while behind, students participating remotely appear on screen.
Distance learning has a bad reputation. But WashU Olin’s Ray Irving is on a mission to change that by changing online learning, for good.
The director of WashU’s Center for Digital Education developed the PRINCE framework in his previous role as director of eLearning at the Warwick Business School.
What started as a mnemonic device developed when Ray needed a handy way to present his vision of distance learning has since become a schema that guides his work with faculty members in the creation of online coursework.
Now, he’s in the process of implementing the framework for courses at WashU and Brookings. When Olin professor Paul Paese taught his first ever online class with Irving’s help, a student called it “the best online learning experience I’ve ever had.”
“It’s about delivering the best online experiences that we can,” said Irving. He breaks down his framework into six key components: Personal, Rich, Interactive, Networking, Communication and Engaging.
Personal—and people—and place
Irving insists his courses are fundamentally not about state-of-the-art technology. They’re about having a personal experience with the faculty and the school.
“Every single module, the faculty member speaks to the camera—and it feels like they’re speaking to you.” Irving places faculty members in locations that show off the WashU experience, so they feel like part of the community.
And it works. In a course Irving developed at Warwick, one student reflected that—though he’d never met the professor—“I feel him to be my friend now.”
Rich (and varied)
Irving brings depth to the classroom through interviews with key stakeholders across industries, whether through an on-site, fully produced interview or with the help of Skype or Zoom.
A supply chains course in Warwick got to see the inside workings of a distribution center for a massive UK retailer, including an interview with the center’s manager and a tour of the shop floor, without ever leaving their homes. At Olin, professor Yulia Nevskaya tasked the CDE with producing an interview with Balto’s founder, Marc Bernstein, from his office in the TREX building in Downtown St. Louis.
“Online content gives us access to people, wherever they are in the world,” explained Irving.
Interactive and Innovative
Using online simulations, self-assessments, cases and debates, Irving brings the classroom experience to life and allows students to interact with their faculty members, share their own thoughts and grasp complex concepts.
One behavioral science faculty member created an online experiment to help his students grasp risk management.
He and Irving came up with Grab or Gamble, a game that let students test how they’d react when given the chance to win large sums of money.
“And the students say, after I participated in this, I can understand how risk really works. I’m more risk-averse as I thought,” said Irving.
“Knowledge sharing, both in terms of professional and academic knowledge, is an absolute core part of getting an MBA,” Irving said. And that includes an online MBA.
Irving fosters networking opportunities for students by bringing together teams of students that are intentionally diverse and assigning group projects. A group project might work much like in a traditional class setting—but the teamwork and innovation required from a multinational team creates a richer product and fosters connections within the cohort.
Irving views his framework as a way for richer, fuller communication to happen, particularly for students with different learning styles.
Irving’s use of asynchronous experiences like chat rooms, recorded videos and discussion boards, plus synchronous course experiences through Zoom sessions, allows for group communication while also giving students the time needed to reflect and fully form their thoughts and arguments—and it can all be done at the student’s own pace.
Irving’s framework exists with the goal of making online learning engaging.
“It requires investment to make this work—from the faculty and from the school. But when you put in the work, you can make an engaging, immersive online-learning experience,” Irving said.
And at Olin, Irving is working to turn his PRINCE framework into a PRINCESS—adding the elements “smart” and “simple.” He’s creating a system called learn.WashU that watches out for students who aren’t progressing in their coursework and allows for earlier intervention and help. Above all, the platform is easy to use and intuitive to understand.
At the end of the day, Irving expects the product he provides to be the opposite of what one might expect from distance learning: “You turn the old system on its head. It’s no longer impersonal and text-heavy. It’s personal and varied. It’s interactive, not isolating. You’re part of a network, and you’re connected to the institution. That’s what PRINCE is all about.”