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Learning Together, Apart

by Jennifer Latson

How Rice Business made the quick transition to virtual classes

When the Covid-19 pandemic upended life as we know it, Rice Business students turned on, tuned in, and kept learning — online. Starting March 16, a week before the rest of Rice, Rice Business flipped a virtual switch and began delivering courses remotely for full-time students.

But the seamless transition to online instruction belies the enormous amount of work that went on behind the scenes. Rice Business professors had a mere 96 hours to make the leap to an entirely remote teaching platform. For many, that meant forgoing sleep and barely leaving the building in the race to prepare.

Luckily, Rice Business was already equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and expertise in delivering courses virtually. A team from the Office of Technology became first responders in a massive effort to deliver 224 remote class sessions for 95 courses taught by 56 faculty members. The following week, they ramped up even further to accommodate undergraduate courses as well, bringing the total number of online sessions to about 300 per week. It’s been a Herculean effort that has brought challenges and unexpected benefits — along with plenty of teachable moments, as our professors explain.

Professor Zhou teaching her negotiations class via Zoom. 

Jing Zhou, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management:

Arguably, [an intensive learning experience in negotiations] is one of the courses that is the least suitable for online delivery, because it’s a huge challenge to convert its rich content and pedagogy fully online. Nonetheless, we decided to keep its originally scheduled dates and to aim for a high-quality delivery online, because this dual goal serve our students’ needs the best. Shifting from face-to-face teaching to online 1.0 [teaching in a connected classroom] was relatively smooth for me. Everything about teaching was familiar, except my students were on a big screen instead sitting in the same room.

I found version 2.0 [teaching from home] more challenging than 1.0. I enjoy walking around the room while teaching. Sitting at home with a couple of computers is not my preference. I draw energy from walking around. So when I sit and teach, I needed to energize myself psychologically. The class turned out to be brilliant. I was so proud of those students! They not only actively participated in all negotiation exercises, but also actively participated in class discussion. Their input was thoughtful and practical.

At any time of great uncertainty and challenge, true leaders emerge and step up. I felt that Rice MBA students were those true leaders.

Professor Jing Zhou

Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology – Organizational Behavior

Jing Zhou
Professor Sonenshein teaching his class via Zoom.

Scott Sonenshein, Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management:

Normally, I would have spent the week [before going online] prepping all of my teaching notes and going over exercises. But instead I had to stretch in new ways, moving beyond my established teaching plans. I asked my students, like me, to use our circumstances to expand their leadership skills. What worked for me was to frame these challenges as opportunities to learn something new and modernize the way I teach. Online is a growing segment of business education, so I am not telling myself ‘I’ve got this great class that I can’t deliver.’  Instead, I’m building energy for myself, thinking ‘I get to push myself and grow in new ways — and design new content. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.’ I can’t think of a more important time to be teaching and learning about leadership.

Professor Mittal teaching his class via Zoom

Vikas Mittal, J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing:

I found the switch to virtual teaching an opportunity to reinvent key aspects of my class. A few days prior to my first virtual class, I conducted an hourlong mock class with the help of the Rice Business OOT team — including Marcie Carlson, Judy Hua, and Derek Hill — who helped me iron out all the details. And there have been many unexpected benefits. Students put themselves on mute, and to ask a question they have to unmute themselves. This small behavioral change, in my opinion, has reduced the number of questions they ask, but greatly improved the quality of questions asked. I was also struck by the care and heed students put into virtual learning — I saw students with toddlers in their lap during class — but still fully attentive. I saw students who had to set aside worries about being furloughed, laid off, or having to homeschool kids. I am not surprised at the remarkable alacrity with which our students have taken up the challenge. They’ve set up feedback sessions with me through Zoom, and it has given me a peek inside their homes when we chat. In our last session, they could not see the shoes I was wearing, so they asked me to take a picture of my shoes and text it to them!



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