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ASU business dean, panelists share best practices for transforming in-person courses to digital ones

In Financial Times webinar, Hillman tells colleagues from other universities that ASU is fortunate to have experience in online teaching and learning

W. P. Carey School of Business Dean Amy Hillman

W. P. Carey School of Business Dean Amy Hillman.

July 13, 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the W. P. Carey School of Business quickly and successfully — albeit with a few bumps — transitioned all in-person classes, alumni and student events, advising, tutoring and other services and activities online. 

And it's no surprise.

Arizona State University has long been a leader in online education.

Amy Hillman, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, joined three panelists from other universities on a webinar hosted by Financial Times, in partnership with the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, to share strategies to adapt flipped classroom approaches to digitally delivered courses, how to sustain MBA students’ concentration and engagement, and what changes in assessment strategy are needed to transform an in-person course into one that is digitally delivered. 

Here’s what Hillman shared with global university colleagues, deans and other administrators in schools as they’re gearing up for the fall 2020 semester.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: How much of a shock and how much of a change have you been experiencing over the past three or four months?

Answer: It was a big shock. I think like everyone, we made it work. But we have a large number of our faculty, roughly a third, who have taught completely asynchronous online courses. Because we have a set of online degrees, we have instructional designers and all the technology associated with a completely asynchronous learning environment, a hybrid learning between the asynchronous and synchronous and, of course, our campus immersion program. We got lucky that we’ve been in the business of online degrees. We already had the infrastructure to quickly prop up teaching workshops on Zoom and all the trainings that faculty who have never taught any way other than on campus could jump right into.

Q: While you had the infrastructure in place and your institution has long been involved in online, what were particular pain points for this full-scale transition?

A: Our faculty could go in and teach in our classrooms because they have incredible technology. They already had the cameras that tracked them, the ceiling microphones and the two-way cameras. Not all of our classrooms had that technology, but we were able to accommodate those who still wanted to go onto campus and teach to an empty classroom. 

Faculty also could go in and teach from their offices if they had child or bandwidth issues at home. It was still quite shocking for our faculty who were finding themselves at home teaching with unreliable technology, and Zoom wasn't as great then as it is today.

Q: What is the best alternative to in-person courses?

A: One of the things that we’re thinking about here is how to become a completely digitally resilient business school because we may have to self-quarantine again. We may have some people on campus and some people who have to use either remote learning or provide remote teaching. To address this, we’re creating an inventory of asynchronous tools in eight- to 12-minute, bite-size chunks to make it a “flipped” classroom, so what is live is discussion-based, experiential. 

I wanted to mention that we have 14,000 undergraduates studying business, 3,000 of which didn't have a laptop because this is a school where very poor students can come and attend. We've loaned out all of the laptops from the library to our students. We provided hot spots for those who didn't have any Wi-Fi. The challenges are significant when you're dealing with the scale we are and with a substantial population that doesn't have access to a fantastic learning experience online or Zoom at all. 

Q: What are some benefits to the move online?

A: Our alumni live everywhere. And our affinity with alumni has increased as a result of COVID-19 because we can beam them in as guest speakers from anywhere if they're willing to give their time. I find people are very kind during the pandemic because we're all going through this together.

There're also neat tools. We can review Zoom videos. We have Slack channels, which are chat for groups and people and allows a group or private messages that generally happen if you're sitting in a class or next to someone. I also get comments from people who are typically too shy ever to raise their hands. Now they're speaking up, and their voices are being heard like they've never before, thanks to the chat function in Zoom or a Slack channel. It's terrific!

Q: How will your school handle international students contingent on uncertainties with lockdowns and travel restrictions?

A: We’re making it possible for 100% of our courses to be remote teaching and remote learning for international students, as well as for faculty or students who are immunocompromised and don’t want to come into the classroom. All courses will be livestreamed from a physical classroom or remotely. We're also looking at time zones. When are these classes going to be offered? We have the advantage of having partnerships in China. So our Chinese students are likely to begin classes with our partners as visiting students and be able to transfer into campus as soon as they're able to with a visa. We've got a lot of options that we're trying to come up with right now. When we don't have an in-country option, we're trying to be as supportive of the students as possible. I worry about the students coming from emerging nations. Do they have the right technology to learn from home? Do they have the necessary internet bandwidth? We have to be individualized with each student and figure out what they need to succeed.

Q: How has your school coped with placements and internships?

A: We’re finding that all of our students were able to get internships this summer, but they're micro-internships and they're remote. Employers still believe internships are a good way to get an assessment of fit, and even though the students are working from wherever, they’re able to get a meaningful applied experience. Some of them are getting the traditional long internship, but it's remote. A lot of students are getting these short-term internships. In terms of placement, we haven't seen much fall-off other than the students who were late to seek work. If they waited until March to think about looking for a job, it wasn’t easy to get one. We have to stay dogged on the students that they can’t wait until close to graduation, and I think this will be another benefit of the pandemic. Most of our slackers who wait until close to graduation to worry about a job will remember COVID-19, and maybe they'll get moving a little bit earlier.  

Q: What is your view on the perception that online is cheaper or less valuable?

A: Since we were one of the earliest brick-and-mortar universities in the U.S. to launch an online MBA, we committed to a strategy where the same faculty teach face-to-face and online. And the rigor has to be there if you teach face-to-face and online. You can't treat one set of students any differently, so we've always priced our online programs equivalent to the in-person, in-classroom experience. We needed to differentiate our online MBA because people were skeptical, particularly early on about online and how it could be a rigorous learning environment. I was a faculty member when they decided to launch it, and I'm a case discussion-based teacher. I thought that was the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Thank goodness I wasn't dean then because online has turned out to be fabulous, and you can do almost anything if you set your creativity to it and say, "How can we do this?" I love the idea of thinking in-person as opposed to in-classroom. Arizona has beautiful weather, and (we're building) outdoor classrooms on our campus. They’re socially distanced, have ceiling fans and misters. All the technology is there for the faculty to stand and teach. We’re going to try it and see if people like it.

Q: What is the cost of a full-blended, high-quality course in comparison to a traditional in-person class?

A: I think online classes are higher than in-classroom ones because you have all of these tools that you need to either create or contract to meet the shrinking attention span. You have to have people who are professional instructional designers and who understand online learning to coach faculty members. ... Of course, if we're going to have a blended availability, we're going to have to implement technology in the classrooms. So, I think there're increased costs associated with the pandemic and increased expenses associated with an online course. Certainly, there will be increased costs with a blended course if you imagine how it will work when people are either teaching remotely or learning remotely, and others are in person or the classroom.

Q: What strategies are you using to provide networking and socializing experiences to students?

A: This year, we tried a few things that might help. We transferred our orientations and what we call a preview day, where people would come and get to meet each other on campus, to a webinar. Then we created Facebook groups and other age-relevant social channels — WeChat, WhatsApp, Slack. The students are bonding right now, especially with international students. We're not monitoring it. They're able to share their fears about not being able to come or ask one another about the job market. They’re creating relationships with each other through these channels, and the semester is still many weeks from starting.

Q: What’s your key recommendation for your business school colleagues, fellow deans and other administrators in schools as they're gearing up for the next term?

A: For faculty, I suggest to try new things. If they don't work, admit it in front of the students. Let them know that we're all learning together, and innovation means learning from mistakes.

View the Financial Times webinar, “Best practices in transforming an in-person course into a digitally delivered course."

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