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Faculty Describe Challenges and Lessons Learned in the Virtual Classroom

In March, the world suddenly changed, and the Yale School of Management faculty had to rapidly reconceive their courses for online delivery. They say the transition was challenging, but the experience has yielded unexpected insights and underscored the resiliency of the Yale SOM community.

By Karen Guzman

The Yale School of Management’s richly interactive, rigorous classroom culture is one of its most valuable assets. How do you move that experience online? 

Faculty members holding courses via Zoom this semester say they didn’t replicate in-person learning, but they found ways to adapt and gleaned some interesting insights along the way.

To make the most of the new situation, faculty said, they first had to adjust expectations, realizing that, in the midst of a pandemic, nobody—including students—is functioning at 100%. 

“We have to be really strategic about engaging them and about setting expectations and deliverables for them,” said Teresa Chahine, the Sheila and Ron ’92 B.A. Marcelo Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship.

Faculty want to achieve their learning objectives, “but you can’t just plow through as if this never happened,” Chahine said.

Greater reserves of compassion, patience, and flexibility help, said Zoë Chance, a lecturer in management who teaches Mastering Influence and Persuasion. She noted that some of her students balanced class with care for ailing relatives, and some have been ill themselves.

“My students are living with all kinds of really, really difficult challenges, and then they’re still trying to perform at their regular high levels, as they would for class,” Chance said.  

Greater patience also goes a long way when it comes to handling technical glitches. “I’ve had two situations this week where my TAs had to take over because Zoom kicked me out altogether,” Chance said. Her student teaching assistants, she notes, played a bigger role in running and organizing the Zoom classroom, along with technicians from the Yale SOM media services department and staff volunteers.

In-person interaction isn’t the only thing missing from the virtual classroom. Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham, assistant professor of finance, felt the loss of the whiteboards in the Edward P. Evans Hall classrooms. “When I’m in the classroom, I have six boards, and I write everywhere,” he said. To compensate, Goldsmith-Pinkham wrote on his iPad and shared his notes and sketches with the class. 

A. J. Wasserstein, the Eugene F. Williams, Jr. Lecturer in the Practice of Management, says that his Entrepreneurship through Acquisition course went better than he expected, in part because he took advantage of some of the capabilities of the online platform.

“I try to use all the features in Zoom,” said Wasserstein. “I’m not sure I do it gracefully.” Two innovations in particular have helped. Because the course has sixty-plus students, Wasserstein created small breakout “buzz groups” for just three or four students. He created small, weekly virtual lunch gatherings.

“Six people on the screen in Zoom can feel much more like a conversation and a connection than 60 people,” Wasserstein says. 

Some online innovations, in fact, have yielded tools that faculty say they will carry back into the physical classroom. Goldsmith-Pinkham, for instance, began using Zoom polls to test comprehension and solicit opinion from his class, on Zoom. It’s been such an engaging practice, he plans to keep polling when students are back in Evans Hall. 

Rodrigo Canales, associate professor of organizational behavior, plans to continue using pre-recorded videos to introduce cases and lay out course basics for the Innovator core course. Students watch the videos on their own time, reserving classroom time for teaching. “We can use the time that we have face-to-face for them to have a meaningful discussion,” Canales said.

Like Canales, Tauhid Zaman, associate professor of operations management, will be updating the permanent curriculum for his Social Media Analytics course based on his experience this semester. Technical issues forced students in Zaman’s course to learn some coding in order to run analyses. Student response was overwhelmingly positive. 
“The experience taught me that the students at SOM want to code,” Zaman said. “They just need someone to show them how to do it. But once you teach them the basics, they’re off and running.”

When he teaches the course again, Zaman added, “The course will be like that from day one.” 

Fiona Scott Morton, the Theodore Nierenberg Professor of Economics, discovered the power of virtual office hours. On Zoom, Scott Morton has held office hours twice a week, timed to accommodate far-flung students (including some in Singapore and Australia), and give them the chance to share their thoughts and concerns.

“I feel like [it’s] been quite a nice community-building exercise,” she said. “It’s very accessible for students, so that might be an innovation that I carry forward.”

Faculty agree that while fostering learning and community online has been a challenge, students have risen to that challenge. 

Moving courses online on short notice would have seemed an impossible task before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canales said. “I think it speaks a lot about our community that we’ve done it, and it’s not perfect but it’s certainly working, and people are getting value from this. They’re learning meaningful things and they’re engaging, and everybody’s a good sport about it and everybody’s committed… It’s truly amazing.”

Watch more #VirtualYale Connections videos on YouTube.