Dr Zahira Jaser, Deputy Director of the Sussex MBA and Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour, talks about the move to blended learning during Covid19 and overcoming the challenges that presented.
One of the main challenges of Business Schools this year is to ensure safe ‘blended teaching’ concurrently to students who are in the room and to those that are following online from home. Here are some lessons Dr Sam Roscoe and I have learnt with our MBA students at the University of Sussex Business School these first few weeks of Autumn Term 2020.
Create an integrated in room/online community
Due to various lockdown measures around the world, in the first few weeks we had half of the students attending from the class, and half from their homes, online. Our task as teachers was to create one learning community. We achieved this in several ways.
First, we asked in-room students to bring in their own laptop and headphones and connect to Zoom. We then paired them up in break out rooms with online students during icebreakers and introduction sections. At this point it was moving to see these connections happening in real time, to have in room students introduce their online peers – and vice versa – during ice breakers.
Ensure online students are part of the conversation
One of the important points for the MBA, even more so than for other masters, is that students learning benefits from the wealth of knowledge and work-specific experience of other students. So, one of our concerns was to ensure that the conversation flow between online and in-room community was as seamless as possible. In other words, that online students could hear and participate in the typical MBA in-class interventions and debates.
We achieved this by having a teacher log into Zoom on to a separate laptop and take the laptop around to face the in-room students during their interventions, so online students could hear and see them clearly. We also ensured that online students were visible to all on screen when they spoke. In some cases, this made us feel more like film directors than teachers, but it worked!
Involve students in innovation
We kept on reminding ourselves, and the students, that bringing together these two communities is constant work in progress. After all, these are the first ‘blended’ MBA classes in the history of our (and many others’) MBA! There are too many variables at play at the same time (e.g. technology both at university and in the students’ homes, communication styles, teaching styles).
There is no magic wand to solve the problems. We told the students that developing the skills to fix shortcomings and deal with the unexpected is part of this years MBA learning experience. So, we created an Innovation Prize to be given to those who propose the most innovative initiative to integrate the two communities.
Include cross cultural communication tips from the outset
Lastly, as online communication is more fragmented, and it deprives people from the benefit of observing body language, we decided to include explanations about different communications styles from the outset. In particular, we included cross-cultural communication learning in the induction day. We paid even more attention than usual to create a diverse environment where students acquired a common language to address communication issues, and to understand and celebrate difference.
As you can see from the previous blog from our student Caroline Gentry, this worked. We all entered the classroom on the first weekend with an element of apprehension (us and the students), but the teaching and learning experience has been more rewarding than expected. Having to become extra aware and conscious about how to reach out to each other effectively has created a strong learning and sharing community.