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Lessons in Uncertainty: MBAs Share Virtual Learning Insight and Advice for Incoming Students

This spring, many MBAs got a firsthand lesson in uncertainty and what it truly means to be flexible. Schools and students were forced to adjust to the realities of the pandemic, as they had to suddenly and rapidly shift from in-person to solely virtual learning. 

While everyone’s circumstances and experience varied, with some students adjusting more easily than others to the virtual environment, the one thing MBAs seemed to share was a positive outlook. 

“A large part of business school is learning to navigate uncertainty and adaptability. Covid is unfortunately a very real case study on leadership, health equity, inequality, overconfidence, operations and numerous other topics,” says Olaseni A. Bello, Jr., a second-year MBA at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business. “Virtual learning is both a byproduct and a solution that allows us to push forward.”

With COVID-19 showing no signs of waning, many MBAs are once again being forced to demonstrate their pliability as many schools have moved fall classes either fully or partially online. To help incoming students make the most of this new learning environment, we spoke with a few Consortium MBAs who shared insight and advice on navigating this new normal. 

Benefits of Virtual Learning

Some of the benefits of virtual learning are clear — the ability to attend class from anywhere, no commuting (which means more time, less stress and money saved) — while others are less obvious. For second-year University of Rochester Simon Business School MBA Sandy Saint Cyr, who returned home to Brooklyn when the pandemic hit, the positives of attending classes remotely were numerous. 

“Besides being able to attend class anywhere, some of the benefits of virtual learning include having more free time and having the option to prepare lunch. I prepared a protein smoothie daily for lunch, which was something that I was not able to do when I was attending class in person,” she says. “Moreover, I had more time to participate in extracurricular club activities. Another benefit was that I was able to take exams anywhere, and most of my exams were open book.”

Zoom has often been the platform of choice for professors, many of whom record their lessons for students to reference later. For more difficult or technical subjects, these recordings have proved useful.

“In an in-person class, it can be easy to become distracted or miss a step or two during an Excel practice problem. In a virtual class setting, the professor shared his screen with us and showed us exactly how he did each problem,” says Priscilla E. Weninger, a 2020 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. “Being able to replay the recordings later when doing homework provided a clear step-by-step process that I could reference and learn from in a different way.”

Where some struggle to engage via virtual learning, others thrive. Weninger says she found the chat function “fun and exciting because it allowed a steady stream of thoughts, reactions and comments from many classmates at once.”

“In a real classroom setting, you typically only hear one student speak at once,” she says. “In my healthcare business class, we had a constant stream of debate and resource sharing from many students at once, and I believe it allowed more reserved and shy students the opportunity to express their thoughts.”

Being forced into online learning also provides an opportunity to develop critical, career-enhancing skills. “I am entering management consulting, where I may need to work with global clients virtually regardless of COVID-19, so it was helpful for me to gain skills such as giving strong presentations online,” says Brinda Gupta, a 2020 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School

The Challenges of Virtual Learning

Despite the many positives of virtual learning, nothing can quite take the place of the classroom experience and the engagement and social components that come with it. Some students, however, have found ways to overcome the challenges posed by remote learning. 

For Bello, who thrives on the classroom experience, the sudden shift to virtual felt like a temporary setback, he says. “You can usually find me in the first couple rows in class as my preferred learning style is front and center, and admittedly, that helps minimize distractions as my focus is on the lecturer,” Bello says. “Fortunately, the fact that my classmates and I had a full and quite robust first semester with treks, study sessions and live classes helped us maintain perspective and adjust to the new norm.”

The distant nature of virtual classrooms can result in less engagement from and among students, as some opt to turn their video off and refrain from asking questions via chat. Longer classes can provide an additional challenge.

“The hardest part for me was staying engaged in three-hour-long night classes, but my professors did a great job balancing lectures with more interactive activities,” says Gupta. Olaseni quote

Working with classmates proved to be both a negative and a positive for some students, like Saint Cyr, as the experience helped her hone her communication skills. “What was difficult was managing group projects, which are a considerable part of the MBA curriculum,” she says. “In hindsight, I found that having effective communication with my project teammates was crucial, and hence, my communication skills were throughout my virtual learning experience.”

Adapting to the New Virtual Normal

Although the transition to virtual learning was abrupt, schools found ways to adapt, making MBAs’ experience easier and more enjoyable. Getting questions answered was as easy as signing on and taking advantage of virtual office hours, says Gupta, and many professors did their best to promote discussion and engagement among students using a range of online tools.

“Our professors were incredible in adjusting to virtual learning, quickly providing us with updates, adding videos on Canvas (our online learning platform) and hosting extra office hours to answer any questions we had,” she says. “Some of our professors had open discussion boards on Canvas where we could pose questions we had to the class in addition to the professor.”

Michael Juan, a second-year MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, says this involvement by professors helped make up for what was lost by not being in the classroom. “Our teachers started to insert students into smaller breakout rooms within the class to help jump-start conversations, and then [they had] representatives from each breakout group share the discussion,” he says. “It definitely helped ignite the banter and debate that we had grown more accustomed to seeing in a classroom.”

For students looking to maintain social connections with classmates and peers, virtual happy hours became the norm. Saint Cyr started a weekly weekend happy hour with some of her classmates where she says they would discuss the past week and the one ahead. 

“It was a great space to unwind, and I found that it drew us closer,” she says. “Honestly, I found that although I was separated physically from most of my classmates, we were more connected as we had more touch points throughout the day as more of us were free to attend virtual happy hours or club-sponsored activities.”

Virtual Learning Tips and Resources for Incoming Students

The most common piece of advice offered by MBAs is do your best to replicate the in-person experience. This means designating a single spot in your home (or wherever you are) as your learning space, making it comfortable and inviting, but also professional, while minimizing distractions. Doing so, “will get you in the correct headspace,” says Saint Cyr. This also helps “set boundaries between school and personal time,” notes Weninger.

Making sure you have the technology and office equipment necessary to ensure a seamless learning experience is also important. If you have a laptop, Bello recommends getting a second screen, which he has found to help increase his productivity. Juan suggests investing in a standing desk — “Your back will thank you,” he notes — and noise-cancelling headphones, especially if you have children or live in an apartment. 

With comfort in mind, Weninger recommends a few additional items. “A laptop stand, a textbook holder, a ring light, blue light glasses, a yoga ball and some vanilla-scented candles are a few things that I added to my office space and helped on those days when I was sitting for long periods of time,” she says.

Additionally, Saint Cyr encourages students to not get in the habit of rolling out of bed and heading straight to class. “Even though you might be able to attend classes in pj’s, definitely make an effort to look the part and turn on your video,” she says. “It will allow you to stay engaged more and have a more similar classroom experience.”

While school work is important, so is your mental health. Managing your time while making time for yourself becomes even more important when learning remotely. To avoid burnout, Juan recommends blocking off time on your calendar for wellness breaks, whereas Gupta used the Pomodoro App to stay focused while also taking breaks. “Virtual learning can sometimes be challenging because it is hard to detach from schoolwork; there is a pressure to be plugged in’ at all times,” she says.

Getting the most out of virtual learning will look different for different people depending on personal preference and learning style, says Bello. No matter who you are, though, your experience will depend on you, he notes: “It becomes the quintessential situation where you get out of it what you put in.”

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