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How remote study is changing business school life


Two weeks ago Sofia Skevofylaka was sitting in a lecture hall at Imperial College Business School taking one of the final classes on the masters in innovation, entrepreneurship and management degree that she is due to finish in July.

Within 48 hours she was on a plane back to her family in Greece after the campus on Exhibition Road in London’s museum district was closed, and every tutorial, seminar and class was put online. She does not expect to return.

“People started to get scared. I was living nearby in Imperial’s student accommodation and I had a contract to stay until August. But I prefer to be with my family. It is one less stress,” Ms Skevofylaka says.

She now attends lectures from her laptop via Zoom, the video conferencing platform. As part of their entrepreneurship module, Ms Skevofylaka and a team of classmates used this system to together present a start-up pitch, including slide presentations, with each logging on from their respective homes. Investors joined the call to judge their performance alongside the course tutors.

“It is a bit weird to have to now look at everyone’s faces on the screen. When we attended lectures on campus we didn’t look at each other as much as we do on Zoom, but the school has shown how it can be used to complete all of our coursework,” Ms Skevofylaka says.

There is also uncertainty around jobs following graduation. Some of the people she knows have secured consulting roles, she says, but for others there are concerns. “I am working on a start-up idea, a family business with my mother, specialising in corporate training and HR. People are trying to adjust to find roles after graduation.”

Business schools have had to react quickly to make their operations safe, closing campuses and moving lectures and tutorials online. Already, those in charge are getting calls from upset students, demanding tuition fee refunds, and from staff concerned about job security when the lockdown ends.

“There is a question about whether students will be happy to pay the fees for a full-time course when they are getting an online degree,” says Sangeet Chowfla, president and chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council, the MBA test administrator.

“They like the ability to walk up to a professor in office hours, debate with classmates face to face and make connections with people in other industries who are their peers.”

Coronavirus has meant an abrupt end to many of the traditional attractions of business schools, including the chance to live on campus and develop a network that will be valuable for the rest of students’ careers.

But some students and their tutors are determined that those teaching and learning leadership skills should be taking this unexpected opportunity to develop smart uses for technology that transform the way people are taught in future.

There is a sense that the coronavirus crisis will prove the tipping point for online education, showing how it can be fully embedded into business degree programmes and winning over previously sceptical teaching staff.

“We do feel the students’ pain, the challenge they are facing, not just moving from face-to-face teaching to a virtual classroom but having to study from home and concerns about the future jobs market,” says Paul Almeida, dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington DC.

“But this crisis has planted seeds for innovation and transformation in the use of technology, about the potential for using our buildings differently so that people can study more flexibly and staff can telework.”

Now all his faculty are teaching online classes live, even those that previously resisted this. “I wouldn’t say the way we are doing it today is perfect, with most just presenting over Zoom, but it has started us on a journey,” he says.

Mr Almeida adds that faculty researchers will realise that when they are away from colleagues, they cannot only work remotely but might be visiting other college labs “where we can unleash the power of working across universities”.

Rome, October 2019. Dean Paul Almeida, one of the teacher at the seminar organised by Washington University's McDonnell School of Business in Rome.
Dean Paul Almeida says that the coronavirus crisis has transformed the use of technology as a teaching tool © Emanuele Camerini/FT

There is a different challenge for students, many of whom have moved abroad to attend business school and have no way to get back to their family or have felt forced to return home to ride out the crisis.

At London Business School the current MBA cohort have been organising virtual dinner parties and checking in with each other each evening on web conferencing systems.

“It is weird, but life goes on and I have time now to plan my future better than if I was in a full-time job,” says Ed Boyanoski, a first year student on the 21-month MBA course at London Business School.

“The job market is probably not going to be so amazing when I graduate next year, but what can I do about that? We are here to change our careers and as MBA students spend most of our time trying to find solutions to problems, so it feels like responding to this crisis is something I should be good at.”

The threat of recession and unemployment is a looming concern for students due to complete their studies this summer.

Ije Durga, a final year MBA student at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business graduated from law school in 2008 as the financial crisis unfolded. “The jobs market was pretty ugly with people getting job offers rescinded,” she says.

When Ms Durga finishes her final exams next month she will be preparing to move to Connecticut, where she will start work at a hedge fund. “I am one of the lucky ones,” she adds.

The crisis has prompted others to use their skills in the battle against the pandemic. When the coronavirus hit Germany, Sören Tesdorpf was in Berlin planning a flight to India for the social impact project required for his masters in management degree at the ESMT business school. He and four classmates had planned to compile a database of start-ups in remote Indian towns to help the small businesses attract investors.

After the trip was cancelled and ESMT ended all classroom teaching on the campus — based in the former East German government headquarters — Mr Tesdorpf started thinking about how he could do something constructive to combat the pandemic.

He contacted the other team members on the India trip and together they created a website where people can record their symptoms anonymously to create a data set of known coronavirus cases globally.

“In 30 years’ time, when people ask me what you were doing during the coronavirus pandemic I don’t want to say I was just sitting around at home watching Netflix on the couch,” Mr Tesdorpf says.

Study Tubers keep boredom at bay

As UK schools closed and exams were cancelled, a group of educational YouTube vloggers — the Study Tubers — felt compelled to help their fellow students, writes Amy O’Brien. “The moment the coronavirus measures were announced, my DMs were flooded with students panicking about what would happen to their grades and university offers,” says Varaidzo Kativhu, a 21-year-old Study Tuber and final year classical archaeology and ancient history student at Oxford university. “There’s so much uncertainty. I had to speak to the other Study Tubers immediately.”

Six hours later, the StudyTube Project channel was live. At 6pm every day, one of the Study Tubers releases a video covering a topic from their specialism.

“We’re trying to provide an online makeshift version of a school, where you have a range of subjects,” Ms Kativhu explains. “We want to show that you can keep your mind active and enjoy education without a teacher, classroom, textbook and exam.”

As students find themselves at home with more time on their hands, audience demand is high. The new channel’s videos are already generating revenue, and the group decided any profits made will go to charities helping fight Covid-19.

“It’s a project for students by students,” she says, “to distract from how the world is turning upside down outside, and to show solidarity. We have no idea what’s going on, but for now, we just need to stick to the channel’s motto — one day at a time.”


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