By Kara Sherrer
The spread of the coronavirus has led to university closures across the country and the world, Vanderbilt included. In mid-March, staff and faculty made a massive effort to move all coursework online for the remainder of the year and to help students as they follow self-isolation best practices.
”With classes already in session, we had very little time to transition. So the team built five pop-up studios in a day and immediately started training faculty and staff,” said Dean M. Eric Johnson.
Moving Classes Online
Faculty across the university, including Owen, had less than a week to fully move classes online. With staff support, the faculty learned virtual tools such as Zoom, Kaltura, and Brightspace to deliver lectures via video and host class content online. Most classes are being taught through a blend of synchronous and asynchronous content. Lectures are delivered in real time via Zoom at their originally scheduled times to avoid conflicts, and supplemental materials are also posted for students to read at their own pace.
Even with the situation rapidly changing, faculty remain focused on getting students the knowledge they need to graduate or advance to their second year of schooling. “We are committed to getting the classes delivered, getting our students the credits that they need, ensuring that our students can graduate with the courses and the knowledge that they need,” said Richard Willis, Senior Associate Dean for the Faculty and a member of the Owen COVID-19 Taskforce.
“Our first goal is to make sure that we are fulfilling the mission of delivering high quality world class education to our students… the staff recognize that and really almost dropped what they were doing so that we could support the faculty getting online,” added Lindsay Donald, Chief of Staff and also a member of the Owen COVID-19 Taskforce.
Students are making the transition alongside faculty, adjusting to a virtual version of the school’s trademark personal scale. “The faculty and staff have put in a lot of time and effort in making sure that we get as much of our Owen experience as possible despite the constantly changing circumstances,” said Neel Joshi (MSF’20). “The faculty have made it very clear to us that just because we are not meeting in person doesn’t mean we don’t have as much access to them as before.”
Experiencing Student Life, Virtually
While students come to business school primarily to earn an advanced degree, the student experience extends far beyond the classroom. With the closure of campus, all social events were cancelled as well, so students have been experimenting with virtual solutions to stay connected during social isolation, supported by a dedicated Student Experience Taskforce. Some activities they have organized so far include virtual trivia nights and remote happy hours.
“While the students were devastated to have their in-person social events canceled, the Owen community is embracing our current scenario and moving all important and sentimental events online,” said Ellie McBrier (MBA’20). “’Create a Zoom for it and post it in Slack’ is the new “book a room and order food.’”
“As students, we check up on each other as frequently as possible to make sure we are all coping well with the situation,” added Joshi.
Part of this involves planning alternatives for Commencement 2020, which was officially postponed to 2021 by Interim Chancellor and Provost Susan Wente on March 25. Plans right now include remote events as well as a series of special events for the Class of 2020 in May 2021. “Virtual celebrations of students will be taking place, including the SP Awards, a Follies video, and some kind of virtual recognition event,” McBrier said. “The Owen community and the students are already brainstorming and planning future events to celebrate the Owen class of 2020.”
With the coronavirus situation changing by the day, it’s impossible to predict exactly what the future holds for Owen. Willis anticipates that faculty will have learned many lessons from teaching virtually that could improve their delivery of in-person classes. “A lot of faculty who now teaching virtually, myself included, are thinking… ‘Even if we go back to the physical delivery, there’s a lot of things I’ve learned that I’ll be able to incorporate into my class next year that will actually enrich it for the students,’” he said.
Students are also getting a crash course in working with remote teams that will likely serve them well in the post COVID-19 work environment. “While we were not expecting it, the class of 2020 will graduate from Owen having completed an extra course in virtual communication and online learning, a skill that is likely to be useful in the world that awaits us on the other side of the coronavirus,” McBrier added.
Of course, all of this has only been possible because the entire Owen community — faculty, students, and staff — pulled together to make it happen, something that all the Taskforce members recognize. “This crisis has given Owen an opportunity to show what a special organization it is,” Donald said. “We give a huge thank you to everyone in the Owen community for stepping up and doing the work that needed to happen.”