With so many universities and schools transitioning to online classes, here are a few strategies for successfully converting an experiential learning course to a completely virtual environment
We were six days away from hopping on a plane to South America. My graduate students at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) had been prepping for weeks—writing emails, making phone calls, conducting research, and introducing themselves to nine start-up companies in Colombia for whom they would work on consulting projects.
We were excited to embark on the next phase of my Weatherhead School of Management’s annual International Institute course—a six-day, immersive trip to Bogota and Medellín, Colombia, where students would finally meet their “clients” in person, learn about their business challenges, and work on finding solutions to help them grow.
This would be my tenth trip abroad with Case Western Reserve students, and I felt confident about delivering on the promise and potential of a project that was expressly designed for experiential learning—getting students out of the classroom and connecting them with executives in a face-to-face learning environment.
We would not be reading Harvard Business School case studies. Rather, students would actually do something helpful for Colombian start-ups with real challenges—they’d be putting their skills and knowledge to work.
Then came the coronavirus.
Our trip cancelled, I immediately scrambled to move my course online so students could learn and receive course credit virtually. Using WhatsApp, we began online chats with students and the start-ups in Colombia on how to proceed.
The students had one month to complete their projects. I encouraged them to find a way to make meaningful connections without meeting in person in Colombia. I knew completing this task virtually would pose a distinct challenge—but this, too, is part of the learning experience. Ultimately, I trusted in my students—that they would plow ahead—20-hour roundtrip or not.
Yet, very quickly, I noticed cracks appearing in the progress of my now “remote education” course. As this course unfolds, we’ll address issues and keep projects running, learning from our bumps in the road.
Speaking of which, I wanted to share some of our learnings for the benefit of other educators who may be doing the same in the coming weeks and months.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. Find a Digital Communication Tool that Everyone Can Use
Your school may be using a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas or Blackboard, but you’ll need a platform to communicate easily with outside companies and partners. Many platforms exist that can help make communications easy. Texting or emailing may seem like simple solutions, but tracking conversations with those tools can be tricky and inefficient.
First, find out what your students, partners, and clients are already using. Outside the US, WhatsApp is a popular and useful communications tool as is Slack. Conference calls via Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts are helpful.
Make sure everyone is using the same technology and give them time to learn how to use it. In fact, one of my full-time MBA students at Case Western Reserve, Katie Van Dusen, recommends starting early and being patient. “There may be an initial learning curve when trying to figure out how to work effectively on these platforms,” she noted. “You have to be even more aware of how often you’re communicating and that you’re reaching out intentionally—communication doesn’t flow as naturally as you’d think.”
CWRU MBA students Katie Van Dusen and Natasha Rafidi (on screen) working remotely on their Colombian … [+]
Katie Van Dusen
2. Keep Yourself in the Loop – Check in Often
About three days ago, I opened one of the WhatsApp group chats to see what activity had been taking place between my students and the Colombian start-ups. Communication had completely halted. No texts in several days. I sent a note to see what was going on.
Any progress finding a time for you all to talk? I wrote.
Within a few minutes, I discovered that the students had been facing language challenges with their client. They needed a translator to enable their Zoom sessions, so we found someone in Colombia who could help. Working virtually can present challenges that may paralyze your students, even very capable ones.
Imagine you’re an instructor in your classroom. If you ask a question and no one speaks, it’s a good indication that your students don’t understand something. You need to find a way to move the learning forward. If you see communication slowing down online, it’s usually emblematic of a problem, and it’s time to intervene. As the instructor, stay in the loop with students and monitor communications frequently to ensure work and learning are progressing.
Van Dusen also recommends frequent and shorter check-ins with clients when working on projects. “That’s more valuable than saying, ‘Okay, at this date and time we’ll lay it all out in a two-hour call,’” she notes. Frequent virtual meetings will “build rapport, test communication in a digital format, troubleshoot technical issues and help you address them early…all that pays dividends in how smoothly the work will move forward.”
3. Enlist Partners
Don’t attempt to do everything alone. Identify someone who is familiar with the local environment and can help students get unstuck when problems arise. For my International Institute course, we are working with Nelson Reyes, CEO of Project Colombia, a resource who arranged our consulting partnerships on the ground in Colombia and knows the local landscape well. If your students are working with a local organization or company, find out if there someone at that company who can function almost as a colleague and be a resource for the instructor as well as the students.
Project Colombia CEO Nelson Reyes at an Innovation Bootcamp, Bogota, Colombia, December 2019
One last piece of advice.
4. Be Positive.
For students or instructors who may be feeling disappointed or overwhelmed by the sudden prospect of conducting or taking classes online for the foreseeable future—and this might be especially true of experiential courses where you were expecting to meet new people, shake hands, roll up your sleeves, and all the rest—the future may not be as bleak as it may be possible to imagine right now.
Plenty of important work and learning can be accomplished virtually—and is every single day.
Firsthand, I have already witnessed this among my professionally-minded and undeterred students and colleagues at CWRU. One week into her virtual project, Van Dusen can see how her experience will actually serve as a boon to her resume and professional toolbox:
“Our group has adjusted on the fly—it’s simple: We test things out, see what works and scrap what doesn’t. We are learning to be nimble and build strategies and techniques, even though it’s different than what we expected,” said Van Dusen. “Now I am gaining a new, different kind of valuable experience of working constructively and deeply via a digital connection.”
“We’ve learned to adjust and create something novel and valuable for both our client and ourselves.”