Online learning trailblazers

UBC Sauder students studying online.
Posted 2020-11-24

The UBC Sauder Master of Management and Master of Business Analytics Class of 2021 have just started their programs, but they already hold an important distinction as virtual learning trailblazers. These students are some of the first at the Robert H. Lee (RHL) Graduate School to be immersed in a 100% online format. While nobody could have predicted this massive upheaval prior to COVID-19, faculty, program leaders and students alike have shown a remarkable capacity to rise to the challenges of the times.

Just how did program leaders and students pivot to this new format and what changes were made to ensure a strong start? A lot of it had to do with the onboarding experience that was completely redesigned and reimagined for remote learning.  The RHL Student Experience team understood some students would be nervous about online learning, and they recognized that helping students form connections prior to opening week would be even more important given the unusual circumstances.

The team actively engaged with the incoming students through emails, virtual networking and social events, and a series of videos – providing academic support, career development opportunities and tips for success – with the goal to create a sense of community and help students make this massive transition.  

As students navigate their education in a brand-new way, five members of the Class of 2021 have plenty to say about embracing the unknown and being open to constant change: traits that will surely serve them well in their future careers. Here’s more on how they felt about the unique onboarding experience and their early days of virtual classes.

On-boarding, online

Photo of Alice Morales

MM student Alice Zywert Morales

MM student Alice Zywert Morales said she initially felt hesitant about virtual onboarding but she quickly came around to it.  “I was worried the virtual setting would make it difficult for our cohort to get to know each other, however my program leaders were so enthusiastic and supportive throughout the entire process. I ended up attending all the virtual events that were held for graduate students: we had coffee chats, workshops, and webinars, and this helped me interact with my classmates on a regular basis and get to know them before the start of our program. I was happy to see my new classmates’ enthusiasm and how willing they were to connect in a virtual setting.”

Photo of Shamus Menard

MM student Shamus Menard

For Master of Management student Shamus Menard, the decision to return to school during a pandemic represented a brand-new opportunity: “I was excited by the idea of learning online because I know there is a growing trend towards working from home or working remotely. That is something I wanted to get used to and test and see if it is something that I would enjoy, or at least know that I have gained the skills to make it possible.” He discovered the onboarding events offered by the school were valuable in helping him make the leap to online education. Menard says he appreciated the coffee chats and the “Sauder Lounge” events. “The Sauder Lounges featuring outstanding alumni were very informative. It was cool to get a sense of the larger Sauder community who are continuing to learn and share their career insights with new students.  The online social events I joined also helped me make connections. I headed into this program feeling like I had met a lot of my cohort.”  

MBAN student Iris Xing says she was conflicted at first about returning to virtual school. “When I first found out classes were going to be online, I wondered if I should hold off until after COVID, but then it hit me that nobody can predict the future. Nobody knows when COVID will be over. We have no control over these things. Business school helps you learn to deal with this uncertainty.”

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MBAN student Irix Xing

Cheryl Cui, another MBAN student says she was surprised by the willingness of her new classmates to connect in the lead up to her start date. The weekly coffee chats helped her forge connections with new peers and those who had recently graduated from the program. “By the time I started classes, I knew about 80% of my classmates by name or face and I had established a new network with alumni. That was really wonderful and it made me realize that whether it’s offline or online, learning is all about communication.”

Photo of Cheryl Cui

MBAN student Cheryl Cui

For MBAN student Anica Villamayor, the UBC Sauder program staff played a big part in setting her up for success. “They really highlighted the importance of building community, even in an online environment.” From online social events, to text messaging to setting up Slack groups, Villamayor was surprised at how she was able to build rapport and make friends through a variety of channels. “The medium was different, but the quality of interactions was the same.”

Photo of Anicia Villamayor

MBAN student Anica Villamayor.

RHL Director of Master’s Programs, Dharm Joshi says her team had a strong vision to make students feel inspired about online learning and ready for the change. “Providing timely, purposeful and transparent communications has been at the heart of our onboarding and community engagement efforts. More than that, we wanted our students to start their programs knowing and feeling the support of their community of faculty, staff and broader student body. Our goal was to was to help students prepare for the program start, understand expectations of a graduate business school and ultimately be excited about their decision to join us.”

Bridging the distance

Now that classes are underway, these students have had some time to reflect on this big transition. While none of them said it was easy, resilience seems to be a key factor in embracing the shift.

For Menard, it’s about staying optimistic. “I know some people say the quality of learning online is not as high and I understand this concern. For me, I believe the quality of education and the future career prospects are still solid. Just because you are seeing people through a computer screen, you have to remember they are still real people and they can still support and inspire you. You can still challenge each other academically and there’s still a lot to learn even though it is through Zoom and online.”

For Villamayor, the change comes with both positive and negative aspects: “I don’t miss my commute to school or waiting for the bus in the rain! But I do miss those small conversations that used to happen between classes. Yet I keep coming back to what I learned during my orientation: “Being able to adapt to change and staying resilient is very important right now, so I am just trying to think less about the current barriers and more about the value of what my degree will mean for my future.”

New MBAN and MM students were offered these onboarding experiences:

  • Sauder Lounge: Beginning last April, faculty, current second year students and alumni met online to share personal and professional insights about their careers and their studies. The Lounges showcased RHL talent and provided a space for students to connect with each other.
  • Ask Me Anything: A chance for incoming students engage with faculty in an informal and friendly context.
  • Monthly Virtual Coffee Chats for current students and staff members to chat and get to know each other in an informal way.
  • Monthly Newsletters for students included a video, useful reminders  and information about upcoming events.
  • Virtual Career Workshops such as “Design Your Life,” “Networking 101,” and “LinkedIn Guys Webinar” were offered pre-program to allow students to get a head start on building their professional toolkits.
  • Management in Times of Crises Certificate with interactive webinars, covering everything from leading with empathy and disrupting the status quo to understanding the social, political and economic implications of the ongoing global outbreak.