Over the past few months, the most popular question among prospective students goes something like this: “How has COVID-19 changed things at Darden and how is the global pandemic likely to affect program delivery for subsequent classes?”
We completely understand why this question is on your minds — after all, we are all asking similar questions about so many aspects of our own lives at the moment.
As of now, we have not made any changes to our plans for the Class of 2023. Like you, we are hopeful that time will improve the overall situation, and it is worth noting that the Class of 2023 will not enroll until August 2021 — which still feels very far away.
We have made a number of accommodations for our current classes, and wanted to share how things are going on Grounds. At Darden, learning has always been a partnership between faculty, students and staff, and this reality has never been more clear than at this particular moment.
Senior Associate Dean for the Residential MBA Program Tom Steenburgh shared words of encouragement with the faculty and staff over the summer — the charge for all of us this year was to “make it new.” Adaptation has certainly been the watchword over the past few months at Darden. The University is adapting and pivoting on a daily basis as well — even just this week, President Jim Ryan shared additional temporary restrictions for community gatherings. Darden will continue to work closely with the University to ensure that we can all stay as many steps ahead of the virus as possible. One of the benefits of all this work is that we have learned a great deal and built a lot of capacity which can be leveraged should the current situation persist in the coming year.
Health and Safety Guidelines:
Darden’s plans have been informed by the University’s health and safety guidelines — which include mandatory testing for all students coming on Grounds, as well as what is termed the Big Four: Wear a face covering, practice social distancing, frequently hand wash/sanitize and stay home if you feel ill.
It is worth noting that social distancing has greatly limited the amount of students we are able to have in a classroom. For example, capacity in most of our classrooms in Charlottesville went from around 60 students to 20. At Sands Family Grounds in Rosslyn, the base location for our Executive MBA Program, classroom seating was reduced from around 70 to approximately 35.
Investment in Technology:
Over the past few months, Darden has made significant investments in technology to help facilitate both virtual and hybrid learning. This includes everything from working with faculty to acquire the tools and resources they need to lead engaging virtual classes from their homes and offices to installing new screens and cameras in the Darden classrooms to allow for new hybrid delivery classes.
Throughout these efforts, the faculty have been supported by Darden’s Distance Learning team. To learn more about this incredible team, be sure to check out our Experience Darden podcast interview with Joanne Meier, assistant dean for digital instructional initiatives.
The shift to virtual classes was a relatively easy one for Darden faculty. As you may know, faculty in our Executive MBA Program have been teaching online since the program’s inception (roughly one-third of the program is designed to be delivered virtually), and many of our faculty members lead Executive Education and Coursera offerings that include virtual instruction. Plus, as faculty will tell you, teaching virtually requires even more planning and preparation, and Darden faculty members take great pride in their teaching!
This fall saw the introduction of a new instruction format — hybrid classes. In a hybrid class, some students are in person while other students participate in the same class session virtually. The early returns on this new delivery model from both faculty and students have been positive, but it is worth noting that even with this new format, most classes are being delivered virtually at this time.
Given social distancing requirements for hybrid classes, Darden is employing a rotation that ensures all students are able to have at least some in-person instruction.
For example, in the full-time MBA program, for First Year sections, students are following a one-week in-person, two weeks virtual model for hybrid format classes. In the Executive MBA program, First Year students will split the weekend residencies during Quarter 1, allowing students to participate in at least one weekend residency during the quarter.
Students are not required to participate in person during the pandemic, and there is a fully virtual option available to students who wish to remain remote during this period.
Stakeholders to Consider:
As we planned for the fall, students were, of course, top of mind as they are a key stakeholder group. We also had to consider faculty and staff, as their health and safety concerns are also important. One of the best things about Darden is the sense of community that pervades both in and out of the classroom, and this community recognizes that all the stakeholders are important to the overall educational experience.
File this one under “lemons to lemonade.” Limitation often begets creativity, and during the spring months, our students demonstrated a spirit of adaptation and innovation that has continued to define Darden’s extracurricular life into the fall.
For example, this spring featured a virtual Darden Cup (Darden’s annual section-wide athletic competition) as well as new programming like A Professor and a Playlist, in which members of the Darden faculty shared songs that have been important in their life. Listen to our recent podcast interview with second year student and Tech Club president, Harsha Gummagatta, host of A Professor and a Playlist. And be sure to also check out the “A Professor and a Playlist” playlist on Spotify.
Student organizations have continued to find ways to bring students together during these first weeks of Quarter 1 utilizing small group gatherings and plenty of virtual meetups.
An Incremental Approach:
With our full-time MBA students, we have only shared plans through the fall semester, with additional details regarding the spring semester forthcoming. With our Executive MBA students, we are moving quarter to quarter, and, for our newest class of executive format students, the Class of 2022, we will be providing additional information about Quarter 2 (November/December 2020) in the weeks ahead.
While we wish we had all of the information right now, it is important to acknowledge the evolving nature of the current moment. We are committed to the health and safety of our community members while also ensuring our students have a truly exceptional learning experience.
We encourage you to check out our recent podcast interviews with our program leaders, including Senior Associate Dean for the Residential MBA Program Tom Steenburgh and Senior Associate Dean for Professional Degree Programs Yael Grushka Cockayne.
Be sure to consult the Latest News regularly for the most updated news releases and media hits. Check out faculty thought leadership published on Ideas to Action. And stay connected with us via social media: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, WeChat.