Inside the Remote Learning Classroom
When Advanced Negotiations shifted online for Spring Quarter, Professor George Wu and his students adapted quickly—and discovered unexpected upsides to the virtual format.
- June 30, 2020
- Classroom Experience
How do you reimagine academic courses built on face-to-face interactions for a virtual world? When the COVID-19 crisis escalated in Chicago, the United States, and around the world, Chicago Booth professors and their counterparts around the globe had to answer that question—quickly—and adapt to teaching remotely. Relying on his creativity and plenty of input from students, professor George Wu did just that, fostering a remote learning classroom where students thrived. Professor Wu and newly graduated student Cass Gunderson, ’20, offer a peek inside Advanced Negotiations—which teaches students how to carry out especially complex or difficult negotiations—during Spring Quarter as Chicago Booth shifted to remote learning.
From the Student: Cass Gunderson, ’20
During Spring Quarter, MBA student Cass Gunderson did her remote learning from her home in the Chicago area. While at Booth, she interned at private equity firms PSP Capital and Shore Capital, and she will join Chicago-based ParkerGale as an operating principal after graduation.
I signed up for Advanced Negotiations this spring to build on what I learned when I took Negotiations last fall. I had started out so timid, but I gained so much confidence. I wanted 10 more weeks of trying (and sometimes failing) and learning in an environment where consequences don’t exist like they do in the real world.
When the shift to remote learning was announced, I remember looking at my course schedule and feeling the most nervous about Advanced Negotiations. I had only experienced a Negotiations class in person, and so I was only thinking about it in that way. I remembered how much I got out of the subtleties of being face-to-face to see a person’s body language. But in the end, I would argue that this remote learning course completely outperformed my expectations.
From the beginning, Professor Wu was perpetually, genuinely looking for ways to improve the course through technology. He was forthright and open about the unknowns and the variables, and I think that humility made him even more approachable. Because of that, students would ask, “Oh, this is happening in my other course. Can we bring it in here?” He was so willing to try new things out, and if it didn’t work, he would move on. It wasn’t, “How do I make this existing class virtual?” It was, “How do I make the virtual enhance this experience?”
The way Negotiations worked in-person was that we paired off during class time and went somewhere in the building to negotiate, each of us with our assigned position and some confidential information that only your “character” knew. Then, we came back together as a class to share and discuss our results.
In the remote course, we scheduled and held our negotiations outside of class anytime within that week, which is more like the real world anyway. We used the virtual class time to put our results on the board, debrief and really pore over our results together—we could see how for some exercises, people came away with wildly different results, which I found interesting and realistic. I think business school is a great place to continue to learn that: How do other people think? I came out of those sessions with approaches and ideas I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
Throughout the quarter, Professor Wu would make sure people were involved. If people weren’t raising their hands or were a little shy on video, he would use polling or the chat function to get people contributing, get them voting, and have their voices heard.
On a personal level, I think it was refreshing to spend time one-on-one or in small groups with classmates in a quarter when I couldn’t do that otherwise. Even though you’re negotiating in character, it helped build relationships and—I know this sounds cheesy—not feel so lonely.
I got a lot out of this course that will be applicable when I start working after graduation. In so many ways, it is realistic to how we negotiate now, definitely during the “new normal” when the way we communicate is changing for a while, maybe even permanently. There is still a part of me that’s sad I missed out on the traditional classroom experience. But, I do think I learned as much, if not more than I thought I would, about myself from the exercises, from the reflections, from the prep work. This course is designed in a way that makes you put in the work no matter what. And when you put in the work, you’re going to get something out of it.
From the Professor: George Wu
George Wu is the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science. He studies the psychology of decision-making, goal-setting and motivation, and cognitive biases in bargaining and negotiation.
What struck me was how much the entire faculty rallied to take on this task. Obviously, it’s intimidating: a lot of us didn’t know anything about Zoom and had taught our class the same way for years. So, to pivot within a couple of weeks was really an endeavor.
Very early on, my colleague Marianne Bertrand and I realized that it would be silly for each of us to have to reinvent the wheel individually. Ordinarily, if we were doing something new like this, we would be having conversations in the hallways or in the faculty lounge. But there was no faculty lounge in late March, so we recognized we had to recreate that space in some way.
“In my section were Gene Fama and Harry Davis, our longest-serving faculty members, and—I told my students this the first day of class—their attitude was, ‘This is what we’re doing, so we’re going to do it right. We’re going to figure out how we can make this an amazing experience.’”
So, we both led conversations in which our colleagues talked about their concerns and shared insights. In my section were Gene Fama and Harry Davis, our longest-serving faculty members, and—I told my students this the first day of class—their attitude was, “This is what we’re doing, so we’re going to do it right. We’re going to figure out how we can make this an amazing experience.” A few of us also mentored junior faculty members, some of whom would be teaching for the first time ever. I also really felt for my students, and the least I could do was to be as empathetic, positive, constructive, and honest with them as possible.
As a teacher, this experience forces you to be really clear-minded about what you’re trying to do in class—to think about what the essential elements are, then figure out how you can deliver on those given the constraints and the opportunities provided by this new technology. It’s like watching the challenges on the cooking shows that I love: how do you take a classic dish and deconstruct it to create something wholly new and exciting, while still retaining what makes it special?
Technology actually created an opportunity to do something that was in some ways better, maybe a lot better, than what we do in the conventional classroom. I sometimes utilized breakout rooms, which were a nice opportunity to let students connect in a more intimate way. It really felt like being around a coffee table chatting, and it encouraged people to truly be present. Another was the chat function. I would throw out a question—like, for example, what do you think defines an effective negotiator?—and ask students to type their response into the chat. I explicitly told them not to worry if a peer said the same thing, which is a big change from the in-person classroom when students wouldn’t repeat a point another student had already made. That was a real advantage to the digital chat: we all quickly got a sense of what the class’s collective mind was, and I used this content to lead to a rich conversation, pulling out individual responses and asking people to go deeper or debate.
The remote format also meant I could bring in guest speakers who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to attend in person, such as John Watson, ’80, the retired CEO of Chevron. I can see this opening up opportunities in the future, since it’s much easier to get visitors virtually. Another advantage that wasn’t obvious to me at first was how it made the class accessible to alumni, especially those in remote areas where faculty don’t normally visit. In fact, one of my students was an Executive MBA graduate based in Malaysia, who woke up and took my evening class over his morning coffee.
When I teach Managerial Decision-Making, I talk about creativity in terms of how we oftentimes constrain our innovation when things are basically working well. New situations can get us to think about things really differently, and I think that’s a fortunate byproduct of this situation we find ourselves in right now.
Amid the pandemic, students worried the New Venture Challenge would be too hard to move online. But with their professor’s help, they rose to the occasion.How One of Booth’s Most Intense Classes Had a Banner Year Online