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Ann L. McGill, MBA ’85, PhD, ’86, had an understandable reaction when she learned that all Booth courses in Spring Quarter 2020—including her class, Managing in Organizations—would need to be taught fully remotely. “Panic, you know,” she said with a smile. “Fear of the unknown. In part because of how it would change me—sitting in a chair, yammering at a screen.”
In Managing in Organizations, McGill,the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science, gives MBA students an introduction to theory and research in the behavioral sciences. The main goal of the course is to provide the scientific knowledge of human thought and behavior that is critical for successfully managing others, and also for successfully managing oneself. Or, as McGill sometimes colloquially puts it, her course teaches you how to be a better boss.
Teaching remotely for the first time since joining Booth’s faculty in 1997, however, McGill needed to quickly adapt her course to a virtual world. Her Spring Quarter course would need to work via Zoom for a class of over 60 students, sitting in home offices, living rooms, and kitchens, with occasional cameo appearances from curious pets, energetic kids, and other vestiges of personal life under stay-at-home orders.
According to Evening MBA student Jessica Kenneally, McGill need not have worried about “yammering at a screen” during her Zoom class sessions. “I was lucky to have two extremely engaging professors during Spring Quarter—one being professor Ann McGill and the other one being [visiting professor of accounting] John Hand,” Kenneally said. “Both of them went above and beyond to make both of my classes into a really interactive experience, even over Zoom.” Evening MBA student Robert Cooper, AB ’12, echoed Kenneally’s sentiments. “[Professor McGill] clearly put a lot of time into figuring out how to get the most out of the online experience,” Cooper said. “It’s easy for the flow of an online meeting with 60-plus people to get disjointed, but during Managing in Organizations, it never did.”
Of course, McGill had support in making the Spring Quarter remote-learning experience successful for students such as Kenneally, an underwriter for Capital One, and Cooper, a management consultant at Kenway Consulting. Booth faculty and staff created extensive training opportunities starting as soon as the Spring Quarter decision was announced in March, and Booth delayed the start of the quarter a week to allow faculty adequate preparation time. Throughout the quarter, faculty such as George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science, and Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and a Willard Graham Faculty Scholar, hosted Zoom meetings where Booth professors gathered to share and discuss learnings, takeaways, and tips. McGill credits her “sensitive and savvy” teaching assistant, PhD studentAnnabelle Roberts, with helping her brainstorm how to make the class work in the Zoom environment.
McGill also had a few aces up her sleeve. She had several lectures prerecorded, including parts of the critical first lecture that introduces her class to students. Also, Kenneally added, “Even before the quarter started, Professor McGill held some optional Zoom sessions with students, just so she could practice some of the present technology, such as doing a poll or doing the breakout rooms, calling on students to see what worked.”
Indeed, Zoom’s technology helped McGill and her students keep the class lively, engaging, and rewarding. At times, McGill would throw out a question to the class, ask them to respond in the Zoom chat feature, and build discussions around that input with prompts such as, “’I’m seeing a lot of people referencing the role of trust here. Let’s talk about that,’” she said. McGill also leveraged the polling feature in Zoom, asking students to vote: “’Would you have promoted this person?’ ‘What will be the verdict in this court case?’”
The Zoom functionality also helped foster some of the community building that might suffer from not having the class take place in-person. “The chat functionality in Zoom helped, as people could leave comments or questions without interrupting the flow of the lecture,” Cooper said. “And, of course, many of the comments are joking or funny, so it helps lighten the mood and foster community within the class.”
In the Autumn Quarter, Booth currently plans to move to a dual-modality format. With dual modality, faculty have the option to be remote or in class, and students have the option to be remote or in class. Some classes will be offered in a hybrid format, with some students in class and some remote, while some classes will be offered remotely only. McGill thinks her course will translate well to a dual-modality approach. “I think this course lends itself to online teaching, even when we are in the hybrid stage, where maybe students come and maybe they don’t,” she said.
Ultimately, McGill attributes the success of her Spring Quarter class to collaboration and a shared commitment to learning. “It was a really good combination of hard work, intelligent people, and a team spirit,” McGill said. “We kept our eye on the prize. People learn what they need to learn.” When issues arose on the technical side, McGill and her students simply forged ahead. “I think the students’ attitude was, ‘My job is to judge whether I’m learning, and not sweat the details.’ That attitude enabled us all to do well at that high level.” And she added with a smile, “and then we all got better at the details. By the end, I think, we were really, really good.”
Robert Cooper, AB ’12, is an Evening MBA student living in Chicago, and works as a management consultant at Kenway Consulting, with expertise in information insight, specifically around business intelligence.
The Center for Decision Research’s PIMCO Decision Research Lab has transformed itself during the COVID-19 shutdown into a virtual lab in order to help advance the scientific understanding of human behavior.
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