Business Education's Rapid Response to COVID-19

B-schools quickly mobilize to offer alternate global study experiences and 100-percent online education delivery to address the ongoing impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

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MANY EXPERTS ARE calling the spread of the coronavirus and the global outbreak of COVID-19, the disease it causes, a “black swan event”—the term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe an unanticipated event with wide-reaching consequences. At the moment of this writing, the virus had sickened more than 134,000 worldwide and caused nearly 5,000 deaths. Of all cases, the largest portion has so far been in China, but Italy, Iran, and South Korea all have reported thousands of cases as well. (Worldometers is providing up-to-date statistics on the spread of the virus, and the World Health Organization is providing ongoing updates on its website.)

Governments, schools, and business organizations have reacted to halt the spread of COVID-19 by enacting travel bans and quarantines on one extreme to distributing hand sanitizer to students and staff on the other.

But for the deans attending AACSB International’s Deans Conference, held in February in Nashville, Tennessee, the concern was twofold: How would they continue to serve students affected by the virus, and how would they make up for any financial shortfalls that resulted from students’ inability to enroll in their programs?

Close to 100 deans attended an unscheduled emergency session at the conference, where they expressed worry that the virus would impact not only their programs, but also the welfare of their Chinese students. Because COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province, deans raised the possibility of a surge in anti-Chinese sentiment on their campuses.

"We wanted to be sure that we were collectively aware of this possibility and that we did everything we could to ward it off,” says John Quelch, an organizer of the session and dean of Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami in Florida.

Other educators have raised similar concerns. On March 10, the Global Business School Network (GBSN) coordinated two webinar sessions, both on the topic “Business Schools and the Coronavirus.” Several panel members, who included educators from business schools worldwide, discussed their schools’ responses and their biggest concerns for what the months ahead might hold.

Among the panelists was Carolyn Egri, associate dean, research and international, at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She notes that the school is relying on ongoing communication to assure that everyone is treated with respect during the crisis.

“We have a number of facts on our central website,” she says. “We emphasize that people who are or could be affected should be treated with understanding and empathy. We haven’t had the experience of people being targeted in any way, but we are trying to support people who through no fault of their own have been exposed to this virus.”

Another priority for the Beedie School is to maintain seamless contacts with all of its partner universities. “One of our first responses was to reach out to all of our international partners that we had scheduled meetings for, so that instead of having in-person meetings, we’ll be having virtual meetings,” says Egri. “We know that things will be difficult this coming year, so we’re going to keep the relationships. We really want to think past this crisis.”

Events, Testing Postponed

Conference organizers worldwide have been forced to either postpone or cancel their events. For example, AACSB International canceled its Assessment and Impact Conference scheduled to be held March 19–21 in Houston, Texas; its Annual Accreditation Conference in Asia Pacific scheduled to be held June 1–2 in Singapore; and seminars that were to be delivered in conjunction with these events. AACSB has created a webpage where it will be providing updates and ongoing information about COVID-19's impact on its programming.

EDUCAUSE canceled the annual meeting of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative on March 1,  just a day before it was scheduled to be held in Bellevue, Washington. The 2020 Asia Pacific Association for International Education has postponed its annual conference—which had been set for March 22–26 in Vancouver—until March 2021. The American Educational Research Association converted its annual meeting, scheduled to be held in San Francisco, California, April 17–21, to a virtual meeting “with the goal of providing an authentic and meaningful experience for those who had expected to attend.”

In China and other regions most seriously affected, testing sites for standardized entry exams such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) have been temporarily closed—and test dates postponed. As of this writing, the Educational Testing Service had suspended its delivery of the GRE in mainland China until the end of March. On March 6, it announced it was “close to introducing a secure solution that will allow students in some areas that have been affected by the coronavirus to take the GRE General Test from home until test centers can reopen for regular testing.”

These developments mean that schools are likely going to have to be more flexible with their admissions requirements, says Felix Papier, dean and pre-experience programs director at ESSEC Business School, who also took part in the second GBSN webinar session. He points out that, beyond testing results, it could be difficult to obtain certain certified documents from institutions in affected countries—including China and Italy, and perhaps others if the outbreak progresses—since their offices have been closed.

“We have been trying to be as flexible as possible,” says Papier. “We will allow students in these zones … to submit applications without these documents. We will just allow them to submit them later on. In the case of GMAT, we will allow for students from these zones to submit the application without this information, and then we will make conditional admission … and let them supply the GMAT score later at the minimum level that we specify.”

Contingency Planning

Business schools have quickly mobilized to address the impact of COVID-19 and prevent its spread, while minimizing disruption to the productivity of their students, faculty, and staff. The level of response has been wide-ranging:

Hong Kong University of Science & Technology moved quickly to adopt different precautionary measures and postponed the start of its spring term for two weeks, starting its classes February 17. The school has worked with its overseas partners to make arrangements for exchange students—both on campus and abroad—who are affected by school closures and travel restrictions.

The school asked staff to work from home or to come to the office in shifts. In addition, it has canceled its international case competition, and students’ study abroad trips have been canceled and postponed. 

As students returned from residencies in affected countries, the school has worked closely with the Health Department of Hong Kong to provide quarantine support, explains Kar Yan Tam, dean of business and management at the HKUST School of Business. The university designated an on-campus hotel where students who do not have permanent homes in Hong Kong can self-quarantine, while providing these students with meal delivery, medical checkups, and a supply of daily necessities.

COVID-19 has made this a difficult time for everyone, says Tam of HKUST. “We will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the safety of our community and to explore ways to continue our teaching and research missions without significant disruptions.”

Singapore Management University has benefited from its Emergency Preparedness for Teaching and Learning initiative, instituted after the SARS outbreak in 2003. “Most of our faculty had already been through annual training programs, which made the transition to online classes and flexibility with delivery and testing modes easier,” says Gerry George, dean of SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business and the Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“There is a lot to learn about planning and resilience from this episode, but I am heartened to see how the community has come together to provide an effective and coordinated response.”— GERRY GEORGE, SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY

SMU canceled students’ study abroad in severely affected countries and enrolled them on-campus. School administrators are building flexibility into the start dates for its summer programs, in case incoming student cohorts are unable to complete their entrance exams in areas where testing sites have been closed.

Singapore’s government has required every organization to ask employees to take their temperatures twice a day and report results through an app. In addition, Singapore swiftly rolled out a “Leave of Absence” regimen for employees whose conditions might require self-isolation, and it is strictly enforcing a “Stay Home Notice” where risk of secondary exposure might be high.

“The system’s response has been nothing short of amazing,” says George. “I’ve had faculty, students, and visitors say that Singapore is probably the safest place to be in now due to the coordinated response. There is a lot to learn about planning and resilience from this episode, but I am heartened to see how the community has come together to provide an effective and coordinated response.”

Lagos Business School in Nigeria has focused primarily on adopting common-sense precautions and assuaging any anxiety its students, staff, and faculty might have about the outbreak. “The first thing we had to do was to manage the sense of paranoia within our community and within society,” explains Charles O. Ivenso, the school’s director of finance and administration and a GBSN webinar panelist.

The school quickly formed a response team, which coordinated a number of precautionary measures. These included distributing information about the virus and taking steps to prevent its spread; providing hand sanitizers at entrances, in classrooms, and in bathrooms; instituting temperature checks at the school’s entrance; and asking cleaning staff to sanitize high-traffic areas such as doorknobs and desk surfaces.

In the U.S., Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., brought students who had been studying in affected countries back home. It also has canceled all university-sponsored travel for faculty, staff, and students through its graduation date of May 15. Paul Almeida, dean of the McDonough School of Business, has formed a coronavirus task force to work with the university as it continues to address the issue.

The McDonough School has designed a “Vietnam” residency, complete with authentic food, cultural attractions, and site visits to organizations working with Vietnam within the D.C. area.

The university’s ban on travel will especially impact the McDonough School’s Global Business Experience, a consultancy project that is a requirement for graduate students and an elective for undergraduates. In most cases, students were slated to travel for these projects later this spring. At the time of the university’s travel ban, one group of MBA students was already traveling abroad as part of their Global Business Experience. The group had been scheduled to travel to China, but they relocated the remainder of their residency to Australia before returning home.

“We also offered an experience in Washington, D.C., for students who were not comfortable traveling to other locations or who were not able to travel,” explains Chris Kormis, associate dean, chief marketing officer, and senior advisor to the dean. So far, the school has designed a “Vietnam” residency, complete with authentic food, cultural attractions, and site visits to organizations working with Vietnam, all within the D.C. area.

Similarly, for the undergraduate Global Business Experience, faculty designed “global at home” experiences for those students to complete after spring break in early March.

“We have asked all faculty to be prepared to offer remote learning options for students who are not feeling well, who have been asked to or choose to self-quarantine, or who are not comfortable coming to class,” says Kormis.

Miami Herbert Business School in Florida had started its spring semester just as the number of cases of COVID-19 began to rise worldwide. For that reason, all of its students were on the home campus, and the school does not have a significant number of exchange students traveling to or from China, Quelch explains.

That said, in January, the school organized a gathering to show support for its Chinese students, who make up approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of Miami Herbert’s student body. Approximately 250 students and 40 faculty and staff attended. “It was a time for the community to reflect on and demonstrate that we care about what they are going through,” says Quelch. Mental health counselors were on hand, and members of the school’s Chinese student association collected donations to put toward the purchase of masks for citizens of Wuhan province in China. The school donated US$1,000 to the cause.

Like many other business schools, however, Miami Herbert is looking ahead and making provisions for the possibility that the impact of COVID-19 will continue over the next several months.

With testing sites affected, Miami Herbert is temporarily waiving the GMAT for applications to many of its programs from students in affected regions. Instead, admissions staff will screen applicants solely via supporting documentation and online interviews. The school has not waived its English language requirement, but has been allowing applicants to forego taking TOEFL and instead complete an immersive online test, administered by the school, as proof of their language proficiency. 

A Boon to Online Education

The biggest long-term impact of COVID-19 on higher education is likely to involve online educational delivery. Schools worldwide—at all levels—are amping up their online education platforms so that students and faculty can continue to participate in their courses, even if they must do so from home. China’s government, especially, “has moved very quickly to stimulate and activate online delivery of education from the kindergarten level up, so that every student can access online courses from home and keep up with their studies,” says Quelch.

In March, Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, announced that it would start its term on schedule, but shift all of its courses online after students across China were banned from going back to campus. After two weeks, the school reported that the shift to online teaching went smoothly—although Internet speed and the robustness of software presented challenges to the learning experience.

“Such an unusual natural experiment gives education researchers a great opportunity to collect evidence and address important questions that cannot be answered before,” noted school officials in a released statement. The crisis, they note, presents schools with “a unique opportunity to experience totally online education.”

HKUST Business School has adopted an interactive online teaching mode since December 2019, and the school will continue to teach all courses online until further notice, says Tam. The school has facilitated this change by setting up a task force to aid with the transition. It also quickly made any necessary upgrades to the audiovisual equipment in each classroom and offered training sessions in online course delivery to faculty and teaching assistants. 

The school also created a website where students could pursue self-paced, asynchronous learning and interaction. The school added a one-button feedback channel to its online platform, which allows students to provide input on different aspects of the learning experience. These efforts were all coordinated with the university’s teaching and learning office to ensure a smooth transition for both students and faculty.

“Through ongoing feedback collection from instructors and students, we have come to realize how online teaching can enrich the learning experiences in ways that may not be possible in a physical class,” says Tam. “Direct engagements with students from all geographies and time zones, for example, are now possible through the adoption of synchronized teaching/learning technology.”

SMU has adopted online delivery for all classes that enroll more than 50 students or alternated classes between online and face-to-face delivery. Similarly, when students at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown returned from spring break on March 16, the school began delivering all of its courses online until further notice.

The McDonough School already had been developing its online education activities to allow students to attend courses during disruptions like inclement weather “so we are prepared for broader continuity,” says Kormis. “Instructors will tailor the move to remote teaching in ways that fit each course. Existing resources, such as Zoom and our in-house technology center, will enable instructors to make this transition more seamless for our students.”

Executive education, especially, is ripe for online delivery during the crisis, says Papier of ESSEC. “Companies want to do the training programs but they cannot, [because of] their own travel policies, send people to our campus,” says Papier. As executives are forced to cancel registrations for in-person instruction at ESSEC’s campus, the school is likely to mitigate the financial fallout from these cancellations by offering online delivery options.

When Curtin Business School in Perth, Australia, started its fall semester in February, the Australian government had just extended its travel ban for an additional week. The school had a number of affected students, including those in China who were unable to travel to campus, explains its dean, Nigel de Bussy.

“We are running online classes in many of our units for students in China. The response of colleagues has been magnificent, with many putting in significant extra work to make online classes available,” he says. “The situation is complex and quite fast moving.”

Evolving Reaction

While Miami Herbert’s currently enrolled students have not been significantly affected, Quelch and his staff are concerned about future cohorts. “The U.S. embassies in China are shut, and we don’t know when they will reopen,” says Quelch. “That is likely to cause an issue with respect to visa processing times.” If students cannot travel to campus, he adds, faculty will make arrangements for Chinese students to participate fully in the school’s online programs.

While the extreme and universal impact of COVID-19 is alarming, panelists for GBSN’s webinar found a silver lining: The crisis is likely to be both eye-opening and transformative for higher education.

“This experience enables us to test many of our capacities and competencies. I think that the reality of a global pandemic is something that we must come to terms with. The world is changing, and I think that we really need to begin to anticipate these kinds of events going forward,” says Ivenso of Lagos Business School. “As business schools, we need to take lessons that we’re learning from this experience very seriously.”


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