When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down life as we knew it in New York state and sent most students off campus in March 2020, Saint Rose’s Flex MBA program continued without a hitch. As originally set up in Fall 2019, the program allows students to attend classes remotely via livestream, asynchronously via recorded video, or conventionally on campus. COVID-19 suspended the campus option, but Flex students and faculty still had the other two – plus they already had the skills, experience, and preloaded video ready at hand.
Associate Professor of Marketing and Program Director John Dion, and current students Thomas Chiccarelli and Michael Berkowitz, shared their experiences.
You already had Flex MBA up and running. Was this helpful?
John Dion, program director: Our graduate faculty is very comfortable with online teaching, and our Flex MBA courses already included synchronous online lectures, posted lecture recordings, and online discussions. We are comfortable with online communication and facilitating team projects in a virtual space. I think that made the move to purely remote learning very smooth for us when the pandemic hit. The only thing that changed is that we couldn’t hold lectures in the classroom. However, our students, even those who preferred the classroom experience, had all used the other Flex delivery modes, and that made the transition pretty easy for them, too.
Thomas Chiccarelli G’21: Before COVID-19, I initially was not interested in the Flex program. It wasn’t until I was in class that I realized how useful it was to me. Life is chaotic enough, and school adds a certain amount of pressure. Several times throughout the semester, I had to miss a class or attend virtually because things came up in my life that did not allow me to attend in person. Having the Flex option allowed me to still learn the material while being an active member in class.
How do you ensure that students and instructors are comfortable and proficient with the format?
Dion: When we started, the Flex MBA delivery was completely new for many faculty, but we met as a group before the fall launch for training on online teaching from both a learning and a technology standpoint. We met as a faculty throughout the semester to discuss how things were working and share best practices. We also continue to meet once a week this summer to plan how we can deliver an even stronger program in the fall.
Our MBA students have been a part of this process. We have held focus groups so that students could share their experiences with us. The feedback was very positive. They really appreciate the program’s flexibility and our focus on the practical application of theory. But they also told us things that we could do to make navigating the online environment easier, and we will absolutely incorporate their feedback for the fall. In fact, I have already begun making changes.
What are some of the challenges of the Flex format?
Dion: Teaching in the Flex MBA program is very exciting. It challenges the instructor to think about new ways to ensure that students learn the material. But the Flex environment provides us more tools to work with. We aren’t restricted to the on-campus environment – we can take advantage of all the opportunities that the online environment offers. So, at the end of the day, I think that students will learn more than if they had been in a traditional on-campus course.
There have been surprises, too. We posted lecture recordings for the online asynchronous students. But all students, even those who attended the live lecture, go back to the recordings to review materials when studying for a test or preparing an assignment. That was an unexpected benefit.
Does the program offer any other benefits to students?
Dion: It is extremely gratifying to see how well received the Flex MBA program has been. We have students who wanted to go back to school, but their schedules didn’t allow them to come to the classroom every week. At the same time, they didn’t want a traditional online program because they wanted to feel a connection to the instructor and other students. The Flex MBA gives them that. They can move seamlessly among the classroom, online synchronous, and online asynchronous environments based on their needs on any given week. We also design assignments so that on-campus and online students interact, helping everyone feel connected to the course.
Michael Berkowitz G’21: The Flex MBA program at Saint Rose allowed for me to move down to Connecticut and still be able to complete my MBA online. I was able to attend/participate in class the same way I would have in an in-person classroom. Seeing as I was attending classes 100% remotely for the spring semester, I was already familiar with the Zoom classes when we made the transition during the COVID lockdown.
Chiccarelli: During COVID, I would say Flex has been a huge stress relief. I am able to continue my education and graduate on time. But the stress relief has two parts. First, I thought I was going to be forced into a traditional online graduate program. Instead, I am attending “in-person” and getting the benefits, which go along with the live class – things like active debates and opportunities to clarify information presented.
The second way in which Flex has provided stress relief is by helping me cope with COVID-19. As dorky as it might sound, I am no longer relegated to my house with my family – the program has allowed me to expand my social circle. Despite technology being so readily available to FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom my friends, I simply don’t. Everyone’s schedule does not line up, and time seems to go by so quickly that I do not have a lot of communication with them. Flex allows me to attend school, but also creates an environment that facilitates communication with my peers. I don’t feel like it is a normal online class with message boards – it’s as close as you can get to being in class, without actually being there.