The New Teaching Paradigms

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021
By William W. Holder
Photo by iStock/filadendron
How business schools have had to adapt in the era of COVID-19.

The pages of leading newspapers in the United States have been replete with news articles, editorials, and op-ed pieces that question the value of collegiate education when delivered remotely in online environments. There has been particular attention given to private institutions with relatively high tuition and other fees—such as the University of Southern California, where I have served for many years. The underlying assumption of many of those articles is that an online education cannot provide the in-person human interactions and experiences necessary to achieve the fundamental educational development and maturation of students.

I disagree.

Since the onset of the pandemic and the related movement to online education, universities have developed and implemented new methods of instruction. Faculty members have created enriched technology-based educational experiences that might be impossible or infeasible in on-campus classes. Universities, faculty, and students all have invested in new technology to facilitate online instruction.

Now that we have made these investments, it seems imperative that we employ them to their greatest advantage. I think it is incumbent on the academy to continue our innovation process to assure that we meet our students’ expectations—as well as our own.

Online Innovations

As we go forward, it is essential to focus on the innovations that we can do effectively, sustain indefinitely, and apply appropriately across disciplines. For instance, most courses can benefit from having students participate in small-group discussions. In these virtual breakout sessions, students discuss and analyze case studies, develop group responses (which might include minority dissents), and present and defend those responses to the rest of the class. Such case studies are most valuable when they replicate the complexities, uncertainties, and ambiguities of the real world.

By performing this work, students learn to think critically and analytically, to persuade others, and to respect differing viewpoints. They also come to realize that the conclusions of the group can be superior to the conclusions of the individual. Small-group discussions are most beneficial when they include participants from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, because this diversity helps students develop an appreciation for people with cultural and life experiences that are fundamentally different from their own. In fact, professors might change the makeup of the small groups frequently to ensure that students work with and benefit from the collective experiences of a wide range of individuals.

But there are several other important ways that online education enriches students’ educational experiences. In virtual environments, professors can:

Bring in virtual visitors. Since the onset of the pandemic, our school has used technology to invite executives and other professionals into our classrooms. After short presentations, those leaders can interact with students, responding to questions and helping them understand the real-world implications of the subject matter under discussion. Without the use of technology, many of these visiting executives would find it impossible to participate in the classes, because they might not have the time or resources to undertake long journeys to campus.

Technology allows professors to identify students who are lagging behind before high-stakes events such as midterm examinations reveal their struggles.

Develop personal relationships with students. A number of faculty members at USC Marshall School of Business and USC Leventhal School of Accounting ask students to visit with them during virtual office hours so they can get to know students and their respective backgrounds. While such exchanges are certainly possible in an on-campus environment, many students do not avail themselves of the opportunity to get to know faculty members outside the classroom. Technology makes such interactions simple to arrange.

When classes are small enough, faculty might make initial office visits mandatory. No matter what the size of the class, professors can determine where in the world their students live and make themselves available during blocks of time when it’s convenient for remote students to make appointments. It’s essential that professors exhibit a warm and welcoming attitude toward student visits, which will be particularly reassuring to students who are experiencing difficulties.

Follow student progress. Technology allows professors to monitor students more closely and identify those who are lagging behind even before high-stakes events such as midterm examinations reveal their struggles. Some USC professors assign mandatory homework problems that must be solved and turned in for electronic evaluation. Faculty can quickly identify and offer remedial assistance to students who perform poorly. It is important that professors present this experience as a positive outcome for the student.

Gain instant feedback. Similarly, professors can use polling software to learn when students don’t understand the material. For instance, professors can use the software to administer and instantly grade mini quizzes during class. Once they have the results of these quizzes, instructors can immediately tailor class presentations to address issues that emerge or to emphasize critical points that students may have missed. If only a few students are falling behind, professors can offer swift remedial action to those individuals; if the whole class is confused, professors can review or adjust the material.

The World of Work

Perhaps the greatest benefit for students learning in online environments is that they are preparing for the world of work that they will enter after graduation.

In recent conversations I have had with CEOs, CFOs, and other industry leaders, I have been struck by the general consensus that business activities probably will not return to the pre-pandemic “normal.” Most business leaders expect that, the longer the pandemic lasts, the likelier it is that remote working practices will endure—and be considered valuable—after the pandemic has ended.

If remote business interactions continue to be the norm in the future, it is essential for business schools to teach students to work within electronic environments. At the same time, as students engage in virtual learning experiences, they will need to learn how to develop interpersonal relationships based on trust and a mutual understanding of cultural and societal differences.

Perhaps the greatest benefit for students learning in online environments is that they are preparing for the world of work that they will enter after graduation.

As a corollary, I believe the academy should develop creative ways to educate students under these conditions and share successful ideas and approaches with other universities. Schools also should hone educational advances so that our online classrooms are as effective as our traditional campus experiences, and teachers should find ways to share with their peers the best techniques they have discovered for teaching remotely. For instance, they can give research presentations at professional meetings or during exchanges with colleagues at other universities—although they might need to make those presentations virtually during the COVID era.

For all of these reasons, I suggest that there is no point in bemoaning the changes that have been thrust upon us and that will probably endure. Instead, we should develop educational processes that advance the methods we are using to educate students to work productively, ethically, and seamlessly in online environments.

Even if I am wrong and higher education returns to an entirely on-campus model, we can still use what we’ve learned to enrich the traditional classroom. I recognize that we will experience successes and failures. However, it is well worth the effort it takes to maintain our standing as institutions essential to the functioning of our society.

The initial development and implementation of new online educational processes will require significant contributions from faculty and students alike. I nevertheless believe that our institutions have the ability, energy, and duty to sustain and advance the value of higher education.

William W. Holder
Professor and Dean, Leventhal School of Accounting, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California
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