Portland State School of Business refines remote learning to reach students where they are

When Jacob Kuehl started the full-time Portland MBA, he never expected his classes to be online. He enjoyed making friends in person and attending engaging lectures, so going remote for COVID-19 was a big transition. 

Still, Kuehl has experienced a major benefit along with the myriad challenges. “I am a parent and I have two kids,” says Kuehl. Prior to classes going remote, he was spending two and half hours each day commuting. He feels that the new option is “great as far as expanding opportunities for nontraditional students to attend classes.”

There have been growing pains in adapting to remote learning, says Kuehl. While some of his professors were already experienced in teaching online and knew how to take advantage of various tools and resources, others were not technologically savvy. But dynamic, live instruction provides a great opportunity for learning regardless of whether it is in-person or remote.

Redefining higher education 

As the pandemic stretches into fall and winter, Portland State is responding to the disruption by creating new ways for students to learn, live and connect both online and on campus. It’s not just about getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s about redefining higher education to make it more flexible and accessible to more students — now and in the future. 

Classes will remain mostly remote through Winter Term, but the campus is open — with extra safety measures — to support students. The library, residence halls, dining halls, computer labs, study spaces, Campus Rec and Student Health and Counseling Center are serving students in person with masks and physical distancing. Other support services, such as tutoring and advising, are available virtually.  

The campus is changing to meet the needs of students where they are, with classes and resources in a variety of formats that best fit their work and family schedules. “This is a challenging time,” says PSU President Stephen Percy. “And we are making new investments to ensure that we are able to support academic innovation and the vibrancy of our campus community. We will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.”

Meeting students where they are 

Before the pandemic, Portland State’s School of Business was already preparing for the emerging world of Zoom classes and Google discussion boards. The Karl Miller Center has six global classrooms, each with ceiling microphones and two high-definition cameras that adjust angles and zoom in and out as the instructor steps on floor pads in the front of the room. 

As a result, The Portland MBA was among the first to launch six in-person classes this fall with a livestream to students at home. Each class has a maximum of 15 students in the classroom (with masks, physical distancing and good ventilation), and the rest participate through Zoom. The School of Business is working toward adapting all 21 of its classrooms with livestream technology. 

This dual teaching model reaches business students wherever they are, whether they’re traveling for work, stuck in a Beaverton office because of traffic, or staying home to stay safe in a pandemic. “It opens more opportunities for students to get an education when there are barriers in the way,” says Tichelle Sorensen, academic director of the MBA program. “The whole campus is looking at this dual mode and seeing how it plays out.” 

Refining remote education 

PSU faculty, like Sorensen, are refining their teaching practices to help students thrive in a virtual environment, and students say they see the difference. 

“At first, online classes were a little bit frustrating because it was hard to pay attention,” Kuehl says. But once classes started incorporating breakout rooms, discussions on readings, polls, and most importantly, integrating participation as a part of the grade, his classmates were able to stay engaged. There is optimism about what the response to the pandemic could mean for the accessibility of The Portland MBA and other graduate business education in the future. “I think more flexibility to work from home, both in school and work should be carried into the future. It will open doors that have been closed for certain groups of people before, and also create a more equitable environment. They can participate in education where maybe they couldn’t have before,” says MBA candidate, Mikaela Todd.

Building connections

Across The School of Business’ graduate programs, candidates are looking not only to learn, but also to build personal and professional connections.

Kuehl still feels he is building a professional network, even though it looks different than he thought he would. His focus is on working hard and networking remotely to establish himself as a high performer: “I want people to know they can rely on me and come to me for help.”

Todd says she is grateful to have more time to spend with her spouse and pets, but she has also had to adapt to a new style of community building. “I can’t interact with my peers in an unscheduled way — even happy hours have to be blocked out on virtual calendars. We are all missing spontaneous human connection,” says Todd.

Kuehl, Todd and all of the graduate business community at Portland State have been incredibly resilient while working and learning remotely. Some are just getting by, and some have the capacity to leverage this time for growth. Todd says, “I’m planning to make lemonade from lemons! I am working towards incremental improvements both by giving feedback to the school and also by receiving feedback and pursuing personal growth within myself.” Whatever the futures of business and higher education look like, Portland State’s School of Business will continue to center student success and celebrate the community’s quintessential growth mindset.

Karen Lowe is a 2020 graduate of The Portland MBA. She manages marketing and strategic partnerships for The Give Bin and writes regularly for Portland State’s Graduate Business Blog.

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