With each crisis comes opportunity. The coronavirus pandemic has changed our work, travel, community engagement, and social lives in profound ways this year. And perhaps nowhere has adaptation had to happen faster than in the world of higher education. With eleven degree programs and more than 1,800 students enrolled when the coronavirus started spreading, the Fuqua School of Business has had to revise education on the fly—while taking care to preserve the student experience and recognizing and empathizing with the stresses facing students, faculty, and staff.
As challenging as the adaptation has been, this pandemic has provided new insights into how we deliver EDGE programming and yielded new ideas that we hope will continue in the future.
New speakers, new audiences
“One of the things that surprised me this spring was how rich a virtual classroom discussion could still be,” says Dan Vermeer, associate professor of the practice and executive director of EDGE. “In some ways, moderating a discussion with a class on Zoom was even better because it allowed me to pull out insights from some of the more introverted students in class who might not have engaged as actively when we were meeting in person.”
Vermeer also found it easier to attract senior executive speakers to speak to the class via Zoom. For an executive in Asia—or even on the West Coast—spending an hour of their day to talk to students via video is a much more feasible proposition than setting aside a day or more to speak to the class in person. Because of this, EDGE has been able to invite much more senior, and more far-flung speakers to speak to students this year than in the past. It’s also easier to invite a speaker to drop in for a small portion of a class, rather than devoting an entire session to them.
And there’s more than just travel time at stake when thinking about campus speakers. “Think of the environmental impact of flying an executive to Durham to speak in a two-hour class. We have 12 speakers per year in the EDGE Seminar series alone. If we can deliver the same value to students without the footprint of those flights and hotel, we are able to deliver an exceptional experience to students in a more sustainable way,” says EDGE managing director Katie Kross. “Asking an executive to travel a long way to speak to students now seems like a tremendously inefficient use of time and resources.”
Virtual events also open the possibility of new audiences. Duke’s annual “Women in Energy” event, held on campus each spring, typically draws about 50 audience members when it’s held in person. This year, held virtually, the event had more than 130 student and alumni participants, and another 250 to date have watched the video after the fact.
Kross adds, “We also have the potential to collaborate in new ways—for instance, we’re planning an event that will bring together sustainability alumni from multiple schools to network with each other virtually this summer.” Online events enable the schools to engage audiences who might not have otherwise been able to attend in person because of geography.
Opportunities for experimentation
Even more meaningful, in terms of lasting impact, is the opportunity to rethink content entirely and try out new programs in a low-risk way. Vermeer explains, “This year has given us space to ask ourselves: what’s the best way to give students the experience and tools they need without the constraint of sticking to the tried-and-true models of the past.”
Zoom made it easy for EDGE to create a summer lunch discussion group with students on timely energy and environmental topics—a forum which didn’t exist previously. Changes in the academic calendar have opened up an opportunity for the team to create an EDGE Research Fellows experience for students in the month of September (after internships but before the start of Fall classes).
“I’m looking forward to experimenting with a hybrid model this Fall that involves both in-person and virtual content,” Vermeer adds. “I’m also thinking about how we create new mentoring and experiential learning opportunities for our students.” Likewise, the Duke MBA Energy Club is thinking creatively about how to reinvent the annual Duke University Energy Conference and Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition as virtual experiences this year.
Underscoring the importance of impact
Finally, in disrupting the fabric of our globally interconnected world, this year’s pandemic has had a profound implication: it has underscored the interconnectedness of environmental sustainability, public health, economic prosperity, and social issues in a tangible and visible way.
“At EDGE, we’ve based our work on the understanding that business operates within a complex social and environmental context and must be prepared to adapt and respond to rapidly changing conditions. That message couldn’t be more apparent right now,” says Kross.
Vermeer adds, “This year—not only the pandemic, but also the racial and political upheaval and the ongoing climate crisis — have overturned so many assumptions about our society, our institutions, even our ways of working and interacting with each other. In the wake of these disruptions, there is an opportunity to throw out what isn’t working and replace it with something better.”
This context also offers new opportunities for learning—new materials, new tools, new cases—that prepare MBAs to rise to these challenges. There is no question that this turbulent environment will also accelerate the pace of change in higher education.
“I think the world has changed forever, and that’s a good thing,” Vermeer adds. “This pandemic has shown us the importance of adaptability, creativity, and innovation—not only for our students but also for those of us who teach them.”