Quick Pivot to Distance Learning Brings San Francisco Bay Area Leaders to Reimagined Darden Course
By Dave Hendrick
A recent highlight of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Executive MBA academic calendar has been the “Marketing Technology Products” elective delivered every spring in San Francisco. The Second Year course sponsored by the Batten Institute focuses on the influence of technology in business models and marketing, with themes that vary year to year.
Taught by Darden Professor Raj Venkatesan, the four-year-old, seminar-style course has given students the opportunity to visit companies and engage with industry leaders in one of the world’s leading innovation hubs. The main themes for this year’s course were advertising, innovation and privacy, and featured a lineup of more than a dozen industry leader speakers, from tech industry behemoths Google and Apple to category disruptors such as Stitch Fix, StubHub and Airbnb. Company representatives, including multiple Darden alumni, were lined up to give 34 students an inside look at how their companies develop, test, launch and market their products and services.
And then, the coronavirus pandemic began to rapidly expand across the globe, and health and safety took precedent over being on-location.
In a scenario that would soon play out across the Darden School and UVA, which pivoted entirely to distance learning via Zoom in a matter of days, Venkatesan and team quickly turned what could have been a lost opportunity into a robust learning experience, with all scheduled company leaders maintaining their engagements and joining the course remotely.
“We had to make some decisions that would maintain the learning objectives of the course, provide as many peer-to-peer learning opportunities as possible, and keep the engagement with our companies and speakers on the West Coast,” said Venkatesan, an experienced instructor in the virtual realm.
The course launched on 16 March with the original schedule largely intact. Most days included two or three guest speakers, bookended by teaching and class discussion with Venkatesan.
Darden staff worked quickly behind the scenes to revamp the delivery format and maintain the course speakers. Venkatesan delivered an initial two-hour session to the Executive MBA students, describing revised course deliverables and leading the class through a case on autonomous vehicles.
Speakers in the course carried on with their original remarks and presentations, with all setting aside time to address their company’s response to the coronavirus crisis, and their individual leadership and management decisions during this unprecedented moment in time. The students engaged the speakers in interactive question and answer sessions through the chat functions in Zoom, Venkatesan said.
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A session with Alex Wu, a vice president of the mobile artificial intelligence firm Nex Team Inc., was typical of the approach.
Wu, a UVA alumnus and early employee at both Facebook and Uber, showed a demo of his company’s HomeCourt app, which offers real-time, artificial intelligence-derived coaching and analytics to enhance basketball skills of players at all levels.
Wu’s presentation came as organized sports across the country came to a screeching halt, with the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments cancelled just four days prior, and HomeCourt had just announced plans to offer its service to users free of charge through April.
“This is obviously a pretty crazy time for everyone, and especially the sports world,” Wu said. “This is supposed to be the biggest time of year for us.”
Wu said he wasn’t sure what the ramifications of making the service free would look like in the near-term, but said the company believed doing the “right thing” would pay dividends in the future.
“I think we can play a role here to support our community,” Wu said. “My recommendation in these situations is, if possible, if you do right by your community, that’s going to help later on.”
Transform Capital Co-founder Sean Foote (MBA ’93) also shared a forward-looking note with the students at the conclusion of the tumultuous week.
In a letter co-written with Transform Capital co-founder Jonathan Ebinger (MBA ’93), Foote noted the similarities among the otherwise radically different 2000 dot-com crash, 2008 financial system meltdown and “2020 COVID crash,” and said that while lean days may be immediately ahead and sales for many would certainly dip, the downturn would also inevitably spur innovation, with a new wave of startups in health care, remote work, augmented reality and more.
Karen Henneberger (Class of 2020) said the weeklong course was dramatically different than what might have been, but said the shift to the virtual environment went fairly smoothly for a group who have used Zoom for distance learning multiple nights a week a for nearly two years.
“We had no problem shifting to the use of this technology to make the most of this week and guest speakers,” said Henneberger, a program manager for ship design with the U.S. Department of Energy. “I think we are all still in shock from this whole situation, but we were committed to make the best of it. Raj’s course was awesome.”
Students are now working on final papers, reflecting on lessons learned from one of the speakers.
“I look forward to reading students thoughts about the implications of technology, especially in times of crises,” said Venkatesan.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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