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Learning about a crisis during a crisis

Crisis Communications Panel Of Professors At UNC Kenan-Flagler

As signs became clear that the approaching COVID-19 storm would make travel unsafe, UNC Kenan-Flagler leaders canceled the MBA@UNC Summit in Vancouver.

Students in the online MBA program weren’t just disappointed about not being able to learn and connect with classmates in person, as they do every quarter at Summits. Some needed the course credit to graduate on time.

So – just five days later – 139 students were taking a new online course: “COVID-19 Exploration.”

Instead of exploring Vancouver as a business hub on March 13, they were exploring COVID-19 and its implications in real time.

“To our knowledge, UNC Kenan-Flagler was the first business school to deliver a for-credit course on the coronavirus,” says Brad Staats, associate dean of MBA programs and an operations professor, who led the course development

Health professionals, professors and industry executives explored how business people can effectively lead, manage and navigate during the COVID-19 crisis. They shared insights and answered questions about:

  • How a large hospital system is preparing to deliver care with Dr. Adam Brown (MBA ’13), president of emergency medicine for Envision Physician Services and leader of its national coronavirus task force, who earned his MBA in the MBA@UNC program
  • Testing challenges and opportunities in the laboratory sector with Dr. Brian Caveney, president of diagnostics and chief medical officer of LabCorp
  • Best practices for communicating in a crisis with Ed McCraw, Stephanie Mahin and Sharon Cannon, management communication professors (shown above with Brad Staats)
  • Analyzing financial markets, global economies and a pandemic with Jennifer Conrad, Mustafa Gültekin and Andreas Stathopoulos, finance professors; Dennis Greenway (MBA ’06), senior equity analyst and portfolio manager at Franklin Street Partners; and Darpan Biswas (MBA ’10), vice president, public assets at Morgan Creek Capital Management, LLC
  • Developing vaccines and antivirals safely and quickly with Markus Saba, professor of the practice of marketing and executive director of the Center for the Business of Health, and Than Powell, vice president of strategy at GSK
  • Operating supply chains and services during a pandemic with Saravanan Kesavan, Adam Mersereau and Sandeep Rath, operations professors
Professors Brad Staats and Saravanan Kesavan and Adam Mersereau of UNC Kenan-Flagler

Brad Staats, Saravanan Kesavan and Adam Mersereau of UNC Kenan-Flagler during an operations panel.

Themes emerged: the importance of public-private partnership, collaboration between industry and regulators, how fierce competitors collaborate in a consortium to share information and resources, managing risk/benefit with safety and speed, and the need for kindness when working with those affected by the coronavirus.

The course was compelling, relevant and amazingly timely. “It provided value for students that they can take back to their companies,” says Amy Foster (MBA ’16), MBA@UNC program director. “Having an executive from LabCorp – who is on the frontline of the pandemic – and learning best practices for crisis communication exemplify the breadth of speakers and topics, which developed a holistic understanding of a very new environment.”

Faculty with real-world experience made the crisis communication session both dynamic and practical. “We wrote hypothetical COVID-19 scenarios for Zoom breakout sessions in which students wrote key message points for a variety of stakeholders,” says Cannon. “We checked in on students while they worked to help them think critically about actions they might need to take as a leader in a COVID-19 or other crisis situation.”

“UNC Kenan-Flagler leverages both its online learning and healthcare expertise to effectively and efficiently provide MBA students with a unique and valuable learning experience – all the while ensuring our students’ and faculty’s safety,” says Saba.

A different learning curve

Staats developed asynchronous content on U.S. healthcare and COVID-19 for the students prior to the live class on March 13 so students were ready to engage. Asynchronous learning – content that students engage with at the times and place that work for them – is typical for the online program in advance of live, online class meetings and help to make the live sessions even more effective.

UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty and staff are skilled at delivering high-quality, immersive online education since the launch of the top-ranked online MBA and MAC programs in 2011 and 2015, respectively.

But they encountered a different kind of learning curve with the new course: It was more akin to teaching in a lecture hall than the typical seminar-feel of the live, online course students.

“We’ve never run an online course this large,” says Foster. “We used Zoom webinar instead of the MBA@UNC platform where live classes top out at 15 to 20 students. We mostly took questions via chat instead of the professor calling on the student directly since there were 139 faces on the screen. It changed how we engaged with the students, but everyone could be seen, interact and ask questions.”

Students also worked together in virtual breakout rooms. “They are used to the environment, including interacting with classmates, and engagement was strong,” says Foster. “The students know each other well and even cold-called each other to answer a professor’s question. We could see their community in action even in a much bigger virtual setting.”

Looking forward

When he began organizing the class, Staats called for volunteers from the faculty to develop sessions on topics related to a pandemic and business, healthcare and policy. For industry speakers, he turned to alumni and the network of the Center for the Business of Health, for which he’s the faculty director,

The response of faculty, alumni and industry leaders was remarkable. “As all of us face new challenges, I appreciate being part of a school where looking to help is a part of our culture,” says Staats.

The course was relevant in the moment and valuable for the future. It was offered again on April 24 and opened to all MBA students; 255 enrolled.

“The COVID-19 challenge prompted us to deploy a new a model that we can we apply again to address a timely topic or a new, sudden challenge,” he says. “It is now part of our ongoing toolkit for ‘regular’ teaching, and we are stronger as a School as a result.”