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Transcending the Screen: How This Assistant Dean Inspires Deep Online Connections

Written by Molly Forman on Apr 17, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Short Courses, Digital Education

Syracuse University Whitman School of Management’s Assistant Dean Amy McHale has created top-ranked business degree programs that inspire confidence and leadership in students. Instead of making students come to the classroom, the classroom comes to them: all of the programs Amy develops and oversees are online.

It started as a way to offer competitive online programming at Syracuse University. “Initially, we had the iMBA, our own hybrid residential program that mainly attracted students from the Northeast,” Amy said. “It required students to come to campus three times a year, and they’d have to miss a term if work or life got in the way and they couldn’t make it to campus..”

In 2015, the Whitman School of Management partnered with 2U, Inc. to reinvent its online programs and launch more comprehensive course offerings. The transition was seamless. With 2U as its online education partner, Amy and her team at Whitman have launched four master’s degree programs—in business administration, accounting, business analytics, and entrepreneurship—with a supply chain management program launching later this year. She’s also overseen the launch of two short courses through GetSmarter, a brand of 2U.

Here’s how Amy has given the programs a personal flair and built a strong community.

Building a community that transcends online

Amy uses the online programs as an opportunity to build community. “I wonder if students in our 2U-powered programs haven’t connected better than on-campus students,” she said. She’s noticed that students in virtual degree programs become familiar faces to each other—and even plan to take future class sections with their peers.

One of the graduate programs, MBA@Syracuse, an online Master of Business Administration, was supposed to kick-off an on-campus residency that had to move online due to COVID-19. Using Zoom, the university made 115 students across three tracks feel united. Facilitators created polls or asked openly at the top of the sessions “How are you doing?” to prompt group-wide discussions. “In person, you may only have a few people respond. But online, everyone chimes in and you can really connect with students,” she said.

There were many more opportunities to deepen connections throughout the weekend. “We did lots of breakouts on Zoom to help people interact,” Amy said. “We also held a virtual happy hour for students and academic staff, and had great turnout—and lots of engagement.”

Leveraging the creative freedom online provides

One of the courses Amy is most fond of—and the one she teaches herself—is the Women as Business Leaders short course. The self-paced course focuses on how women can achieve work-life balance, become leaders, and take ownership in business environments.

Building the course through GetSmarter was highly creative and enabled Amy to maximize interactive elements like clickable graphics and guest speakers. “There was a point early on when we were creating the Women as Business Leaders course where my GetSmarter producer and 2U’s CEO Chip Paucek were on campus,” she said. “Chip asked me if I needed any guest speakers and I was able to get Coretha Rushing, a 2U board member, to provide a guest lecture.” As the president of her own consulting firm and the former corporate vice president and chief HR officer of Equifax, Coretha’s was a valuable voice to include.

Amy also brought in several of the university’s faculty, Whitman alumni, and female business executives to enrich the short course with current, straight-from-the front lines perspectives.

Adapting to the new normal

Having a strong online curriculum has proved an advantage in more ways than one: Whitman is already using its recorded lectures from the online MBA program to teach on-campus business students, who had to leave campus due to the coronavirus for the remainder of the spring semester.

Amy considers herself fortunate to have experience online to maintain some sense of normalcy in her master’s programs right now. For those instructors without the training and know-how who are tasked to quickly bring their classes online, Amy emphasizes the importance of actively engaging students—and humanizing every session. “Instructing through a screen is all about transparency,” she said. “Be clear about expectations and communicate them frequently. Break up classes with humor, and provide examples from your own life to explain things.”

Amy recommends offering personal support to students and making a point to check in—now more than ever. “If you notice a student has been silent in class or hasn’t participated in an activity in a while, you should reach out and make them feel supported,” she said.

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