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How is Ireland's top business school delivering its MBA programme in the middle of a pandemic?

The UCD Smurfit Graduate School of Business had had to adapt to new realities.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes
This article is part of Business Futures, a series tackling the key issues shaping Irish business today and in the future. If you’re part of that future, you might want to know that TheJournal.ie has partnered with UCD Smurfit School to offer one reader a full scholarship for the Modular Executive MBA (EMBA) worth more than €30,000. Find out more here.

SINCE THE START of the pandemic, one crop of students has passed through the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business and another has started on its path.

But although classes went fully online last March, the latest intake of students was just getting used to the idea of being back on campus in the flesh before everything went virtual again before Christmas.

It was an object-lesson in how the pandemic is constantly shifting the goalposts for educators, students and, indeed, the rest of us.

With applications now open for a new intake of MBA students in the autumn of 2021, the school is taking the lessons from the past year and looking at how it can apply them as life gets back to some kind of normality in the future. 

Flexibility has been the most important thing, says Sophie Carey, MBA Programme Director at the Smurfit School.

Like the rest of us, she’s hoping that the vaccine roll-out will be well on its way to completion by the time the new MBA students are welcomed in the autumn.

The school is “actively awaiting” updates to the public health guidelines before making any decision about how teaching will proceed, Carey says. But the lessons learned in the past year will stand it in good stead if there are any sudden changes.

These changes have forced the business school to deliver its MBA programme in a “hybrid format”, she says, which has posed some challenges but also created some opportunities.

“Essentially, back in March last year, everything moved online straight away, which was kind of a sudden change for us,” she says.

“But we very much listened to the feedback from students all the time and it’s been an evolving process.”

Listening to students has resulted in less time spent in lectures and more question and answer sessions with teachers, for example. 

Classes are delivered live via streaming. Better and more widespread use of the school’s existing technologies has allowed lecturers to pre-record portions of their lectures.

“It means that when they do have the students in the online classroom, there is more discussion there. So that’s been a huge thing.

“I suppose it sounds quite obvious, but I think if students can interact with each other as well, it’s just much more effective. The MBA is all about group work, so the students would very much work in their groups of four or five throughout the semester. So they’re constantly interacting with each other,” she says.

“It’s definitely a challenge. Certainly before Christmas, people were complaining of fatigue and feeling very tired. But we’re very keen to mix it up as much as we can, in terms of the type of interaction.” 

Economic impact

The pandemic has also influenced the content of the programme, Carey explains.

Students have, for example, become much more interested in the impact of the Covid crisis on Irish society. Again, looking to get as much feedback from students as possible, the school asked them for their input.

“One of the suggestions was to ask one of our lecturers — Jim Power, the economist — would he do a session on the economic impact of Covid-19. So at the time he did that session for students.

“Since then, what we’ve done is we’ve actually introduced a monthly masterclass on different topics,” she says.

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So it’s been a challenge, Carey says, but the move to online has revealed some previously hidden benefits.

For one, it’s much easier to get access to experts and academics from different countries for these masterclasses.

That’s important for networking opportunities as well, which any MBA student will tell you is a critical component of the whole experience.

“We’ve had online recruitment fairs; online networking events; panel discussions with alumni who, for example, are in tech or consulting. In fact, our MBA careers manager was telling me, he’s actually found that very effective because often, it would be more challenging to get people to come on campus. With online, it’s actually easier,” Carey explains.

But the virtual classroom isn’t going to replace the real thing for good.

“We want to bring our students in to see our beautiful campus; to meet up in person if we can,” Carey says.

“But it’s just important to say that the safety of the students and the community is the priority, and all the decisions really around delivery are made on that basis.”

With that in mind, she said the school is preparing to continue to deliver its MBA programme in a hybrid fashion come next September.

“I think it’s very likely that will be the future,” Carey believes. 

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