BCOM faculty: creatively shifting to a virtual residency in response to COVID-19

May 25, 2020
By: 
Lee Sentes Rita Egizii
Bachelor of Commerce program: BCOM Virtual Residency

Life dot changing indeed!

The recent emergence of Covid-19 has rattled everyone, everywhere. RRU was no exception. In mid-March, faculty, staff, and students got an exercise in resilience. Courses that had been running face-to-face, including intensive on-campus residencies, quickly jumped back to the drawing board to keep programs on track. Amongst faculty impacted were Lee Sentes and Rita Egizii, Associate Faculty in the School of Business, who were faced with shifting an on-campus Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurial Management residency to online delivery. Together they had to quickly adapt, demonstrate resilience, agility, and a big dose of creativity. Their experience provides us with many lessons learned and shows us that in times of crisis we can learn to pivot our ideas and put agile entrepreneurship into practice.

What were the challenges you faced by moving to a virtual residency? What barriers did you have to overcome?

Lee: Time was the greatest challenge. Courses usually take weeks, if not months, to carefully hone. Residencies, in particular, are built with great intention – all the pieces just fit. The sudden movement to an online environment meant that all the skills learned in other online settings needed to be put into practice. Of great concern was understanding the impact this would have on students. The first residency is a special time for students. They make the personal connections that will help support them for the remainder of their academic career. Additionally, residency gives students a chance to unplug from their normal work and life schedules. As an instructor, I was anxious to know that the changes being imposed on students weren’t putting them at a disadvantage.

Rita: Likewise, second residencies are much anticipated. After months of working on-line students are eager to get together. Spring residency is their opportunity to show off their freshly honed skills, continue personal development, participate in business challenges, engage in social activities, and absorb the natural re-energization of the RRU campus. As an instructor, I felt a tremendous responsibility to try and emulate this experience (as much as possible) in an online environment.

What helped you to overcome these barriers? Which skills did you see yourself putting into practice?

Lee: While this situation was stressful, Royal Roads University, and in particular, the BCom program, provided excellent support. It’s at times like this that I as an instructor feel the most appreciated for my skills and experience. The coordination and guidance were very welcome, but even more than that, I knew that the program trusted me to be adaptable. That cut bureaucracy down to a minimum and allowed me the freedom to make quick decisions and be immediately responsive to students. We had no students drop out as a result of this crisis. I attribute that to the trust given to instructors, which in turn allowed us to act confidently with students. I believe that was critical in decreasing student panic.

Rita: If anything has been learned through this experience, it is the importance of leadership. A quote I once heard, “In a moment of crisis, reactions set leaders apart.” My calmness became their calmness. My pragmatism became their focus. My flexibility removed the anxiety of looming deadlines. The invitation to co-create solutions to whatever was causing duress was completely accepted by the students. Feeling fully supported, trusted, and empowered myself gave me the motivation, confidence, and courage to do whatever it was I needed to do to ensure learners felt safe, inspired, and sustained. Being accessible (quickly and through a variety of contact points) reassured students that they were not alone. That we were, indeed, working through this together and that they would not be left stranded, ‘un-seen’ or unheard. That strong foundation calmed the initial panic and became the cornerstone for the long bleary-eyed hours of engaging fully in a 7-day synchronous online marathon. Kudos and a huge call-out to the BCom program team. It would simply not have been possible without them. 

How was the virtual residency designed? What activities did it include? How did you keep students engaged?

Lee: Our biggest concern was staying realistic. Students were also in completely new territory. Some lost jobs within a few days of the general lockdown, many others were juggling their children’s learning, some had had their request for study leave terminated, and almost everyone was rescheduling travel. We weren’t just dealing with regular students – we were dealing with students facing unexpected crises. To remain realistic, within the residency we made a distinction between portions that could be pre-recorded (narrated Power Point and videos), and sessions that needed to be a discussion and live activity-based. This provided greater flexibility to students. They could engage with at least half of the material at a time that suited them. I also made it a point to be flexible and responsive to deadlines. 

Rita: My challenge was back-to-back residency components for 2 different courses. In the first one, there was little room for asynchronous work. I struggled with how to recreate the Dragon’s Den pitch experience, add the personal development component they so eagerly wanted, allow them to interact, reflect, and ‘banter’ with each other. I incorporated games, sought and convinced a special ‘mystery guest speaker’ to address the class, re-designed the pitches so that they were pre-recorded (which was more work for the students), and used the residency time to engage in fulsome, quite passionate question and answer sessions. I introduced online scorecards and allowed the class to choose their ‘Top 3 Pitches’ – not a grading exercise, but active peer-to-peer cheerleading. There were prizes at the end (thanks again to the BCom program team).

The second residency was the cohort’s first Applied Business Challenge – an immersive intense design-thinking challenge that involved strong team collaboration. I co-taught the course with my colleague, Leslie McGough. We incorporated many of the same aspects described by Lee. We set up individual Team Collaborate Rooms and were surprised to see students using these, just as they would real-space breakout rooms on campus. These virtual rooms became ‘safe’ spaces, where they hung out all day. We visited these rooms regularly – every 2-3 hours – and always found them there, working away. With different time zones (BC, Alberta, Ontario, and Belgium), keeping people connected and collaborating as they worked through a fast-paced design challenge was interesting. Lots of moving pieces, best managed by strong communication between ourselves (as instructors) and with all learners, at all times. Moving between Moodle, Collaborate, What’s App, Google Drive, Facetime, text, and e-mail – it somehow worked. Not one element of the challenge had to be eliminated, including full 30-minute presentations from each team that took place at the end of a long week, on a Friday evening. The BCom program team showed up – to listen, question, and applaud. It was overwhelmingly emotional.

Can you describe the student experience? What new challenges did students have to deal with? Can you illustrate some of the positive outcomes?

Lee: There’s no doubt the student experience was different. However, as opposed to what I hear from other universities, “different” doesn’t mean “worse” in RRU’s case. With all the experience RRU has gained from years of blended learning, this situation was more of a last-minute shifting of gears, as opposed to a full-scale re-thinking of program. If anything, by the end of the residency, students had picked up a wide range of skills that will endure beyond Bcom. They were proud that they adapted. They were struck by their own resiliency. While all students graduate from RRU with a greater sense of confidence, I believe this experience will be amplified with this cohort. They got challenged early and rose to the occasion, and those aren’t lessons you forget.

Rita: New skills picked up by learners that I think will hold them in good stead moving forward – reacting calmly to crises; trusting themselves, their leaders and their colleagues; trusting the entrepreneurial risk-taking process itself – they were able to put into action the very theories they were learning and proved (to themselves) that it works; the path to agility and resiliency is still highly human-centered and is all about empathy, listening and putting oneself ‘out there’. They learned how to construct better surveys, conduct empathetic interviews, put themselves deeply in the shoes of others, and collect solid primary research that allowed them to truly re-think what their original business ideas were about. What purposeful value did their business ideas bring to the post-COVID world? What could/should help re-stimulate the economy? What was it that micro-businesses and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) could bring to users and target markets that made sense in a new world? And, how could they, as forward-thinking managers inside their own workplaces – use this new-found knowledge to help their employers regain traction? I heard the sound of many bursting lightbulbs during those 7 days. In the awkward silence of socially-distanced isolation – it was food for the soul. What more could any instructor want?

What are some of the key takeaways from this experience?

Lee: For me, the greatest take away is how quickly an organization can pivot, and how we can rely on students to be equally flexible. If anyone had described to me a year ago the speed and scale of change that we have all experienced, both individually and organizationally, I’m not sure I would have believed them! In particular, I’m not sure I would have been confident that we could pull it off without a lot more hiccups. Yet here we are. The university and very importantly, the students, have exhibited an openness to change and adaptation that is remarkable. We’ve all stepped up, and that gives me a lot of confidence in the future.

Rita: Two things that come to mind when I reflect on why our ability to be flexible, adapt and deliver these experiences in such unprecedented times:

  1. The downside: the unprecedented global economic lockdown has been described as ‘an extinction-level event’. A term normally used in reference to a sharp change in the abundance of living organisms. To the business owner, it’s about future survival, the short and long-term impact, and the real and perceived fear of livelihood extinction.
  2. The upside: from adversity springs innovation. Who better than entrepreneurial thought-leaders to lead pivots, re-think business models, and re-deploy resources towards post-trauma re-stabilization?

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BCom program head Ross Porter and BCom Associate Faculty Rita Egizii engaged in a conversation about the value of entrepreneurialism when confronted with the unknown. This is a great introduction to the ethos of Royal Roads Bachelor of Commerce program. Watch the recording of the Value of Entrepreneurialism webinar. 

If you are interested in learning more about our innovative Bachelor of Commerce program look here. In the School of Business, we are very proud of our Associate Faculty and the expertise and innovation they bring to our programs. If you are interested in becoming an Associate Faculty please look here.