UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Normally, Penn State’s online MBA kicks off with a residency at the University Park campus, where the new students participate in team-building exercises and network with one another and the faculty. Penn State’s online master’s in supply chain management program normally welcomes students each summer for a residency, as well.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced these programs, which are led by Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and offered online through Penn State World Campus, to adapt their in-person residencies to take place virtually, through Zoom.

Almost 300 graduate business students will be participating in the residencies this year. More than 60 students in the Penn State Online MBA participated in a virtual residency in May, and more than 150 will attend the one at the start of the fall 2020 semester in August. About 85 students in the master of supply chain management program attended the virtual residency in two groups last week.

A laptop screen shows the attendees who are video conferencing in the online MBA's virtual residence.
The Penn State Online MBA's virtual residency started at 10 a.m. ET to better accommodate students in different time zones.
Stacey Dorang Peeler

“Bringing 60 strangers together online, conveying high levels of enthusiasm, and imparting a sense of community all while delivering exceptional material with no hiccups or IT issues was something of a miracle,” said Sean Kenney, one of the students in the virtual MBA residency in May. “It was an incredibly impressive team collaboration.”

The four days of the virtual MBA residency started at 10 a.m. (ET) to accommodate students in other time zones. Sessions included lectures about team processes as part of the course Business Administration 810: Team Performance, presentations from guest speakers, and group activities, such as a workshop on improvisation and storytelling in business, to foster teamwork.

Kenney, a regional manager for an independent craft brewery, said he was impressed by how the residency came together in a virtual format for the first time. 

“We were never sitting for long before a breakout session was initiated, a discussion opened up, or a new instructor jumped in,” said Kenney, who joined from his home in Santa Barbara, California. “There seemed to be excellent awareness of the challenges of maintaining engagement over long periods in a virtual setting. It made me feel like I made the right choice.”

Stacey Dorang Peeler, managing director for the Online MBA, said each session had almost 100 percent attendance. She said they recorded each session so that attendees who had to step away, such as for childcare or work, could review what they missed.

Dorang Peeler said the organizers worked hard to create engaging opportunities online. For instance, one day they asked participants to use a Zoom background of their favorite TV show or movie, and another day, they encouraged everyone to do a “Whiteout,” which is a tradition at Penn State football games at Beaver Stadium in which attendees wear white.

Dorang Peeler said the feedback she received from students was extremely positive. Students appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the MBA program and the tools they would need to use in the course work. Students also praised the staff’s commitment. 

The supply chain management master’s degree program hosted 85 students virtually for its annual summer residency, with separate groups attending July 19–21 and July 23–25. The sessions were livestreamed synchronously on Zoom.

Saurabh Bansal, associate professor of supply chain management who teaches the course that starts with the residency, said the residency is an important part of the program’s curriculum and that organizers sought to replicate the experience as best they could.

“The residency provides an immersive, forward-looking, cohort-forming experience to students,” Bansal said. “Several of our students are coming back to school after a long time, and residency provides them with an opportunity to ease into the academic environment. It is also a great opportunity for professional networking. Many students form friendships that last beyond the program.”

Bansal said the topics discussed will be a springboard to more detailed discussions in subsequent lessons in the course Supply Chain Management 530: Supply Chain Analysis.

About 150 incoming Online MBA students will log on to their virtual residency that starts August 18 and runs for three days to focus on the most engaging pieces. 

Janet Duck, the faculty director of the Online MBA, said she used the feedback from students in the May residency to plan more virtual team activities so they can connect with one another.

“It was a great experience,” Duck said. “And now we can make it even better.”