Online Residency Weekends Thrive Under Virtual Engagement Model

The Raymond A. Mason School of Business Center for Online Learning successfully hosted approximately 130 students across two Residency Weekends using a virtual engagement model. The events, each of which were held over a long weekend in October and again in early March, helped students in the Online MBA (OMBA) and Online Master of Science in Marketing (OMSM) programs earn credit towards graduation while gaining real-world skills they can apply to their professional roles.

Each Residency is structured around a topical theme through which students learn more by partaking in interactive classroom instruction and professional development sessions. The virtual Residencies incorporated keynote addresses from William & Mary’s extensive network of business leaders as well as group work and engagement opportunities overseen by the Mason School’s top-rated faculty and members of the Executive Partner program.

Residency Weekend is typically an opportunity for students enrolled in the Mason School’s online programs to visit William & Mary’s campus, engage with their professors and peers, and feel more connected to the university. Due to travel restrictions and health concerns related to the pandemic, however, the Center’s engagement team used creative ways to adapt the program safely and remotely.

“While we unfortunately lost some of the in-person qualities of a typical Residency Weekend, we were able to successfully replicate the academic, professional training, and many of the networking dimensions we offer during our on-campus residencies,” said Pam Suzadail, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Center for Online Learning.

Diversity & Inclusion Training

Residency Weekends are held twice per academic year and the spring 2020 Residency marked one of the last in-person events held on campus prior to the pandemic shut-down. As the online team looked towards fall, it became increasingly apparent that the event would need to be held online.

Using a blend of virtual engagement tools and existing teaching platforms employed by the online programs, Associate Professor Inga Carboni and a team of faculty, staff, and executive partners quickly adapted the content for the fall Residency Weekend on Diversity & Inclusion.

“The subject matter is pretty charged and it can be challenging to manage that conversation in a virtual environment while concurrently looking to build relationships and a sense of community. I had an idea of how to facilitate some of that using supplemental technology since I’ve taught this content on Diversity & Inclusion using different modalities before,” Carboni said.

Nearly 60 online students participated in the four-day event which opened up to an asynchronous welcome on Thursday. Friday evening marked the beginning of the synchronous activities as participants enjoyed a keynote address from Shuchi Sharma, Global Lead of Inclusive Career Journeys at SAP, followed by a break-out networking session via Zoom.

"I was impressed by how the virtual residency weekend turned out. Over the course of my career, I have attended various training courses and participated in discussion groups related to the topic, so I was excited to learn more about diversity and inclusion and how to apply the lessons learned day-to-day in my workplace,” said Jernai Ellis, OMBA ’21.

Students spent the remainder of the weekend engaged in discussions and activities on topics such as micro-aggressions and creating inclusive environments, and heard from special guests including Sarah Thomas from The Lemon Project and a pan-University panel focused on structural inequities that impact diversity in the workplace.

"Coming from a first-generation minority background and as a single mother who manages a very complex and dynamic team, one of my key takeaways was learning about our unknown bias. Since attending the Residency Weekend, I have been more mindful of my own biases," said Sandra Ashworth, OMBA '21. "I believe everyone wants to be connected in the workplace with other people as they are. Awareness of our own biases and learning how to address them is a starting point for everyone to make positive, sustainable change."

Students were evaluated during a short, team-based activity that recorded the group having difficult workplace conversations with a responsive avatar using Mursion technology. They had the opportunity to review another team’s video and asses it for inclusionary behaviors and provide feedback on improvement.

"It is one thing to have a difficult conversation, and it is a different experience to have to watch yourself have one and then evaluate it. I learned a lot about my approach and mannerisms during the simulation exercise. The experience will better prepare me to navigate the different personalities around me every day,” said Ellis.

Carboni said she felt the weekend successfully achieved her objective to help prepare students for the challenges they will face as they progress into higher echelons of leadership and are required to recruit and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce at their organizations.

“Our goal was to help the students understand how diversity and inclusion translates into behavior, specifically what you see or do when you’re being inclusive. We also wanted to move the conversation beyond unconscious bias training and build awareness around what people can do differently,” Carboni said. “It’s critical for business leaders to act in an inclusive manner, lead inclusive teams, build inclusive cultures, and understand what it takes to be able to implement that.”

Crisis Management Simulation

The spring 2021 Residency Weekend was built around an intensive crisis management exercise that taught students the theoretical and practical realities of navigating a real-life crisis situation. The curriculum was developed by Visiting Clinical Professor of Marketing Matt Williams in partnership with Social Simulator, a virtual training and simulation exercise platform that uses a safe and secure environment to replicate a real-world scenario.

“The best place to learn about a crisis management situation is to be put in a position to manage a crisis. It’s much easier to talk about frameworks and how to talk through a crisis before it happens. The difficulty is when it happens, it’s hard to keep your wits about you as you think on your feet in real-time and make decisions on how to best manage it,” said Williams.

This served as the inaugural Residency in which students from both the OMBA program and the newly-launched OMSM program had the opportunity to attend and work collaboratively across the various activities. Over 70 students participated in the weekend’s events which included hearing from renowned crisis communications expert Dan Webber, President of Edelman’s Washington, D.C. office.

“I initially wanted to participate in this Residency based on timing, but I was happy to find out that it was very much in line with my previous and current work in PR. Crisis management is always relevant, regardless of industry, so it was great to revisit and work through new challenges with so many other professionals with varied experiences,” said Ally Hiponia, OMBA ’22.

Students worked in teams as representatives of a fictitious restaurant chain experiencing a health crisis using the training platform which created simulated interactions with board members, employees, stakeholders, the media, and the general public. In addition to the inherent challenges presented by the simulation, students were also challenged to quickly establish rapport with their fellow classmates, many of whom they had never interacted or worked with collaboratively before the event.

“Participants were presented with authentic recreations of elements they would need to navigate in the event of a real-world crisis response situation. We bombard them via this escalating scenario using fictional articles, blog posts, messages, and social media posts over two days to test how they act under pressure and how effectively they’re able to synchronize their decision-making as a team as they respond to the scenario,” said Chris Malpass, Executive Director of Social Simulator Inc.

Students were required to produce several deliverables over the two-day simulation including a presentation to the fictional company’s board of directors, documentation to corporate entities and government agencies, and responses via virtual interviews with hostile members of the media.

“The virtual event was chaotic in the best way possible. From Rise and Shine networking events, to live calls with reporters and board members, the residency was an incredible glimpse and simulation into what a real-life crisis entails,” said Michelle Monti, OMSM ‘22. “As one of few Masters in Marketing students, I was humbled to be grouped with all MBA students. Their insights and perspectives made the crisis simulation all the more rewarding.”

Several key takeaways emerged from the simulation after speaking with student participants. Lessons learned included the need for leaders to demonstrate transparency, level-headedness, and integrity in the face of a crisis. Students also cited that prioritizing communication, especially with employees, as vital to successfully navigating an organization through a crisis situation.

From a technical standpoint, students also gained insight into the importance organizations must place on social media chatter – both positive and negative – in today’s media-saturated environment, and learned how to effectively challenge the status quo.

According to several students, they returned from the weekend to their various organizations and integrated the lessons they learned into their company’s strategy and response protocols in addition to implementing the skills they gained in their individual roles.

“It’s realistic, it’s dynamic, it’s real time, and it’s unpredictable,” said Williams. “It has all the factors of a real-world crisis management situation built into the simulation. It is incredibly important for students to learn these skills which are best gained by doing. The experience is very compelling.”

Future Residency Weekend Opportunities

As the Center for Online Learning team looks farther into 2021 and beyond, they remain hopeful that the in-person, on-campus Residency Weekend experience will return. There are currently plans for a fall program on “Creating a Data Driven Culture in Your Organization”, and as more online courses of study are added to the Center’s portfolio, so will the opportunity for increased engagement between students pursuing various professional and academic endeavors.

“When the Online MBA program was created, we knew it would serve a group of working professionals who valued the William & Mary educational experience but needed to earn their degree in a virtual manner in order to maintain their careers, personal lives, and other obligations. We incorporated the Residency Weekend to compliment the core online curriculum, and as a way for those students to feel connected to campus, build relationships with their classmates and professors, and understand what it means to be a part of the William & Mary Tribe. While we feel we’ve served our students well over the last year given the current events in our world, we look forward to the day that members of our online programs can come to Miller Hall and fully immerse themselves during a Residency Weekend,” said Suzadail.