Episode 28: Evolving the Virtual Experience at Georgetown University
In this episode, we'll learn how the McDonough's School of Business at Georgetown University is delivering rich, interactive virtual experiences for its MBA program during the pandemic.
For Shelly Heinrich, an Associate Dean and business school's Director of Marketing, this involves a lot more than just moving lectures online. It's also about shifting recruitment tactics, maintaining a pipeline of critical information for current students and re-imagining job fair and alumni events that used to take place on campus.
Pulling this off, as Shelly will tell us, requires close collaboration and a personal touch. Ready for class? Let's get schooled together.
In this episode:
I've been at Georgetown just over six years, and I manage the admissions recruitment and marketing for the full-time and part-time MBA, which is our Flex MBA. We have a de-centralized marketing approach—where everything, from the time a person is starting to think, discover, and learn about the MBA all the way until they enroll—which my team is responsible for.
The business school sector is highly competitive. There's a lot of great schools out there. And so, our goal is to educate people on what is a significant investment. They're only going to choose an MBA once, so it is a big decision process, and we want to provide them with as much information as possible, both on what the experience will be and what the return on investment will be post-MBA.
I've always had a very innovative philosophy within our team. Being in admissions and recruitment, our business model is to meet students. We work with them, we engage with them, we speak with them, and we do that best in person. So, this year was a prime example where we had to innovate and change. Luckily, the team that I work with is amazing and they embraced that change. Education has been slowly trickling technology into the classroom.
But COVID didn't give us a choice on the timeframe. COVID said, “Deliver virtually and do it now if you want to survive.” As an education institution, we couldn’t just close our doors. We had students in the middle of degree programs. So, we came together as a team, embraced problem solving and we knew we had to shift things.
The shift to virtual experience
One shift we had to work on was the testing accessibility. People have to take a standardized test to get into an MBA program, but testing centers were closed around the world. And so, we had to step back and say, “Okay, what are other options?” And so, we started taking the LSAT, the YMCA, the PCAT, we took expired test scores. And then we offered waivers last summer for people who just absolutely couldn't take the test.
Another shift to virtual we had to do was our biggest sell weekend of the year, called the Welcome Weekend. It’s where we bring our round two students—our largest group of students who have been admitted—to campus for two days, and they fly in from around the world. We have people come from all countries for this weekend.
When the pandemic hit, that event was two weeks away, so we had to pull out all the stops for this weekend. Our team had to sit down and say, “Okay, we can no longer do this in person. How do we sell this experience virtually?”
We decided people don't want to sit on Zoom for a two-and-a-half-days event, so we had to condense it into one day. We had to go back to all of our events and say, Which ones were the priority?, What do people need to know? But how can we also make it fun? And so, I think we pulled it off. I think it was a great event, but it definitely was different.
We also do monthly information sessions and there's typically 100-120 people that will show up on our campus monthly for that. We hosted our first virtual one in May of last year—and we had over 500 registrants. We were blown away. My first thought when I heard that was, “Maybe we should have been doing this virtually the whole time.”
What it showed us was, “Wow, we could access people. There were no borders. The internet has no borders.” And so, we would have people calling into these information sessions from all over the world to say, “I can’t afford a flight for an information session, but I can log in.” And so I think it's interesting. And perhaps it's also helped us contribute to the 30% increase in applications we've seen for round one this September.
Virtual education experience
With regards to the university’s technology, we already had an enterprise like Zoom, but we were using it mainly just for internal meetings or when we were traveling. But when we went virtual, in a matter of literally a week, our professors had to learn how to transform their very engaging classroom experience into Zoom.
Yet, some of these professors had never used Zoom before. It was a challenging time, but professors knew that there was no other option. They had to learn, because we had a job to do. We were in the middle of the semester and students have to graduate, so they have to continue to deliver content.
And so over the summer, we have a group within Georgetown who let our professors go through intense trainings on best practices on not only using the technology, but in delivering a virtual education experience up to the quality of what Georgetown students would expect.
Internal communication collaboration
Because we travel so much in general as a team, we definitely were used to that hybrid work environment. However, with everything virtual, we learned that our communication wasn’t enough.
At some point we were doing town halls once a month or once every three weeks, but that was not enough. Students wanted town halls every week or every other week, even if it was to say that we didn't have an update or we didn't know what was going to happen. They just wanted to know that we were still there and that we were still working on determining what the solution was.
And so, we had to communicate a lot and we had to be ready to take tough questions on the spot. As senior leaders, we had to be willing to say, “We don't know, but we will try to find out or we will advocate for you.” And then that required us internally to have more meetings. It was because it was needed. We needed that constant flow of information. But you learn and adapt.
What can never be replaced by virtual technology
I mentioned at the beginning that one of my big areas of leadership focus is innovation. The other thing that I focus on a lot is team morale. It is very important to me. I've always been very cognizant of team morale and just making sure that it's strong and if it's not, I always want to get to the root of it and fix it. To do that, I would always walk around and check in on people and see how they're doing personally and professionally.
Now, you can't really do that. Usually, you have to have an excuse to meet with someone on Zoom. You can't just pop by their office or see them while they're having coffee. And so, I think that's one area that will be hard to replicate virtually, because a lot of that happens organically and spontaneously. And it's important. People's morale is so important because it affects how they come to work and affects their job or their satisfaction with their job. That’s what I do look forward to being back in person for that.
Luckily for us, our career center had coincidentally started preparing for virtual recruitment, even prior to COVID. About a year ago, we invested in cameras for all of our interview rooms and the career center because some companies, including some major tech giants, had started recruiting virtually. So thankfully when COVID did hit, we already had a playbook to go by.
Now, the other side of career recruiting was the employers used to come on campus and do information sessions and networking events. We would always have four or five top employers on campus every week. But that's moved virtually, you can do an information session online.
I don't want to paint it as all rosy, because there is the element of recruiting and networking that are the casual conversations, happy hour conversations that happen organically between sessions or before and after the interview. That can't be replicated. But on both sides, I think we're all doing our best.
Tips for making virtual career centers work
Our career center has created an entire training and recruitment guide. We're going through lots of training sessions on how to prepare students for that networking aspect.
Simple things like having branded backgrounds that have their Georgetown logo and students’ name in the corner, so that constantly both Georgetown and their name are reinforced in the recruiter's mind. There are also email templates to help guide students with following up and connecting with employers.
But at Georgetown, one of the big areas that always helps students to get jobs and to get interviews were alumni connections. Even pre-COVID, most those connections were happening virtually—connecting with someone through LinkedIn, setting up a call with them, setting up a coffee. So, that alumni connection is still there to get your foot in the door and to get perspective.
Our job in a business school is to train leaders for the future of work and to train leaders for what's next. And I think I can speak for any industry when I say that the way we do work post-COVID will not be the same. Because we will have learned ways to be more efficient. We will have tried innovative practices that maybe we were risk averse to try prior, but what we did out of necessity, and now we've found success.
Today’s takeaway from Shelly:
“We’re going to go through change, whether it’s something like COVID or an economic uncertainty. And so, it’s important for education institutions that we train our leaders to deal with those situations.”
Check out Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business MBA programs and information sessions by visiting msb.georgetown.edu/mba.