Sunday Message: Reflections on Virtual Learning

Dean Jon Levin writes to the Stanford GSB community to share reflections on the pivot to virtual learning, alumni job opportunities, and school updates.

May 10, 2020

The broader national news continues to be sobering, both in the expanding count of Covid cases, and the worsening economic and employment reality. It has become very clear that we have a long road ahead to recovery.

I write this week with some mid-term reflections on virtual learning, as well as updates on the MBA/MSx job market, fall quarter planning, and more.

Virtual Learning at Mid-Term

This quarter we launched into virtual learning with little preparation. Faculty have had to rethink their teaching, and students have adapted in ways that have exceeded anything we had a right to expect. As part of this forced experiment, we have seen the potential of virtual interaction: the ability to use active learning via breakouts, public chat, and polling, to “Zoom in” guests from any geography, and in some cases to expand class capacities. We also have seen the limitations: the mental exhaustion of video discussion, the lack of non-verbal cues, and perhaps most importantly, the loss of spontaneous interaction and human connection.

This week I conducted a small and highly unscientific survey of spring quarter teaching faculty, asking: “What is going well? What can be improved? What are we missing?” The responses were deeply thoughtful and often inspiring. Some common themes included:

  1. Virtual teaching is much more of a team sport than traditional teaching: CAs, FAs, and the Teaching & Learning team have been critical
  2. Maintaining engagement is hard despite the best efforts of students, especially for longer sessions
  3. Instructors dearly miss the “class identity” that emerges in a classroom relative to everyone in separate Zoom squares

I was struck by the various ways in which faculty have sought to enable “informal” interaction: virtual office hours, coffee chats, after-class discussion. A few instructors have pre-recorded material so their lectures can be transformed into Q&A or discussion. A characteristic feature of campus education is that much of the learning occurs outside the classroom; everyone is searching for ways to recreate this.

Mostly, I appreciated hearing about the innovative mindset faculty have brought to their classes. The internet is full of jokes about the suffering of teachers moving online. In contrast, faculty member Kate Casey wrote: “Overall I feel like this quarter has pulled us into the future … a bit faster than expected. The sense of urgency and purpose has created fertile ground for experimentation and innovation.” I would welcome hearing thoughts from others, and if you would be willing to share them with our Teaching & Learning Team, so we can consolidate our learning.

Alumni Job Opportunities

I have written several times about inspiring work being done by Stanford GSB alumni during the pandemic. Three weeks ago, I reached out to the broad alumni community, asking for their help to create internship and job opportunities for our current students, who face a market upended by the pandemic. In consultation with the Career Management Center, we set a goal to create 150 opportunities. The response has been remarkable. Hundreds of alumni have contacted the CMC, and we passed the 150 goal earlier this week, with offers continuing to flow in. With alumni help, we also have been able to expand opportunities for students interning in social sector or small entrepreneurial firms through our SMIF and ESP programs.

I want to thank the alumni who have rallied to provide this much-appreciated support. The effort truly has demonstrated the power and solidarity of the Stanford GSB community.

School Updates

  • Commencement. We announced earlier this quarter that in lieu of traditional commencement, we would hold a virtual celebration the weekend of June 13-14, followed by an in-person ceremony when conditions permit. Planning is underway for the virtual celebration. The goal is to laud the accomplishments of our MBA, MSx, and PhD graduates in a distinctively Stanford GSB way, and provide a fitting end to an extraordinary year of change and resilience. Creative suggestions and ideas are welcome.
  • Planning for the Fall. Earlier today I wrote to announce the creation of our Autumn Quarter Task Force (AQTF), which includes faculty, students, and staff, and will be led by Senior Associate Deans Brian Lowery and Paul Oyer. I look forward to working with this group — and everyone at the school — to create a plan for next year that leverages the strength and collaborative culture of the GSB, and sets an example for how schools can deliver on their missions in the face of challenging and evolving circumstances.
  • Coupa Cafe. I’m delighted to report that Coupa Cafe is now open for Stanford grocery delivery on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Their website is offering a range of food and supplies. Kudos to our friends at Coupa for their flexibility in expanding their offerings. I encourage everyone to support them!
  • Accelerating Covid Vaccines. Everyone is hoping for the rapid development and distribution of a Covid vaccine. In an earlier life, I worked on vaccine incentives, and my collaborators, together with Professor Susan Athey, have been applying some of what we learned and a lot of new thinking to Covid. This week Susan published an excellent New York Times op-ed, with more details here.


While the national trends do not show the progress one hopes for, our local efforts at social distancing continue to be rewarded. The count of daily Covid-19 cases in Santa Clara County has dropped below 30. I know we are all hoping that this trajectory continues, and that we are able to resume more normal activity in the coming weeks.

Happy Mother’s Day,

Jon Levin
Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean

More Updates from the Leadership

May 01, 2023
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Dean Jon Levin writes about the ingredients needed to create an innovative ecosystem for Stanford Business magazine.
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Dean Jon Levin writes about the business opportunities and responsibilities that come with technological advancement for Stanford Business magazine.