Professor Jose Guajardo teaches to a room full of MBA students located around the world

Flex MBA offers a virtually seamless classroom experience

By Susan Petty

Twice a week, at four p.m. sharp, Pacific time, Assistant Professor Jose Guajardo greets the students in his Operations class with a big smile, eager to dive into the day’s discussion. He writes the name of a company on the white board next to him, scans the class in front of him and cold calls the student in the middle of the top row.

Just a typical MBA classroom? No, a Flex classroom.

Jose is in a video studio on the Haas campus and his students are in Texas and 16 other states. They are in Egypt, Germany, Japan, and Singapore, at home, the office or on the road. They are the students in the Berkeley Haas evening & weekend MBA program’s Flex option. They take their core courses online and have the option of choosing in-person or online electives. A couple of required in-person events—including the signature We Launch orientation—lay the groundwork for the relationships that are as much part of the MBA experience as the academics.

The Haas technology team and the faculty work hard to recreate the classroom environment in the virtual world. The virtual classroom set-up has evolved with time and in response to student feedback. As Marc Armbruster, MBA 25, who comes to class from Westchester, New York, where he works as a vice president and principal data scientist at Citizens, Bank, said, “They're really pushing the envelope in terms of what an educational experience can be.” Examples of upgrades include improved noise reduction technologies, alongside cameras and configurations that allow guest speakers to fully engage during classes and Q&A sessions.

[The professors] keep us on our toes in ... the way that they would in person."

“Many of the things we would do in an actual classroom, you could actually replicate, or some do even better in the virtual setting like the one we have here at Haas,” Jose said. “We can use multiple medias to generate that rich interactive environment.”

That includes videos made available for viewing before class, along with more standard reading and small group assignments. They give students “an opportunity to grasp the concepts beforehand and apply them in real life case scenarios [later on],” according to Tapan Shah, MBA 25, a manager in Data Management & Analytics with APL in Arizona. Once in class, Tapan said the professors can “with a single click, distribute us in breakout rooms. Being in person, this would take more time to do.”

See the virtual Flex classroom in action

Like many, Shilpa Chidambaram, MBA 25, a senior product manager at Demandbase, was initially skeptical that the Flex classroom would be just another Zoom meeting. Instead, “the classroom experience is so immersive that it feels like I’m sitting in the classroom,” she said. “I’m super, super involved in the discussions. And my professor really knows whether I’m engaged or not.”

Amanda Sultan, MBA 25, previously a Strategic Projects lead in Ride-Hailing Operations for Waymo in Detroit, worried that high-tech would diminish the high-touch needed for networking. “I wondered to myself, are we going to be able to connect the same way that people in person have? And the answer is wholeheartedly, yes.”

Jose underscores that ability to engage from the professor’s perspective. “If a student speaks, for example, we will hear directly from a specific direction and can interact with that student as if we were in class,” he explained.

Alecia Wall, MBA 25, a senior manager in Channel Acceleration with Atlassian in Austin, Texas, agreed, “When I'm in class, I see the professor in front of me. They're standing. They're walking around. They're interacting with the whiteboard. They're able to cold call us. They keep us on our toes in that setting the way that they would in person.”

Part of what makes the Flex classroom more than a Zoom meeting, is that students are able to customize how they experience the classroom. Aidan Steele, MBA 25, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Quantico, Virginia, noted that, “We can all see each other's faces if we choose to. We can see the professor. We can see what the professor is writing, and we can switch focus between those perspectives in whatever way supports our learning experience the best.”

That includes having access to chat rooms, where, Aidan said, “We can seek clarification from our peers without interrupting the flow of the class, or we can bring up additional points that weren't mentioned but are helpful. Multiple times, people have dropped links to references or articles in the chat window. You just can't replicate that experience in an in-person setting.”

Emily Harmon, MBA 25, an HR Integration program manager with Microsoft in Seattle, adds that the “chat function in the virtual classroom actually allows for more participation and more inclusion.”

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Posted on February 29, 2024
Themes: Flex MBA
Susan Petty
Susan is Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. She has nearly twenty years of experience in marketing and advertising, having worked in several different industries including technology, travel, healthcare -- and many others from her media planning days at J. Walter Thompson where her clients included Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Nestle, and Ford. She enjoys advising prospective students and guiding them through their personal MBA experience.