When Prof. Lori Rosenkopf’s course on the culture of tech went virtual, she set out to make a more interactive learning experience. Her efforts have seen some unexpected results.

Video calls are nothing new to MGMT 265, also known as Culture and Institutions of the Tech Sector: Bridging Research and Practice. Since 2014, the course has been connecting students in Philadelphia to Wharton/Penn alumni in San Francisco’s tech sector over video.

“When I started my term as the Vice Dean for the Undergrad Division in 2013, we realized that while many students were intrigued by the tech sector, far fewer were finding their way to internships or full-time positions,” said Prof. Lori Rosenkopf. “We decided to build academic coursework that would give them more exposure to how the tech sector operates and to our extensive and growing network of alumni in the area.”

A sample of the alumni speakers who visited MGMT 265 this fall.

Between teleconferencing guest speakers, group research projects, and supplementary Wharton Industry Exploration trips to tech hubs, students learned about the “culture of technology” and how to apply rigorous research to current issues in the industry. 

In many ways the course lent itself to a virtual format this fall — but Prof. Rosenkopf saw an opportunity to build a more interactive and tech-enabled learning experience

Engaging Through Video

Rosenkopf knew her undergraduate students had struggled with assigned readings, often long and dense journal articles written by academics with PhDs.

To address that, she built a library of videos, including a series of digestible 10-minute explainers to break down complex articles, chats with article authors (which include Wharton faculty), and introductions of guest speakers that give insight into their professional backgrounds. 

The videos opened up more time in class for students to engage with guest speakers on Zoom, some of whom are successful alumni just a few years out of university. 

These visiting entrepreneurs are a direct line into what’s happening in the industry today, and class discussions this semester have touched on COVID-19 as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

“I think the professor’s doing a really good job bringing in those current events and things that the companies are doing,” said Oluwafeyikemi (Feyi) Makinde, a Wharton/Penn senior graduating this December. She’s majoring in Real Estate and Chinese Studies and is working on a group research project that focuses on obstacles for female entrepreneurs in China. 

Feyi cited a conversation with an alumnus from Goldman Sachs Group, which had recently announced a push towards more diversity across their boards. “You get a chance to actually speak to the people on the ground who have to enforce those mandates,” she added.

Brian Hathaway, a fifth-year Wharton grad student who was a teaching assistant for this course and many others, believes MGMT 265 is uniquely well-suited to a virtual environment. This semester, he witnessed how successful entrepreneurs are adapting their businesses during the pandemic, and how students are learning from example.

“One thing we emphasize in the class, and that I personally have taken away from the course, is that knowledge production is social,” Brian said. “We’re all learning together and teaching each other through our own experiences.”

Democratizing Discussions

Zoom has also made panel discussions with more than one guest speaker possible. 

“I really appreciate when the guests themselves have chemistry,” said Penn economics major Jacob Richey, C’21. He signed up for MGMT 265 because of a growing interest in entrepreneurship. “I think the Wharton network is incredible. We can have all these amazing people, a lot of whom know each other, so that’s been really great.”

When speakers visit, students get to pose questions in the Zoom chatroom and chat with speakers in smaller breakout rooms alongside peers. The new format is in part designed to combat “Zoom fatigue” — and has also emboldened more students to reach out to speakers one-on-one outside of class.

September 15 panelists (clockwise) Erik Moore (Base Ventures), Vivian Wu (CZI), and Aaron Jacobson (NEA) spoke about entrepreneurial resources and “Finding the Right Investor.”

Each speaker’s time is “a lot more democratized,” said Feyi. “The professor is actually able to facilitate that in a very structured way.”

Office hours, too, have become a social space. “I have office hours at 8 p.m. on Tuesday evenings and I do them after I work out in my ponytail and in my sweaty clothes here in my dining room. Five or 10 students will come and hang out,” Rosenkopf said. “That is unthinkable pre-pandemic. I think the professor and the vehicle of office hours has become another place for the interaction that students are craving.”

For the first time, Prof. Rosenkopf will be offering the course both in fall and spring in the same year. She’s still experimenting with the guest rotation and format, and very open to innovating. 

“Once it can’t be the way it’s supposed to be, then your mind opens up and you start considering all sorts of possibilities,” she said.

Gloria Yuen

Posted: November 6, 2020

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