By Amy Hubbard

In 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, approximately one-third of graduate students in the United States were completing their degree online. Since March 2020, when most universities closed their campuses, the percentage of graduate students completing their degrees online has increased significantly. Many graduate programs were required to quickly adjust their curricula to operate in this new virtual environment. Fortunately, the faculty in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program have more than a decade of experience in online graduate education. We were able to make the transition seamlessly, and our students have reported overwhelmingly that the virtual classroom experience has met or exceeded their expectations.

My journey with the XMNR began in 2017, as a student. In 2019, I moved to Northern Virginia and started assisting the program during class weekends in Arlington, VA. My role was to help manage the logistics of the weekend so that faculty could focus on teaching. Now, fast-forward to March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic started to change everything in the United States. In-person XMNR class weekends were no longer an option—for how long, we had no idea—and we needed to pivot to change the format of class weekends to online. This was not a difficult transition for the program because of prior experience with virtual learning, and because the faculty had already worked remotely for many years. We saw this as an opportunity to test out a hybrid learning model for XMNR, to see if students could learn and engage online just as effectively.

Learning by doing
XMNR was already using Zoom to record our in-person class weekends, and it was determined that Zoom would be the best conferencing platform to utilize for online learning. During this transition, I stepped up to play the “producer role” to help behind the scenes with the Zoom technology and assist faculty and students. My goal was to make the online class weekends as seamless as possible by allowing the faculty to focus on teaching and not technology, create smooth transitions between classes, and help troubleshoot any Zoom issues.

Yes, there was a learning curve to knowing all the ins and outs of Zoom. The faculty logged in many hours watching Zoom tutorials and resources for online teaching. There was a lot of testing behind the scenes to ensure we could use breakout rooms, host panel speakers and a Q&A, and share presentations and materials effectively. While this preparation was very helpful, there is no teacher like experience. We’ve had multiple online class weekends and we are still learning new things through trial and error as we run these class meetings on Zoom. We ask for student feedback after every class weekend, and that insight has been very helpful for our continued learning on how to provide a positive online learning experience.

Maximizing unexpected benefits
We empathize with students, knowing that juggling a master’s program with work, family, and other responsibilities is already challenging, but on top of a pandemic that has changed our world and affects each of us a little differently it is especially trying. We’re operating out of a grace mentality here, and strive to support students as best we can. In-person relationship building occurs differently online, and we see this happening in a very raw and real way as it’s becoming increasingly hard to separate work and personal life while at home. Students have even taken it upon themselves to organize online happy hours and discussion groups to stay connected and build their relationships.

There are advantages to online learning that many of us did not anticipate or fully appreciate prior to the pandemic. First, students aren’t used to having a producer in the room with them. Now, with this extra support role, they have instant access to me at any point during the online class weekends. Also, the time and money involved in joining a class weekend has decreased significantly for many. A lot of students are not local and travel from all over the country to get to Arlington, VA for class meetings. Virtual class meetings now make it easier for students to join from anywhere and optimize the rest of their weekend time for personal needs.

Another advantage is that we are not limited by the space of a classroom, or even the number or types of rooms we have access to on campus. Previously, when we met in person, we only had access to a limited number of breakout rooms in the building. Now operating in Zoom, we have unlimited options for how we would like to group students and faculty using Zoom breakout rooms. This function allows us to be more creative, by quickly changing groups of students around without having to physically move people. We can even put students into pairs in their own breakout room for one-on-one discussion when needed. I’m sure the rooms may at times feel like speed dating, and the sudden “teleportation” from room to room may be jarring, but Zoom breakout rooms are incredibly effective at moving people in and out of groups quickly.

We are also now able to do more with panel speakers and Q&A sessions. To optimize students’ time in class, we can pre-record a conversation between panel speakers and XMNR faculty and ask students to watch this before class. Then, during class Q&A, we are able to split students into multiple rooms and have the guest panelists move in and out of the rooms for a more intimate discussion experience. Hosting this online also allows for more panelist speakers to join the conversation from all around the world without the added expense of time and travel. For this reason, students are getting more facetime with a larger number and wider range of industry experts than they would have in a physical classroom. In one session we had had eight guest faculty join us, which would not have been possible if we all met in-person.

Adapting and evolving
Dr. David Robertson, XMNR Founding Director, agrees: “We have seen a flourish of creativity on the part of XMNR faculty and curriculum developers as they have embraced new modes of teaching and learning.” He sees this experience giving the students and the faculty many long-term benefits. “As a result of what we’ve learned, looking forward to 2021, the XMNR program will be offered in a hybrid format with a combination of different learning modes, including: a) in-person, face-to-face classroom meetings led by faculty; b) synchronous virtual class meetings led by faculty; c) virtual teamwork and peer-to-peer learning on student-led projects; d) asynchronous online coursework and individual assignments; and e) fieldwork and professional engagement activities, including a 10-day Global Study. Each of these modes of learning has their own advantages; they offer faculty a range of opportunities for designing exceptional learning experiences for students to gain knowledge and develop skills in new ways.”

Amy Hubbard headshot

Amy Hubbard supports XMNR students and faculty during class meetings. She also serves as Poverty Initiatives Director for Crown Financial Ministries, where she has worked since 2013. Her previous professional experience includes internships with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Amy holds a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning and an Executive Master of Natural Resources from Virginia Tech.