This semester Wharton MBA students will experience something at once both profound and unremarkable. They’ll step foot inside a classroom again.
As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt end to in-person learning last March. Then, an uptick of cases in August prevented a hybrid model for the fall semester from going forward. Now, with the start of the spring semester, 41 course sections are prepared to include an in-person component in Huntsman Hall. It’s a welcome step back toward normalcy for students eager to close their laptops and interact with classmates face-to-face — albeit safely behind masks and at a distance.
This fall, Prof. Brian Bushee, Vice Dean of Teaching and Learning, virtually convened groups of MBA students to determine what they want most from the spring semester. The message was clear. “Students told us they really wanted the opportunity to be together in a classroom,” Prof. Bushee said. “Even if the professor’s not there and teaching remotely, there is something that’s very satisfying about being in the same room and having this shared experience. And that’s what the MBAs want.”
In order to maintain a COVID-safe environment, classroom capacity has been reduced to 24 people per room. However, this limited seating introduces a host of chaotic scenarios for both faculty and students. A “first come, first serve” policy would be unfair. Asking professors to field requests from students would be untenable. And too many students entering the building would be unsafe. The list goes on.
“We quickly realized that the decision between in-person classes versus virtual classes should be separate from the actual course registration,” said Prof. Stephan Dieckmann, Vice Dean of Academic Affairs for the MBA Program. “If you have 24 seats in a class and you have 48 students who are interested in these 24 seats, it’s impossible to ask students, ‘resolve this coordination problem yourself’. They need help with this.”
Seat Management, a new custom web application developed by Wharton Computing, will use an algorithm to decide who can arrive at Huntsman Hall on any given day. The application is essentially a weighted lottery system. Every day at 6:00 p.m., Seat Management will allocate available classroom seats based on a number of factors and student preferences. Once the allocations are made, students can either choose to hold on to their seat or relinquish it to someone on the waitlist.
“The Seating Management application is exciting because it leverages technology to support the goal of providing as many students as possible the in-person experience. We hope that the application manages that experience in a supportive, intuitive, and flexible way,” said Sarah Spaulding, Senior IT Director.
Arguably the most important feature of this system is its flexibility. Seat Management administrators can respond to the changing pandemic environment, dial up or down availability, and still ensure a fair allocation of classroom seats. “The brilliance of [the application] is it’s flexible enough to respond to wherever we are in the spring semester, in terms of the COVID restrictions, without students having to make binding decisions right now,” said Prof. Bushee.
Seat Management also solves a number of other practical issues facing education in the COVID-19 era. Because students will access the Seat Management interface daily, administrators can post important reminders and alerts as an added layer of communication. Faculty will know who is attending in person and who is virtual, to ensure equal participation from both groups. And finally, Seat Management will scan a student’s schedule for back-to-back classes and automatically assign a “touchdown space” as capacity allows. These dedicated rooms will give students space to independently stream virtual class sessions.
Above all the application is flexible. No one can accurately predict how the virus will impact the coming months.
While this semester will be like no other, the hope is that the Seat Management application will only enhance the academic experience.
“The hope is that every MBA student who wants to come into the building and be in a classroom will get that chance and get it often,” said Prof. Bushee.
— Mike Kaiser
Posted: January 20, 2021