Great Valley global immersion course pivots to virtual learning

MALVERN, Pa. — No one expected Penn State Great Valley’s first global immersion field study course to take place in the United States, let alone virtually. After all, “global” is in the name. But, that’s exactly what happened with the course MNGMT 897 Global Immersion.

Before the COVID-19 crisis transitioned Penn State to remote learning, the course was set to provide students with a one-week experience in Strasbourg, France, to study the business practices of different companies. Denise Potosky, professor of management and organization, was a Fulbright (Alsace Region) research scholar at the École de Management (EM) Strasbourg in 2011, and has collaborated with colleagues there since. About two years ago, she began to work with the school’s international relations office to set up an exchange program between EM Strasbourg and Penn State Great Valley.

“Their students typically spend one year abroad, and they usually send two students to the same institution,” Potosky said. “In exchange for us agreeing to host two French business students next year, they were pulling out all the stops to host one class of our master’s students for one week.”

EM Strasbourg regularly hosts other groups for field studies, with visits to the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and regional institutions and organizations; Penn State Great Valley students were set to tour the Council of Europe; six companies in France, Germany, and Switzerland; and other cultural sites.

Administrative Support Assistant Lisa Hallahan and Administrative Support Coordinator Ursula Thompson began working on travel arrangements in August 2019, organizing everything from flights to hotels to train trips.

“Registration opened on Monday, Oct. 28, at noon and by the end of that week, we hit class capacity,” Hallahan said. “There was an enrollment requirement in LionPATH for students to contact the division directly to be added to the course. … We had 10 students ask to be added during the first hour of registration.”

Prior to the trip, students were required to analyze an American business, focusing on sustainable business practices, innovation, design of work, and governance; those four pillars would also be used to evaluate the European businesses the class visited.

MBA student Laura Sullivan had visited Paris and Normandy in the fall and was looking forward to returning to French culture. Sullivan enjoyed experiencing different cultures and has vacationed in Europe every year for the past 10 years, so analyzing cultural and businesses practices made the course a perfect opportunity for her.

Unlike Sullivan, Master of Leadership Development student Becky McCafferty had never been to Europe. She was thrilled when she heard about the course — in addition to traveling, she’d also be learning about companies in industries much different from her own.

“Everyone had different hopes and goals embedded in this,” Potosky said. “Everybody signed up because of the opportunity to travel and have this global immersive experience.”

Then, the threat of COVID-19 began creeping up. As the situation progressed, Potosky had to start considering how the course might change if a few site visits or the entire trip were canceled. Three days before the group was supposed to leave the United States, Penn State canceled all spring break study abroad programs.

Regardless of how the academic side of the course would proceed, travel accommodations needed to be addressed. After months of planning, negotiating contracts, booking, and securing approval, Hallahan and Thompson pivoted to canceling everything in a matter of days.

“They have been so enthusiastic and supportive for this,” Potosky said. “I’m not sure even the students realize how much they’ve done to make this happen and then to make this change. It has been inspiring to me. … They’ve been supporting this course from the beginning. Without that, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful.”

On the day the group was supposed to arrive in Paris, they instead met at Penn State Great Valley to discuss how the course would progress. The resonating word for everyone involved was “disappointed.” Who wouldn’t be?

Still, McCafferty, Sullivan, and 10 of their classmates decided to continue — they had already done the preparation work and the concept was interesting, even without the travel.

Since the site visits had been the cornerstone of the course, Potosky focused on how to incorporate that immersion into a remote environment. Some companies were able to provide virtual tours of their facilities using Zoom, some could only provide information and answer questions via email, and others had to pull their participation completely.

Gaggenau, a German manufacturer of high-end kitchen appliances, was one of the companies able to provide a synchronous virtual tour of their facilities, including a video of a cooking class and appliance demonstration from a previous in-person tour. Global chemical distribution company Brenntag wasn’t on the original list of companies the class would analyze because its headquarters in Essen, Germany, was too far from Strasbourg. Once everything became virtual, though, Brenntag jumped in and provided a virtual tour, too.

“I appreciate the effort Dr. Potosky and the University made to try to get us the information in the most expedient method available,” Sullivan said. “Technology certainly made this more manageable. Twenty or 30 years ago we would not have even had the opportunity or ability for a virtual visit.”

The final assignments for the course remained mostly unchanged. While students couldn’t share their findings through a standard poster presentation, they worked in small groups to create narrated PowerPoints, comparing the focal points of one American and one European organization, and wrote papers that compared the business practices and COVID-19 responses of all the organizations “visited.”

Virtual tours and emails provided the necessary academic and analytical resources, but Potosky noted another vital aspect to the course: social connection. Had the course gone as planned, the group would have stayed in the same hotels, had daily meetings and activities, shared meals. Nothing could fully replicate the experience, but maintaining a close connection was still important.

Potosky and the students decided to hold short virtual meetings every Tuesday evening through Microsoft Teams, where all course materials were shared; the group had planned to use Teams to stay in contact through WiFi while overseas. The group previously had a few in-person meetings, but this gave everyone the opportunity to continue get to know one another.

“I thought it was a really great touch,” McCafferty said. “It wasn’t specific to the classwork, although sometimes questions would come up. Denise took the time to set aside that time and just connect and ask questions and check in on everybody.”