Partnership, Collaboration, and Mobilization: A Metropolitan College Case Study

Despite an encroaching pandemic, MET harnesses a history of innovation and teamwork to successfully deliver three jeopardized modules with international partner Universidad San Pablo CEU in Madrid.

For 14 years, the MET International spring break course in Spain had gone off without a hitch. There was no reason for the program’s coordinators to expect a major disruption in 2020. But, there was something in the air—literally. It was in Madrid, it was in Massachusetts, and it was spreading around the globe. Novel coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), was getting people’s attention and was about to wreak havoc on “business as usual.”

Setting the Scene: MET International in Madrid
Before the novel flu-like illness—caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2—changed life as we know it, Boston University’s Metropolitan College (MET) was preparing to send faculty and coordinators overseas to Universidad San Pablo CEU in Madrid. They were to lead the annual series of modules for CEU students enrolled in the Undergraduate Certificate in International Business, offered by BU MET’s Department of Administrative Sciences as part of MET International’s Undergraduate Semester in Boston: three modules—one for first-year students, one for second, and one for third—over three years, culminating in a semester abroad in Boston.

On Friday, March 6, MET International Executive Director Neus Codina left for Madrid to prepare for the week of modules, set to start on March 9. She was followed on March 7 by Professors Irena Vodenska and Stephen Leybourne. Still in Boston but scheduled to join the group in Madrid were Professors Jennifer Lee and Kathleen Park, who would be co-teaching Module 1, “Digital Marketing.” Dr. Vodenska would lead Module 2, “Current Trends in Business,” and Dr. Leybourne Module 3, “Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Global Competitiveness.” Together over five days—known as BU Module Week at CEU—these faculty would teach close to seventy students in the certificate program.

“This was my ninth trip to Madrid,” explains Dr. Leybourne. “There has always been a full complement of faculty on-site in Madrid, teaching classes in the ‘normal’ way, over five days. This year, unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Plan B
Concerns about COVID-19 were escalating, and, on Friday the situation was in flux. “The Centers for Disease Control website did not yet have a travel advisory for Spain,” notes Ms. Codina. “No one could anticipate that the situation would deteriorate as fast as it did.”

In fact, some things were still operating under a guise of normalcy. March 8 was International Women’s Day and the parade in Madrid attracted thousands, despite growing evidence that large gatherings were facilitating the spread of the virus. With their hotel in the center of the city, Professors Leybourne and Vodenska had little choice but to maneuver the crowds.

Moreover, the moratorium on individual faculty travel had not yet been announced by Boston University leadership. On the ground at CEU, preparations were already well underway for Module Week, with Module 1 scheduled to begin on Monday at 4 pm local time. While half of the program faculty from BU MET were on the ground in Madrid, Professors Lee and Park had not yet departed from Boston, and it remained uncertain whether they would. Advisories from the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC, and other public health entities were evolving day-by-day, with the scenario changing, it seemed, hourly. On Sunday, March 8, Spain had 430 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the country. The number would rise to 589 by Monday. Meanwhile, Italy had imposed a strict quarantine on 16 million residents in the northern part of the country—soon to be expanded to include the whole country.

For those still in Boston, tough decisions had to be made about travel—to fly or not to fly.

As a precaution, on Friday, March 6, Metropolitan College Dean Tanya Zlateva requested a backup plan be developed in case of potential international travel restrictions. “The coronavirus situation in Spain abruptly deteriorated,” explained Dean Zlateva. “On Sunday afternoon, it became clear that it was preferable to cancel all remaining travel plans and find a remote alternative.”

Now confirmed that Dr. Lee and Dr. Park would remain in Boston, it was time for plan B.

Don’t Mess With MET
Over its fifty-plus year history, Metropolitan College has been dedicated to perfecting flexible educational formats accessible to busy adults locally, nationally, and internationally. BU MET has been pioneering award-winning online courses and programs since 2002 using innovative pedagogical approaches and advanced technology in conjunction with experienced faculty and highly qualified instructional designers. Facing unprecedented disruption, few if any institutions are as uniquely qualified to roll with the punches.

MET has solid experience with various blended-learning modalities, notes Leo Burstein, director of Educational Technology & Innovation (ETI) at MET. “ETI and Information Technology (MET IT) teams have always worked in close collaboration to promote faculty adoption of the latest educational technology, with ETI focusing on researching and experimenting with the latest trends, and MET IT making sure the innovations survive the test of day-to-day operations,” he says. “This allows both teams to collaboratively support faculty in various teaching and learning scenarios, including business continuity planning.”

MET is well-prepared for crises thanks to four cornerstones of success, Mr. Burstein contends: “Faculty have experience teaching in different modalities; technical staff are well-trained supporting a full stack of educational technologies; MET uses state-of-the-art technology that was properly installed in advance; and the MET leadership team is fully informed both about faculty and staff preparedness and technology details.”

In fact, earlier in the spring senior leadership and administrators of core student and faculty services at BU MET had already prepared a strategy for minimizing disruptions and mitigating possible adverse effects caused by COVID-19. Now, put to their first test, BU MET sprang into action.

“With the class starting on Monday at 11 am, Boston time, we had just hours to prepare and coordinate with an international team in Madrid,” recounts Dean Zlateva.

Without wasting any time, the dean convened a task force comprising members of BU MET’s Distance Education, ETI, and Information Technology offices, as well as representatives of MET International, the College’s Department of Administrative Sciences, and Universidad San Pablo CEU. The charge: deliver Module 1 as scheduled, remotely from Boston. The show must go on.

“Over the weekend, MET IT and ETI were able to promptly set up the teaching studio and necessary devices,” says Dr. Lee. “The task force had the kickoff meeting with the team in Madrid, including Professors Leybourne and Vodenska, just before the launch of the first lecture on Monday, where we discussed operations and the new approach to teaching. Over the meeting, we made sure that a Blackboard site, video classroom link, and CEU facilities were all set up appropriately.”

A Model of Mobilization
On Sunday morning, Mr. Burstein and MET IT Executive Director of IT & Engineering Julia Burstein (MET’10) established a conference call with two key individuals who had hands-on familiarity with both the CEU program and key MET technologies: ETI Senior Educational Technology Analyst Andrew Abrahamson and MET IT Educational Tech Support Specialist Adam Brilla.

“We developed three possible scenarios for supporting the program despite the faculty team being split between Madrid and Boston locations,” says Ms. Burstein. “Early Monday morning, March 9, Dean Zlateva organized an emergency video meeting with the Boston and Madrid teams and we agreed on a dual-site delivery option. The Boston-based instructors would use the MET IT multimedia lab, which is fully equipped to support advanced remote teaching scenarios, to teach students in CEU classrooms. Our MET IT technicians would provide on-demand technical assistance, with the faculty who had already travelled to Madrid providing local presence.”

To complicate matters, during the emergency meeting it was learned that CEU was preparing for the very real possibility of remote teaching, and that they were hoping to use their own learning management system and videoconferencing tools rather than those historically employed by MET.

“To accommodate going remote, CEU requested that we use their technology tools, which were different from the established technologies used by BU faculty, support teams, and CEU students in previous MET courses held online with the partner,” says Mr. Burstein, warning that a switch to unproven platforms could limit MET IT’s support capabilities and create unacceptable risk in terms of successful program completion. “Luckily, Dean Zlateva, being fully informed of the situation down to the technical details, was able to negotiate an agreement to stay the course and proceed with BU plans and technologies.”

Meanwhile, in Madrid, the BU faculty and CEU administrators had only moments to set up the corresponding technology in the classroom so the CEU students could use Blackboard for remote delivery. Ms. Codina recalls, “It was challenging because the CEU morning classes were still happening on campus, and we had to wait until teaching was over in the designated classroom to set up the technology—and that did not happen until 3 pm, just one hour before the module was scheduled to begin!”

Thanks to quick thinking and BU MET’s collective expertise with educational technologies and innovative course delivery formats, everything fell into place.

“Four o’clock on Monday afternoon, I was teaching my normal Module 3 in the classroom,” confirms Dr. Leybourne. “Irena was up the corridor teaching her students in Module 2, face-to-face, and the Module 1 students were in two executive conference rooms with full audio-visual, taught by Kathleen and Jennifer.”

Disruption Averted amid a Deteriorating Situation
Dr. Park and Dr. Lee taught from MET’s media studio, with a virtual backdrop of BU’s Charles River Campus in place.

“It was not challenging at all to keep the classroom highly interactive,” says Dr. Lee. “We were able to get student questions through the video chat box, as well as through students’ microphones. What was especially essential was the use of the ‘breakout rooms’ function in the video platform. Students were placed in the room with their team members, and we were able to visit each breakout room to answer questions and facilitate discussions. In fact, student team discussions were extremely efficient. This was fun experience for me as well as the students.”

“We completed the entire course with full student participation and engagement, and all course objectives were fulfilled on time and according to the original schedule,” says Dr. Park.

Nevertheless, the global situation was alarming. According to Dr. Vodenska, as her Monday lecture was ending she noticed unusual commotion and discussion among students. “They quickly informed me that they had received messages that CEU would close on Wednesday, March 11,” she notes. “After Tuesday, we would deliver the rest of the lectures from our hotel rooms, while the students joined the class remotely from home.”

“Within two days of our launching online, the entire university system in Spain had made a rapid emergency decision to close all campus courses and send all students home for remote instruction,” confirms Park. “Thanks to our exceptional leadership and the deep MET expertise, we were already operational!”

On Wednesday, WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. That morning, Dr. Leybourne was downtown in Madrid when he received a call from Ms. Codina, who was at the university. “She said, look, we’ve had a whisper that they’re going to close Madrid’s airport on Friday,” he recounts. “We were anticipating going up to the university and teaching that afternoon. At that point, we said forget the teaching for Wednesday, let’s get home! We were scrambling around that afternoon looking for flights.”

“It became increasingly clear that we would need to leave Spain as soon as possible,” says Dr. Vodenska. “We started looking for flights back to Boston. During several attempts to purchase a new ticket, I repeatedly received the message, this fare is no longer available. We were racing against time.”

Luckily, Codina, Leybourne, and Vodenska each managed to book flights out of Madrid for Thursday, though it was not without difficulty. By Thursday evening, the three had made it back to Boston, where they would be required to remain quarantined at home for the next two weeks, until it was known whether or not anyone had contracted the coronavirus. The remainder of Modules 2 and 3 would also have to be delivered remotely.

“We continued with the delivery of the CEU Modules 2 and 3 on Friday, March 13,” explains Professor Vodenska. “Steve and I were in self-quarantine and teaching from home. Though delayed—to allow us to travel home—the delivery of the modules was not significantly disrupted. We finished on Monday, March 16, instead of Friday, March 13. I think the overall delivery of the lectures went very well, as reported by the involved participants and organizers, despite the COVID-19 challenges.”

“The program has now completed, and the letters I received from our Spanish partners were highly complementary to our faculty and administration,” wrote Dean Zlateva in an update to the community. Among the correspondence was an email from Graham Jones, CEU’s academic coordinator of the joint program.

“The fact that we have been working together for so long clearly makes it easier to reach quick joint decisions in extreme situations such as those faced last week,” wrote Mr. Jones. “I think Tanya observed at some point during the week that the difficult situation had brought us closer together and I would totally agree with that. It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as they say. The fact that we were able to cooperate so seamlessly at several key moments bodes well for the future as our relationship matures still more and our joint program continues to evolve to the benefit of generations of CEU students.”

In closing, he offered hope: “Here’s to a smooth 15th Module Week in June, 2021.”

On March 14, the director-general of WHO had declared that Europe had become the “epicenter of the pandemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, apart from China.” By March 30, Spain had overtaken China with more than 85,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, joining the ranks of Italy and the United States in terms of the number infected. The toll keeps rising.

“We at MET are thinking of our colleagues and students at CEU, hoping for their well-being during this struggle,” says Dean Zlateva. “We look forward to meeting them again in the physical classroom, in Madrid and in Boston, when the COVID-19 crisis is overcome.”

Meanwhile, Professor Leybourne, Professor Vodenska, and Ms. Codina completed their two-week quarantine without developing any symptoms of the virus.

For those seeking COVID-19 updates from Boston University, please visit the Back2BU website. For more information about the coronavirus, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control.

For their generous contributions to this article, special thanks to Julia Burstein, Leo Burstein, Neus Codina, Jennifer Lee, Steve Leybourne, Kathleen Park, Irena Vodenska, and Dean Tanya Zlateva.