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Alumni in Action

Virtual Courses Bring Alumni Into the Classroom

Hybrid instruction creates new opportunities for Business Badgers to share expertise with students

By Jane Burns

December 21, 2020

person speaking to other people on a computer screen

With challenges come opportunity. At the Wisconsin School of Business the challenges of 2020 created an opportunity to open classrooms beyond their virtual walls and bring in more alumni to share their expertise.

Guest speakers have always been part of the classroom experience. But throughout the Fall 2020 semester more alumni could present to classes because UW–Madison’s hybrid course instruction reduced many of the barriers to participation.

“When we had to redesign courses, it became clear we could leverage our virtual environment to bring alumni experts into the classroom in a new way,” says Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business. “Our alumni responded enthusiastically and their insights enhanced a variety of lectures.”

Business Badger alumni presented to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as students in WSB’s pre-college programs during the summer. Most were synchronous—meaning students listened to the alumni presentations in real time—but some presentations were integrated into online lectures for asynchronous classes.

Liz Woelfel (BBA ’09) spoke from her home in the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin in a conversation that marketing lecturer Laurie Brachman recorded for more than 700 undergraduate students to watch. Woelfel talked about data-driven pricing, her career as senior manager of revenue growth management at Kimberly-Clark, and her path to getting there.

“Any time you get to talk about what you do, it brings back the excitement of it that you don’t always think about when you are in the day to day,” she says.

Connecting coursework to the real world

Jonathan Kuether (BBA ’08) visited a project management class early in the semester, and helped set the tone for the students. Kuether, a manager at Bain & Company based in the Chicago area, discussed how and why projects succeed or fail and communicating with customers. He was happy to participate because he always enjoyed guest speakers when he was a student.

“I liked how they brought to life what you read, what you discussed,” he says, “particularly when it was hearing from alumni in the business world.”

Kuether was one of five alumni who visited the graduate project management classes taught by Professor Enno Siemsen in Fall 2020. In past years, instructors and guest speakers might have been more skeptical of approaching the visit as a virtual one but the pandemic put those notions to rest.

“Nothing beats a live performance, but you can get 90 percent there with a Zoom call,” says Siemsen, associate dean of the MBA and master’s programs. “By now we all know how to manage these technologies and all these apps have gotten so much better.”

If you want to bring someone into the classroom, it can be a logistical nightmare. But everybody can jump on a 30-minute Zoom call.

—Enno Siemsen, associate dean of the MBA and master’s programs

In an executive MBA class, Christina O’Connor (MBA ’20) and Amar Adma (MBA ’20) co-presented about agile project management. O’Connor, manager of industrialization at Rockwell Automation based in the Milwaukee area, and Adma, assistant vice president, of underwriting transformation at Zurich North America based in the Chicago area, are alumni of the executive MBA program.

“Both were knee-deep in the implementation of agile project management in their firms, one in software one in hardware,” Siemsen says. “So it was an interesting duo because they come from very different worlds.”

Flexible options for guest speakers

Technology expands the accessibility of alumni who can speak to classes. Now speakers don’t have to take hours or even days out of their schedules, catch a flight, or book a hotel room to come to a class. This summer and fall, alumni from coast to coast engaged with students.

“If you want to bring someone into the classroom it can be a logistical nightmare,” Siemsen says. “But everybody can jump on a 30-minute Zoom call. It’s just a lot more agile.”

That’s what Kuether found. He originally planned to travel from Chicago to visit Siemsen’s class in person, but his commitment would likely have ended there and not extended to two more classes he visited this semester.

“For me to come to Madison three times during a semester would be unlikely,” he says. “So the ability to utilize technology and only have to give an hour of my time each time makes it a game-changer to connect Madison to people who don’t live there.”

Woelfel says the virtual experience helped make speaking to a class, especially a large one, less intimidating. That could interest more alumni to participate in the future, she says.

“While I present at work a lot, the chance to present in front of a large lecture hall is not necessarily something I would jump at,” she says. “Speaking on Zoom gives you a virtual wall in between and another layer of comfort for someone who might be an introvert.”

‘Badgers helping other Badgers’

Alumni are eager to connect with students, says Shannon Timm (BS ’09, MBA ’19), WSB’s director of alumni relations.

“Our alumni network is filled with individuals who excel in their fields and would jump at the chance to share their experiences with students,” she says. “Badgers helping other Badgers is one of the things that makes our community so special.”

Alumni will play a key role in a new general business class in Spring 2021. The course, an exploration of how COVID-19 will impact the future of business, will include alumni speakers from a diverse set of industries.

Guest speakers will remain a part of the classroom experience, even after things return to normal on campus. Now instructors have another technological tool at their disposal to tap into an even wider range of experienced professionals.

“These alumni have the kind of stories I can hint at, but it really helps to have someone in the classroom who helps bring these situations to life,” Siemsen says.

Interested in getting more involved with WSB? Visit our website to learn about the many opportunities for alumni to engage with the School.