On the Case
Pandemic is Timely Teaching Tool
While the coronavirus was barred from physical classrooms, it did enter some virtual ones — to great effect.
When the pandemic cancelled March Madness, Noah Giansiracusa was disappointed not only as a basketball fan but also as a mathematician. He’d been set on using the annual collegiate tournament to teach a course that combines statistics, data analytics and media literacy. It’s called Seeking Truth with Data.
“We discuss topics in the news and try to trace the source of the claims to see which ones are backed up by data,” explains the assistant professor of mathematical sciences. “My plan was to focus on data-driven sports analytics by having students complete brackets for March Madness.”
Giansiracusa fixed on COVID-19 as a worthy substitute.
Its early days shrouded in mystery and misinformation, the pandemic provided fertile ground for students’ fact checking. Class discussions covered conspiracy theories and social media — for example, debunking the claim that radiation from 5G telecommunications towers was causing the coronavirus. Students analyzed data on the spread of the virus, to assess if lockdown was necessary (“we all agreed it was”).
“Everything we’d been studying suddenly became a way of understanding the chaotic and rapidly changing world around us,” says Giansiracusa. And by making the pandemic a focal point, the class filled an emotional need as well as an educational one.
“We talked a lot about the pandemic,” confirms Jackson Downs ’22. “Since everyone in class lives in a different area, we could talk about what was happening in our communities and how we were feeling.”
The course was a confidence booster, he adds. “It made me feel reassured in myself. Now I can look at statistics in a different context and not just believe everything I see on the news.”
As an expert in employment law, Liz Brown knows that tension between employer obligations and employee rights rises during a global health crisis. That argued for bringing COVID-19 into her Introductory Law and Ethics of Business course.
The associate professor and her students explored the implications of policy changes prompted by the pandemic. Topics included the CARES Act, a $2 trillion package providing relief to individuals, families and small businesses, among others, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which redefined sick leave policies to include workers’ needs to care for sick relatives and children no longer in school.
The class also discussed ethical questions that COVID-19 raises regarding employees’ expectations of privacy.
“Employers now have a strong argument for being more invasive in terms of taking temperatures and requiring antibody testing in order to keep other employees safe,” Brown explains.
Joining abstract legal concepts with concrete examples was a hit with students such as Debayan Sen ’23.
“I learned so much about things I’d never even thought about before,” he says. “Tying the coronavirus into our curriculum showed just how malleable the law is. This approach made everything more relevant.”
Brown is gratified — but not surprised.
“The better your real-world experiences are, the better your learning is,” she says. Especially now: “Business leaders who understand the legal system definitely have an advantage in their ability to respond to emergencies.”
The Future of Fashion
The packing for Paris was almost done. Senior Lecturer Ian Cross and his marketing students were about to leave for a week in France, for a firsthand look at luxury fashion houses. Then COVID-19 put an end to travel.
Cross quickly put together an alternate itinerary: a short trip to New York City featuring a walking tour of high-end retailers.
“This was at the very beginning of the pandemic,” he says, noting that the group arrived in the Big Apple on March 9. “But we could already feel its effects.”
He recalls walking into the Yves Saint Laurent flagship on 57th Street. The store was bereft of other customers, its retail assistants fearful of what the coronavirus could mean for their futures.
The experience, Cross says, provided an important context for students to understand the nuances of the luxury retail industry. These would become evident a few weeks later, as consumers focused more on finding Charmin than Chanel. Cross challenged his students to think about what a high-end brand could do to survive the pandemic. Their ideas, he says — ranging from reducing prices to move current inventory to prioritizing online and digital operations — were “well-researched and thoughtful.”
The pandemic took center stage in another of Cross’s marketing courses. Working with Shopify, the global e-commerce company, students were tasked with creating a temporary online retail shop on the Shopify platform to raise funds for a nonprofit partner.
“This project went well beyond pitching an idea,” Cross explains. “The students had to design apparel, order inventory, create the shop interface … it was a lot of work.”
Then, just as students were poised to open their digital stores, the pandemic intervened.
“Shopify became overwhelmed with providing support for their existing customers,” Cross says, leaving the company unable to complete the back-end work necessary to fulfill payments to the nonprofits.
Seizing the moment for an impromptu lesson in brand adaptation, Cross worked with his students to reconfigure their store. In April, the “Keep the Beat Going” online pop-up shop began accepting orders; all proceeds — more than $1,000 — went to the pandemic-inspired Bentley Emergency Assistance Fund (now the Student Hardship Fund).
For Cross, it was a gratifying end to a semester marked by uncertainty. “The outpouring from the Bentley community was spectacular. I’m so proud of my students for making a difference.”
It’s a standard lesson in Mike Goldberg’s Web Design and Advanced Visual Communications courses. When you’re stalled on a particular project, he tells students, think about something else for a while.
“Simply by shifting focus, students can unlock their creativity,” explains the senior lecturer in information design and corporate communication (IDCC).
This spring, the guidance served an even greater purpose. Students’ anxiety around the pandemic prompted Goldberg to propose an optional assignment: Create COVID-19-themed posters.
“I was blown away,” he says, noting that nearly everyone in his classes participated. “They really thought the assignment through.”
Students such as Emma Onanian ’20 exercized creativity and gained an outlet for strong emotions.
“It was very difficult being away from my friends during the last semester we had left together,” explains Onanian, who majored in Marketing and Liberal Studies/Quantitative Perspectives. “I said goodbye to a few friends who happened to be moving out on the same day, but I wasn't able to fully process that I wouldn’t be returning to Bentley as an undergraduate ever again.
“I only came to this realization when Professor Goldberg asked us to create a poster.”
Goldberg is happy that his students found immediate value in the assignment. “Years from now,” he adds, “the posters offer insight into what they experienced during a pivotal time in history.”
Posters designed by (L to R) Emma Onanian ’20, Kira Dharni ’22, Lucie Chion ’21 and Pablo Martin-Marquina Pagola ’21