Teaching and Learning in the COVID-19 Era

Opening remarks to the alumni, students and faculty by Stephen Z. Onyeiwu, PhD. Chair, Business and Economics Department, reprinted from the Center for Business & Economics Spring/Summer 2020 Newsletter

 Focusing on  adjusting to the new reality of COVID-19

Allegheny Economics Research Team from left: Dr. Onyeiwu, Gillian Greene '20 and Matthew Massucci '20
Dr. Onyeiwu with students Gillian Greene ’20 and Matthew Massucci ’20

I’m sure you are wondering how we are coping with the pandemic in the Business and Economics Department at Allegheny. Right after the spring break in late March, we transitioned into remote teaching and worked from home until the end of June. The transition was very challenging initially, especially for a college that has for many years developed a reputation as a unique residential institution.

Teaching remotely is an unforgettable experience for most of us. We have always cherished being in the classroom with our students, having in-person conversations, organizing case presentations, pacing up and down the room, and gesturing to drive home our points. With remote teaching, it was a very different experience when we sat alone and repeatedly viewed computer screens, not knowing how attentive the students were. But we adapted to the new reality, and did our best to deliver the same learning outcomes as in-person teaching. I missed seeing my students follow me to my office to continue with classroom conversations, as well as having one-on-one meetings with advisees.

Despite its challenges, COVID offered an opportunity for my colleagues and me to reinforce our teaching. In many cases, the pandemic helped to provide evidence about what works or doesn’t work in the economy and the business world. Some propositions in economics and business textbooks became controversial and questionable because of the pandemic. COVID-19 turned out to be a goldmine for my International Business course. A few weeks before the pandemic, we covered a chapter on global supply-chain risks. I sensed that students regarded that chapter as one of those textbook topics that have no instrumental value. A few weeks later, however, I could not keep their mouths shut when they began proposing strategies for mitigating COVID-induced supply-chain risks.

Then, the concept of “too-big-to-fail” cropped up. As the Trump administration struggled to cobble together a stimulus plan, the students were ecstatic: which corporations should be supported and which should be allowed to fail? What criteria should economists and policy-makers use in determining which businesses to save? Will the US dollar appreciate or depreciate as a result of COVID, and what are the implications for international trade and capital flows? Is this a good time for “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies of protectionism? Will globalism become anachronistic?   What should be the role of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in blunting the economic impact of the pandemic? So many controversial and intriguing issues!

Students in my seminar on development economics were perhaps the most vociferous about the implications of COVID-19. They questioned the tendency by economists to focus too much on economic growth as the key measure of economic progress. If we value our health this much, with all the lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, scramble for increasingly scarce face masks, ventilators, test-kits, etc., then we need to begin to de-emphasize economic growth and prioritize healthcare as an important indicator of development. There will be a lot of soul-searching in the economics and business professions about why we seem to be ill-prepared for the health and economic ramifications of the pandemic. Perhaps we might see the emergence of a new paradigm for managing exogenous shocks, reminiscent of the introduction of Keynesianism during the great depression.

Barring unforeseen trends in COVID-19, Allegheny is planning to reopen for the fall semester on August 31. We are planning to teach both remotely and in-person. You can be sure that COVID will continue to feature prominently in the classroom, as students and faculty discuss its impact and how best to mitigate its consequences.

Questions? Feel free to contact us at cbe@allegheny.edu

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