How NYU’s Online MHA Program Reimagined Immersion

Each semester, NYU Wagner’s Online MHA students look forward to attending one of the program’s biggest draws: Immersion.

A two-and-a-half day residential experience in New York City, Immersion is the online program’s sole required in-person offering, which occurs during each cohort’s second term. A few dozen students would arrive on NYU’s campus by train, bus, airplane, car, or cab to take part in a jam-packed weekend. The trip and accompanying academic course titled, “Introductory Immersion: Skill-Building for Healthcare Managers,” offered students operating in different parts of the country—or even parts of the New York area—a unique opportunity to meet outside of the Zoom “Brady Bunch wall:” a chance for real connection and networking. 

“Immersion is an essential part of the program that develops psychological safety, so that students trust everyone to bring their full selves to class,” said Carla Jackie Sampson, director of NYU Wagner’s Online MHA program. But Immersion is also where communication skills, career development, evidence-based management, and leadership development—the program’s integrative competencies or “Red Threads”—are spotlighted and developed.

With the unexpected onset of COVID-19, the offering was canceled indefinitely. However, the skills gained from Immersion were simply too important to delay, and the curriculum was mapped in such a way that students needed to gain the credits—and the content—as soon as possible. So the team stepped back and reimagined Immersion from scratch. 

“Execute, Execute, Execute”

At first, Sampson didn’t think the undertaking would be possible. And even if it was possible, how could it come close to achieving the goals of the original Immersion? It was critical to develop the students’ soft skills early on—like practicing elevator pitches in a low-stakes environment—but the added complexity of turning the curriculum on its head, attempting to work around 90 students’ work schedules, and accommodating different time zones was a “complex undertaking.”

“I think for me, it was really important to figure out what success for this program would look like,” said Tiffany Charbonier, NYU Wagner’s Assistant Director of Online Education. “We knew that people loved Immersion and connecting with other students. But our students were also really tired from the cognitive overload of life, and 2020 was weighing down on them.”

Many of the MHA students were currently working as health practitioners on the front lines of the pandemic, some of whom were nurses working long hours, or parents who had to juggle work, their academic course load, and their children. The program’s leadership team scheduled the program for January 2021 during NYU’s “January semester”—a time where the students wouldn’t have any coursework and could “focus a bit more without worrying about their grades,” Charbonier said. This also meant that students would have to give up their only time off in the year-round program.

“It was really evident that people still wanted to network, talk to people who are going through the same things they were going through, and practice growth regardless,” said Charbonier.

Keep it Simple

Understanding that their online students may be fatigued by the use of screens, the NYU Wagner team incorporated some new learning technologies currently available at NYU to keep things fresh and engaging. The updates included a new learning management system called Brightspace, which provided easy access to every link or resource students could possibly need throughout Immersion. The system also housed enhanced discussion boards, navigation options, and interactive presentation and discussion tools.

Each of these tools helped facilitate class introductions, as well as group assignments where students could record their answers on their own time, rather than attempting to find a meeting time that worked for everyone. Faculty also had the capability to post voice-narrated PowerPoints, enriching media and assignments, and, according to research, improving learning. 

“Our mission is to show faculty and educators that ‘online’ doesn't always just mean take what you do in-person and shift it online,” she said. “So now students are on videos together, then they’re working on the same document digitally, and then they’re collaborating on chat. There's all of these deeper kinds of connections that happen when you embrace technology,” Charbonier said.

The Faculty

Faculty members also had to reimagine their courses—which were designed for on-the-ground learning. Naturally, they did so with patience, kindness, and empathy, all while bringing real-life COVID case studies to the virtual environment. “These instructors have very high-powered jobs in many aspects of healthcare, and are able to bring their experiences into the classroom,” Sampson said.

One of these instructors is Surabhi Lal, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service who transformed her in-person course for this year’s virtual Immersion. 

“I started Immersion talking about understanding your own professional journey and your professional story and how to share that story,” said Lal. “This program, in-person or online, helps people see themselves differently, and really step into their identity as somebody who's going to be a leader in healthcare.”

Lal normally conducts these storytelling sessions at tables, allowing students to talk to their neighbors. To mimic that feeling online, she used breakout rooms so each student could have a chance to get to know their cohorts one-on-one. She also scrapped her PowerPoint deck entirely, knowing that she had to keep things moving at a quicker pace to keep everyone interested. And throughout the course, she ensured everyone had options to complete assignments their way.

“If the student is somebody who journals, they might want to write their answer out by hand. If they are someone who thinks better through typing, there's an interactive handout they can use,” Lal said. “It really gave people with different learning styles new opportunities to complete their work in a way that works best for them.”

Similarly, DeeDee Kramer, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Health Administration, calls this year’s Immersion her “first rodeo,” but that didn’t stop her from getting creative to deliver the core content.

“The premise of this leadership immersion program was that before somebody can lead others, they must know who they are,” Kramer added. “We tried to make it as interactive as we could, understanding that these were not normal times, so the course ended up being a lot less formal than we had planned it to be in-person.”

Fewer formalities meant mics didn’t have to be muted, and if students talked over each other, that was fine, too. Although that didn’t mean everything was informal: during two-and-a-half hour sessions, students took the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) and the DiSC® profile assessment to develop a deeper understanding of themselves, their behaviors, and their conflict management styles. 

“Ultimately, students are leaving this experience with a better understanding of themselves and how they best operate,” Kramer said.

The Wins

While this year’s Immersion certainly looked different than planned, students seem to have still had a rewarding experience.

“Immersion provided me an opportunity to further develop relationships within the program and solidify a collective purpose of being a part of something much larger than just myself,” said Lisa Cole, a current student. “When you believe that whatever you're doing is tied to a purpose, great things start to happen.”

Other reactions collected from student surveys described virtual Immersion as “seamless,” “very rewarding,” and “thought-provoking.” But most importantly, students mentioned they “felt comfortable speaking up.”

That comfortability was intentional. Lal, especially, understands that creating a collaborative and safe environment early on is incredibly important in setting the stage for the rest of the program.

“We had to create a real sense of community in our little Zoom room,” she said. “With everyone speaking up equally, it creates a shared power and shared responsibility.”

In an attempt to preserve the social elements of Immersion, there were several events to help break the ice so that classes could hit the ground running, and to create a ceremonial feeling both at the beginning and end of the experience. The program saw the largest group of adjunct faculty they’ve ever had in one Zoom, interacting with small groups of the 20 or so students, from different cohorts, at the event. Cross-cohort conversations and mentoring wouldn’t normally happen when only one specific cohort comes to Immersion at a time.

The team understands that an on-campus experience, whenever it can take place and in whatever format is possible, is still uniquely valuable. “NYU Wagner very intentionally embedded an in-person learning and social experience into the program,” Gastwirth said. “Lots of learning and relationship building still happened, beyond what we thought was possible. Our students, faculty, and staff went all in. With that said, we still really can’t wait to make an on-campus experience happen.” 


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