Shaheryar Mian






Real Estate and Finance


Jan 2019 - Sept 2020

By Shaheryar Mian

Till Zoom do us part

“Adaptability to change is itself a hallmark of successful education” (Peter Hilton).

In January of ‘this year’ (aka years ago) I had audited the FinTech module with the S18 – J19 combo. I remember flying into Heathrow at 6AM from Dubai and made it to class just after 10AM after checking-in at my friend’s place in Battersea. The swift and dizzying journey via Heathrow express and Uber through different zones of London hinted of a James Bond movie, without the Aston Martin of course. After gobbling down half a cup of warm Porridge from Pret a Manger, I paced down Old Street with my umbrella trading places from one hand to the other. The brisk weather and light precipitation served as a quintessential London welcome. I felt excited about seeing my classmates after the December break.

EMBA J19 cohort

That’s us J19ers attending the FinTech module in January (as mentioned lots and lots of lols)

There were only few of us J19ers attending the module and we shared many stories and laughs throughout the week. When lunch sandwiches served with cold cuts and chilled condiments failed our taste buds, we settled for a local restaurant, the Shoreditch Grind, as our escape. Over lunch one afternoon, I struggled convincing my classmates about the benefits of a lone hillside meditation retreat that I had completed in Bali only a couple of weeks before the module. Despite the lack of appreciation, the Bali trip served as great practice for the impending quarantine. One of our complaints as a class during the module was being packed like sardines in a make-shift conference room. If we thought that was the worst of our complaints fast forward a few weeks.

For the J19 cohort unfortunately COVID-19 caused a ripple which took nearly a quarter of our class through deferral for health, financial, and professional reasons. It was a sudden departure with hardly any time to reflect or say goodbye. Now that you have the long-winded preamble, I can share my first Zoom class experience.


Highlights from the ‘Emerging Markets in China’ module:

  1. Breakout rooms served as a quick and efficient feature to divide the class into groups for case study discussions.
  2. Our professor, Eric Thun, made good use of the polls feature on multiple occasions to gather class opinion related to a topic.
  3. More focused attention because the lecturer literally covers 90% of your screen’s surface area.
  4. Zoom scored high on punctuality – especially on Friday where in Oxford, you would witness a flock of zombies stumble into the lecture theatre past 9AM, cheers to Hanks!
  5. Classmates from China were called upon to share their knowledge and insights about the business and social landscape in China.
  6. Amazon failed in China – so did Uber. What is it about the Chinese market that these western unicorns could not master?
  7. Apple generates a substantial portion of its revenues (>15%) from China – a market that has ballooned in the past decade for the tech giant. But what does that landscape look like in a world of tariffs and COVID-19?
  8. China’s belt and road initiative (BRI) poured billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in over 60 countries with Pakistan as the flagship. Is the real goal of BRI politically motivated?
  9. 4 hours of online class versus 9 hours in-person.
  10. Good use of the Zoom Whiteboard by our professor as he conducted class discussions and gathered everyone’s feedback.
  11. I clocked 24 hours of class over 6 days for the module – more on Zoom fatigue later.
My zoom class set-up. Pj's were mandatory. The multi-screen set up was really effective in splitting the slides and attendees - I endured double assault.

My zoom class set-up. Pj’s were mandatory. The multi-screen set up was really effective in splitting the slides and attendees – I endured double assault.

For J19, the China module unleashed a painful reality – first, the in-person module in China was cancelled and class was rescheduled for April in Oxford; then, as the Coronavirus spread, the module was changed entirely to be delivered online. The pain was compounded by the cancellation of other international modules like Cape Town*. However, despite all the apprehension and disappointment with online classes, I have to say my experience was, as the English expression goes: ‘not bad’. In fact, our professor did all he could and tried his best to deliver a good experience for the class and I can confidently say I learned new things. From a learning perspective, it worked. But as far as experience goes, obviously nothing comes close to being in Oxford.

From a “paying attention” standpoint, I believe Zoom lectures are more effective than in-person lectures. This is partly due to the consistent sensory assault from the screen and headphones. In class, distractions like playing chess on the internet, sending emails while the professor is lecturing, or sharing WhatsApp photos of classmates napping, are commonplace. But with Zoom’s invasion of your screen, there is little room for distractions. That of course assumes you do not let a second computer or your smartphone infiltrate. The attention that the Zoom platform seeks from us does cause fatigue. National Geographic reports that the primary focus on words and absence of nonverbal cues demands intense attention which can be terribly draining.

For me though I felt less class time (4 hours per day with a break in between) was sufficient and allowed for ample time in the day to catch up on readings or do other important activities like yoga on YouTube. In Oxford, a typical day would constitute 7 hours of class and lots of walking.

It is fair to say that the effectiveness of the Zoom class delivery hinges on the lecturer. For us, Eric Thun used several tools to keep us engaged as mentioned under the highlights. Zoom breakout rooms were more efficient than having students physically assemble into different conference rooms at the Executive wing. The use of video and snippets from documentaries was also a nice segue into discussion and I felt throughout our module, the professor made sure the students were contributing.

Our Chinese classmates were instrumental in sharing insights from their experience working at Chinese companies and living in major metropolises that have transformed in the last couple of decades. Checkout a photo of Shanghai’s transformation over 20 years (Source: The Atlantic).

Shanghai Skyline transformation in 20 years - 1990 - 2010 (photo by The Atlantic)

Shanghai Skyline transformation in 20 years – 1990 – 2010 (photo by The Atlantic)

We are scheduled to visit China as an audit module in October of ‘this year’ to make up for the in-person experience that we missed out on so I would say it is a win-win: fingers and toes crossed! Considering the paralysing impact of COVID-19 and judging the actions of the EMBA Team in facilitating class and in-person audit trip for this module, I would say the Oxford team, Bryony Murdoch, and the professor did their best. Having shared my experience, I would still prefer being packed like sardines with my classmates in an obscure conference room. I wonder what my journey from Heathrow to London would feel like after all this is over…

*Note from Saïd Business School: Due to the global pandemic, the trip to Cape Town is planned to be supplanted by an optional study trip later in the programme. Future international modules are currently scheduled as planned.

For more information about the Oxford Executive MBA click here to visit our website.

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