Remote Learning: Transforming Liability into Opportunity
Teaching with Digital Technology Award (TWDTA) winner Bruno Verdini overcame the inherent separation of remote learning by continuing to keep as the pedagogical cornerstone, the forging of a tailored connection with his students. He embraced the challenge to utilize new technologies, with which he had no prior experience, resolute that the remote class experience should not only meet 100% of the learning objectives from the traditional and highly-ranked in-person versions,1. but seize completely new ways of assimilating and engaging with the materials, empowering young professionals to build persuasion and management skills that thrive within and transcend beyond the digital and remote world, by keeping our moral compass as the center of gravity.
In the videos below, Verdini and his students describe how in both 11.111/17.381J Leadership in Negotiation: Advanced Applications and in 11.011 The Art and Science of Negotiation, they embraced examining proactively the consequences of the psychological, political, economic, and social blind spots, across nations, that have worsened the tragic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With practical wisdom as the heartbeat, the students contrasted definite plans of action on the kind of world they want to live in today, examining how to enact partnerships that mobilize the law to widen conceptions of justice, exploring how to enhance adoption across the political spectrum of scientific innovations, and weighing how to potentiate the behaviors that underpin health and prosperity across communities.
Complex role-play negotiation exercises, conducted synchronously over several rounds, provided students with nuanced mandates, demanding back tables, and high-leverage tipping points, to hone-in leadership skills in moments of crisis, whether addressing climate risks, resolving regional military conflicts, or advancing social transformation. Through custom-built strategy cases, Verdini, in close partnership with his outstanding teaching assistants,2. entrusted students to live through rigorously researched scenarios across cultures and organizations, rich in contextual data and historical significance. Drawing from actual negotiations in the Oval Office centered on counter-terrorism and national security to multi-billion dollar mergers occurring under the scrutiny of the courts and the media, the materials hinged on threading together de-classified documents, public records, and primary sources, several of them accessible through Verdini’s experience coaching heads of government across five continents, as well as the chief executive officers of some of the world’s most important companies and non-profits. Icon lanes, a pedagogical innovation that brings together memoirs, podcasts, classic book chapters, and movies, mined the spirit of towering figures across the globe, such as Nelson Mandela, by capturing the stakes, stamina, and stature we need to display when things are bleak, turning the tide on immense challenges by strategically responding, over extensive periods of time, with the entirety of our emotional, intellectual, and ethical resonance.
As Verdini explains “an epitome of this commitment to values in action, is my colleague, Mariam Dogar, who after taking 11.011 and 11.111, became the head TA among 30 admirable candidates. Concurrent to the constant innovations she forged as she held this leadership role for two years, Mariam aced the steps to major in biology, with a minor in urban studies and planning, and a concentration in negotiation and leadership. Across these years, her devotion to uplift underserved communities through cutting-edge medical and telehealth innovations led her to consulting, internship, volunteer, and research responsibilities across a gamut of scenarios, from board meetings with venture pharma to refugee camps in Greece and Jordan, including stints at the Massachusetts State House, World Bank, McGovern Institute of Brain Research, Mount Auburn Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital. At every step, Mariam left an indelible mark, culminating with the distinguished Schwarzman Scholarship. The recipe? As it is the case with the formidable TA colleagues I have had the joy to collaborate across the years, the main ingredient is their rock-solid moral compass, intertwined with genuine humility, curiosity, and drive. Mariam has now graduated from MIT, but a couple weeks ago, she reached out with the latest in her journey learning one more of the many languages she wields. This is what she mentioned: ‘I wanted to share the following because when I read it, it made me think of what I learned in 11.011 and 11.111, and what I am trying to continue to grow and practice! In Chinese, the character for the verb 'to listen' is Ting. The character is made up of symbols for the different critical components of listening, which are not limited to the ear. It includes the eye, mind, and heart.’”
The Geometry of Breakout Rooms and Multiple Communication Channels
Across the nominations for TWDTA, students reported intense, impassioned involvement when participating in all class activities, joining live across diverse countries and time zones. They engaged not only with the content — fully examined, researched, and rendered applicable as part of the initiatives Verdini leads in partnership with his colleagues at the MIT Science Impact Collaborative and the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School — but equally carried out the mission to re-trace, re-imagine, and re-define how an in-depth awareness of the tenor and substance of their own thoughts and emotions, both positive and negative, transforms their role let alone in the broader contexts of their lives, but in the kind of benchmarks our societies prize.
Turning remote learning into an opportunity to foster more flexible mindsets, Verdini and his team intentionally assembled students into negotiation groups with an array of competing and complementary abilities. Thematic debriefs that, in person, would require time and physical movement to configure tables to create privacy for partnering teams, were instead easily accomplished by crafting specific breakout rooms over Zoom. Requiring careful planning, a few keystrokes, and a click on the record button, a larger array of perspectives were able to interact with one another, on both tactics and implementation. Instantly available, then further curated to highlight best practices, this ushered in a library of memorable videos.
Learning in a virtual classroom made it possible as well to track and manage an increased number of communication threads. On top of the video meetings, were opportunities for e-mailing, texting, and calling over the phone, privately, as well as publicly, across multiple days of negotiations. This added new layers to the proceedings, enhancing the sequencing of side conversations between delegates and the unveiling of surprise twists among competitors. In tandem with examinations on the impact of rumors, leaks, and appearances in radio, television, and social media, this all combined to more faithfully entrust students to grapple with the swift, dynamic, think-on- your-feet nature of authentic negotiation in business, in government, and in life.
Community of Learning and Faculty Commitment
As is a hallmark of his classes, Verdini partnered on a weekly basis, with both his students and TAs, to tailor the unfolding of 11.011 and 11.111/17.381 to the characteristics, style, and interests of each cohort. “Across the sessions, young professionals are placed in situations that allow them, through the nuance of their preparation, creativity in decision-making, and quality of negotiation outcomes, to directly impact how pedagogical improvements will be unveiled as the term unfolds, effectively changing the nature, scope, timing, and complexity of the exercises that we develop and bring to the learning experience. In this way, students are trusted to be real co-creators of their own learning, well beyond providing survey feedback, by means of the effort, choices, and actions they take, contributing intentionally to the stature of the experiences, insights, and conclusions they can apply to their real life. This is a reason why entire cohorts continue to meet years after the classes have ended, in both in-person and online groups, for they have forged a genuine sense of community. That they build upon these bonds to coach one another as they continue to flex their leadership muscles across diverse industry paths around the globe, now as MIT alumni, is a testament to the honest, supportive, transformative mirror they chose to become for one another.”
The final component to the success of Verdini’s classes was his dedication. There was a heartwarming, universal recognition on how he provided a transformative learning experience and demonstrated over and over again his commitment to winning together, in partnership with his teaching assistants and with his students. We leave the last word to them.
“We were in an environment that was buzzing with energy, with excitement, with vulnerability, with empathy, and most importantly the willingness to learn.”
“Bruno has my highest praise as a teacher. From elementary school all the way to college, I have had a lot of good teachers, and a few great teachers. These teachers all care about how well the students learn the subjects they are supposed to learn. But what makes Bruno stand out, on a whole other level, is his energy and dedication to his students. Witnessing such energy, I always feel obligated to reciprocate by doing the absolute best I can. Anything less than meticulous attention and deep reflection on reading material prior to classes, and wild creativity and quick-thinking during negotiation exercises, would be a disservice to Bruno and the teaching team.”
“In our class meetings through Zoom, the students were never muted with their cameras off. In 11.111 we were always fully engaged and participating because Professor Verdini prepares so thoroughly and thoughtfully. In turn, we as students also stepped up our personal best for every class.”
“Bruno constantly encourages us to be our best selves, and it shows in the way that everyone participates in his class because WE WANT TO. There were never any awkward pauses.”
“Bruno used Zoom better than anyone I can think of. The first day in the online transition, he had already mastered the dynamics of breakout rooms, screensharing, and e-class norms.”
“He found special ways to keep the class feeling like the environment we had in-person. For example, Bruno still wore his suit for every lecture. He would also be standing and moving around as he spoke in the same way he does in the classroom. It really felt like 11.111 was still in person.”
“He consistently presented our negotiation debrief information through in-depth data visualizations and video/audio compilations to know each student's negotiation styles and personality. Through this, pairings for our remote negotiation exercises and breakout rooms were rich with opportunities for us to push beyond our comfort zone and grow alongside our peers.”
“I could not imagine another professor who has dedicated more time or thoughtfulness into his remote teaching, and I am really grateful.”
“In an increasingly modern world, I feel more confident than ever in my ability to communicate and negotiate … and that is solely due to this course.”
“As a massive side benefit, the class more than adequately prepared us to live and lead in a decentralized work environment.”
“Bruno redefines the role of an instructor. From the get-go, he set out to be a mentor and moral guide.”
“He masterfully guides conversations by employing active listening better than any discussions I've had in any class, ever!”
“I’ve never had a teacher who so brilliantly leads the classroom yet is also so deeply invested in his students’ growth. I truly cannot imagine what my MIT experience would have been like without Bruno’s pedagogy.”
“He has an ability to understand the underlying meaning behind what a student responds and uses that to create an overarching moral question to continue the discussion. And this continued with the online transition. It really is something you have to see to believe.”
“I can't use words to explain the impact Bruno has had on me. He made me question my character, my ethics, what I consider a "win," and he allowed me to walk out of this class with a developed sense of responsibility and a focus on self-reflection every chance I get.”
1. Annually, more than 640 MIT STEM students, from over 18 different MIT departments, along with students from Harvard and Wellesley, seek pre-registration in the electives’ lotteries, for less than 15% of available roster spots.
2. “Mariam Dogar, Megan Diehl, and Emily Chen in 11.111; Aigneis Frey, Lily Zhang, Yara Komaiha, and Shreya Pandit in 11.011. Every TA cohort brings their own spin while building on the legacy of a previous cohort. I equate the design of our class sessions with playing a season in a team sport. Each TA cohort can have a unique impact let alone on the students, but how we experience the field itself, to the extent that I make sure to honor their specific brilliance and set the stage for their own voices to shine. This philosophy manifests itself in many ways. For example, each TA appointment is conceived as part-time in order to optimize performance by ensuring that their individual and shared journey is part and parcel of their larger campus passions, and as such, is informed by a real interdisciplinary outlook on life. The TA action items are co-built around the strengths each person showcased when they were students in the first place, with an emphasis on the consistency and character with which they examined, tested, and wielded the materials. Trust is thus the foundation of what we do because everything has been experienced, earned, and proven: from the ability to accurately measure the temperature in the room to seize a window of opportunity, to the capacity to monitor the right data points to advance an argument, to the wherewithal to remain flexible, creative, and focused under pressure. I see the faculty role as that of a coach: when you deploy players in the field, you do so embracing the magnitude of their abilities, co-designing opportunities and situations that fit and enhance their own creativity and impact (not the other way around). Because Srimayi Tenali, Zulkayda Mamat, Zoe Gong, Ariel Brito, Christien Williams, and Griffin Ansel contributed so meaningfully in recent years, infusing peer-to-peer coaching, data visualizations, and video deliverables with impactful transformations, the subsequent teams are ready to reach new milestones. Sure enough, the current team, Gabrielle Finear, Kiara Wahnschafft, Janice Yang, and Diego Colin, is innovating across the board, with breakthroughs in exercise-design, debrief structure, and coaching depth at an astounding pace, all in the middle of a pandemic. This is what happens when you nurture a culture where learning compounds at every step, every season, because all that you do, on and off the pitch, matters. You then add to this mix the wildly creative, world-class, and relentlessly driven student cohorts, each with its own unique combination of core interests and disciplinary backgrounds. All entrusted with the clear message that effective negotiation and decision-making hinges on co-created processes and outcomes: as such, each individual is genuinely responsible not only for the quality of their own learning, but that of their peers. How extensively you prepare, how intensely you negotiate, and how sincerely you reflect, on a daily basis, impacts the world around you, well beyond the classroom and far after you’re officially finished with the materials. In sum, my view of pedagogy (and life for that matter) is one that honors the legacy of each colleague. It’s one that meets, head-on, the stature, in spirit and heart, of our students. It’s one that revolves around their intelligence, character, and dedication. The result is that the journey is always new, alive, and evolving.”