A very different return to Oxford

4 minute read

Two things are important to know in the context of this blog. The first is that I am a lead facilitator and consultant. It is my very profession to engage with groups of people to extract information from them, or provide information to them. My work is often executed through design thinking workshops and other classes or sessions. I know from personal experience the challenges of online facilitation and engagement, even before the pandemic changed everything. I know even more on this subject now, a year after travel and in-person activities came screeching to a halt and we have had to create new ways of facilitating with participants from across geographies and businesses.

Second, I am a biased audience for Saïd Business School programmes. I completed my first postgraduate Diploma in Strategy and Innovation in 2017, and was instantly intoxicated by the wonders of academia and specifically of the joy that studying at the University of Oxford brings me. This place, the town, the institutions, the people – they all feel as familiar to me as family. When your soul finds a piece of itself, it knows. Oxford in many ways is this to me.

All of this to say, it was both an incredibly easy and an incredibly difficult decision to join the Oxford Executive Diploma in Artificial Intelligence for Business as 2020 was coming to a close. Easy in that the topic and the institution are both passions of mine, and the calibre of educators, mentors, and classmates is never in doubt. Difficult because of the unavoidable fact that education would be remote, certainly for a quarter of, and potentially for the entirety of, the course. 

Did I want to attend Oxford without attending the physical School? To miss classrooms and libraries and study spaces? It would be without the opportunity to wander the countryside and frequent the pubs!! And, even more concerning, having to be online for class in the same exhausting way that I work online and on camera every day? 

Far from the escape from the day-to-day routine, would it be more of the same, and more easily interrupted by work because of the global time accommodations that would need to be made? 

To be perfectly honest, when I think of spending money on tuition for these programmes, part of the justification is the diploma and the credentials of the School itself, but part of it is equally the access to the School and the people you meet there and having classmates to create relationships with while we bond during breaks, dinners and social events. I was hesitant, as were others I spoke to or listened to during information sessions…

Optimism won out, and I began class, online, with the other 30+ students in the second week of February. I had started to get into the course mindset with the pre-reading and was ready with my case study notes and many questions. The days flew by! Yes, we all ached to be in the classroom together, but we had a collective commitment to making this the best experience possible, combined with the efforts taken by the University to ensure that the online sessions were easy and engaging. These sessions were dual hosted by our instructors, as well as supported by staff from the School to help with the mechanics. 

Additionally, the wondrous capability of both Andrew and Alex as primary lecturers — to present their own content, easily wield the virtual tools (I really need to learn how Andrew ‘whiteboards’ on-screen superimposed on his video feed), facilitate the numerous guest speakers, and integrate the reams of chat conversations going on simultaneously. This made all of us feel included and encouraged to actively participate.

The School is definitely doing well in its pivot to remote learning. I will not say it’s the same experience – you would know it to be a lie. These times and this approach are inherently different. But I most certainly have no regrets. 

The content has been a diverse and very educational combination of technical, marketing, ethics, and business subjects. All lecturers have been top-notch and incredibly valuable in their contributions. It was quite an impressive week, and I am looking forward to meeting again in a couple of months. Yes, hopefully, it will be in person this time – we will know in the next couple of weeks what will be allowed. But even if not, we have plans to connect as a group, for social and additional guest lecture opportunities as well. 

So, we will continue to forge this path together: the teachers and the staff and the students, bringing to life a brand new programme about newly emerging technologies in this new remote world. Maybe my next blog will be written over a pint on a sofa upstairs at The Victoria, or maybe over a glass of wine on my own sofa an ocean away. Either way, I’ll be a bit wiser still then, for which I am grateful, from wherever I sit.