Roberto Villa: Engaging virtual learning for Italian university students

As a member of IBM's Global University Programs team, Roberto Villa is IBM’s liaison to undergraduate and graduate students at Italy’s premier technical higher education institutions, including the Polytechnic University of Milan. In pre-coronavirus days, this meant visiting campus regularly to deliver lectures, host workshops, organize conferences and represent IBM at special events like career days.

When Polytechnic of Milan (MIP) stopped its in-person lectures in early March, as COVID-19 tightened its grip on the city, Roberto immediately began reimagining how he could best serve and connect with students in a virtual world. On March 4, he debuted his virtual learning offerings with a remote session for master’s students in fintech (financial technology). Since then, he has organized more than 26 hours of virtual learning, including a full-day seminar for international MBA students at MIP’s Graduate School of Business.

“There were 60 students, and they were so enthusiastic,” he says. “We started at 9 a.m. and were supposed to finish at 4 p.m., but they continued to ask questions until 5 p.m. We saw this very positive reaction from the students, so we were even more committed to do more.”

Roberto, whose title is Manager of Research Ecosystem for IBM Italy, is one of more than 1,000 IBM Academic Ambassadors in Europe. These ambassadors bring their expertise and passion to build engaging agendas for students at the undergraduate and graduate student level. IBM's Global University Programs team is led by Petrena Prince in Europe and, in Italy, by Massimo Chiriatti. "We share our experiences with other members of our team across Europe, and we scale quickly what we see that works,” Roberto explains.

Roberto has not simply moved his pre-planned curriculum online. Rather, he has redesigned much of it to ensure that students remain engaged in the new format. He has also adjusted the content and focus to address the urgent challenges that COVID-19 poses for businesses.

A recent lecture for master’s degree students, for instance, focused on “the key role of the CMO in the new scenario and how technology can help.” And for an undergraduate spring project on digital business innovation, Roberto proposed that his students focus on the theme of applying agile principles toward implementing “smart work,” which he defines as a new managerial philosophy based on giving people greater flexibility and autonomy in the choice of workspaces, schedules and tools—and greater responsibility for results.

Roberto Villa leading a lecture for international MBA students at Polytechnic University of Milan

Shift in Career Goals

“It was very easy to connect the dots, because this a topic that is getting a lot of attention as many companies have realized they haven’t implemented smart work and have had to close,” Roberto says. “When the government started to close a lot of activities, many companies struggled to continue their operations. People who were working at home complained that their technology wasn’t good enough to be effective.”

In messages and social media posts, Roberto’s students have expressed their gratitude. “At MIP we #keepONlearning,” one student posted on LinkedIn after a recent lecture. “Today I had the great opportunity to learn with IBM about social media engagement strategy during #covid19 and the key role of the CMO in this new scenario….I am very grateful to IBM and MIP Politecnico di Milano for this opportunity!”

Through communications with students, including during a recent virtual career day where he represented IBM, Roberto has gleaned insight into how the pandemic is shifting young people’s career goals and perspectives on the role of technology. 

“I see less and less that these students are focused on their careers just for the sake of careers,” he says. “They’re more focused on looking for really engaging experiences where they’ll see that their efforts bring benefits to people. They’re realizing, more and more, that business and technology are instrumental to bringing benefits and value to people.”

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