‘IF IT INSPIRES OUR FACULTY, THEY WILL FIGURE HOW HOW TO USE IT TO INSPIRE OUR STUDENTS’
Moon and the HBX team also quickly settled on a handheld camera to fully capture an animated professor moving around in the classroom. “We just couldn’t have a static camera because they kill all the energy,” says Moon. “You can take the most dynamic person in the world and all their charisma is lost in front of a static camera. We had to be able to show case the charisma of the faculty. If this doesn’t inspire our faculty, I thought, than it is a failure. If it inspires our faculty, they will figure out how to use the technology to inspire students.”
The school also made the decision not to build the virtual classroom on campus, in part to lower its investment costs but also to gain the knowhow of TV production professionals. No existing classrooms on campus have the 26-foot ceiling height of a studio to handle a sophisticated lighting grid or the 15-foot high by 27-foot wide dimensions of a curved video wall. The school also lacked uninterrupted power supply. “If we did this on campus and the power went out, we wouldn’t be able to have a class,” says Kierstead. So the school agreed to lease an existing studio space at nearby WGBH, the public broadcaster, along with a control room.
HBS began testing out the studio classroom 18 months ago, learning and refining along the way. “We started out bringing some of the our best case study professors and watched their initial reactions,” recalls Moon. “One of them was an excellent executive education teacher. He walks in and we mike him up and in the first five minutes he seemed confused by the experience. In the second five minutes, he was clearly getting comfortable. By the time his first 15 minutes was over he had us in the palm of his hand. At that moment, I knew we were onto something.”
‘THE FACULTY WERE TEARY EYED AND YOU COULD HEAR A PIN DROP’
So far, Harvard has used the studio for several alumni events, a few executive education courses, a session for 2+2 deferred admits to its MBA program, and a cohort of students in the CORe program. The later session, run by Arnand and a couple of his colleagues, was such a success that some of the students didn’t want to log off once the class was over. “It was phenomenal,” says Moon. “At the end of the session, all three faculty members took a moment to thank that group of students for being the first to try this out, and it was such a sincere thank you that the faculty were teary eyed and you could hear a pin drop. I thought that if we could create this kind of intimacy in a remote classroom, we have something special.”
After the mock Uber case class is over, Arnand asks the students in the class what’s different about the experience. Several click on a button on their laptop screens, causing their name plates to turn red and signaling that they have raised their hands to speak. Others immediately respond via chat bar and their comments along with their pictures and names tumble onto the bottom of the vast video screen, moving along like the news ticker in Times Square.
“I feel more visible,” says Kristen Maynard, who believes it’s not possible to hide in the back row of a class.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen,” says Dave Schroeder. “It felt like everyone was in the same room.”
“I like being able to chat,” adds another student in the mock class, calling attention to a feature that allows everyone in the class to answer a question rather than just a few. “I can contribute even when I’m not being called on.”
“I was very focused on the entire class experience,” says Cody Signore. “Nothing ever drew me away.”
A DOWNSIDE: STUDENTS CAN’T READ THE BODY LANGUAGE IN THE CLASSROOM
The downside? When you’re only in front of a computer, you can’t really look around the class and observe your classmates. “We don’t get to see the body language,” says one. “The headset was uncomfortable,” adds another in his chat bar.
Harvard Business School expects to host more than 100 classes and events in the studio this fiscal year, including a research seminar for faculty and sessions for MBA students when they are abroad on their global immersion trips. Jan Rivkin, the school’s senior associate dean for research, plans to convene a seminar with civic leaders all over the country as part of the school’s U.S. competitiveness project. Harvard is already offering to corporate clients live access to disruption guru Clay Christensen who already has done an online course on the HBX platform. And the executive education group plans to use the studio to connect with students in between the two on-campus sessions of the school’s general management program.
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