Harvard’s HBX Live! virtual classroom: All 60 students sit front and center

[This story includes detailed descriptions of the design process for a new high-end ‘virtual’ classroom and quotes from students using it that indicate it’s effective at evoking presence; the story is from Fortune and includes two more pictures. –Matthew]

Bharat Anand in HBX Live! at Harvard

[Image: Strategy professor Bharat Anand leads a session in Harvard Business School’s new virtual classroom. Photograph Courtesy Harvard Business School]

Harvard Business School really has created the classroom of the future

Whether they’re in Beijing, Warsaw, or San Francisco, every student in Harvard’s HBX Live! virtual classroom now sits front and center.

By John A. Byrne
August 25, 2015

(Poets&Quants) — The day’s Harvard Business School case study poses a simple question: Is Uber really worth $50 billion?

Bharat Anand, a Harvard strategy professor, provokes a lively discussion between the 42% of the class that believes the private car and ride share service is worth its sky high valuation and the remaining members of the class who essentially argue that the company’s market value is largely the result of over-enthusiastic investors.

“This has all the elements of a bubble,” sums up Anand. “There is competition and regulatory challenges coming down the pike, and there doesn’t seem much that is really unique here except for the network effects.”

A typical HBS class? Not exactly.

There are no students present in the classroom. The session isn’t being held in one of the buildings on the HBS campus. Instead, Anand is teaching the case in a virtual classroom housed in the facility of public broadcaster WGBH, roughly a ten-minute ride from school.

This is Harvard Business School’s classroom of the future, a high-ceilinged broadcast studio designed to reproduce the intimacy and energy of the school’s case method teaching in a digital environment. One person carries a roaming camera on her shoulder, capturing Anand in action. Another production staffer insures that the audio from the live feed of participants is as loud and clear as if each person was in the room.

Anand, meantime, faces the images of 60 students portrayed on a curved screen in front of him, a high-resolution video wall composed of more than 6.2 million pixels that mimics the amphitheater-style seating of a class HBS tiered classroom. Because each image is two feet wide and two-and-one-half feet long, there is no sky deck, or top back row in the class. Essentially everyone sits front and center, whether they reside in Beijing, Warsaw, Prague, Miami, San Francisco, or Toronto.

For years, colleges and universities have been imagining what the classroom of the future would look like. Many have tried to create it, with video screens and cameras, even teaching robots. But after three full years of planning and building a unique virtual space, Harvard Business School has truly invented the future classroom and announced the official launch today (Aug. 25) of what it is calling HBX Live!

The case study under discussion—Disrupting The Taxi Industry—is a mock session designed to show off what represents a significant though undisclosed investment in the studio. Together with HBX CORe, an online program on the fundamentals of business, and the launch of a portfolio of online learning for more senior managers, Harvard Business School has unmistakably taken the lead in digital learning among all business schools, if not all universities.

There are, of course, several other highly prominent business schools, including Yale University’s School of Management and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which have built their own versions of these long-distance classrooms. Yale deploys one in its newly opened $243-million complex to bring far flung students together in global network courses, while Wharton uses the latest Cisco TelePresence technology to connect its West Coast campus in San Francisco with home base in Philadelphia.

But no one has undertaken either the expense or the ambition to uniquely recreate a case study classroom to teach 60 people in real time, with no delays in voice or image, no matter where they are in the world—and to do it while amping up the spark and vitality of a more typical classroom discussion. That is, no one until Harvard Business School.

Truth be told, an HBX Live session is more a show than a class. Many of the system’s features were informed by visits to NBC Sports in New York and to Las Vegas where team members watched active sports betting on a single, massive screen. The HBX studio is soundproof, behind thick, heavy doors over which a neon sign brightly announces: “HBX! X” It takes four production staffers, two on the set and two in an elaborate upstairs control room, to assist a teaching professor. And besides the roaming cameraman, there are five other stationary cameras to capture the action, along with the 60 built-in laptop cameras for each student, allowing a director to stitch together multiple images for one feed, just as if this was a live television show.

“Anand can walk into a regular classroom with no support,” says Jana Kierstead, executive director of HBX. “This classroom is a full-on team effort. The producers ask for a teaching plan the day before class so they can tee up a slide or a video segment. It’s not just a class. It’s a show and it requires some production.”

The result, however, seems worth the additional planning. “You walk in here and there is just this energy,” says Anand, faculty chair of the HBX initiative. “You can see someone who is up at 3 a.m. in the Philippines, someone in Seattle and another in Mumbai. This feels like you are literally in the classroom, and the feedback we’re getting is that this is every bit as engaging as being in the classroom—but more intense.”

The genesis of the virtual classroom can be traced back three years ago when HBS began to think seriously about its online presence. The school rejected the notion of doing free MOOC courses, a path most notably chosen by the Wharton School. Instead, the school built a proprietary platform that emulated the case study method of teaching and first offered a program of business fundamentals to current and recent undergraduate students in the liberal arts.

Youngme Moon, then faculty chair of the MBA program and now senior associate dean for strategy and innovation, says she saw how powerful streaming video was becoming. “It seemed to me to be the next big step which is very different than a canned course like CORe,” she says. “I was really inspired by live television, the one area associated with traditional broadcast television that continues to thrive.”

The HBX team began exploring what it could do with live streaming that would showcase the school’s teaching and learning environment. “We just began to sketch out what this thing might look like,” says Moon. “We went into one of the old classrooms (in the basement of a campus building) and decided to fake it. We even put up photos of students on foam core boards and easels and brought faculty in and asked them to imagine teaching in that environment.”

Quickly, the team ran into major technical challenges. Many of the desired features in a virtual classroom were not readily available, from high quality digital blackboards to the ability to hook up 60 students on a single video screen from locations all over the world.

One early conclusion was not to set aside room for conventional desks and chairs, a feature of Yale’s SOM virtual classroom. “I thought we should create an extreme experience because that is where you learn the most,” adds Moon. “I don’t want faculty to be able to use people in the classroom as a clutch. So we decided to go all remote.”

The school also believed it needed to connect a minimum of 60 students to a class, all linked to the class by standard computers, but most vendors said it wasn’t possible because the technology just wasn’t there. “We went to a bunch of technology people and they said we could do this with 12 or maybe 20 people, but we can’t go beyond that with a high fidelity stream,” recalls Moon. “We kept pushing back and were able to get to 60.”

Ultimately, HBS went to numerous vendors and with the assistance of McCann Systems, a New Jersey-based audiovisual systems integrator, it tapped into technology from such companies as Cisco for video, BSS for audio and X20 for the software platform to cobble together what it needed. It took three iterations alone to get the digital chalkboard to work without either delayed response times or annoying glare.

A significant initial challenge was latency, the typical delay built into audio and video that is streamed over the Internet. The system also had to eliminate the need for users to mute themselves in order for the audio to be clear. “I didn’t want to create a scenario where everyone was muted except the person who is talking,” says Moon. “The reason that is not acceptable is that it won’t feel live. If I crack a joke, I want to hear laughter. If someone makes a great point, I want to hear the approval in the classroom. That means everyone’s mike has to be on all the time. We kept pushing them, and they kept coming back with solutions until we got up and running.”

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 showcase the charisma of the faculty. If this doesn’t inspire our faculty, I thought, then 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 know-how 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.”

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 Anand 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, Anand asks the students in the class what’s different about the experience. Several click on a button on their laptop screens, causing their nameplates 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 says 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.”

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. Strategy guru Jan Rivkin plans to hold a seminar with civic leaders all over the country as part of the school’s U.S. competitiveness project. Harvard is already offering 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.

Though HBS won’t disclose the actual cost of the classroom, Anand says that it is slightly more than a typical tiered classroom in a campus building. “We are probably in the $300 to $500 range per student per session, and that includes all fixed costs and variable costs,” he says. While only 60 students can actively participate in a class, up to 1,000 others can observe with a 15-second delay which would significantly drive down costs, he adds. Ultimately, he says, the school could have two or three of these virtual classrooms.

During the mock class, Anand asks a question that surprisingly draws little but silence. “What is your favorite example of disrupting from the high end?” he asks. “I’ll give you a big hint. It’s like close to home. It’s HBX.”

The students laugh and so does Anand. But the point is well taken.

Just how disruptive Harvard’s classroom of the future is will largely depend on the school itself. So far, HBS has put six cohorts through its CORe online program that launched in June of 2014. All told, the school is just shy of 4,500 registrants in the program from more than 70 countries, with another cohort starting Sept. 9 that is expected to have more than 900 students.

With its new virtual classroom, Harvard could easily do a global executive MBA program from the classroom, an entire portfolio of executive education offerings, or even an accelerated online MBA that would not compete with its more expansive, two-year, full-time residential program. But it’s all up to Harvard Business School to decide what and when to really disrupt the high-end market for business education.


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