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Harvard Business School’s Classroom Of The Future

A digital blackboard shows Professor Anand's notes for a mock class on Uber

A digital blackboard shows Professor Anand’s notes for a mock class on Uber

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.

LIVE FROM A STUDIO AT WGHB, A HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL CLASS

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.

THE DEBUT OF HBX LIVE!

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.

AN HBX LIVE SESSION IS MORE OF A SHOW THAN A CLASS

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.”