‘YOU WALK IN HERE AND THERE IS JUST THIS ENERGY’
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. The HBX initiative now has 55 full-time staffers, not including contractors or professors.
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.”
A MOCK CLASSROOM WAS BUILT IN A BASEMENT WITH PHOTOS OF STUDENTS
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 ting 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.”
MOST VENDORS SAID THAT WHAT HARVARD WANTED WAS NOT POSSIBLE
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. The solution leveraged infrared technology, explains Cristina de la Cierva, product manager for HBX Live!
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.”