‘WE ALL MISS THE CLASSROOMS. WE ALL MISS THE HUMAN CONNECTION’
“The key is to keep students engaged because when they are at a distance they tend to be a little bit more distracted than when they are in the physical classroom,” says Datar. “We all miss the classroom. We all miss the human connection. We miss the engagement that comes with it and the energy that comes with it because it is not physically there. It’s hard to say that we don’t miss the classroom.”
Yael Grushka-Cockayne, a visiting associate professor at HBS who was enlisted on the task force to onboard faculty, noted the drawbacks in a conversation with Harvard Business Publishing. “The conversation online sometimes is a little bit slower paced than it is in the classroom,” she said. “And my comparison is a very rapid-paced classroom. When I think of online, I have to think very carefully of what it is that I want to use this time for all of us together to accomplish. One of the keys to success is be thoughtful about your teaching objectives and your teaching plan and make sure that you don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to accomplish too much in one session.
“Like anything else, it’s not going to be perfect. Even classroom instruction has its mishaps. Acknowledging that and not getting overwhelmed by a video that doesn’t work or an audio that doesn’t work, and knowing how to deal with that and admit to the students, Yeah, we can try again. Let’s keep practicing. Having that humbleness is always going to be important. But online, I think it’s really important because people don’t feel totally comfortable and they’re not sure how they’re going to engage with you.”
‘HAVING SOME OTHER FORUM TO COMMUNICATE IS ALWAYS GOING TO BE HELPFUL’
In a typical Zoom session, moreover, 90 students appear on minute tiles that cannot even fit on a single screen, making active participation in a case discussion difficult. Still, Datar generally puts a positive spin on the back-and-forth HBS profs have been able to achieve despite the limitations. “It turned out to be very facile,” he says. “Zoom has a function where you can raise your hand. Faculty could cold call if they (students) haven’t put up their hand but many times you want to call on people who have put up their hands. Zoom focuses on that individual when you call on them. Poll outcomes show up on Zoom and go back and forth between people saying yes or no. It requires a little bit of practice to do.”
Datar says a number of learnings have come from the experience so far. “Students who may have been a bit more shy or reticent somehow were participating more,” he says. “I think the faculty also benefitted from the various tools available to them. When we write on the boards you want to kind of fill in the middle and you say, ‘Oh boy I didn’t leave enough space.’ But in Powerpoint you can go in without trouble.”
The school also is using a Slack channel to enhance communication among the dispersed faculty who can share what they are learning in their online classes with colleagues. It is something that Grushka-Cockayne believes is also helpful to communicate more deeply with students. “Because we’re missing the physical factor of knowing that I’m going to see you in class, things like Slack or Microsoft Teams or other types of team-based communication environments help, because they give you another avenue to reach out to folks,” she said. “We’re going to be together in a discussion, a synchronous session, let’s say for about an hour and a half, but it’s going to be with a lot of other students, and that might not give us the opportunity to make sure that everybody’s okay and to have all these other conversations that we want. Having some other forum to communicate is always going to be helpful. Slack, I think, is a really helpful opportunity.
‘IT IS A JARRING CHANGE. IT HAPPENED ABRUPTLY. YOU CAN IMAGINE ALL THE EMOTIONS’
Overwhelmingly, the guidance to professors is to constantly use breakout rooms, polls and Zoom’s chat feature to drive more energy and engagement into the case study discussions online, according to Datar. Grushka-Cockayne agrees. “If you’re going to do an hour and a half of class, you have to make it interactive,” she said. “There is no way in my mind—and this is only my opinion—that you’re going to keep your students’ attention for an hour and a half if you’re just talking at them. Even in the classroom it’s hard for people to keep up. But there, I think with the physical presence of people sitting in your room, you might have a better chance of keeping folks’ attention for a little bit longer. It’s notoriously hard. I can be here on my phone without you noticing, I can be distracted by something else, I can have something in the back—there’s just a lot of different things that go on, even if I’m well behaved, so to speak. So, either make it interactive or break it up and have animation, have a video, have other things for them to keep on Segway-ing through, because we’re just not used to single-tasking online. We’re so used to multitasking online, but it’s very hard to change that habit.”
Datar says that Harvard’s grading curve will be relaxed during this perios as faculty adopt a different view on classroom participation. “If I am already asking people to respond to answers in a poll,” he adds, “I can take that into account even if I can’t get as many people in the discussion. “Professors are also tracking student participation in the chat function, another way for them to participate when they can’t get the air time to speak. “There are issues around how much to worry about the grading curve. My best guess is we might make some modifications at the margin.”
So far, little more than two weeks since V-Day, HBS seems pleased with how students have responded. “It is a jarring change,” concedes Datar. “It happened abruptly. You can imagine all the emotions they are going through, particularly the second year students who…suddenly have to be online now. But they have really embraced this. They all appreciate the very difficult situation. The learning has been very good. We have been positively surprised to some extent with the experience online being better than we thought it would be.. The experience has gone well. The students are embracing it and trying very hard to do the best we could under the circumstances.”
‘WE WILL NOT GO BACK TO WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE BEFORE’
As students continue to take their classes remotely, they also know that there will be no in-person commencement. Instead, graduates will come together online on May 28th for the awarding of their degrees. The school plans to host an in-person celebration sometime later, once it is safe to bring people together again.
Meantime, the state of Massachusetts reported 15,202 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 356 deaths directly attributed to the disease only yesterday. That is up considerably from the V-Day count of 777 cases and nine deaths on March 23.
For his part, Datar believes the experience will forever change the way business is taught. “In my view, I firmly and strongly believe that coming out of this crisis we all will have developed a new muscle, a new way of engaging with students, a new way of finding the best aspects of online education to combine it with the model by which we are all physically together,” he says. “Maybe finally at the end of all of this we will have learnt so much about what a very good hybrid classroom might look like. I feel with high probability that it will not be the same. We will not go back to what it looked like before.”