The teacher stands, paces, gestures, and circles around the room, alone except for a curved bank of screens and a digital whiteboard. On the screens are a collection of faces — the class — watching him closely.
This is not an MBA class — not yet. The teacher is Richard Freishtat, vice president of curriculum at Berkeley Executive Education, which runs short certificate programs for execs and their organizations. The class is a collection of colleagues, faculty, and press gathered to watch him demonstrate a new system that soon will be enlisted across programs at the University of California-Berkeley: the virtual classroom.
Freishtat poses a hypothetical scenario: What can a teacher do to spur reluctant students to be more involved in the classroom? “How,” he says to the bank of screens, “does a teacher increase engagement?”
No one answers.
One person snickers softly at the irony. Freishtat homes in on him immediately.
“You laughed — I’m going to pick on you!” he says — and in so doing demonstrates the most important element of the new system, its high functionality, and the most important thing to remember at the same time: That learning in a virtual classroom is like, but also quite unlike, attending class in person.
“There is no hiding in the back of the classroom anymore,” Freishtat tells the people who have assembled to learn about the virtual classroom, dubbed The Forum. “No one can sneak away without being fully engaged. That’s a real learning benefit.”
HOW IT WORKS: AN INSIDE LOOK
Freishtat’s demonstration of The Forum on August 11, days after its unveiling in a UC-Berkeley Executive Education classroom, was the culmination of months of work to perfect a system that will prevent future disruptions like the one the world experienced in March. At UC-Berkeley, as elsewhere, the coronavirus shutdown threw everything into chaos, out of which came a determination not to be caught flat-footed in the event of disasters-yet-to-be. “It’s about never being disrupted again,” Freishtat says.
Not content simply to hold the line, the university’s digital team went further — much further. Now the conversation isn’t about making it through a pandemic — it’s about reframing the entire higher education experience. The virtual classroom is one of the most ambitious projects in graduate business education in a decade. Harvard Business School launched its HBX Live classroom five years ago, while IE Business School in Spain introduced its WOW classroom in 2016.
In late June, Exec Education and the Haas School installed four Forum classrooms in Chou Hall, two of which have banks of 84 screens (the others have walls of 48 and 60 students). That was the easy part. Next the school went to work designing a system that would not just prevent attrition of student interest but increase engagement, while maintaining teachers’ traditional toolkit — most notably, the ability to make eye contact — and adding new and improved tools. And Haas School faculty spent the summer rebuilding curricula and learning the new system.
It’s a system with a lot of built-in comfort for teachers. Seeing a collection of life-size faces in front of them, they are able to discern emotion and engagement levels; they can call someone out in either direction. When someone speaks from the side of the room they’re on, that’s where the teacher hears them from. This allows the faculty member to be in their normal environment, with no “cognitive overload” — none of the “Oh, God. Who’s talking?” confusion that plagues large Zoom meetings. When someone wants to raise a hand to ask a question, they do so digitally, clicking a button that creates a hand across their face screen. Student engagement is boosted in various ways, including with polling types: like/dislike, true/false, agree/disagree, and multiple choice (A, B, C and 1,2,3) as well as open-answer questions with 30-, 140-, and 250-character limits. Tech problems will be resolved by remote support staff, but the system has been designed to be run by faculty alone. Guests speakers and video demonstrations are easy to integrate. Most of the teachers’ work happens in designing the courses.
Students, meanwhile, have a range of visual options, as Freishtat demonstrated. They may toggle between a screen-size view of the teacher’s whiteboard, a “Room Camera” view from behind the teacher as he or she faces the screen bank, a “Perspective Camera” that allows for eye contact and “real connection,” a “Teacher Camera” that is a bird’s-eye view of the room, and a “Teacher Content” screen that resembles a PowerPoint display, useful for following along with the curriculum. The main problem participants experienced during Freishtat’s demonstration, besides a few minor technical glitches, was ambient noise, which attending tech support resolved by temporarily muting participants’ microphones.
“The ultimate goal,” Freishtat says, “is to have the tech wash away and just to have us learning. We want to — as close as possible — mimic the experience of the classroom. It’s about finding pathways to interrogation.”
‘THE BALL CAME OUR WAY AND WE GRABBED IT WITH BOTH HANDS’
Not to drag Zoom, but it’s pretty easy to get up to speed on it, as we all have learned these last six months. It’s intuitive. So when we talk about business schools’ March pivot to virtual learning amid an unprecedented global health crisis, we should be careful not to overstate the accomplishment.
But as the pandemic continues to rage in the United States, Zoom — useful as it is and will continue to be; “we’d be lost without it,” says Julie Shackleton, vice president of digital initiatives for Berkeley Executive Education — is not going to get B-schools through a full fall semester. UC-Berkeley’s Executive Education and Haas School understood this in the spring, which is why the university invested heavily in the next step in the evolution of online graduate business instruction, accelerated that evolution, and now stands ready to take the plunge.
The virtual classroom has already debuted as part of an Executive Education bootcamp for new managers, and will be used to teach core courses to MBA students in both the full-time and Evening & Weekend programs at the Haas School this fall.
“The ball came our way and we grabbed it with both hands,” says Shackleton, former legal and policy manager for HBX, now HBS Online.
“Zoom is an excellent tool and that’s a learning tool that we still use, but it works for certain pedagogies and the virtual classrooms work for others,” she says. “They both have their strengths. The virtual classroom, however, is designed to mimic the in-person classroom experience — it’s as though every learner is in the front seat of the room, because there’s directional audio and video, every face is visible.
“Faculty are fully supported from a technical perspective. Zoom has tools, but they are layered on top, whereas here it’s front and center. When you click the hand-raise button, it comes up in front of your face. And the ability to have polls, both open-answer and multiple-choice, allows for deeper dives in discussions, allows for a lot of contributions at once. There’s an Ask a Question feature, too, so the faculty member won’t be disturbed, but knows that the questions are there for when they’re ready. And it has very cool whiteboards that can be used for collaboration, and can be saved — nine different whiteboards. Some of our faculty really like to load content in advance. It’s all up there and can just be displayed when they’re ready.
“It’s very much an immersive, intimate experience for both the faculty and the participants. There’s perspective cameras, which allows for eye-to-eye contact. There’s several different views that you can choose to look at the room from. Everybody likes to look at the room view, which has the wall of participants. It’s got nothing to do with paying attention in class, but everyone likes to see everybody else and see who’s sitting beside them in the room. There’s a room view and a teacher view. You can decide, ‘I want to see the slides and maximize those.’ So yeah, it’s super-immersive, super-engaging, and we’re having great results.”