Homa Bahrami, senior lecturer at the Haas School of Business, teaches the New Manager Bootcamp in Berkeley Executive Education, a three-week certificate program. She worked with The Forum this month, testing its functions and familiarizing herself with its idiosyncrasies, the first Haas faculty member to do so. “Homa’s a great example of a faculty member who is enthusiastic,” Julie Shackleton says. “Normally her teaching is very reliant on breakout groups, which we would say not to use The Forum for, but when she heard this technology was coming, she completely reimagined her curriculum so that it works well and thrives in The Forum. And now I think she is going to be brilliant in a digital sphere.”
Bahrami’s verdict: There are pros and cons, but the pros mostly outweigh the cons.
“It’s one of those things where I think it’s good to experiment, learn new things,” she tells Poets&Quants. “Some of it will work, some of it won’t, but you have to be willing to experiment, right? I’m looking forward to seeing what participants say, what works, what doesn’t work — so we can improve it for the next session.”
When coronavirus is history, the virtual classroom will still be a part of graduate business education, Bahrami says. It is the future.
“Will this be with us after the Covid situation? Absolutely,” she says. “I think after Covid we’re going to have a smorgasbord. We’re going to have variety of different modes that learning will be delivered. Asynchronous, synchronous, within synchronous, Zoom for breakout sessions. I think each faculty member has to decide: Who’s my audience? What’s my teaching technique? What do I want to leave them with? And then pick the mode that suits them best. And I kind of feel that each one has its pros and cons, as you can well imagine.”
‘EVERY FACULTY MEMBER MUST DECIDE: WHO’S MY AUDIENCE?’
Bahrami sees three main pros of the new system for instructors: It can simulate the realities of a physical classroom, facilitating the engagement of individual students; the whiteboard capability “is really great,” whereas on Zoom “I find it restrictive, I cannot use it effectively”; and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to walk around. “One of the constraints I faced with Zoom is, honestly, I’m not used to sitting down and teaching. It really impacts the way I think, the way I deliver, so it’s a huge plus.”
Virtual classrooms have three big benefits for students, too, Bahrami says.
“From a student’s point of view, I think depending on the instructor’s style, if you’re used to interacting and cold calling, I think it keeps people on their toes and keeps them engaged,” she says. “When you’re on Zoom, people can hide, they can walk off. There’s false screens, etc.
“Secondly, I’m hearing people say, ‘Oh, I have a lot of Zoom fatigue every day. I’m on Zoom morning, noon, and night. I need something different.’ So I think there is some variety that can be built in. And then thirdly, we have complemented the virtual classroom with this other platform called the Volute, which enables peer-to-peer learning. For example, a participant can set up their own ‘learning lounge.’ Let’s say you’re in my bootcamp and you have a special interest in how to deal with poor performance. You can say, ‘Okay, I’m setting up a forum. This is my learning lounge. Let’s invite anybody else who wants to discuss this, share this with me, into this particular learning lounge.’
“One of the things we need to get our heads around is to complement instructor-led learning with peer-to-peer learning. Discussion boards, in my experience, don’t seem to do it. They’re kind of too passive. Whereas if I feel I can create my own forum and I invite fellow like-minded people who are interested in this topic, I feel like it’s a semi-instructor kind of thing.”
The biggest drawback, she says, is something The Forum can’t change: All the things that are lost because students can’t gather in a classroom and be physically in front of a teacher.
“Loss of the face-to-face is social,” Bahrami says. “We are social animals, right? So we want to see other people. We want to pick up social context cues, we want to interact. We want to have a water cooler. We want to have a coffee with each other during the break. I want to walk up to my professor. This is one of the things I’m going to miss the most about anything virtual, whether it’s virtual classroom or Zoom or anything — I don’t have that water cooler time with my students.
“A lot of really significant conversation takes place when people come up to you. They say, ‘Well, I didn’t want to raise this in the big session, it’s kind of confidential, but I’m struggling with this. What do you think?’ And to each other as well. In fact, we’re finding that with virtual learning in general, people are missing the social interaction. People are missing the water cooler. People are missing the creativity that comes when you’re in a classroom, when somebody says something and you build on it, or somebody else picks up something else. I think if you had to look at the modalities, I would say, at the end of the day, in-person, immersive addresses all of different components. But we don’t have that luxury today, and we don’t know how long this is going to be with us.”
VIRTUAL CLASSROOMS: NOT A ‘SHORT-TERM FIX’
Coronavirus will be gone some day. Virtual classrooms, Julie Shackleton says, are here to stay.
“I think when things get back to normal, we plan to fully still lean into digital,” Shackleton tells Poets&Quants. “We imagine that it might be more hybrid. Even international people, we might do some work in The Forum before they arrive and they have the in-person time and then we follow up. So it’s still going to be here. This is not a short-term, temporary fix for us. This is the way we’re moving.”
Mike Rielly, CEO of Berkeley Executive Education, says Zoom still has its place, including as a tool for breakout sessions and other pedagogical needs. Virtual classrooms are just the next evolutionary step.
“It’s nice to be a first mover,” Rielly tells P&Q. “I believe as a business school, as a top business school, I believe Haas is the first to introduce virtual classrooms in the degree programs. It’s not something that top business schools have ever had to solve for, so it’s not that this technology hasn’t been in existence or ideal for this, it’s just that that wasn’t the pedagogical approach for being on campus.
“We’re going to be marketing these virtual solutions to our individual and custom clients. We need to help them reframe learning, and I think a lot of folks just are perhaps Zoom fatigued or Zoomed out. Our goal is to provide the most robust virtual learning assets available in the executive education space. And Haas is right there with us.”