How Harvard Business School Prepared For a Hybrid Classroom
This fall, many MBA students didn’t return to campus like usual.
Faced with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, business schools around the country shifted the classroom environment to hybrid or fully online models.
At Harvard Business School, school officials were faced with the challenge of preserving the classroom environment and its legendary “case study method” as COVID-19 restrictions prevented students from congregating fully in a classroom setting.
So, HBS created the Virtual Teaching Task Force – a committee of HBS officials tasked with figuring out how to transition the classroom environment online and ensure everything runs smoothly.
“The task force team created a culture of community with two key concepts,” Professor Srikant Datar, who leads the task force, says in an HBS interview. “One, we were going to succeed or fail as a team. There was no individual ever at fault—if a piece of technology would not work, it was not because IT failed, it was because the task force failed. Two, the need to be patient, flexible, and adaptable. The state of things is not going to be perfect; we all need to be a bit forgiving.”
Like many b-schools, HBS was faced with the challenge of adapting to a quick timeline as states across the nation enforced shutdown restriction in early March to try and curb the spread of COVID-19.
At HBS, the task force faced obstacles such as figuring out how to ensure class materials and the board would be visible for online students and those in the classroom. On top of that, there was the challenge of identifying students with masks on Zoom. Moreover, classroom environments had to have health protocols with proper sanitization measures in place.
EQUITY FOR ALL STUDENTS
Regardless if students were remote or in-person, the task force wanted to ensure all students had an equal and fair learning environment.
Other main directives for the task force included maintaining the integrity of the classroom environment and the case study method, supporting a familiar teaching environment, and keeping the community safe.
The task force created a weekly design and feedback process with 50 to 1000 HBS community members from faculty to students in order to test concepts of design thinking.
“You want to get users into the experience as soon as possible. You realize all sorts of things that you would never have thought of otherwise. Bring in a lot of users, think as a team, constantly iterate,” Datar tells HBS.
The task force also wanted to ensure the integrity of the case study method would remain intact for all students, whether online or in-person. To create such an environment, it needed to deliberately think about aspects of the classroom space – from the seating to the acoustics.
“These spaces are almost as sacred as any on campus,” Steve Erwin, senior director of planning and design, tells HBS. “The case method and the section gatherings are a fundamental identity of HBS. Everything in the classroom—from the type of chair to the placement of the screens to acoustics—is about optimizing the conversation between the students and faculty. We don’t take any aspect of that critical dynamic lightly.”
With an optimized space and the help of technology like high quality cameras and audio signal processors, the task force was able to create an equal classroom experience for all its students.
“This completely homegrown piece of the design is probably one of the most essential aspects of the hybrid experience—it engages remote students and makes them feel more a part of the classroom experience,” Audio Visual Design Engineer Justin Fowler tells HBS.
And for professors, the new hybrid classroom – while new – still preserves elements of a real classroom environment. Just safer.
“It felt very safe, and I immediately felt at home—give me chalk and a blackboard and I’m in my comfort zone. Zoom is a great technology, but I find myself very distracted—I can’t read emotions and make eye contact. In the hybrid classroom, I can focus on the case,” Professor V.G. Narayanan tells HBS. “Even with only 10 students in the classroom, they act as a microcosm of the full class—you can pick up on all the non-verbal cues. They’re wearing masks, but they’re leaning forward, leaning backwards, you can see their engagement and if they’re connecting with you and the case. There are so many things in the hybrid classroom that stay true to the original case method.”