To shift into hybrid teaching mode during the pandemic, the Harvard Business School invested “tens of millions of dollars” to redesign and outfit 16 of its classrooms for MBA students. But new Dean Srikant M. Datar, considers the cost well worth it.
In a Zoom webinar session with HBS alumni 116 days into his new deanship, Datar today (April 27) said the results of those investments have opened up new possibilities In online learning for MBA students, alumni of the school and executive education participants. The experiments will likely lead to some changes in how students are taught in the MBA program and could allow the school to invite alumni into elective classes remotely.
Throughout the hour-long session, Datar was effusive in his praise for former Dean Nitin Nohria, noting that he had big shoes to fill. He expressed the view, common among other educators all over the world, that COVID had accelerated change and fueled much innovation at the school.
‘COVID IS THE PASSAGE TO HBS’ FUTURE’
“I’ve said that COVID is the passage to HBS’ future,” he told alums during the session. “Why do I say that? Because we have done things in a few months with the hybrid class that would certainly have taken years to do. The hybrid classroom is relatively unique. Participants online report very positive experiences. Students have been happy with and grateful for the hybrid classrooms. Alumni interested in learning new materials will be able to appear in the hybrid classrooms at some point going forward as we get to a little more normalcy.”
In other news disclosed during his alumni chat, the dean disclosed that Harvard will open a research center in the midwest, possibly Kansas City, to allow faculty to do more research into entrepreneurship in the middle of the country. “We have a number of our students who are interested in doing entrepreneurship in these areas and in the long-run it is important for the country to start thinking about not only what we do on the coasts. There are some amazing opportunities there. The center will give us first hand knowledge about what is happen and therefore new opportunities to pursue.”
Dean Datar, who officially became the 11th dean of the school on Jan. 1, also said that Harvard Business School has joined the OneTen Initiative, a coalition of leading chief executives and their companies who are coming together to up-skill, hire and promote one million Black Americans over the next 10 years who do not yet have a four-year degree into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. “We are an important academic partner with OneTen,” says Datar, who had served as a senior associate dean under his predecessor Nohria. “We hope to use the initiative to support it to be successful.”
HBS EXPECTS TO DEVELOP CASE STUDIES FROM ITS INVOLVEMENT WITH ONETEN
HBS faculty, he added, would do research on best practices among the participating companies, focusing on what has worked and what hasn’t to advance the coalition’s agenda. The school also committed to writing business cases out of its commitment to the organization. “We plan to write a number of cases on this amazing initiative over a large number of years. Those cases will be taught in our programs and through Harvard Business Publishing used all over the world.”
Datar, who has been on the faculty and in administrative jobs at HBS for the past 24 years, said the school used design-thinking to reinvent classrooms for the pandemic. Before becoming dean, he had been deeply involved in shifting all learning at HBS to remote instruction over a two-week period in the spring after the outbreak of COVID. He noted that the initial designs for the hybrid classes last spring were not all that promising. “Most of us would have thought we should give up on it. But we just kept experimenting and we would prototype many of these innovations going forward.”
In fact, the school went through seven formal experimentations, 80 smaller tests, and hundreds of poll data points before finalizing the design of the classrooms. A set of directives guided the innovations: maintaining the integrity of the classroom experience and case method pedagogy, ensuring equity for both remote and in-person students, supporting a familiar teaching environment, and keeping the community safe. To allow for ordering, procurement, installation, renovations, and further testing and training, the team doing the work had five weeks to conceive, refine, and finalize a design.
EACH HYBRID CLASSROOM REQUIRES THREE 85-INCH DISPLAYS, TWO 4K CAMERAS & 45 NEW COMPONENTS IN THE TECH CLOSET
The renovations—largely funded by alumni—were extensive. Each reimagined classroom was outfitted with three 85-inch displays on the back wall, a new cubby for two 4K cameras, 45 new components in the technology closet, a simultaneous overhaul of the HVAC systems for improved filtration and air flow, and modifications for safety and social distancing.
Wooden panels came off the walls, cubbies were built, and the wall panels were redesigned, crafted, and milled to both support the new screens and be aesthetically consistent. The technology closets had often overheated under standard conditions. The new air filtration systems required that ceiling tiles came down, holes were punched into the cinder block walls, and ductwork and filters went in.
One early insight during the pilot phase of the redesign: Remote students believed their fellow students seemed too far away, hindering debate and participation. The school decided that the in-class students could use their own laptops and join the Zoom class. The audio feedback that resulted from that insight was solved by consulting Zoom engineers who had to stitch together three separate Zoom rooms. Feeds from the student laptops were combined with the faculty camera shot and fed into a separate Zoom room. Using audio signal processors and video switchers, the team created logic to enlarge the video tile of whichever student was speaking, easing identification and conversational flow. The upshot: Remote students could read the chalkboards, see their fellow classmates individually, watch the professor, raise their hands, and easily participate.
INVESTMENT IN HYBRID CLASSROOMS CAME FROM ALUMNI FUNDING
“The hybrid classrooms and the return to campus which we did in a very forward looking way required tens of millions of dollars in investments in technology and making the campus safe for the community,” said Datar. “And we were only able to make these investments because of you.”
Ultimately, the school installed and retrofitted the new equipment into 16 Aldrich classrooms. A first group of 10 classrooms were completed by Aug. 21 for second-year classes in the elected curriculum, while the the remaining six classes were finished in October when the first-year cohort taking the required curriculum moved from all-remote instruction to hybrid.
Datar believes some changes in the MBA program are likely a result of the investment, including the addition of asynchronous materials in HBS classes. “We will remain participant-centered but there are some fun opportunities in terms of pedagogy,” he said, without being more specific.
Asked what his biggest surprise has been as dean, Datar said, “No matter how well you know the school you realize it is a different role. What has been fabulous is the opportunities that one can see in front of us. A very pleasant surprise is how quickly we were able to pivot and how well we were able to deliver.”