Has Harvard Quashed Virtual-Classroom Naysayers?

Sep 9, 2015
Originally published on September 9, 2015 1:05 pm

It's show time.

"Please try to limit all other background noise, like your cellphone should be muted."

This is a virtual classroom, and that's the stage manager giving last-minute instructions to students. This is unlike any virtual classroom you've probably ever imagined. Behind the scenes, in a control room upstairs, a producer calls the camera shots.

"Stay with him. I'm going to four. Take six."

The Harvard Business School has rented this television studio from WGBH in Boston, and transformed it into a sleek online classroom.

Case Studies Online

The business school is famous for its case-study teaching method, where students dissect actual companies in real-life situations. It's supposed to be interactive, with the professor moderating comments and questions from students. Until now, that pretty much required that students be face-to-face in a classroom on campus.

Professors are experimenting with the same model in this live virtual classroom, with students from all over the world. Sixty monitors bring in students in real-time, from behind their own computers into this single space. There's a businessman in Australia and a web developer in Arizona. Picture a "Hollywood Squares" set-up.

Then, enter stage left — Professor Bharat Anand.

"Big number, or small number? Is this company worth it? What do you think? Is the company worth 50 billion dollars?"

Today's case-study: the ride-sharing phenomenon, Uber.

"The moment we think about this as a taxi service, automatically that limits the size of the market," Anand explains while he paces back-and-forth, facing the bank of TV monitors, a microphone clipped to his tie.

Back in the control room, the producer determines what students see on their own computers. When a student is called on, his or her face pops up on screen.

"Miriam! You're hearing all your colleagues being so negative," Anand says. "You're super positive about Uber, right? Tell us why."

Miriam giggles nervously as she responds in front of the entire class. "Well, I don't know much about the specific number, the billions."

After the TV cameras are off, Anand says Harvard has done what many critics of online education insist can't be done: replicate the intensity of a classroom.

"On one hand, it's very difficult for you and I to mimic the closeness," he continues. "On the other hand, there are some things we can do with technology which we couldn't do in the physical classroom."

Like read students' comments in real-time.

"There's a chat function, which you can basically just be typing in whatever comes to your mind," he explains. "On this little ticker at the bottom of the screen, we as faculty can see what students are writing down."

Right now, most students using the virtual classroom are enrolled in the school's executive education program. Others are undergraduates taking Harvard's online business courses for credit.

Harvard won't say how much all this costs, or how it plans to charge students and viewers in the future.

It Works, Says One Student

Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at the higher education research firm, Eduventures, says that in the midst of all the hype about online learning, Harvard has made a breakthrough.

"It has been debuted to a world that is probably tired of looking for the next big thing" he says.

And yet, Fleming adds, "essentially what they're doing is they're distributing their longstanding commitment to the case-study method, which has always distinguished schools like Harvard. That's really kind of the glue that holds this thing together."

Roy Williams, one of the students in this virtual class, agrees. He says Anand's is the closest he's seen to being in a classroom.

"They had camera angles from pretty much everywhere, so you could see the professor as he is moving around," says Williams, a businessman from Pittsburgh who is enrolled in Harvard's executive education program. "You could see all your classmates on a big board. You essentially had people sitting next to you and in front of you and behind you."

Still, Williams says neither Harvard nor anybody else can replace the real thing: "For me, the preference is always to be in a classroom physically with everybody else and interact with them and interact with the professor face-to-face."

Copyright 2015 WGBH Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wgbhnews.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's look at the case-study method. It's used in classrooms at Harvard's Business School. That method involves dissecting real companies in real situations, and it is so interactive, students really can't watch a video later. One has to be there on campus. Now professors are experimenting with using a television studio, with live monitors, bringing into the studio students from all over the world. From WGBH in Boston, Kirk Carapezza reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, everyone, how are you doing?

(CROSSTALK)

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: It's show time, and minutes before the live action gets underway, the stage manager gives last-minute instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Also please try to limit all other background noise. Like, your cellphones should be muted.

CARAPEZZA: Behind the scenes in a control room upstairs, a producer calls the shots.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stay with him. I'm going to go to two.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What could be better?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm going to go to two.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What went well? What could be better?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Or four - I'm going to go to four.

CARAPEZZA: Harvard has rented this space at WGBH and turned our public studio into its private virtual classroom. Sixty monitors beam students from around the world into one space. There's a businessman from Australia and a web developer from Arizona. Picture a "Hollywood Squares" kind of set up. Mike Soulios is the director.

I mean, is it like running, like, a TV show?

MIKE SOULIOS: Absolutely. Absolutely, there's an art. We spend a lot of time on the style.

CARAPEZZA: Enter stage left Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand.

BHARAT ANAND: Big number, small numbers - is this company worth it? Here's the poll question - what do you think? Is the company worth $50 billion?

CARAPEZZA: Anand is practicing the business school's well-known case-study method, putting students in the role of decision-maker as they discuss the latest on the ride-sharing phenomenon Uber.

ANAND: Well, the point is a very interesting one, right, which is the moment we think about this as a taxi service, automatically that limits the size of the market.

CARAPEZZA: Anand paces back and forth, facing the bank of TV monitors, a microphone pinned to his tie. The producer in the control room determines what students see on their own computers, and when a student is called on, his or her face pops up on screen.

ANAND: Miriam.

MIRIAM: (Laughter).

ANAND: You're hearing all your colleagues being so negative.

MIRIAM: (Laughter).

ANAND: You're super positive about Uber, right? Tell us why.

MIRIAM: Well, I don't know much about the specific number - the billions...

ANAND: Yeah.

CARAPEZZA: When the cameras are off, Anand tells me Harvard has done what many critics of online education insist can't be done - it's replicated the intensity of a classroom.

ANAND: On the one hand, you know, it's very difficult for you and I to mimic the closeness that we have right now. On the other hand, you know, there are some things we can do with technology which we couldn't do in the physical classroom.

CARAPEZZA: Like read students' comments in real time.

ANAND: There's a chat function, which, you know, you can basically just be typing in whatever comes to your mind on this little ticker at the bottom of the screen. We as faculty can see what students are writing down.

CARAPEZZA: Right now most students using the virtual classroom are enrolled in the school's executive ed program; others are undergrads taking Harvard's online business courses for credit. Harvard won't say how much all this costs or how it plans to charge students and viewers in the future. Instead, the university says it's focused on teaching and learning in the digital age.

BRIAN FLEMING: It has been debuted to a world that is probably tired of looking for the next big thing.

CARAPEZZA: Brian Fleming is a senior analyst at the higher ed research firm Eduventures. Despite all the hype about online learning, Fleming says Harvard has made a breakthrough.

FLEMING: Essentially, what they're doing is they're distributing their kind of longstanding commitment to the case-study method, which has always distinguished schools like Harvard. That's really kind of the glue that holds this thing together.

CARAPEZZA: Roy Williams agrees. The businessman from Pittsburgh is enrolled in Harvard's executive Ed program, and he says Anand's class is the closest he's seen to replicating a classroom.

ROY WILLIAMS: They had camera angles from pretty much everywhere, so you could see the professor as he's moving around. You could see all your classmates on a big board, so you essentially had people sitting next to you and in front of you and behind you.

CARAPEZZA: Still, Roy says neither Harvard nor anybody else can replace the real thing.

WILLIAMS: For me, the preference is always to be in a classroom physically with everybody else and interact with them and interact with the professor face-to-face.

CARAPEZZA: So far Harvard says more than 20 professors have already taught in the virtual studio and many more are interested. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.