Harvard Virtual Classroom, The newest classroom at Harvard’s business school has no desks or chairs. Instead, the professor teaches facing a towering digital screen that stretches from wall to wall, filled with the live video feeds of up to 60 students tuned in from their computers.
In the futuristic classroom, housed in a television studio 2 miles from campus, class plays out like a giant video conference.
Students can jump in to ask questions or respond to their classmates. The professor can stop a lecture to quiz individual students, or send the group a quick online poll.
The project, called HBX Live, is a departure from the genre of online courses that are recorded in advance to be taken later.
One Students’ experience
The idea of creating a virtual classroom has been around for 20 years. Until now, the solution that I had directly experienced or that I knew of were fairly limited. Indeed, the overall experience was more similar to an overcrowded videoconference than to a classroom without borders. Only recently did I discovered and experimented a solution that gets over this paradigm: HBX Live! Because I was enrolled in the Harvard Virtual Classroom HBX CORe program, I had the chance to participate in an HBX Live session.
HBX Live is the Harvard proprietary solution for setting up a virtual classroom. It basically consists of a professional TV Studio with 60 huge 6.2 million pixel screen panels, where the professor, like an actor in a Greek theatre speaks to the surrounding students who are watching, listening, speaking and answering through the monitors.
Harvard Virtual Classroom Experience
Some days before the HBX Live session, all the participants received an email containing the minimum technical requirements of the platform. And the instructions in order to configure and to test our computer and internet connection. In short, the technical procedures to access the platform were not user-friendly; they were very confusing.
Although the previous tests of my IT system were positive; I and other course mates, experienced some technical issues. Indeed, during a technical rehearsal, which took place 30 minutes before the real lesson, I discovered a problem with my audio: I could hear everyone, but no body could hear me. Fortunately, I was able to solve the problem on my own just before the professore Anand asked me a question. Leaving behind these little inconveniences once I entered the platform everyone was a little bewildered since the GUI (Graphic User Interface) was well-designed , but new and dense of functionalities.
While we were all playing like children in a playground with HBX Live, out of the blue. The professor Anand entered the studio like a seasoned anchorman and the show started.
The 90 minutes lesson
There were two topics for the lesson: the HBX strategy and the ACE Ticket case with the presence of the founder and CEO of the company. The lesson was amazing and intense; the studio was constantly pulsing with questions, answers, suggestions from the students and with provocative statements and food for thought considerations from the professor Anand and the ACE Ticket founder. It was like being in a NASA room or in an orchestra where the professor Anand was the conductor.
The overall experience was exciting and amazing. It was like being in a modern Tower of Babel with the camera focusing every 5 seconds on a new person connected from a different part of the world, with a specific accent and bringing to the class a unique cultural related point of view. The atmosphere was a festival of visions and sparkling with ideas. You could feel the power of the collaborative case discussion. When the time ran out, it was possible to read the sadness in the people’s eyes, because the session was over.
The voice of the alumni could be heard up to the last moment until the connection dropped.
A. The Pros
1. Concentration: high during the whole lesson
The situation of being all 60 participants on the “same wall” at the same level has a democratising effect and increases participation. There is no privileged position like in a traditional classroom. Everyone feels that he or she has the same opportunity of getting the professor’s attention. Moreover, everyone always stays focused since the probability of a cold call is equally distributed. The concentration and the participation are without any doubt higher in the HBX Live class than in general in a normal class.
2. There is a 3D interaction
In the traditional classroom, there is only a two-way interaction: the professor speaks to the alumni, the alumni speak to the professor. During an HBX Live session, the alumni post their ideas on the public chat or post info and links collected on the Internet, related to the topic. These contributions are constantly monitored by the professor so that he could use them to add elements to the current discussion or open a new one.
Meanwhile, a lot of private chats among the participants also occur. They are useful to clarify doubts or verify a simple hypothesis without interrupting the main flow of the lesson.
B. The Cons
1. Technical issues
The platform has still some little technical issues that hinder access to it. For example, at the beginning I was not selected to be one of the 60 participants. I was put on the waiting list. I was admitted late since someone in the first group failed the technical verification test; and I was not the only one on the waiting list who had a similar opportunity.
2. Still an experiment
Besides, it remains an experiment since only a fifth of 300 students of my cohort could partecipate in the HBX Live class and just once in a two months timeframe.
3. Too expensive and does not scale
Moreover, the service seems really expensive and it does not scale. In my opinion, 60 is the right and maximum number of screens that could be hung on the wall. Indeed, in order to fulfill the needs of a cohort of 900 MBA’s students, 15 similar TV studios would be required. It seems highly improbable that HBS will ever do it.
Inconclusion, HBX Live is a well-designed and outstanding educational tool. A virtual class is a valuable experience far from a traditional one, but not inferior. They are simply incomparable. In spite of being a service in order to teach a complete course; HBX Live maybe only the icing on the cake of an educational program. I consider delivering the entire content of a HBS program through HBX Live session highly improbable.