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Virtual Classrooms

tech insights from executive director of HBX, Harvard Business School's digital learning initiative

In the science fiction series Star Trek: Next Generation, many episodes featured a technology that used holographic tools to enable crew members to simulate various scenarios in a near-to-real-life way. The “Holodeck” immersed the user in artificial worlds that felt real, enabling quixotic escapes or serious training.  As with many things in science fiction, Hollywood overshot what is currently possible (a necessary aspect of sci-fi to be sure). But also like many things in science fiction, the demonstrated technology hinted at tools to come and ways to use them. And as somebody who works in the education technology (EdTech) space, I can’t help but think of how such tools will drive the future of education.

I’m no savant with respect to where technology is going, but my experience as the executive director of the Harvard Business School’s (HBS) digital education initiative, called HBX, has shown me that while hardware and software elegantly created and coupled can – and will – matter, it is the intersection of student, pedagogy and technology that really makes a difference. As we think about the use of even newer technologies to educate, it’s useful to consider how we approached using the internet to deliver effective business education before turning to thoughts about the future.

It can be argued that the first “online” education in the United States took the form of public broadcasting from universities. Educational programs sprung up at numerous institutions in the 1920s that featured a professor lecturing to a microphone.  Interestingly, this transfer of a known pedagogy to a new technology without considering the new technology’s capabilities and limitations was not very effective.  As researcher Paul Saettler noted, “the first years of [American] university broadcasting were generally ineffective because many a professor repeated his classroom lecture before the microphone without realizing that a good lecturer was not necessarily an effective broadcaster.” Early internet instruction suffered the same flaw as many learned that just putting a lecture online did little to inspire and educate the students who received the message over the ether.

Fortunately, for many of us in the EdTech space, others ventured to experiment in the online world when technologies and best practices regarding how to use them were nascent. Standing on the shoulder of these giants, those who got HBX off the ground were keenly aware of how technology alone wouldn’t make online education compelling based on several lessons from early participants in the EdTech space.  Lesson number one: start with the student. Put yourself in her or his chair and understand how the pedagogy will be executed in the new medium. At HBS, there was perhaps more focus on this than at other organizations since no standard platform had been built to support the method of instruction the school had used in its classrooms successfully for a century: the case method, an inductive, rather than deductive, form of instruction. Deductive learning is what most of us are familiar with.  If you’ve sat in Chemistry 101 your freshman year of college, you likely experienced deductive learning: a lecturing professor explaining how to get to an answer through a formula or process. In deductive learning, students apply general principles to specific situations. It is this “lecturing professor” model of deductive learning that most permeated early online education efforts, perhaps because it was relatively easy to do. By contrast, inductive learning forces students to “notice” concepts while working through a presented problem; students induce principles from general situations. This is the case method at its core. Putting the student at the center with the pedagogy in mind pointed us to building our own platform to ensure that the method of instruction would not be compromised.

Lesson number two stems from starting with the student and focusing on the case method:  learning is better when students help each other, when there is a community aspect to their experience.  In a physical HBS classroom, students aren’t asked to individually address the problem presented through the case, they are drawn into a discussion with their peers, debating each other and answering questions.  This helps the inductive process develop and keeps student engaged.  The power of peer learning is well known but to date has been infrequently used.  In the book Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning, the authors note that peer instruction “engages the students in the underlying concepts of the … material; reveals students’ problems in reaching understanding; and provides opportunities for them to explain their understanding, receive feedback, and assess their learning compared to other students.” So, when we built HBX CORe – a credential course that teaches students economics, accounting, and data analytics – we ensured our course platform had rich interactive tools. HBX students can seek out help from their peers by asking a question that is tied to the content on the page they are studying. Likewise, they can answer questions members of their cohort have posted.  They can view a live map showing which of their cohort peers are online and learn more about them. Each of these features helps students feel more connected to each other and engaged in the course material.

Lesson number three may be counter-intuitive, especially given reference to replicating aspects of the classroom experience mentioned earlier.  We call this lesson “borrow/release” and it comes down to this: don’t try to recreate everything as it exists in the physical world.  Rather, borrow the best of the other world and integrate it into the new, technology-enabled platform while letting go of things that just won’t work. At HBX, we created a virtual classroom in a studio at Boston’s public television station, WGBH. As in the physical, tiered-seating amphitheater in a classroom at HBS, students are organized on a video “wall” four rows high. The professor can conduct a case discussion in a completely synchronous manner and allow students to debate each other and answer questions in real-time.  It feels very much like being in a classroom and those who have participated are blown away by the realism of the experience. HBX Live is our education “Holodeck.”  But there are a few things lost in this version of the real thing. For example, students who are not talking directly to each other at the instructor’s invitation cannot really see the rest of their peers in class by scanning the “room.” Also, students can’t, in the middle of a session, be broken up into small groups in real-time to address some issue or come up with ideas and then immediately reconvene.  We recognized these limitations and are comfortable that little is lost in giving these things up.  But there are aspects of HBX Live that best the physical classroom. Students can broadcast chats that appear in an electronic ticker along the bottom of the video wall. Professors have commented that this gives them a chance to get insight into what is on all students’ minds in an efficient way, something that is difficult to do in a classroom where only one person can be called on at a time. Using HBX live, it’s relatively easy for a professor to post a poll and get instant feedback from students, including from any number of observes who are not on the video wall but watching the classroom video and audio feed.  And, of course, HBX Live collapses geographies, allowing sixty people from around the world to attend a case discussion without leaving the comfort of their home in Paris, Dehli, Los Angeles or Nairobi (for an example of how HBX works, see:  Try doing that from your grandfather’s classroom.

With the lessons of putting the student first, cultivating a community, and borrow/release front and center, we believe we have created a unique digital experience that our learners value. With course completion rates between 85 and 90 percent (most online courses are below 15 percent) and satisfaction scores that indicate users love their experience (particularly the community aspect of case learning), there is data to suggest we are on the right path.

So, what does the future hold? Given how fast technologies change, are adopted, and abandoned, that’s difficult to say.  That said, at HBX, we are actively trying to address several questions.  For example, how does online learning translate to a mobile device? Given the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, this is an area where the borrow/release principle will play in a big way. Trying to adapt the desktop platform completely to a mobile one may not be the best path forward for us.  However, there is much to borrow not only from our own platform and other mobile ones but from some of the technologies mobile devices offer. Geo-location is a wonderful example. How might this capability allow online learners to connect in person to form study groups or work on a project? The cameras on mobile equipment also suggest an opportunity. For example, could student-supplied videos and pictures augment a case discussion?

In addition to this work, we also are considering how peer-to-peer interaction in the context of a case activity might be facilitated through new technologies or adaptations of current ones. In the Harvard Business School’s negotiations course (offered in the on-campus MBA), students are asked to pair up and negotiate with each other after each is given information that allows them to take on the role of a principal in the negotiation. In the physical classroom this is easy. And certainly technologies exist online that would facilitate such a scenario in the virtual world (e.g. Skype). But if we are to create a seamless experience for our learners conducting a negotiation exercise on our platform then it should be as easy as turning to the person next to you in a physical classroom.  This is where the principle of student first comes in.  What role could virtual reality (VR) play in this case?  As more smart phones ship with VR goggles and full-featured goggles come to market, could students feel as if they were in a boardroom in New York City sitting across from a counterpart, negotiating a major merger?  And even if they could, would this have value?

And it is that latter question – would this have value? – that we must not lose sight of.  Technology for technology’s sake is the express lane to irrelevance, poor learning outcomes, and user frustration. We must push boundaries, but not at the expense of students actually learning.  This is our EdTech Hippocratic Oath.

Immediately after graduating from college, I served four years in the U.S. Air Force operating intelligence satellites.  Inevitably, when I told people this is what I did, they asked, “Can you really read a license plate from orbit?”  I was not allowed to answer, but I always turned the question around:  “Why would you want to?”  There are easier ways to track somebody and, in any case, the laws of physics don’t allow a satellite in low earth orbit to “hover” over a location despite what the movies show you (although this is something drones can now do). The message was this: just because technology can do something doesn’t mean there is efficacy in doing it.  And this couldn’t be truer than in the digital education space. I am confident that we will be surprised and amazed by how technology will revolutionize education in the years to come. I am also confident that some will use innovations even when they do little to further learning. But by focusing on student first, reinforcing community, and borrowing what works and releasing what doesn’t, we believe it’s possible to create a rich, immersive educational experience that stands the test of time … at least until somebody invents a Holodeck.