Creating the HBS Hybrid Classrooms: Collaboration, Experimentation, Equity, and Innovation
Faced with multiple uncertainties for the fall 2020 semester, a team of faculty, staff, and students created a unique remote and in-person learning experience that maintains the integrity of the case method pedagogy while ensuring the health and safety of the community.
16 Oct 2020   Shona Simkin
A hybrid classroom. Photo courtesy Hensley Carrasco.

At its surface, this is a story about the new hybrid classrooms at Harvard Business School (HBS)—the who, what, why, and how of a remarkable advance in technology, developed during (and driven by) a global pandemic. But it’s also the story of how a truly mammoth task succeeded through innovative thinking, risk-taking, and collegial teamwork.

In late March, just a few weeks into the new COVID reality of online learning, decision makers at HBS had to start thinking about what seemed like a faraway point in the future: the fall semester. There was a good chance that not all students would be on campus. How could HBS provide a safe, equitable, and engaging learning experience that would accommodate both remote and in-person learners?

The Virtual Teaching Task Force, led by Professor Srikant Datar, had already worked to optimize the virtual platform that would take the school through the end of the spring 2020 semester—an effort that launched after an intense two weeks of innovation, training, and school-wide cooperation (not to mention significant technology procurement). As intense an experience as that was, said Datar, it was also one of the most memorable and enjoyable of his entire academic career.

“The task force team created a culture of community with two key concepts,” said Datar. “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.”

The hybrid team knew they needed to expand their thinking and design process to incorporate considerations such as physical spaces and operational health and safety. On April 23, the Remote Technology Task Force team—which now comprised individuals from Executive Education, HBS Online, Operations, Media Services, the MBA Program, and IT, as well as faculty and students—met for the first time.

The challenges before them were immense: how could the boards and class materials be clearly visible to remote students; how could faculty easily identify the students—some of whom would be wearing masks—on Zoom; how many students could safely be in the classroom at one time; how could the professor engage and interact most comfortably with remote students; how could the remote students engage with those in the classroom; how could everyone best hear and see each other; what sanitation measures needed to be in place; what were the necessary modifications for health and safety?

The design

The team quickly identified their main directives: 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, they had five weeks to conceive, refine, and finalize a design.

Deputy Chief Information Officer Beth Clark and Program Manager Marsha Whitman created a weekly iterative in situ prototype design and feedback process that included a weekly range of 50-100 HBS community members (faculty, staff, and students). This cycle, said Datar, is essential to the concept 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.”

Aldrich classroom plexiglass trial.

One crucial consideration was the deliberate architecture of the Aldrich classrooms, which were designed to support the case method and its intimate, energetic nature. For Steve Erwin, senior director of planning and design, this was familiar territory. “These spaces are almost as sacred as any on campus,” said Erwin. “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.”

Audio Visual Design Engineer Justin Fowler jumped into experiments immediately. “I know the Aldrich classrooms like the back of my hand,” said Fowler. Picking up various cameras, computers, and cables from his office, he discussed product options with Zoom engineers and hardware integration installers, and mocked up an initial prototype.

After a few iterations, a number of ideas were discarded, including plexiglass barriers (too much glare, too little data on safety) and a moving camera following the professor (nausea-inducing and distracting).

To move beyond mockups, and to best simulate the actual classroom experience, several faculty members taught full cases with student and staff volunteers. For the instructional design team this was where they could really see where and how the progressing design failed and succeeded at supporting the case method pedagogy. What technology would most naturally support debate between remote and in-class students? What design would best allow the professor to make connections between the students and facilitate discussion?

For Patrice Lawless, associate director of learning design and training services, the constraints of designing within these unusual circumstances resulted in even more innovation. “One of our principles was that this had to be as automated and self-service as possible, because any spot taken by a support technician or a camera operator is one less spot for a student with capacity restrictions. Those guidelines forced everyone to be a lot more creative and think outside the box,” said Lawless.

A screenshot of the first hybrid classroom experiment.

After multiple prototype testing sessions and classes, feedback polls, and meetings, with audio-visual cables strewn across the classrooms and monitors propped on the walls, they landed on the first solution. Two high-quality cameras, one at the back of the room between gallery-view participant screens captured the professor and boards, and encouraged natural eye contact with the faculty; another at the front of the room provided a wide-shot of the students. All students could read the chalkboards, and the faculty could see all of the students at once.

For remote students, though, their fellow students seemed too far away, hindering debate and participation. This was when Fowler had a breakthrough: Could the in-class students use their own laptops and join the Zoom class, thereby appearing individually? Not without horrible audio feedback. Fowler again found a solution, one that the consulting Zoom engineers had never conceived of: stitching 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. Jessie McAskill, senior learning technologies administrator, helped to create an automated control so that all three rooms opened together at the same time.

It worked. Remote students could read the chalkboards, see their fellow classmates individually, watch the professor, raise their hand, and easily participate. “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,” said Fowler.

With the design in place, it was on to ordering and procurement—complicated by pandemic supply chain delays—and refinements. Among them was addressing the difficulty of identifying Zoom participants via their small screen name tag. Different universal backgrounds were designed and tested, and the team finally settled on a dark gray background with the Harvard logo, an extra-large name display, and a halo-effect for greater depth perception. The universal backgrounds—which are still being optimized—also eliminated distracting individual backgrounds and created a more consistent aesthetic between remote and in-class students.

On May 31, after seven formal experimentations, 80 smaller tests, and hundreds of poll data points, the design was finalized. Now the physical transformation could commence.

Operational logistics and renovations

An Aldrich classroom under renovation.

Phil Memmott, senior director of capital projects, was brought into the design conversations early, as its implementation would be up to his team. Much of that work, he knew, would be largely invisible to those in the classroom, but essential to its success. He also had to get the budget process underway—no one had planned for a pandemic. They had nine weeks to install and retrofit the equipment into a still uncertain number of Aldrich classrooms. Initial numbers were between five and eight, but those grew alongside faculty and student enthusiasm once trials began. Finally, it was decided: 16 classrooms. The initial 10 classrooms were to be completed by August 21 for EC classes in early September, the remaining six by October 13, when the RCs would move from all-remote (to equalize the experience for these new students) to hybrid.

The back wall of an Aldrich classroom during construction.

On the list of renovations: three 85-inch displays on the back wall, a new cubby for the 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.

In close collaboration with IT’s Senior Audiovisual Project Manager Tony Racioppi, Memmott and his team got to work. The 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; additional components would most certainly create enough heat to cause equipment failure. As Memmott put it, “These closets are three by four feet and triangular, and we essentially added three stacking ovens that are turned on and baking cookies.” Temporary air-conditioning units went into the closets until the final HVAC work was complete. Ceiling tiles came down, holes were punched into the cinder block walls, and ductwork and filters went in.

Ceiling panels in Aldrich Hall

The new air filters and sensors now provide near-outdoor air quality in the classrooms, and adhere to the latest health and safety recommendations. Audio-visual engineers ensured that the classroom acoustics, for in-classroom and remote participants, were either unaffected or improved. Simultaneously, safety and sanitation guidelines were established: faculty had to stay behind a white line for distancing, chairs were tethered to ensure spacing between students, everyone would wear surgical masks, plentiful signage, cleaning/sanitizing between classes, and deep-cleaning overnight. For Erwin, who led much of the safety conversations through the design and project, it was important to consider the entire process, and end result, while testing different methods and tools. “Safety isn't just one thing, but a complement of a series of tools, including distance, personal health safety (face coverings), how the rooms are sanitized in between classes, at night before the first class, and enhanced air filtration and outdoor air exchange,” he said.

The hybrid experience

The case method, foundational to the HBS experience, rests upon an active dialogue between and among faculty and students, rapid questions and answers, and deep intellectual and social engagement. When COVID-19 forced the closure of the classroom, it was “like a direct hit to the case method,” said Professor V.G. Narayanan.

For Narayanan, who taught and participated in the trials, getting back into the classroom was “exciting and awesome.” “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,” said Narayanan. “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.”

Professor Luis Viceira, who both led and participated in the trials and was the first to teach MBA students in the hybrid classrooms this fall, also tested using the hybrid classroom to teach fully remote classes—would the technology and teaching experience lead to an improved remote experience? Initial feedback is positive. “Students can see the boards, my writing is better, and I tend to move a lot in the classroom. In the office I'm confined, and the students have liked that in the hybrid classroom I can move around and call on people—they feel that energy and they appreciate it,” said Viceira.

Feiyue Li (MBA 2021) participated in the hybrid trials from her home in Beijing, China, and is now in a hybrid class on campus. Students rotate through in-class and remote participation to adhere to the classroom capacity limits, and having experienced both options, Li can feel a difference. “I really missed the magic of the classroom. I feel more present—the professor is walking around, making eye contact, I can see other students nodding when I’m speaking, and both in-classroom and remote students can raise their actual hands and connect with the old classroom experience,” says Li. “Working on the student task force connected me to the real human beings behind the operations of HBS. Now I know the people who are doing the work behind the things I see on campus and in the classroom, and I really appreciate all of the efforts. These things don't fall from the sky!”

MBA Student Association Co-President Caleb Bradford’s (MBA/MPP 2021) two hybrid classes have been a return to that classroom magic as well. “Zoom-only professors have done a great job of mobilizing all the technological advances of Zoom and the back-end engineering that the HBS team has done so that it’s as interactive and engaging as possible, but the in-person experience elevates it a thousand-fold for me,” said Bradford. “Being back in the Aldrich classroom, I immediately perk up in my seat and feel more attentive and alive. I’m reminded of just how electrifying HBS classes are. You see the professor racing across the floor to write down important linkages, you hear the buzz and laughter after a comment or two, and the live feedback from classmates is exhilarating. It also feels super safe—I applaud the team for these efforts to deliver a world class educational experience in the midst of an ongoing crisis.”

Going forward

The innovation and promise of the hybrid classroom won’t end with the pandemic. Whether it’s bringing in remote speakers from around the globe or allowing those who still can’t return to campus to have a classroom experience, the opportunities are vast. “I can say with confidence—and I hate making predictions these days—that as glad as we are to have the hybrid classroom right now, there will come a time when we're even more grateful,” said

Professor Jan Rivkin. “As the pandemic fades and we can have more students in our physical classrooms, there will still be a handful of people who can't come into the room—for health reasons, for immigration reasons, for multiple reasons. At that point, we will need nearly every course to be taught in a hybrid fashion, so that the remaining remote students can be truly included in the course.”

Datar agrees. “I am certain that going forward we will continue to use these technologies in ways that we have not yet imagined,” he said. “Every step has been a growth trajectory. Right now, we’re working on making classes in January even better, and once we’re past this pandemic we’ll figure out what's next. We've developed unbelievable capabilities. COVID-19 has accelerated our progress on the technology front by years.”

The cross-departmental, collaborative spirit from this work will also carry forward for years to come. “The one thing that I hope to convey is the enormous gratitude I have for the School, for the people we work with,” said Datar. “There was something about taking something that was very difficult, and knowing that none of us could do it on our own. Everyone chipped in, everyone had a tiny part, but an equal say. If all of us didn't have a tiny part in it, it would not have worked.”

That sentiment was echoed across departments and teams. “The team spirit of the folks engaged in this innovation was infectious,” said Narayanan. “Every time we met, I would come away with my spirits lifted. While the team failed early and often, each iteration boosted the camaraderie of the group. The hybrid project in particular, but more generally the whole process of getting ready for fall, gave more meaning and purpose to everything that we were doing over these past few months.”

“This vast community effort was just amazing to be a part of—and also so much fun,” said Clark. “This is not something that we could ever do without the whole community’s involvement. I feel really lucky to have been part of it.” Whitman concurs. “We built bridges that didn't exist before. It was quite a learning experience and an amazing collaborative effort. It really was enjoyable—and a lot of work! We are so grateful for the many, many individuals across HBS who made this possible.”


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