Up Close: Live Online Classrooms
In a Year of Uncertainty and Upheaval, HBS Launches a Game-Changing Course Platform
15 Apr 2021   Shona Simkin

Professor Stefan Thomke is teaching his case on the rise and fall of Sony. He stands in front of the class and asks a student to elaborate on her answer to what had gone wrong with the once unrivalled technology, entertainment, and media conglomerate. “They couldn’t adapt to digital demands and to the introduction of the iPod,” she says. Thomke nods, walks to the board to jot down her response, and asks the student to explain why Sony couldn’t adapt.

It’s a typical exchange in any classroom at Harvard Business School. This, however, is no typical classroom, and it’s certainly anything but a typical academic year. Thomke is teaching his case to students tuning in virtually from around the globe in the Executive Education’s General Management Program (GMP), held in one of two new Live Online Classrooms in Cumnock Hall.

The team looks at plans in Cumnock with foam core screen mockups in the background. Photo courtesy Mike Soulios.

In each of the two classrooms, 96 individual screens arc across the wall, four rows high. In the middle of the room is an oblong desk, behind which are three 85-inch digital boards that mimic the Aldrich chalkboards: they move up and down, but the ink color can change, and writing can be erased, undone, redone, or hidden. Cameras, microphones, and speakers are strategically placed below the monitors, allowing for directional sound and eye contact. Remote cameras capture the professor wherever they move, and a team of engineers, producers, and directors feeds the shots to the students. It’s as close to an in-person experience as it gets.

The new classrooms seem designed specifically for remote learning in a pandemic, yet are actually the result of more than 10 years of planning and design, stemming from the WGBH studio used by HBS Online (then HBX), which launched in 2015 under the direction of Dean Nitin Nohria and Professor Youngme Moon. Now that there are two studios—plus one leaner, modified version—on campus, and education models have shifted online, it almost feels like a prescient process and decision—one that has completely transformed Executive Education’s reach and program delivery.

A Plan Ahead of Its Time

Professor Bharat Anand, Dustin Hilt, Mike Soulios, and Patrick Mullane in Cumnock with plans and mockups prior to construction. Photo courtesy Dustin Hilt.

Mike Soulios, director of HBS Live Online technology, had planned a five-year tech refresh for the HBX Live classroom since its inception. The core design of the platform was solid, but technology had since caught up to where they had hoped it would be at the beginning. The platform was a tremendous success, and offered exciting opportunities for School-wide use. However, by late 2018 there was a desire to bring the platform closer to campus, and the production team no longer needed WGBH’s expertise. It was time to consider moving location along with updating systems.

Soulios and Dustin Hilt, director of HBS Live Online programming, identified two main goals: a 96-person capacity to bring the virtual classroom closer to the size of an on-campus classroom (versus 60 at the WGBH studios), and a location closer to campus. Ideally, they would also be technologically sustainable and programmatically scalable.

Two underutilized classrooms in the Cumnock basement were chosen as the space, and new platform and integration contracts were signed. Plans for a single studio were drawn, aiming for a September 2020 opening, when Dean Nohria had a suggestion: Why not make two?

Despite initial misgivings at doubling the project, Soulios is glad that the plan prevailed. “We now regularly have more demand than we can handle, so it looks like a stroke of utter genius,” he laughs.

Design and Construction, and a Pause

Evaluating screen layout options. Photo courtesy Mike Soulios.

Over the summer of 2019, the design team got to work. Expanding upon the mockups that were helpful in designing the original WGBH studio, the team brought in foam core models to test how to fit 96 individual LED screens in the space. The faculty teaching at the WGBH studio liked the configuration of three rows of participants—should that be expanded in length or in height to fit in 36 more? The team created models for both options, and tested both versions with faculty and staff. The wraparound version received a thumbs-up from staff, but was quickly discarded by faculty—students at the periphery of the professor’s sightline would be disadvantaged in case discussions. Different sized cutouts were brought in to see which size monitor could best mimic actual in-person students. Different desk shapes were mocked up, tested by faculty, tweaked, and tested again and again until they found the perfect size, shape, and material. A theatrical lighting team configured the lighting plan, different floor surfaces were assessed, and the control room was designed.

The construction crew broke ground in October of 2019. Phil Memmot in Capital Programs considered it a rather simple build. “We were essentially building two black boxes that the tech crew would build upon,” he said. They assisted with the testing of the design elements, coordinated the theatrical lighting installation, and worked with the HVAC engineers for the perfect ventilation—enough for safe circulation, but not so much that it would be audible in the broadcast. The real challenge would come in the form of a pandemic.

Framing for the LED screens. Photo courtesy Jonathan Barrett-Parker.

By mid-February, the main construction was complete and the audio-visual and technology installations could begin. A month later, all the wiring was finalized and the carpet was installed. Final inspectional sign offs, the last requirement for occupancy permits, were on March 23. And then: At noon the very next day, the City of Boston’s inspectional services and permitting department closed indefinitely.

For the next month, unable to test and occupy the classrooms, the entire team shifted to ensuring that all of the backend details—the audio-visual systems, programs, lighting, and equipment—would be ready to go as soon as permits were signed. Meanwhile, it was clear that those classrooms would be extremely useful as the pandemic progressed. Could the timeline be compressed so that they could open even sooner than September? How could the production team operate within COVID health and safety guidelines?

Remote meetings went into high gear, timelines were reconfigured, and permits were finally signed when the city office reopened in late April. Once they could be on site, the team spent May testing COVID protocols and reducing the number of people in the control room and classrooms. Pre-pandemic, each class required eight to 10 on-site specialists—in accordance with strict distancing and capacity guidelines, Hilt and Soulios streamlined the production so that each studio could be operated with fewer people on site. The classrooms opened on June 15, a full three months ahead of schedule.

But the ingenuity didn’t stop there. With classes going remote just months before, Soulios and Hilt wondered if there was a way to create a leaner, less expensive version of the classrooms. The Live Online Classrooms were consistently booked between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm, when one could reach US participants as well as those in most of Europe, Australia, and Asia. It would be ideal to have another classroom that could function similarly within the constraints of the pandemic but be ready on a much shorter timeline. They found a classroom in McCollum to outfit without a control room, maintaining the chalkboards, desks, and chairs, and within five months opened the modified version.

Executive Education Reimagined

As the classrooms were being constructed, Executive Education’s shift to Zoom sessions were going well, and there was high demand for more offerings. The program delivery teams knew that these classrooms would be available, but had no idea that they would be as popular and transformational as they are. Since the very first class on June 15, 2020, to today, there have been more than 600 Executive Education sessions—more than in the past five years combined at the WGBH studios. Seventy-two faculty members have taught more than 4,000 participants.

“It’s been a real game-changer,” says Ani Kharajian, senior portfolio director for Executive Education. “There are people who have dreamed of attending a leadership program at HBS but could not do so until 2020 because of the required travel to Boston and extended stay on campus. By going 100% virtual, we as a school, as a department, and as a course have become much more accessible. It’s been magical.”

To her point, recent data show greater diversity among participants, with more women enrolled in the GMP than ever before and strong international representation.

Now, nearly a year into Executive Education’s leap online, the reviews are still stellar and demand remains high. The GMP and other Comprehensive Leadership Programs are both run completely through the new classrooms. “We went from thinking it might be a nice option to everyone wanting to only teach in the Live Online Classrooms,” says Kharajian.

Stefan Thomke in the Live Online Classroom. Photo by Doug Levy

“When I walk into the Live Online Classroom and teach, it's quite similar to the things I do in a normal HBS classroom,” says Thomke. “When students speak I can hear that it's coming from one side versus the other. It helps to orient me in the classroom, and I can approach them individually and look them in the face. It feels much more personalized. This is what I'd do in a physical classroom, I'd walk around a lot and go up to students to talk. For me it’s natural, and the participants tell me they get drawn into the experience—that at some point they forget that they're online.”

Which was precisely the goal. “Every decision we make comes from a standpoint of what students or faculty do in a physical classroom—how to recreate the space to make it feel as natural as possible,” said Hilt. “Everything we do from the service and technology side is to make it feel a little less like you're on a computer and more like you're in an in-person, dynamic discussion.”

Another welcome aspect of online delivery has been getting a glimpse into participants’ homes and lives. The Live Online Classroom screens do not offer virtual backgrounds, explains Kharajian, and witnessing the human moments of a dog or child walking in creates connection and a shared sense of humanity.

This insight has sparked a new offering, a class for friends and family. “There’s no way to do that sort of thing on campus,” says Thomke. “Their families are probably wondering what they're doing all day sitting in that room with the door closed, so we decided to give them a feel for what it's like to be in the classroom, to participate in a case discussion and be in the Live Online Classroom. It creates a lot more empathy.”

As Steve Erwin, senior director of planning and design sees it, the Live Online Classrooms are a perfect example of leadership and stewardship. “We’re embracing and learning from the past and the HBS legacy of the case method, while also setting the table for the future—always innovating and pushing the envelope while holding on to the kernel of what is so special about this place.”

For Dean of Administration Angela Crispi, the new classrooms signal tremendous opportunity for the School, a welcome validation of a substantial investment, and another example of the extraordinary ingenuity of the HBS community. “There is unbelievable ingenuity at every level—the team creating the platform, faculty teaching and developing the courses, the support and program delivery teams, the architects drawing the plans, engineers working with audio visual and technology specialists, and the construction experts delivering early—we have this way of bringing talented people together to take an idea all the way to a solution,” said Crispi. “We'll eventually get to students sitting shoulder to shoulder, but these new options mean that we can have more people participating, from international guests to case protagonists to cross-registrants to those with travel restrictions. We can be so much more inclusive and sustainable with this kind of technology. The promise is there.”


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