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August 25, 2015

Harvard Business School Professor Bharat Anand conducts a class at the HBX Live studio in Brighton, Massachusetts. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

As college students return to their brick-and-mortar campuses, Harvard Business School is unveiling a virtual classroom. It's designed to replicate the intimacy of the on campus experience.

The business school’s latest venture is highly produced in WGBH's TV studios in Brighton, Massachusetts.

It’s show time, and minutes before the live action gets underway, the stage manager gives last-minute instructions. Behind the scenes, in a control room upstairs, a producer calls the shots.

But this is no WGBH production. The private university has rented this public broadcasting studio and turned it into a virtual classroom.

Sixty video monitors beam students from around the world into one space. Picture a Hollywood Squares kind of set up.

Producers determine what will appear on HBX Live participants' screens from a control room. (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH).

"There’s an art,” says Mike Soulios, the director of HBX Live. “We spend a lot of time on the style. We think that’s really important for the engagement.”

While one producer monitors the students’ Internet connections and audio levels, Harvard Business School Professor Bharat Anand walks on stage and poses a question to his students about the ridesharing app, Uber.

“What do you think? Is the company worth 50 billion dollars?" asks Anand.

Professor Anand is practicing the business school's well-known case study method to discuss the latest on the company’s worth. He paces back and forth, facing the bank of TV monitors.

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

Professor Anand says Harvard has done what many critics of online education insist can't be done: it's replicated the classroom dynamic.

"On one hand, it’s very hard to mimic the closeness that we have right now,” Anand admits. “On the other hand, there are some things we can do with technology which we couldn’t do in the physical classroom."

Anand says the energy he can feel in the studio is incredible, and at times, even more interactive in a virtual space.

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

So far, HBS is using this virtual classroom in its executive education program, and also to engage alumni. Later this fall, Anand says Harvard will pilot research seminars connecting faculty from different universities.

"Think about having flash events where you know, something happens, somewhere in the world,” says Anand. “The ability for them to convene five or 10 or 15 other experts and have a conversation, which could be broadcast to many others."

While Harvard is allowing outside observers to live-stream these "shows," it won't disclose how much its sleek studio costs, or how it plans to charge students and viewers. Instead, the university says it's all about pursuing excellence in teaching and learning in the digital age.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as HBS.

"It’s been debuted to a world that’s probably tired of looking for the next big thing," says Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a higher education research firm.

Amid all the noise about online learning, Fleming says Harvard has made a breakthrough.

"Essentially what they're doing is they're distributing their longstanding commitment to the case-study method, which has always distinguished schools like Harvard,” he says. “That's really the glue that holds this thing together."

Still, Fleming doesn't predict this new technology will disrupt the higher education industry, or change how most students learn.

"I think outside of the ability to bring people together online, it really does little to alter the core experience of sitting in a classroom," says Fleming.

This isn't the business school's first online venture. Last year, it produced video lectures that also tried to capture the energy of a real classroom.

Harvard says more than 20 faculty have already taught in the virtual studio, and many more are interested.

Earlier: Harvard Business School Launches Online Learning Initiative

WATCHHarvard Business School's virtual classroom is exceptionally well marketed online.

higher ed, college, technology and innovation, online learning, distance education, Harvard Business School

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