TV-worthy live studio pumps up Harvard Business School’s online lessons

Bharat Anand demonstrates HBX Live, Harvard Business School's new online classroom streaming studio.
Bharat Anand demonstrates HBX Live, Harvard Business School's new online classroom streaming studio.

When Harvard Business School launched the online education program HBX last year, the idea was to reach undergraduates who might want a basic grounding in business principles by learning fundamentals like financial accounting, business analytics, and economics.

But there was a catch.

Since the online courses weren’t live, they were missing a core component of the school’s approach to education: students debating the pros and cons of a detailed business case study.

Now, HBX has developed a live-streaming initiative, called HBX Live, designed to replicate the experience of a classroom.

Located at the public television station WGBH in Boston, the business school’s studio is laced with multiple video cameras, equipped with flat-screen monitors that can act like digital whiteboards, and dominated by roughly 10-foot-tall wall of video screens capable of displaying the faces of 60 students.

Along the bottom, a “ticker” displays chat messages the students type during the lesson.

Even for an experienced lecturer, the experience can be a little intimidating, said Bharat Anand, the chairman of HBX.

“The first time we walked in, it’s like ‘Oh, my God, what’s going on?’” he said. “But the moment you get into the first conversation, you sort of lose yourself.”

HBX Live 6A view from behind the lectern, showing the video wall and live camera operator. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe.

Some online education programs that have cropped up in recent years, including edX, backed by Harvard and MIT, are dedicated to the idea of free online learning available to virtually anyone with an Internet connection.

HBX, however, is a premium product: Its tuition is listed at $1,800, and students must apply for admission to the 12-week courses. About 4,500 students have taken classes since they debuted last spring, Anand said.

The video studio is the next step in the HBX project. Besides students in the online pre-MBA program, Anand hopes the studio can be used for a long list of digital communications programs, including alumni outreach and faculty research seminars.

By showing that Harvard Business School’s signature debate-driven lessons can be replicated online, the new HBX Live program also could get more educators excited about the possibilities of online education, Anand said.

“When you talk about online even today there is sort of one big collective yawn,” he said. “This was the case three years ago on our campus. Most of us were saying, `There is no way that technology is going to disrupt anything we do, because it’s such an interactive experience.’ ”

HBX’s new video capabilities are evidence of important educational institutions trying to stay ahead of technological advances that could eat into their market, said Kathy Mickey, an education technology analyst with Simba Information.

“Video is a tool that is used in real-world business collaboration and negotiations, so it certainly should be a tool used in B-school,” Mickey said. “If Harvard doesn’t do it, someone else is, you can be sure.”

Harvard Business School declined to say how much the studio setup cost, but allowed that it was roughly the same cost as building a new standard classroom. The cost will be well worth it if HBX can get educators thinking more seriously about the possibilities of how technology might improve the way they do things, Anand said.

The online chat function, which lets students offer a question or reaction to the debate even if they’re not being called on, offers a particularly interesting new wrinkle to the classroom.

“I’m always reading their minds, which I could never do in the classroom,” Anand said.

HBX Live 7Anand uses the video “whiteboard” to sketch out some class notes. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe.