Harvard Business School has dipped its toe into digital learning through its HBX platform. HBX offers online courses in “preparatory” business topics (“CORe”), as well as a course on Disruptive Strategy. The course on Disruptive Strategy lasts 6 weeks, costs $1,500, and includes 30-35 hours of content – mainly videos, short-response questions, and a group project). HBX has also launched a “virtual classroom” project that is “designed to reproduce the intimacy and synchronous interaction of Harvard Business School’s famed case study method in a digital environment.” According to the HBX website, “Participants from around the globe can log in concurrently and join real-time, case-based sessions with HBS faculty who teach from the HBX Live studio” [in Allston, near HBS campus]. “In the custom-designed studio, a high-resolution video wall mimics the amphitheater-style seating of an HBS classroom, where up to 60 participants are displayed on individual screens simultaneously.”
This product is clearly brushing up against virtual reality. Interestingly, however, uptake has been limited both from the professor/content producer side of the platform, as well as from the user side. Even though HBX was launched 5 years ago, Disruptive Strategy is still the only course that is available to users. Organizationally, it is unclear how (if at all) HBS incentivizes professors to make their courses available on the platform. It also seems that – to date at least – the HBX offering is simply not as compelling as actually enrolling in an on-premise MBA or executive education program.
It is surprising to me that HBS would pursue such a half-baked approach to digital content. They clearly know that there is something magical about the case method: being “part of a discussion,” rather than merely receiving a monodirectional “broadcast,” is in most circumstances a more effective mode of learning. Perhaps prior methods of digital learning (websites, asynchronous online videos) simply didn’t provide the interactivity that makes the case method work. Moreover, even with their HBX Live offering, it is possible that the quality of perspectives represented in the digital classroom didn’t quite cut the mustard. I think virtual reality can potentially solve all of these problems.
HBS ought to record actual case discussions, and run them through a natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) engine – segmenting discussion into key themes, and identifying which topics generate the most student engagement. Then, they ought to create a virtual classroom populated with digital avatars, who parrot the comments or exchanges that have historically been the most interesting. Individual consumers could asynchronously “arrive” at the classroom and experience a classroom discussion. They could make comments, and the NLP engine would identify what “themes” are most closely related to the student’s comments – and then trigger related discussions by the avatars. A virtual professor could then “enter” the discussion to summarize (pre-determined) “key takeaways” at the end of each class session. The “quality” of participants and discussion might actually be enhanced – not only by drawing from the best or most engaging comments from real class discussions, but also by packaging those comments in more interesting avatars (e.g. having avatars of Merkel, Le Pen, Assad, and Erdogan in the classroom to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis). The avatars’ comments could even be curated to the level of sophistication or area of expertise of the student (i.e. how technical to get). At some point, a VR classroom experience will be as-good or better than a live classroom, and HBS ought to be on the leading edge of exploring such opportunities.