Why I Dropped My Harvard Business School Classes This Semester

Harvard Business School (HBS) is known for both the rigor and breadth of classes it offers to ambitious business leaders of the world. There’s no doubt that HBS has put a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money into creating hybrid classrooms for some of its nearly 60 courses offered this Fall 2020 semester. The problem is: it’s not enough. In my opinion, HBS sacrificed virtual instruction quality in an attempt to offer in-person students a safe physical environment. It was, indeed, a noble effort. But, instead of constructing “19 miles of plexiglass, putting up 6,00 signs, and moving 5,000 pieces of furniture,” HBS should have focused on its virtual learning capabilities. Instead of being afraid to “lose the magic” of an on-campus MBA experience, HBS should have consolidated its efforts to offer the world’s best virtual classrooms.

Not All In-Person Experiences Are Created Equal

By trying to master both the physical and virtual domains, HBS has sacrificed the quality of its classes on both sides of the participant aisle. For example, in-person attendees need to put in double the effort to request & register to attend class on-campus (putting aside the “Crimson Red” health checks each student must complete daily). This system of registering to attend in-person largely operates on a first-come, first-serve basis and is operated out of an HBS-branded Google spreadsheet. There’s a healthy amount of room to barter with peers, but due to the extremely limited number of classroom seats, spots fill up quickly and, often, weeks in advance. Additionally, if attending class in-person, it is required that students remotely connect to the virtual classroom as well. This means students must bring their laptops to class, log into the hybrid session via Canvas, mute/unmute themselves when speaking, and address their computer instead of peers in the actual classroom. From my vantage point, the only benefit of attending class in-person is that you stand a higher likelihood of being called upon when you raise your *physical* hand to participate… and this presents some problems.

Participation Is Still King

Participation at HBS makes up a huge chunk of students’ grades. Most professors assign a weight to participation anywhere from 40–60% of the overall class grade. Participation is key not only getting a good grade but also building on fellow students’ unique viewpoints from our professional and personal experience backgrounds. In the hybrid setting, participation is like the Wild Wild West: virtual hands compete with physical in-classroom hands and physical hands usually win the battle. Some professors have attempted to develop solutions by requiring virtual students to also physically raise their hands. Even with HBS’ state-of-the-art monitors, professors often can’t see when virtual students raise their hands. The monitors sit at the back of the classroom and often when virtual classrooms exceed 30 students, each student is reduced to a small pixelated square. Finally, this also means that virtual students have the worst vantage point from where to see the chalkboards (indeed, many, if not all, HBS professors use chalkboards). Yes- you can “zoom-in” to 150–170% of the camera facing the chalkboard, but this presents challenges when the professor moves from chalkboard to chalkboard, and the student is left trying to play cat and mouse with a moving piece of chalk. You’re left with a headache & incoherent notes.

Professor + Green Screen + Tech Moderator = Success

I think it’s unfair to put the onus on professors to become master Zoom operators. Professors, even at HBS, can’t be expected to be master Zoom operators, experts in their domain of study, AND responsible for energizing a classroom of Zoom-fatigued students. My suggestion is to halt all hybrid classrooms and shift all HBS classes to virtual settings. To create a fair playing field for all students, technology should not be the limiting factor in seeing vs. not seeing the board, raising a hand vs. not raising a hand, and signing up vs. not signing up for a class experimenting with the hybrid model. From the student’s perspective, the most ideal classroom consists of an energized professor, a green screen, a 60” monitor to project all attendees, and a technology moderator on-call/in the virtual classroom. In this scenario, the professor can focus on a single, corralled classroom where all participants are equally as likely to be called upon and course content is easily visible. Some professors at HBS have adopted this model from the start- including when the move to virtual learning took place mid-Spring semester. These professors, many have noticed, now have waitlists to join their classes, too. Additionally, I’ve noticed that these professors have found creative ways to leverage breakout room sessions, chat functionality, polling, and even additional add-ons like Miro boards.

“So… What Will You Do?”

Until all professors at HBS have created fair classroom settings for both in-person and virtual students, I wouldn’t suggest taking a hybrid class at HBS. By adopting a single medium for instruction, professors will learn to walk before they run. They will learn to run an efficient Zoom classroom before jumping into a hybrid model where, arguably, they will be in charge of two classrooms (a virtual and a physical classroom). Some may be wondering: so, what’s your best alternative to classes at Harvard Business School? The answer is simple: all classes at the Fletcher School, my home school, are entirely virtual this semester. Dean Rachel Kyte took swift action in June 2020 and committed to offering the full Fletcher academic experience virtually. Fletcher’s campus has been equipped to offer in-residence students the ability to go to the library, study rooms, etc. However, it’s expected that all classes, office hours, and team meetups will take place virtually. Fletcher is learning to walk before it runs.

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Brian Larson

Brian Larson

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All Things Future of Work. Graduate of the Fletcher School at Tufts University