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HBX Business Blog

Virtual Classrooms: Tech Insights from the HBX Executive Director, Part 2

Posted by Patrick Mullane on August 5, 2016 at 11:18 AM

phone-world-2-to-1.pngThis is an excerpt of a post that originally appeared on Flarrio.

In my last post, I looked back some of the key lessons that have guided the development of HBX, the online learning platform of Harvard Business School, to date. So, what does the future hold?

Given how fast technologies change, are adopted, and abandoned, that’s difficult to say. That said, at HBX, we are actively trying to address several questions:

How Does Mobile Factor in to Our Strategy?

For example, how does online learning translate to a mobile device? Given the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, this is an area where the borrow/release principle will play in a big way. Trying to adapt the desktop platform completely to a mobile one may not be the best path forward for us.

However, there is much to borrow not only from our own platform and other mobile ones but from some of the technologies mobile devices offer. Geo-location is a wonderful example. How might this capability allow online learners to connect in person to form study groups or work on a project? The cameras on mobile equipment also suggest an opportunity. For example, could student-supplied videos and pictures augment a case discussion?

How Can New Technology Enhance Peer-to-Peer Interaction?

In addition to this work, we also are considering how peer-to-peer interaction in the context of a case activity might be facilitated through new technologies or adaptations of current ones. In the Harvard Business School’s negotiations course (offered in the on-campus MBA), students are asked to pair up and negotiate with each other after each is given information that allows them to take on the role of a principle in the negotiation. In the physical classroom this is easy. And certainly technologies exist online that would facilitate such a scenario in the virtual world (e.g. Skype).

But if we are to create a seamless experience for our learners conducting a negotiation exercise on our platform then it should be as easy as turning to the person next to you in a physical classroom. This is where the principle of student first comes in. What role could virtual reality (VR) play in this case? As more smart phones ship with VR goggles and full-featured goggles come to market, could students feel as if they were in a boardroom in New York City sitting across from a counterpart, negotiating a major merger? And even if they could, would this have value?

What Value Do These Technologies Add?

It is that question – would this have value? – that we must not lose sight of. Technology for technology’s sake is the express lane to irrelevance, poor learning outcomes, and user frustration. We must push boundaries, but not at the expense of students actually learning. This is our EdTech Hippocratic oath.

Immediately after graduating from college, I served four years in the US Air Force operating intelligence satellites. Inevitably, when I told people this is what I did, they asked, “Can you really read a license plate from orbit?” I was not allowed to answer, but I always turned the question around: “Why would you want to?” There are easier ways to track somebody and, in any case, the laws of physics don’t allow a satellite in low earth orbit to “hover” over a location despite what the movies show you (although this is something drones can now do). The message was this: just because technology can do something doesn’t mean there is efficacy in doing it. And this couldn’t be truer than in the digital education space.

I am confident that we will be surprised and amazed by how technology will revolutionize education in the years to come. I am also confident that some will use innovations even when they do little to further learning. But by focusing on student first, reinforcing community, and borrowing what works and releasing what doesn’t, we believe it’s possible to create a rich, immersive educational experience that stands the test of time … at least until somebody invents a Holodeck.   


About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School - to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.

Topics: HBX Insights, Executive Insights