HBX Needs to Go Whole-Hog on VR Classrooms

It’s hard to digitally replicate the case method with online videos or massive group chats. Virtual reality changes that.

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).[1]  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.”[2]  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.



[1] Hbx.hbs.edu/Documents/Disruptive%20Strategy%20Syllabus.pdf

[2] HBX.hbs.edu/learn-platforms/hbx-live


Niantic Labs and Pokemon Go: Bringing AR to the Masses


Facebook mind reading: the ultimate VR/AR interface

Student comments on HBX Needs to Go Whole-Hog on VR Classrooms

  1. Really interesting idea and application of AR / VR, so thanks for posting! I think one of the inhibitors of VR to online education is that there is a mismatch in the value proposition. One of the greatest reasons online education has picked up so quickly over the last decade is that it is high quality at very low cost relatively, in some cases even free. On the other hand, VR is one of the most expensive consumer technologies currently available. I wonder how this can be reconciled until VR unit costs come down to a level that is more affordable? It may just be a waiting game on the part of HBX, or online education in VR will have to be substantially better than other online education offerings that justify a higher price for participation.

  2. Great post! I also wrote on VR in education and think it will be a big change for the future. I know the above poster is worried about the high cost, but think that this is a similar sentiment to how people viewed PCs previously when the technology was nascent. Once the price of technology decreases, people will quickly realize that the value proposition is there and wonder how life existed without it.

  3. Super interesting. I think one of the biggest draws of VR applications in education is the democratization of education, but does HBS actually want that? Obviously HBX is already democratizing HBS content to some degree, but I wonder how much VR content (in the form of a virtual professor and virtual students) would appear to “dilute” the HBS brand, in that the perceived value of the content shifts more toward the tech and aggregation of data itself, vs the inherent and storied value of the brand and the (human) professorial talent here. It’s certainly a fascinating idea, but I bet HBS would be very wary of diluting the perceived value of its human talent and brand.

  4. Thanks for the post – as an Alumna of HBX Core – I find myself very intrigued about the future of HBX and how it will interact with the HBS classroom and value proposition.

    I find myself reacting somewhat strongly towards your suggestion of creating a virtual professor and avatars that would fill the classroom and form the discussion. So much of the beauty of HBS’s case based discussion in my opinion comes from students sharing their own personal perspectives and thoughts. I also find the ability for a professor to take the dialogue in multiple directions based on comments/responses made in the classroom a really key skill/talent of the professors at HBS. Yes I know there is a lesson/teaching plan for each case – but I have had a number of classes where the professor has commented on the comments going a different direction than planned and he/she is going to run with it – I love that! I would be really concerned that though the virtual classroom conversation may be filled with digitized versions of some of the best comments made in the past – it actually wouldn’t be a truly interactive experience and might feel somewhat forced. Recognizing that the goal would be to find a fully VR classroom with a live professor and seats filled with real students – do you think HBX could get there soon? Or do you think HBS would even want there to be a totally virtual version of the perfected case discussion experience?

  5. Thank you for the great post. I think this is something that HBS and the greater Harvard community is going to struggle to figure out over the next few years. I wonder if there is an issue here, not to keep bringing up BSSE frameworks, with threat vs opportunity framing? I think it is absolutely fair to say that anything that reduces the advantage that the HBS classroom has over any other method of learning is threatening to the overall ecosystem. I wonder if reliance on the core full time HBS community will keep the school from innovating as fast as it should to continue to be a leader in the space?

    And i agree with Megan on the point of comments coming from other people, especially people you know. At some point, if you have no connection to the avatars, it might feel like a lecture from many sources rather than a discussion amongst peers.

  6. Great post! Totally agree with you. Also, I do not think people will go to school or work in the future. You can already tell Gen Z doesn’t need the human interaction that we did growing up (some of them never have their friends over and only text/skype etc.). It will be a strange world once reality is no longer reality!

  7. This is VERY interesting.

    A few thoughts:
    1) The HBX program is so much more sophisticated than any other MOOC or online course I’ve tested in the last few years. It is much more engaging, enablesg o cross-student interaction, and encourages students to use a diverse set of interaction modes in order to learn and retain content. I imagine HBS would want to promote this platform, if only to be out on the leading edge of online education technology and content – regardless of whether they are able to fully replicate the MBA experience.

    2) I think your suggestion of pre-populated online classrooms spurred by machine learning is an interesting one. But perhaps instead of using avatars for the most insightful comments, they should simply allow the professors to periodically pose thought-provoking questions to the class? I agree with Ilene that the greater the diversity of perspectives, the better the learning quality. Thoughts?

  8. Great post and great discussions so far!

    I have an idea that everyone will like – the HBX capability today offers a great avenue for alumni engagement for HBS! On the brink of becoming an HBS alum today, I know I will miss being in class with my RC section as well as EC classmates in future. It will be great if HBS has a way to bring us together, with our beloved professors (Karim, of course), without having us to travel to Boston on the same date. This will also allow alumni in the same industry to discuss cases together. Many alumni are surely willing to pay hundreds of $ for such classes (remember, no traveling costs involved).

    In addition, why not offer a few guest seats in the virtual discussion as well? I know friends in China and elsewhere more than happy to pay $100+ to listen in our discussions. Now without the restraint of classroom, we can have 50 guests in a 50-student discussions.

    1. Great post and discussion! Hao, great ideas. I like the alum classroom as it allows HBS to experiement with VR classrooms without risking brand dilution as the courses and content would mainly be offered to alums. With over 80,000 living HBS alums today, there is definitely enough appeal in reliving the HBS experience to capture enough alums to test the VR classroom.

Leave a comment