SMG Launches Digital Learning Studio

in Academic Departments, Dean Freeman, Digital Technology Sector, Faculty, News, School, Strategy & Innovation
April 5th, 2012

New Classroom Empowers New Learning Styles

Students at work in Room 326

Students at work in Room 326

On a recent morning in the new Digital Learning Studio (DLS), graduate students and tech supporters were clicking mice and dragging files onto big LCD screens when they got a blast from the pedagogical past.

As they peered at 42-inch screens on their “team walls,” another frame popped up on their screens. In it was a lecturing professor pointing to numbers on an overhead projector. Everyone stared for a minute, like aerospace workers eyeing a horse-drawn carriage. Strategy and Innovation Professor Venkat Venkatraman quickly realized the overhead projector was on a live feed from an SMG auditorium.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to retire,” quipped Venkatraman, David J. McGrath, Jr. Professor in Management: “four hundred students in a dark room listening to a lecture.”

The Digital Learning Studio, which went online January 17, has put the School of Management and BU at the forefront of the high-tech learning revolution with an array of hardware and software configured to stimulate collaboration and engage learners. Room 326 is “where management education is heading,” said Dean Kenneth Freeman. “Less lecturing, more doing.”

After 70 years of business school education in the traditional amphitheater style classroom “it’s time for a change,” Dean Ken Freeman said. “Digital technology enables us to move from historical case studies developed over a period of months or even several years to real-time experiences, engaging CEOs and other leaders in companies from around the world on current issues, in the classroom, and enabling our students to address today’s problems in small groups.”

According to Venkatraman, the faculty member who has spearheaded the creation of the DLS, a number of factors, including the accelerated move by for-profit universities toward web-based learning, affect business management schooling.

Not “online” for its own sake

He said, “We must innovate not by delivering the same model of online education but by blending individual learning through rich-media lectures and interactions in classrooms through debates, dialogues, and conversations with industry executives that deepen and broaden the education and development of insights.”

True to the tradition of a strong focus on fundamentals, the core curriculum and first year courses are still going to be taught the current way, Venkatraman assures. “What happens in a first-year class doesn’t change,” he said. But more advanced undergraduate course and many graduate classes, particularly in digital technology, will take advantage of the bells and whistles in Room 326 and others. Venkatraman said, “We’re bringing current relevant cases and executives right into the class.”

Indeed just two days before the overhead projector feed interrupted his class, Venkatraman presided over a starkly different learning experience in a graduate level class in which he hosted videoconference “visits” from a cloud computing expert in Massachusetts and a digital innovation expert from Volkswagen in the Midwest. The students in the class were divided into teams representing the interests of Microsoft and Google teams to tackle a real-life problem. They then got feedback from the industry executives who wanted to test the problem on people who were not already steeped in the Google and Microsoft cultures to see if they would reach different conclusions than those inside the companies.

“The value is to create something together or to solve a problem for a company in real time,” said Venkatraman.

Eric Whitney (MS•MBA’12) said the class that was tele-visited by the executives was more intense than a typical visiting lecture class.

“You’re getting the perspective that’s happening right now,” he said, rather than working on a settled case might be two years old or older. “Some of us had only gotten through a draft version of a presentation,” Whitney said. “Then the Volkswagen exec came in and gave feedback on a project that was continuing on.”

And the executives were pleased with the student’s insights. Erica Hansen (MS•MBA’12) said, “They were interested in how someone outside the industry looks at the opportunities, and we validated input they were getting.”

The bonus of the learning studio is that executives from elsewhere in the country or around the globe can take an hour or less out of their schedule to drop by the class virtually rather than take a minimum of a half day to attend in person.

Easier access for executives

An executive from Ericsson, the Swedish communications company that sponsors the International Tech Strategy Business Case Competition at SMG, was on hand when Whitney and Hansen were running the software through its paces. He marveled at what he saw.

“It’s pretty exciting to see this,” said Ericsson’s Steve Newman. “This is the beginning of something really important.”

The DLS has rolled out with both excitement and no small amount of consternation. The contractors turned over the to SMG on Jan. 13, 2012 and just four days later the first class was held at 8 a.m. There was little time for faculty to learn how to adapt their curriculum, said Greg DeFronzo, SMG’s information technology services director. During the initial phase, DeFronzo has assigned either a member of his staff or a student employee to operate the equipment, troubleshoot at each class, and work out glitches and software bugs on a minute-to minute basis.

The classroom was built from bare walls to a $1 million technological marvel over the Christmas break. Its early success, by many accounts, is due to a tremendous amount of teamwork and flexibility among the faculty, ITS staff, and student ITS employees.

What makes the DLS the innovation leader is not a single technology or feature but the configuration and combination of software, facilities and design, said DeFronzo. The SMG team looked at what was being done at other management schools such as the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, and the Sloan School of Management at MIT, cherry-picking features that are promising now and also will grow as technology changes, DeFronzo explained. See the sidebar How We Did It for technical details.

Let the experiments begin

Some classes try out different applications including Prezi, cloud-based storytelling software, said Margaret Costello (BSBA’12), who has been doing tech support in the DLS.

The technology is just one piece of the equation. The other side is what to do with it. Faculty members, some of whom have been assigned to the room simply because classroom space is scarce, have had to adapt their lessons to an utterly different teaching environment.

“It’s a different mode of teaching,” said Finance Lecturer Keith Osher, who says he’s not all that tech-savvy but has overhauled his Modeling Business Decisions and Market Outcomes class to fit the room.

“The classroom is for collaborative learning. It’s learning much more by doing than by listening to someone in the front of the room,” Osher said.

In contrast to most statistics classes, students in Osher’s class work solve Excel problems by collaborating on which formulas they need and what the data means, according to a class blog. For instance, students in recent classes have taken data from Boston Scientific and created histograms and regression tables with one another.

“Mr. Osher has grasped a great way to have students be more interactive in the class,” said Sean Flaherty (BSBA’13), an ITS student employee doing faculty support.

It’s not easy to adjust to a classroom where there is no lectern and students are facing in opposite directions around long tables. That’s where Jeanne Myers, an educational technologist working on her PhD in education, comes in. She has been helping faculty members assigned to teach in Room 326 adapt their lessons to exploit the potential of the studio.

“It’s a matter of working with faculty to brainstorm and to engage the students as active partners,” she said. “Most of the faculty members are used to delivering lectures through Powerpoint, but that dynamic changes too through the use of multiple screens,” Myers said. “They have to think about how to best use the time they are in that room.”

Teaching the faculty too

Myers has hosted faculty group meetings to share best practices as well as glitches and lessons learned. She has shared an extensive list of ways to adapt traditional learning approaches to the innovation studio, including problem-based or project learning and tournament learning or a competition of ideas. There are several ways to divide a project among several groups of students to solve a piece of it and then send a “teacher” from their team to share the team’s findings as the rest of the class views their slide on the main screen at the front of the room. This generation is so visually driven, Myers said, that the students catch on quickly and adapt to new ways of learning with technology.

The room design allows for students to see multiple versions or multiple parts of a larger whole, Myers explained. The approach is designed to help students connect the segments. “The real bang for your buck is in the preparation phase. What can you do prior to class in order to use the time in the lab wisely?”

Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation Jeffrey Furman, whose undergraduate honors class meets in the room, said he is excited about its potential.

“Instead of operating as the conductor of an orchestra you have to be more of a juggler and the manager of a three-ring circus.” He knows he has work to do to exploit its potential as a complement to the old-fashioned setup. ” I have to go back to the drawing board to learn how to teach in the room. I can see how it can increase the value of all my classes.”

Faculty members have been gung-ho about reworking lectures but even the classroom design and implementation team has been surprised by what the learning studio has to offer. And now professors who were alone in a room with the students are having all sorts of company with IT staffers and students on hand.

Innovating on the fly

Steve X. Chen (BSBA’12) has been involved in the classroom early on and is now taking a course in the room as well. “I’ve been involved in the design, implementation, training, and troubleshooting–the latter is the longest phase of all,” he said with a grin. At the end of each class, Chen or one of his student IT employee brethren saves the lecture and all the high-tech components into something akin to an iBook that is made available to the whole class for downloading.

Even as the rollout continues, student employees Chen, Jamison Kissh (BSBA’13), and Kenny Sun (BSBA’12) are brainstorming about what’s next. One night recently, they contacted DeFronzo with an idea: Using Wii technology, they could create virtual smart board on any wall, no board required. DeFronzo greenlighted the trio to go to Best Buy to pick up the components they needed to test out their idea.

“By 8:30 p.m. they had a prototype to set up in rooms with no LCD screens, such as teamrooms or potentially capture notes written on a traditional chalkboard” DeFronzo said.

Where the learning studio goes from here is still being fleshed out.

In the short term, Venkatraman said, “I see it beginning in the digital technology sector curriculum and adapted over time for the health care and energy sectors. The philosophy is that the classroom becomes a welcoming place for debate and dialogue that builds off material that the students have mastered through readings, videos, and other interactive materials.”

By Judy Rakowsky