Online Research Seminars: First Impressions

hbx-live-studio-bannerLast week, the Strategy Research Initiative organised a research seminar using Harvard Business School’s HBX platform. This is the same platform HBS now use to deliver online courses. It was an interesting experience but as is usually the case with these things, it highlighted as much about what was missing as what was there.

Let me describe the experience. HBX have a studio complete with multiple cameras (one moving around with an expert camera-person). This was a labour intensive operation — especially for a research seminar which normally requires little in the way of labour. As a participant, what I could see was the feed from the seminar and I could also control whether the ‘boards’ (which were either chalk like or PowerPoints) were larger than the person talking. There was a chat feed allowing participants to chat with one another. There was a polling feature that allowed the presented to guage the audience. I won’t say it was like “being there” but it was certainly a great experience relative to other online forums I have experienced.

As this was a research seminar, audience interaction was key. The presenter could see a wall of video feeds with all participants — there were around 30 but it can support as much as 90. I imagine the presenter could then sense what the mood of the room was to some degree. Participants could interact by putting up their hand (highlighting something) and then could be called upon. There was also some feature that allowed the presenter and two or three participants to converse. These videos were highlighted on everyone’s main feed.

All in all, this is ‘over the bar’ in terms of being a worthwhile way of hosting seminars and saving on travel. I am hopeful we will see more of these now but I am concerned that it is expensive — both in the fixed costs of HBX itself (which must run into the multi-millions) plus the on-going costs of the production and tech support. And yes getting set-up was not the simple process we have come to expect in the world of mobile apps. It wasn’t hard but there were plugins to install and getting on was less than intuitive. I was also bumped from it for 10 minutes and had to call tech support to get back on. I am sure this won’t be an issue in a year or so.

But what was missing? For me, it was the audience. The model here is a star with the presenter at the centre interacting with each participant simultaneously. Occasionally, a participant can be brought into the centre but there is a hierarchy here.

In comparison, in a normal research seminar I find myself looking at the rest of the audience from time to time to consider their reaction. This is also the case if I am talking as a participant. That level of feedback and communication was missing. I felt apart from the audience.

My first thought is that VR might solve that issue. But half of what I want are facial expressions and body language. VR won’t give me that (at least not in the foreseeable future). Indeed, I suspect the better model is not to have each participant sitting at their own computer but instead sitting in classrooms looking at a common feed of the seminar. I just need a group to watch with. It doesn’t have to be everyone.

So at the moment we have a trade-off with online research seminars. It leads me to suspect that the best model is for each institution to have a seminar room with HBX like features that allows both a real audience to be present as well as a virtual one. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The closest thing to seminars in the television world — talk shows — all have that.

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