01 Jun 2001

Teaching for the Ages: the MBA Classroom in the 21st Century


Early — much too early — on a rainy March morning, I find myself once again among a throng of bleary-eyed students trooping toward Aldrich Hall. The ritual of the herd, familiar to me and every HBS alum, certainly brings it all back. It’s as though I'd never been away. “So really,” I think, “how different could things be?”

It’s only been thirteen years since I graduated from HBS, and we in the Class of 1988 were remarkably forward-thinking about technology. Ours was the first class to have a subject called Management Information Systems (MIS) in the core curriculum. We received cutting-edge IBM PCs in advance of their market introduction. We used Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheets, and we proudly whipped out our HP 12C calculators with their vast array of financial and statistical functions (which we mostly didn’t need but still found satisfying to contemplate). We were techies, no doubt about it. One of my sectionmates even knew Bill Gates!

But that was then. As we push through the Aldrich doors and trudge up the stairs, it dawns on me: In 1988, our cases hadn’t made mention of “Internet,” “dot-com,” or any words with the prefix “e-.” Our hands held no PalmPilots or cell phones. Our CDs played music, not virtual-reality games. Will I even recognize the place?

In the Aldrich hallways, I notice Internet kiosks stationed here and there; almost every one I pass has a student logged on. I find my way to my first class, Assistant Professor Andrew McAfee’s Operating an E-Business. Right off the bat, McAfee sets up a presentation on a classroom computer linked to a video projection system. What, no overheads? I recall that in my day a particularly endearing, if mobility-challenged, professor would repeatedly collide with the overhead projector while executing the complex tango steps inherent to case-method facilitation. No such problem for Professor McAfee. Blissfully unobstructed, he welcomes students to this, the initial meeting of his second-semester elective.

McAfee emphasizes that students should feel free to call a “technology time-out” if someone uses a buzzword or acronym they don’t understand. Knowing the technical details will not be the only important factor in discussions, he says. “There’s always going to be a pure technology component, but that will often be overwhelmed by a managerial component.”

This morning’s case, “Rich-Con Steel,” proves his point: A steel distributor attempts a company-wide conversion from 1960s computer systems to 1990s enterprise software. After a month, the results are nearly disastrous, but the concerns are human and strategic, not just technological: “How do we get people to change? Do we adapt our business process to the technology or the technology to our process?”

I find myself at home with these issues, but also with my surroundings — the hum and clunk as blackboards rumble into position, the urgent tap-tap-tapping of chalk as an important point is recorded by the instructor. I see how the professor’s body language and a student’s tone of voice convey subtle messages. All this immediacy, I realize, is irreplaceable. Computer-generated graphics may support the learning, but the room’s distinctive vitality still comes from interaction and critical thinking.

McAfee closes the case with a bang: “What do you think happened to this company?” In fact, it never recovered from the ill-planned conversion that appeared, at face value, to promise so much more good than harm. Such is the sobering message about the high stakes of technology decision-making that rings in the ears of tomorrow’s managers as they leave the classroom.

Rocket Science and Socrates

Taking a break in the new Spangler Center between classes, I ambush a couple of students to help me sort out how new technology is affecting their lives at HBS. Immediately, they mention the Course Platform (see sidebar below). This wondrous-sounding intranet for the HBS community contains not only their course syllabi, daily assignment questions, and a personal schedule downloadable to their PalmPilots, but spreadsheet toolkits that deliver core calculations like that bane of the required Finance course, the capital asset pricing model (CAPM). It also enables Professor McAfee, for example, to poll students about aspects of a case before they set foot in class. He can even use those responses to choose who will open the case — the cold call meets the “polled” call — to ensure that important viewpoints get heard.

The two students further tell me that good old Baker Library has become a Nirvana of online accessibility. They had recently logged on to Baker’s “siliconDeck” of high-tech resources while in California conducting a field study. In addition, student study groups have been enriched by the ability to link up online and eliminate time-consuming hassles with broken printers, trips to the photocopy store, or updating printouts by hand. Without these distractions, the time groups spend in discussion is enhanced. Overall, technology seems to have delivered a vastly streamlined approach to class preparation.

It’s time to head back to Aldrich for Assistant Professor Alan MacCormack’s elective course Managing Technology Ventures. Today’s case chronicles the meteoric rise and equally fiery fall of Iridium, Motorola’s spin-off venture into global wireless communications. Although the technology was literally “rocket science,” involving the launch of a whole new satellite constellation, the core issues were again familiar: Did they understand their market? Did they miss important, competitive developments?

“There’s all too often an assumption with technological products that people like you should sit back and let the technical folks do it,” says MacCormack, pointing out an attitude that led to Iridium’s demise. Clearly, the good manager must not let whiz-bang inventions overwhelm the need for sound business principles.

Later, in other classes, I get a further taste of innovation. In a Marketing session taught by Assistant Professor David Arnold, I see firsthand the latest advance to hit the HBS campus — wireless computing capability. Students vie for classroom airtime while at the same time using their laptop computers with wireless cards to gain access to the Internet, further enhancing opportunities for learning. As class begins, I note the raised laptop screens — six, seven, later fourteen or fifteen — an extraordinary sight for someone from my era, when just one trip to class with your computer could get you branded “section weenie” for life. But here, it all seems part of the routine; most students are using their computers to view a spreadsheet of numbers run for the case.

In my final class, Finance, taught by Assistant Professor Randy Cohen, I enjoy a graphic demonstration of how today’s technology can be brought to bear on learning. The section works together through a spreadsheet that models an exercise in forest management, building formulas that capture probabilities of tree growth, price inflation, and so on. The computing capabilities allow substantive technical material to be taught in a technical way, while at the same time, students follow the Socratic method in sharing different approaches for solving the problem.

Who would have thought it possible? My return to campus left me amazed by the new technological enhancements supporting classroom learning. But it also reminded me that the heart of the HBS classroom experience lies in the human energy of the discussions that the case method creates. Technology or no, Socrates lives on in the 21st century in HBS’s amphitheaters. Having found him there, I had the strong impression that the quintessential HBS experience continues, brought up to date by some state-of-the-art rocket boosters that have lifted it to even greater heights.

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