Dec 13, 2022

The journey from virtual to hybrid classrooms for next-generation executive education at UC Berkeley – an interview

Teaching & training 7 min read

julie-shakeleton-uc-berkeley

University of California Berkeley was founded in 1868 and is a top American university renowned globally for educational programs of the highest standard. 


In early 2020, UC Berkeley Executive Education has adopted virtual classroom technology provided by Barco weConnect and set up five rooms. Two years later they decided to expand their setups to hybrid.

We sat together with Julie Shackleton, the artisan of this transformation journey and VP of Digital Initiatives, to talk about this successful project in a webinar on Oct 17. Julie joined Berkeley from Harvard Business School who also have virtual classrooms powered by weConnect.  

Read the interview and discover the ins and outs of this journey of adopting virtual and hybrid classroom tech. This interview is taken from the transcript of a live event so we have made some changes for context.

Q1: You had decided to go for virtual classrooms first. When was that and what was the driver before you expanded to a hybrid experience?

We started exploring virtual classrooms in February 2020. One of the most exciting aspects for me about working at HBS was participating in their virtual classrooms and I shared this experience with my leadership colleagues at Berkeley.

As we have a lot of faculty who travel to teach Executive Education around the world, we discussed the benefits of having an option to bring the Berkeley experience to where the participants are, without our faculty having to leave campus. So we decided to build a business case for a virtual classroom.

Soon after that we started feeling the impact of the pandemic and this accelerated our plans. 

Q2: Can you walk us through the entire process?  

We started working on a business case in February 2020, before the pandemic became a global phenomenon and initially its implications were not part of the project at all.  But things significantly changed a couple of weeks later. Luckily, we had the foundations built for the virtual classrooms we wanted to build, so we were able to move quickly.  After a couple of weeks we got approval from our Dean and the board.

By April 29th we had a contract signed with McCann, our integrator. Then hardware started arriving at the end of May, the setup was ready by the second week of June in 2020, we were testing all summer and then we were ready at the beginning of August for the fall semester.

We built four classrooms and one QA (quality assurance/testing) environment so we had five virtual classroom builds. 

Q3: How important was the team behind the product and their integration partners in this undertaking?  

I cannot over emphasize enough how important both are. I connected with McCann Systems who also were involved in the Harvard Business School installation and they shepherded us through the whole project and still do to this day. 

It's very clear that the integrator is going to make or break your experience because the integration of the Barco software with whatever hardware build that you choose that will work for you is essential.

Not only is it important at the beginning but it´s necessary to continue that partnership because getting a virtual classroom or getting a hybrid classroom isn't enough, we need to be constantly looking to the future.

Q4: Why did you decide to transform your virtual classrooms to hybrid classrooms? 

Back in spring 2021 we were trying to work out what's next, what's going to happen after the pandemic passes. 

We felt that the flexibility was needed, driven by our custom B2B clients who wanted to continue their learning journeys but were finding it very difficult to get a big group of their staff or participants to Berkeley, not only due to Covid but visa issues or availability.

We kept having to push programs back and the hybrid solution allowed us to continue those learning journeys because there were always going to be 10-20 people out of a big group who could not make it to campus.

Also, our executive participants wanted flexibility moving forward. Many people obviously wanted to come back to campus, but a lot of people wanted the flexibility to stay at home or in their office. So that's when we started looking into hybrid.

That's how we upgraded our rooms to hybrid and now we're moving to the to the next step of having a hybrid classroom as a product we offer.      

Q5: How are your setups organized now in the new hybrid format?  

Three of our five rooms can now run as a hybrid room. Ranging from 18 to 30 remote participants and 24 to 72 in room participants. 

Q6: What are some key things to consider when adopting hybrid classroom technology? 

You need to be so flexible when you're rolling out and even running a system like this whether it's virtual or hybrid. Every day we are learning. 

Technology is the first thing you need to get right, then the setup and integration. But it's the day-to-day running of the room with people, their norms and how they behave that is essential. Every day we're listening to feedback and pivoting slightly on the way we do things and I don't think that's ever going to change.

It was a big moment when we were sketching out how the hybrid solution would work. First was: everyone needs to see the same thing, everyone needs to be seen, everyone needs to be heard, regardless of location. So we set it all up, plugged it all in, and switched it on.

Q7: What did you think of the hybrid classroom experience?  

Once we started testing the hybrid environment, it just hit me that the on-site experience is not as good as the virtual experience. The tools in the virtual experience are far superior to anything that's in the room.

We've been working with Barco to get us to a point where it's an equitable experience for both the remote students and the in-person students but it's flipping everything on its head thinking that the virtual experience is actually better. 

Q8: Very interesting! This is one of the main concerns of our potential customers, that the remote experience will be of lower quality. Could you expand on that? 

Indeed. Usually people think it's about bringing the remote people into the room but we realized it was the other way around.

We've worked this virtual experience out and it's very successful. So now how do we bring the in-person people into the virtual experience.

Obviously, there are many things in person that are much more challenging to replicate online - networking, just being together. I think that's constant work for all of us, ensuring that integration between the remote participants and the in-room participants. 

Barco does have a solution for the breakout rooms so there is a way for you to mix breakout groups with remote participants and in-room participants.

Q9: Have you seen that reflected in the participants´ choice?  Do they tend to choose virtual or in-class seats? 

Yes. There is an assumption of a higher demand for in-person seats versus virtual seats and that isn't what we've seen. 

We have a program running right now and the composition is 30 participants online and 30 in-person (give or take). There was a real demand for those remote seats. The majority of the online participants are actually local Californian-based participants who want to take the class remotely, so there's definitely a segment of the market who want that flexibility.

Also due to high demand, we ran nearly 400 hours of hybrid sessions in the first half of 2022.          

Q10: What about the faculty that are using the weConnect hybrid classrooms. What was their feedback? 

Overwhelmingly positive. It was possible for a faculty member not to be trained and just come in and teach if the situation required it, although we trained the majority of our faculty on the different tools and features so they could really maximize their use of the room. 

Change is obviously very difficult when you've been teaching in the same way for a very long time but this system really allows them to be in their natural environment so that they can do what they do best and just focus on teaching.

Q11: We just couldn’t leave this question off the table. Tell us, what is your favorite weConnect feature? 

The open-answer poll of weConnect is a great tool for faculty to use if the room has gone very quiet or there's not that much interaction. 

It takes the pressure off the faculty because they don't need to remember who's answered or who hasn't answered, what people have answered because the answer is right there on the screens, written on their face. 

 

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