Classrooms of the Future

With RooFlex classrooms, Bloch is adapting to meet students’ evolving needs.
Students in a classroom, and students on a screen, listening to their professor

On Tuesday afternoons, when Alan Weber walks into Bloch Executive Hall to teach a 2:30 p.m. marketing class, he’s never sure where his students will be. They might be sitting in the classroom in front of him; perhaps they’ll be on a screen as they dial in through Zoom; most likely, he’ll have a mix of both.

Weber, an assistant teaching professor in the Bloch School, gives his undergraduate and graduate students a choice for each class: come in person or come online.

“It doesn’t matter, really,” Weber said. “I can see their face on the screen, and we can go back and forth with them and the students who come in person.”

This hybrid model — offering classes simultaneously online and in-person—is gaining traction at a number of prominent business schools, including at Bloch. The hybrid model allows the school to better serve students who need additional flexibility to complete their degree while managing other responsibilities at work and at home.

The school’s Bloch Executive Hall contains two “RooFlex” classrooms, equipped with more than $100,000 worth of technology — multiple microphones, cameras and monitors — designed to fully integrate online students with their in-person peers.   These classrooms were designed and launched early during the pandemic and offered many benefits for students and faculty over the last few years.  Further, the introduction of these classrooms provided an opportunity for the school to learn how best to deploy and use this new technology and this new classroom design. 

As the Bloch School was experimenting with these new classrooms in Bloch Executive Hall, it also was working to renovate and redesign Bloch Heritage Hall. Heritage Hall was closed in 2020 for an extensive renovation project, one that was very much informed by what was being learned with the new hybrid technology being used in Bloch Executive Hall.  When Bloch Heritage Hall reopens in July 2022, it also will feature this same type of hybrid classroom technology in a number of key locations within the building.

So when students return to a redesigned Bloch Heritage Hall in the fall, they will have a very different experience. In part, that new experience will be the result of a renovation that will feature a hub for student and career services, a new student commons, redesigned outdoor space for gathering and engagement and enhanced space for individual and group study.  And in part, that new experience will be the result of new classroom designs and new hybrid  instructional technology designed to encourage student success and engagement. 

“The way that people work in general, and the different obligations on their time, meant that flexibility was something students were looking for,” Ward said. “That might mean time — do classwork on your own time. Or it could mean place — you don’t have to be on campus all the time to attend class.”

Since the pandemic, that flexibility is practically a requirement for students.

A 2019 Bloch School strategic plan anticipated offering 50 hybrid or online courses in 2022, 75 in 2024 and 150 by 2029. When the pandemic sent everyone into lockdown, the demand for online courses skyrocketed. This year, the school offers 230 sections online or as hybrid classes, so students can choose if they want to come to campus or log in from home or the office.

Executive MBA student Tracy Allen said returning to college wouldn’t have been possible without the flexibility the Bloch School offered. Allen, the founder and CEO of Brewed Behavior, a coffee consultancy based in Kansas City, had a busy career and two teenagers. Pursuing his MBA without the ability to dial in some of the time, Allen said, “would have been tough.”

“I did (class) last weekend on a cruise ship off the coast of Mexico. I’ve done it in three or four Latin American countries,” Allen said. “With my kids here, it’s nice to be home on Saturdays and still do class.”

At the same time, he has felt it was important to go to campus and interact with his fellow students sometimes, too. Having both options, he said, was key to making the program work for him.

Allen is not alone, especially among the Bloch School’s executive and professional MBA students who pursue their graduate degrees while managing a career and, in many cases, family life.

Brian Anderson, executive associate dean and associate professor of entrepreneurship, said prior to the pandemic, graduate students preferred online to on-campus instruction about 60% to 40%. Today, he said, it’s more like 85% to 15%.

“I think it is safe to say that students’ desire for flexibility will be a key consideration for schools over the next decade,” Anderson said.

Questions about what that flexibility will look like long-term are still being answered. In the early days of the pandemic, the Bloch School asked students if they wanted to return to campus. But that turned out to be the wrong question, Anderson said.

“The right question was not, ‘Do you want to come?’ The right question was, ‘How do you want to engage with your courses?’ ”

And the answer, Anderson said, was, “It depends.”

“Students want flexibility,” he said. “They want to be able to choose. Sometimes that choice is, ‘This semester, I have a really neat internship, and it’s going to take a lot of time and fixed hours, so I’d like to be online this semester. But next semester, I’d like to be on campus.’ ”

On the other hand, students might feel more comfortable meeting in person when certain courses or subjects are more challenging. Or they might want a chance to network and meet their peers.

Bloch School officials acknowledge that meeting this need for flexibility is a juggling act. It’s not as simple as flipping on some cameras and microphones. The evolution to online or hybrid course formats calls for not only changes in physical classrooms and faculty training, but also new approaches to how courses are structured and taught.

The Bloch School is working to tackle the changing landscape on a course-by-course basis. While more courses now have a remote option, Anderson said those options are dependent on the course content and available classrooms.

Not every course has the complete flexibility Weber’s marketing class offers, where students can choose for themselves how they want to engage each class period. Professors might ask students to choose if they’d like to be in person or remote and require that they stick to that option for the entire semester. Others may give students a limited number of times each semester they can dial in. Still other courses — like those requiring a lot of small-group work — may not have a remote option at all.

“It’s really created a far more challenging planning puzzle, but also one that really allows us to think about what the best way is to deliver this course for our students and what their expectations are,” Anderson said. “It’s a student-centric approach.”

One consideration is how much physical space is necessary. An even bigger one, however, is what that space should look like. While some courses benefit from many small breakout areas where students can gather to do group work, others work better as one central room.

Ward said the renovated Heritage Hall is designed to meet these many different needs. At least two RooFlex classrooms will be up and running when the building reopens, and other classrooms already have the wiring and infrastructure ready to add remote technology when the time is right. Ward said the expense — more than $100,000 per classroom — and the quickly evolving technology available for remote learning, mean those investments will be made conservatively.

“We’re constantly looking at newer technology to do this — just to upgrade the way that it works, making it easier for the students,” Ward said. “When you build an old-fashioned classroom — walls, windows, doors, desks — that works for a very long time. But outfitting one of these rooms doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to spend more (on upgrades) in couple of years.”

Bloch School officials point out remote learning technology is also bringing new changes and improvements in how instructors engage their students.

For example, a professor teaching in a RooFlex classroom could bring together subject matter experts from all over the country to speak to their students. Digital connections also allow for easy collaboration among students working together on problems or case studies. In his case, Weber said, the technology has made him completely reimagine how he taught his marketing classes.

Before adopting a hybrid model, Weber said he spent 90% of class time delivering a lecture — one he delivered to each section he taught. Now he records the lecture, asks students to watch it as homework, and uses class time to more directly engage with students.

“Before, I lectured twice a week and didn’t get much back and forth,” Weber said. “Now, class is nothing but engagement. It’s much more valuable to have face-to-face and one-on-one discussions.”

Importantly, officials say, the investments being made now to allow distance learning also give students a valuable lesson in the kinds of remote communication methods they will inevitably encounter in the business world.

“We’re preparing students to be successful in what is a very rapidly changing technology business environment,” Anderson said. “It’s incumbent upon us to make those investments and be innovative with our courses and how we use technology to be sure we’re delivering the value we need to.”

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