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Connecting Booth’s Global Community

January 07, 2013

On a cold and drizzly evening in London recently, students in the Executive MBA Program noticed something different as they filed into the campus’ main lecture auditorium.

The screens at the front of the hall that usually display a professor’s lecture materials showed a live shot of Kevin Murphy, George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, who sat thousands of miles away in a Harper Center studio, ready to deliver his lecture, “The People Based Economy.”

The hour-long lecture on the importance of human capital to economic growth inaugurated Booth’s telepresence technology, essentially the latest generation of videoconferencing with superior sight and sound fidelity. The two-way hookup between Chicago and London enabled Murphy to speak to the students with the experience of nearly being face-to face.

As no Booth lecture would be complete without questions and debate, students used desk-mounted microphones to engage with Murphy. The professor listened to the questions while controlling three cameras stationed in the London auditorium to focus on the questioner and the other students in the classroom.

The lecture was a result of an investment aimed at a “new global connectivity,” according to Robert Gertner, Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance and deputy dean for the Part-Time Program.

The technology will enable all faculty members to extend their reach, thereby pulling Booth’s global campuses closer together.

“I think it accomplished the goal,” Gertner said after the lecture. “It was a way more interactive experience than listening to a web version of a presentation. The live nature makes it easier to absorb the material, and the ability to ask questions makes it closer to being live than watching a webcast. It will only get better as people get better at using it.”

The next steps will include carrying out remote review sessions ahead of an exam and broadcasting sessions with other faculty and guest speakers from the Harper studio. 

“This was the first use of a technology that is designed not to be a substitute for faculty being here, but as a complement and a way for us to bring more of the faculty to the students who are not in Chicago,” Gertner said.

Ataf Nabli, a London-based student, said the technology recreated the classroom environment. “We were able to engage with the professor and ask questions,” he said. “We knew it was at a distance, but it was a good experience.”

Thomas Bridge, a Singapore-based student in London for the week, said the technology “has the excellent benefit of bringing professors for a one-hour session, which otherwise we wouldn’t see, but it can’t substitute for a having a professor on the campus.”

Gertner said his goal was to experiment. “These types of technologies are going to continue to improve and become more and more important and useful,” he said. “It will make the students here feel a closer part of the community and closer to Chicago where more, but not all of the action is.”—Phil Thornton