“Don’t Zoom While Driving”

On taking a Harvard Gen Ed class remotely with William C. Kirby

Professor and platform: William C. Kirby logs on to Zoom from home for his first remote teaching session.

On Monday morning, March 23, Harvard students’ experience with newly remote styles of learning began, as spring recess ended but classes resumed with their students dispersed around the globe, exiled from campus by the coronavirus pandemic. Before the 9:00 a.m. meeting of “The Business of China” (General Education 1101, within the category Histories, Societies, Individuals), Chang professor of China studies William C. Kirby, head teaching fellow Adam Frost, and Gen Ed “Zoom helper” Karen Galvez (course coordinator for the Program on General Education) were already logged into the Zoom telecommunications platform. Kirby, who is also Spangler Family professor of business administration, had posed an especially tricky teaching challenge for himself and his team. The course, focused on undergraduates, draws on his case studies, and the case-based pedagogy, from Harvard Business School (HBS)—and thus:

  • relies on cold-calling to prompt student interactions with their instructor, the content, and each other;
  • assumes there are common whiteboards on which to view developing themes;
  • incorporates polling to assess class sentiment; and
  • typically, accommodates outside speakers.

In other words, it is highly interactive. Although Kirby and his colleague Peter Bol, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations (both are members of the Harvard Magazine Inc. board of directors) are experienced online teachers, with an acclaimed HarvardX course on modern China, that is a different breed altogether. The HarvardX course was produced over months, with a staff of supporting videographers and course designers, and then staged for recorded viewing. The Gen Ed course, taught remotely, came together in a few days, involves much more interaction among the participants, and is conducted live, across time zones from beyond the Pacific, across North America, into central Europe, Africa, and India.

As students signed in toward the beginning of class, Kirby welcomed each by name (the platform provides all participants with audio and video capabilities, and the ability see each person by name). He encouraged a sleepy participant from California, who woke up at 5 o’clock, exclaiming, “It’s really good for you to get up that early!” Another, signing in from Hawaii, elicited more sympathy from Kirby about the early hour, but also a “That’s not fair” about her proximity to beaches; she reported that after a congested weekend of surfer crowds, the beaches had been closed to enforce social distancing.

At 9:00 sharp, with 33 participants logged in, Kirby offered a virtual welcome back from spring recess: “For those of you not in Boston, I think you might be pleased to know it might snow this afternoon.” (It did.) Acknowledging the unusual circumstances, he continued, “Welcome to the second half of the semester, a little different from what we imagined, but we’ll make it an excellent second half of the semester, and” (nodding to the technology) “we’ll almost all learn something.” He reminded them that the course examined the modern Chinese economy, the experiences of iconic companies in it, and the likelihood that both would play a significant role in the students’ future.

Adam Frost then put on the screen certain rules of Zoom pedagogy:

  • treat it as if you were in an actual classroom, acting professionally and showing courtesy and respect to other participants;
  • wear appropriate clothing (no P.J.s!) and be in appropriate surroundings (i.e., at a desk with your computer—as Kirby and Frost themselves manifestly and appropriately were);
  • use the camera and microphone; and
  • formally, “Do NOT join a class while driving”—or as Kirby rendered it: “Don’t Zoom while driving.”

Frost reviewed the mute/unmute functions, how to view other participants, the chat function, breakout sessions, and how to “raise your hand” virtually (“And if you can’t figure that out, zap a chat to us”).


With that, the students, who seemed unfazed by the technology, plunged into a discussion of Uber’s experience entering China and wrestling for market share with Didi, the indigenous, market-leading ride-sharing platform. By then a full cohort of 50 students had logged on. (Kirby and colleagues were plenty proficient themselves: he later recounted the work during the previous recess week “furiously learning Zoom,” with practice sessions in both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and HBS, culminating in a “test case” taught to a live audience around the world.) 

And from then on, the course proceeded normally, to an almost eerie degree. Now and then someone lost sound or Internet connectivity, or the breakout function misfired. But by and large, discussion proceeded as intended. Kirby cold-called students, who were crisp with answers: their own experience with ride-sharing platforms, as a warmup; problems they encountered; differing regulatory regimes (from Hamburg, Germany: Uber is forbidden by regulations, or, as Kirby, who has studied extensively in Germany, commented, “It’s ironic that a company that has a German word for its name, ‘über,’ is verboten”); etc.

Then into the analytical details of the case—prompted both by texts on Zoom screens and Kirby’s own calls on students: the differences between taxi companies and ride-sharing enterprises, from how one summons a ride to driver safety to payment mechanisms; regulatory challenges in the United States; the differences between employees and contractors.

As the class discussion continued—from student to Kirby, rather than among students, at this stage—Frost logged comments and grouped them by theme on a virtual equivalent of a classroom whiteboard.

Then, into China, beginning with a video clip, just like in a classroom setting, of Uber’s then-CEO talking about how the company entered the market. Using Zoom’s capabilities again, as the subsequent discussion proceeded, student comments about Uber’s U.S. and China operations, and their strengths and weaknesses, appeared in a series of four-box matrix exhibits. The students remained engaged and attentive. (In an article on core curriculums, this magazine noted that the Minerva teaching platform produced highly attentive students, because the course instructors have close views of each class member’s face throughout each class meeting. The Zoom technology may have the same effect. Then again, the distancing imposed by COVID-19 may have made students especially eager for this renewed, if technological, connection with one another.)

Kirby then used the platform’s polling function to get a sense of the students’ evaluation of Uber’s standing in the China market. “Everybody should vote,” he joked. “They don’t give you an abstain option.” By more than three to one, the students felt that Uber was not in a good position to succeed. 

Thereafter, he broke the class into 10 subgroups, each in a separate virtual “room,” for quick review of the “B case,” on Uber’s subsequent experience in China, and discussion among themselves. This transition was not flawless, but Zoom helper Karen Galvez overcame most glitches, and after seven minutes, the session reconvened for a concluding discussion. 

At this point, having learned that Uber threw in the towel and sold to Didi, its most formidable competitor, students largely thought that was the best outcome. They were joined, for further depth and discussion, by doctoral student Shuang Frost, a social anthropologist who is studying technology, economy, and social policy in China. (Together with Adam Frost, her husband, she was co-author with Kirby of the Uber case.) She provided fascinating on-the-ground details about Uber’s initial technological advantage, and its strategic missteps, and responded to several informed, pertinent questions from students about the socioeconomic and transportation context in which Uber and Didi had been competing, Uber’s marketing, and more.

Kirby wrapped up by noting that three days before Uber in effect surrendered, in August 2016, China’s State Council promulgated national guidelines for ride-sharing, transforming an informal, innovative, but Wild West sort of market into something more heavily regulated and subject to taxation, regular insurance, and more formal standards for recruiting drivers: the decisive act where, as he put it, “entrepreneurship came to die.”


He thanked all for “showing up” for class, and, as 10:15 approached—time for students to move on, so to speak, to their next classes, he concluded, “You guys have been terrific…all over the world.” He urged their comments and feedback, and told them they should look for background materials for the Wednesday case session. “Thank you very much, great job, great participation.”

Frost and Kirby then turned to the logistics of students’ meetings, virtually, with teaching fellows, and of arrangements to have virtual access to HBS Baker Library materials for their class project, to be followed by a question session with an actual Baker librarian.

And then, with a final, “Stay awake, wherever you are,” Kirby signed off, as he, Frost, and other course staff members stayed on Zoom to take stock and prepare for the next class meeting.

An exultant Kirby emailed shortly after to report that of 50 students in the class, all but one had spoken at the end of the 75 minutes: the best record of the semester. He finished, “I’ll try to make it unanimous on Wednesday.”

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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