Feature of the Week

March 23, 2014 11:01 pm

Schools begin to map out their virtual places of learning

Illustration of virtuality by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

After years of relying on “take it or leave it” technology that often failed to match their ambitions, business schools wishing to create virtual worlds or campuses for their students are taking matters into their own hands.

As the first article in this two-part series (“Fresh reality on campus”, February 24) explained, several schools established a presence on Second Life’s virtual world, with its sartorially and biologically diverse avatars and “islands” for rent, in the late 2000s. The site still has its adherents in business education but the overall results have been mixed.

Now a generation of virtual worlds is being developed in which schools can pick and choose the technologies and partnerships they want to suit their own design.

They are benefiting from, and participating in, an evolutionary process that “will continue to churn”, says Steve Mahaley, global practice lead in the design group at Duke Corporate Education, North Carolina. “Who knows how many more specific worlds are going to pop up?” he asks.

These immersive environments can trace their roots to online games such as World of Warcraft and are being deployed in primary and secondary education, nursing or military training and other applications where simulations in a realistic setting can produce better “learning outcomes”.

In business education as in these other spheres, evolution means experimentation. “We want the whole design to inform learning and promote and foster it, so we are constantly iterating, trying and testing ideas out,” says Alex Howland, programme manager for the VirBela virtual world at University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management. “If we were doing that with someone else’s software or team, it would be quite expensive.”

VirBela is designed to be a virtual resource for graduate management schools and students worldwide. It is built around a games engine, and incorporates two features that, says Mr Howland, distinguish it from other virtual worlds.

The first is its ability to offer complex team simulations through its close relationship with Tycoon Systems, which produces Industry-
Masters business simulations. “They are really seeing the potential of bringing their offerings into a 3D environment,” says Mr Howland.

Recently VirBela ran a pilot course using these business simulations for 90 employees, across 15 countries, at US-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, the scientific and laboratory equipment company, which is represented on VirBela’s advisory board.

The second innovation at VirBela is a “back end” assessment engine that uses machine learning to gather data on a team’s performance and provide students and faculty with feedback.

Another innovative virtual world that mixes in-house and external technology is Qube, part of the Pentacle “virtual business school” founded by Eddie Obeng, the UK educator. Prof Obeng believes traditional business schools ignore virtual environments at their peril. Working virtually has several advantages, including the ability to “bring together five people, six times, from around the world for a fraction of the cost of flying them [to a business school for a week]”.

David Lomas, Pentacle’s chief technology officer, says it was “only recently that the technology has started to catch up with the ambition that we had . . . it was probably about two-and-a-half years ago that we could really start working in virtual environments in a way that was practical for the things we were trying to do, as opposed to just for fun.”

One of the big challenges, he says, was the design of the working space: “The range of choice when creating a virtual environment is too big . . . so we approached the problem from another angle – what are the users familiar with, what will allow them to get into useful work quickly?” The result was classrooms that look as conventional and familiar as possible.

Many of Qube’s features have come about by watching users, says Mr Lomas. For example, it was felt that industry-standard human avatars could be a distraction from learning, so participants become simple, boxy “Qubots” that are both gender-neutral and hierarchy-flattening.

Some technologies may not be full virtual worlds but offer an immersive environment that can be purchased off the shelf. An example is
AvayaLive Engage, which uses spatial or proximity audio technology linked to avatars. Holding the mouse over an avatar’s badge opens a webcam feed from one of the other users.

“If you want a learning experience with plenty of group work, that is dynamic and engaging, then even some of the newer tools such as Google Hangouts don’t provide the flexibility and agility of this environment, nor a sense of the nebulous concept of ‘presence’,” says Peter Hirst, executive director of executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management.

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The school has been using AvayaLive Engage – originally developed by Nortel Networks before its enterprise business was acquired by Avaya – for about two years. The tool’s ability to meld real and virtual classrooms came into its own during a two-day executive class on Big Data held at the same time as Hurricane Sandy hits in October 2012, and many of the expected 120 attendees could not travel. The school took the opportunity to experiment with streaming the sessions on AvayaLive Engage.

“We were very guarded initially in case the virtual participants interfered with the learning experience of those attending in person,” says Dr Hirst. “But virtual and live participants, and faculty, all said this looks really interesting, and the virtual participants engaged in a very significant way.”

He sees the Avaya tool and others like it becoming embedded in business education either as an addition to more traditional methods or as an entirely new approach.

 

How to win over the reluctant and the wary

 

Will faculty get it? Or are they too conservative to appreciate the benefits that virtual worlds and other immersive environments can bring them and their students?

“You have to put energy into getting people to try out this experience,” says Peter Hirst at MIT Sloan of the school’s use of AvayaLive Engage. “Once you have got people over that initial hump, all the faculty that we’ve worked with see its potential and see it as something that has its place.”

At University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, Sandra Chrystal has taught various communications classes in Second Life and now, as the school’s vice-dean for online education, is constantly looking out for new online tools to enhance the learning process, especially via tablets and other mobile devices.

The school is putting its IT staff together for the first time in a new central Los Angeles location, to offer training and support for faculty, and show them how other faculty are using mobile devices.

“When you’ve seen one of your colleagues using it and being enthusiastic about it, you are more willing to try than if you’ve just read about it,” says Ms Chrystal.

A marketing professor, for example, began using software from LectureTools, part of the Echo360 active learning company, to enhance engagement with students during his classes, enabling him to field comments and questions sent from their tablets to his while continuing the discussion. “Now some other faculty have adopted it,” says Ms Chrystal, “but you need to have a champion and provide support for it, then [usage] grows rather quickly.”

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